Author’s note: This article was originally written for a (now sadly gone) online magazine called Guise Magazine. It was originally published in Mar 2014.
A couple of weeks ago was the San Diego Comic-Con, known to many as the biggest gathering of geeks, film fans and combinations thereof of the year. Fans come from all over America, even all over the world, for the chance to meet their favourite actors and see glimpses of films, TV shows and other media coming soon.
One such panel, the Thor 2 gathering, was interrupted rather dramatically when a man stormed onto the stage and demanded that the audience kneel before him. Rather than calling security, the crowd went wild and obeyed, for this was no enthusiastic fan – this was Loki, villain and main character of the very film the panel was being held to promote. Or rather, it was actor Tom Hiddleston dressed as Loki. Quoting lines of his own dialogue from previous films, “Loki” worked the room, showing the powerful enthusiasm of the audience, and also one very important fact – the clothes do make the man.
Tom Hiddleston is an actor known for his humility and adoration of his fans. Loki, on the other hand, is known for his arrogance and for seemingly killing fan-favourite Agent Phil Coulson. So it was definitely Loki who strode onto stage, interrupting the panel to receive worship from the fans.
Hiddleston’s choice to come in costume highlights a growing rise in the popularity of cosplay. Cosplay, short for “costume play”, is the hobby of dressing as a fictional character, often at gatherings such as conventions. Many conventions have competitions and prizes for best cosplays, and the variety at such gatherings is often incredible. Characters from films, books, TV show and video games assemble, often providing an air of the surreal to proceedings. Characters from animated media such as video games, cartoons and anime are often the most interesting to see brought to life, as the cosplayers work to make their hair defy gravity, or even to take the shape of a non-human character. Yes, dressing up is no longer just for children and Halloween.
Once seen as the hobby of only the most stereotypical geek, who, as the cliché went, lived in their parents’ house well into adulthood and rarely, if ever had a partner, now cosplaying has gained an element of acceptability.
No doubt a large part of the acceptance comes from the eagerness of actors and other celebrities to don their costumes. Jane Lynch dressed as Calhoun, the character she voiced in Wreck It Ralph, for Halloween. Lindsey Stirling, the “Rock and Roll violinist” and Youtube phenomenon, regularly creates tributes to media such as video games and dresses appropriately for the occasion. Ron Perlman underwent the four hours of special effects make-up necessary to become Hellboy in order to grant the Make-A-Wish request of a six year old leukaemia patient. Helen Mirren put on the crown once more for another Make-A-Wish boy who wished to meet the Queen.
On the less well known side of things are charity organisations who dress up to raise money or do good. The 501st Legion, for example, is an organisation whose members dress up as Star Wars characters for events in order to raise money. When Darth Vader is asking for your donation while backed by two Storm Troopers, most people would feel the need to donate.
To cosplay is not a simple hobby – many cosplayers can find themselves spending tens, hundreds, even thousands of pounds on their costumes, and many companies have taken notice. While it is often possible to buy a full costume readymade, many cosplayers feel that it’s better to go as handmade as possible, and competitions often agree – many conventions have rules about how much of a costume can be store bought compared to hand made. The more difficult costumes, involving things such as scifi battle armour (as seen in video games such as Halo and Mass Effect) and often made from little more than cleverly cut and painted card and foam board. For many, these costumes are labours of love. Only the very best can hope to make any money back, but there are actually some professional cosplayers.
The other benefit of cosplay is the sense of escapism that it can give, especially a costume with a mask or other ways to obscure one’s identity. This is in no way an encouragement to misbehave, but especially when surrounded by others in costumes, not being yourself can be very freeing, and not just for ordinary folk. Going back to the San Diego Comic-Con, Hugh Jackman commented on walking around dressed as Wolverine and not being recognised by a single fan, whereas current Doctor Matt Smith donned a Bart Simpson mask to wander the halls undetected. Even Tom Hiddleston arrived at the convention dressed as Jango Fett of Star Wars in order to keep Loki’s hijack of the Thor 2 panel a surprise.
There’s even possibility to put your own spin on a character – cosplays that change the gender, ethnicity or time setting of a character are all very common (steampunk is one of the most common “spins” on a character’s design). You don’t have to look like a character to cosplay them. Some people don’t even need a character to cosplay – they create their own, such as Teen Wolf (the TV show, not the film) actor Keahu Kahuanui who made an unexpected appearance at the SDCC Teen Wolf panel in a costume of his own making, complete with mask as to not spoil the surprise. Kahuanui later commented on Twitter that the costume was not of an existing fictional character but instead was an original design.
So, as cosplay goes from geek cliché to cool, there will of course be consequences. Many online groups have been accused of cosplay snobbery, and there is often criticism of cosplay killjoys – those who suck the fun out of cosplay and cosplay competitions by being over-critical of other people’s costumes. Permission to take photos, especially of women in lycra costumes, is also often a point of contention, and many female cosplayers can face harassment or accusations of not even knowing who they’re dressed as, or being a “fake geek girl” who’s only present for the attention. However, the internet allows for safe spaces with like minded individuals determined to keep cosplay fun and enjoyable for everyone, from providing tips for cosplay beginners to organising meetings for safety in numbers.
Ultimately, cosplay will only grow in popularity, especially if encouraged by celebrity cosplayers like Hiddleston. Cosplay takes time and effort and those should be appreciated and encouraged. Designers, makeup artists and photographers have even received professional boosts from their hobby.
And as for my opinion on the cosplay culture? Let’s just say that the girl who has never dressed as a fictional character should cast the first stone. I’m a biased source.