Continuing my journey down the nerdy rabbit hole, I finally got one short day to spend at Emerald City Comic Con. Having grown up in the Seattle area, I had never seen the Washington State Convention center so packed. Tip of advice: If you’re headed to a convention there, you’re better off parking along the Sound Transit line and taking the train in. Parking in the city is impossible. Naturally it was pouring that day, so my blonde hair frizzed out of it’s Dolores curls. Once inside, it was all worth the hassle. ECCC celebrated it’s 15th anniversary this year with record attendance. 90,000 people crowded the convention center to attend panels, pick out prints from their favorite fan artists, and meet an ever growing cast of celebrity guests. Millie Bobby Brown and Shannon Purser, better known as Eleven and Barb from Netflix’ hit drama ‘Stranger Things’ headlined this year’s sold out show, with appearances from Jeremy Renner, Evangeline Lilly, and Alice Cooper. However, not everyone at the show came to see the stars. Many came to admire, photograph, and participate in cosplay.
Originating in Japan and spreading to the U.S. through anime conventions such as SakuraCon, cosplay has become strongly associated with the general ‘Con’ experience. Now, people from all walks of life in the United States are embracing cosplay in their own ways, and redefining what cosplay means in for us. As conventions grow in acceptance by mainstream America, cosplay has grown into an umbrella term to encompass many interpretations of the art of character by costume. For example, choosing to cosplay Western characters rather than the traditional anime. Most commonly, Americans love dressing up as superheroes from Captain America to various interpretations of Harley Quinn. It’s no wonder, considering the prominence of these characters in our entertainment. Speaking of interpretation, the meaning of ‘cosplay’ in the US is constantly evolving. Costumes have been funny, such as Deadpool in a Cookie Monster suit, serious and detailed with full-body Reinhardt armour, or vamped up for a sexy vibe. Cosplay can be a solo venture, or tackled by an entire group to create a cast of characters. Endless creative possibilities are why cosplay is becoming an intersectional artform beyond U.S. “nerd” culture.
There are multiple reasons why cosplay can be called ‘intersectional’ (go figure). Socially, the art of costume encourages wide diversity. Cosplay sees no boundaries in age, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Characters are combined, gender-bent, or set in alternate histories or universes entirely. Not unlike fan-fiction, cosplay offers an opportunity for the artist to challenge a character’s original identity according to their own imagination. To see a male Disney princess or a female Joker isn’t uncommon. One of the more creative costumes I saw on the PAX circuit was a Slave Leia/Daenerys crossover. America is beginning to realize the endless possibility of cosplay, which attracts creative mind who otherwise may never have interacted with the craft.Going beyond social interpretation, cosplay offers artists from practically every artistic craft the opportunity to showcase their work as part of a larger collaboration. A model may take center stage, strutting proudly in the threads of her own creation. A fashion or costume designer may have been hired for custom work. Everyone from carpenters and welders to jewelry makers and makeup artists have the potential to create an important piece of someone’s dream cosplay. With an increased demand for specialized costume pieces and outfits that are practically impossible to find in stores, serious cosplayers are often willing to pay top dollar for quality.
After watching the relatively new HBO series, Westworld, the show’s protagonist became the muse for my next build. A little research through the depths of #WestworldCosplay turned up few genuine attempts to recreate the iconic character. Fast-forward 3 months, and about $600 in total, and what was once a vision became a stitched reality. The main blue dress was custom tailored by award-winning cosplay designer Brian ‘ZakLabs’ Morris, the belt was handmade by Twitch Partner Suchikuchi, and the old west pistol was rented from a local cop in the prop armory business. Adding in a plane flight to San Antonio, I had the pleasure of working with a model/photographer couple who beautifully photographed the completed work. The Dolores cosplay experience cost around $1,000 in total, but really, what is money when you’re doing what you love? Outside of the always unforgettable experience of another PAX, and creating my character vision from scratch, having the opportunity to interact with a variety of new artists in the process was a joy in itself. I was proud to praise and advertise their work to all who stopped me to ask. Cosplay is seeing the growth of it’s own economy beyond artists and small businesses in niche trades.
Like everything else in the digital age, the internet has played a crucial role in making cosplay global. After all, it was mainly through the internet over the last few decades that anime developed a following in the United States, through which the first anime conventions were first organized. It was at these conventions where the art of cosplay was first practiced, and quickly gained attention for it’s flashy, sometimes silly and shocking appeal. It’s 2017, and costumes aren’t just for Halloween anymore. Finding handmade goods to suit your look has never been easier, with the help of Etsy, Pinterest and Amazon Prime. A traditional cosplay was handmade from scratch by its wearer, but with the evolution of cosplay in American culture comes the acceptance that not everyone knows how or has time to sew. There have become several niches of professionalism in cosplay that have come to be, with a lot of help from social media.
Check out ‘danica_rockwood’, ‘coregeek’, or ‘commanderholly’ on Instagram, and you’ve found someone who is at least partially making a living with cosplay online. Many have YouTube accounts where they post videos of themselves making and modeling their costumes, live stream their builds on Twitch, or take paid photo shoots in their costumes as models in the genre. Cosplay may generally maintain ‘hobby’ status, but online entertainers and content creators in the gaming industry are incorporating cosplay as engaging element. Reaching out to anyone in the business of cosplay has never been easier with social media, whether they be a designer, photographer, model and so on. At conventions, it’s customary for cosplayers to bring business card with their Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, or whatever other social media site they host their portfolio on, for others in the community to contact them for collaboration. Personally, I earned back the price of a ticket to PAXWest and more in 2015 from hired work that I did from networking at the convention. Many cosplayers looking for help funding their builds have found luck through generous cosplay enthusiasts on sites like Patreon and IndieGoGo. If a cosplayer can produce enough consistent, quality work, than they could land themselves a booth at one of the larger convention, signing prints and taking photos with fans in costume. The consumption of cosplay-related media has grown so much, that U.S. companies have started to take notice.
Marketing teams, especially in the gaming industry, are recognizing the value of connecting with cosplay influencers. Reaching potentially millions of people through the audience of a cosplayer with high social media, sponsoring cosplayers offers these companies free advertising to their key demographic. Take a trip to BlizzCon, and the Blizzard cosplay models shine in stunningly accurate costumes with the help of company funding. On my own trip to PAXSouth, I was approached by Trion Worlds to build a costume for their latest game, Atlas Reactor. Developers of such games as ArcheAge and Trove, the company sees immense value in partnering with top crafters to promote their game. Whether for triple A titles or small indie developers, games marketers are hungry to form partnerships with talented and dedicated cosplayers with large audiences on social media. The past year has been a full-fledged journey, traveling across the country to every PAX convention in the United States and in a different costume each time. To live is to seek and earn moments that bring utmost joy. For those in the ever growing cosplay community, that moment of joy could be looking at themselves in the mirror as Poison Ivy, or posing for ten photographers at once as a sexy Zero Suit Samus. Especially in a time where art is underfunded and undervalued, we need a creative outlet that inspires collaboration. Valuing diversity in contribution and interpretation, cosplay could become that hobby you never knew you needed.