The Humans of Cosplay

Words and Photos by Betsy Scott

Cosplay is not a mere fad. It is a community and an art form, and it’s not going away any time soon.

Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, Friday

It’s 10 a.m., and the show floor of the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) just opened to the public. Samantha Romero helps Brett Hodgkinson adjust his mask. They are dressed as characters from Marvel Comics: she as Spider-Gwen (Gwen Stacy) and he as Iron Spider. As they enter, they are surrounded by fans waiting to take pictures. They have practiced their poses for the camera–action shots worthy of a comic book cover.

Though Samantha’s Spider-Gwen costume was custom-printed, generally she makes her own from scratch. She spent three weeks cutting hundreds of feathers from poster board for her Hawkgirl costume. Her dream ultimate costume is a suit of Daedric armor from the Elder Scrolls videogame series. Brett hopes to create a full Iron Man suit from fiberglass soon.

They started cosplaying about three years ago. Samantha was inspired to make costumes by the kids at the conventions they attended.

“I saw how much kids loved to see their favorite characters and I wanted to be their favorite character,” she says. “I have a couple of Disney Princess outfits that I love wearing to kids’ day. The little girls just run up to you and you sit on the ground for hours, and they are so happy.”

Brett and Samantha joined a cosplay group, Get Geek’d, from Lansing, MI, and attend around six conventions a year with them. The group gives them more opportunities to wear their costumes, and members help each other create and improve their cosplay.

Brett Hodgkinson as Iron Spider
Brett Hodgkinson as Iron Spider

Cosplay, the act of dressing up as a character, isn’t limited to just anime/manga characters or superheroes. It has been embraced by fans of movies and television especially science fiction and fantasy, videogames, western-style animation such as Disney and Pixar, and even classic literature.

For cosplay, costumes can be as simple as putting on a suit and pinning a fake FBI badge to a lapel, to as elaborate as mechanized robot suits.

Though there are professional cosplayers who model and enter international contests, the majority create costumes simply out of love. It can be an expensive hobby; even a simple costume can cost $200 in materials, though award-winning costumes can cost thousands. This doesn’t include the time spent researching, designing, shopping and creating the piece, of course.

And companies are taking notice. Simplicity Creative Group had a booth at C2E2 and now offers a variety of patterns specifically for cosplay. Custom fabric retailer Spoonflower offers fabrics that mimic special textures and patterns for specific characters, like the Daleks from Doctor Who. This year, around 20 cosplay-related panels were offered at C2E2. Most were workshops, hosted by cosplay group We Are Cosplay, that discussed costume design from wigs and makeup to sewing and leatherworking.

An area outside of the show is designated “Fan Village.” It is a quiet, spacious refuge from the chaos of the show floor. There is room for kids to run and play, and tables and chairs for weary adults. Some attendees even nap in giant bean bag chairs. In this oasis, We Are Cosplay set up shop.

One reality of cosplay is that it is very inconvenient. Many cosplayers change from their street clothes in restrooms to avoid wearing their costumes on public transportation. They may have coats and umbrellas as well as large bags of costume supplies. Some rent rooms in the attached hotel, preferring to use part of their convention budget to pay for convenience. In the ladies’ room, I encountered a cosplayer with a small wardrobe malfunction: a piece that had been hot-glued to her unitard had come undone. I had safety pins in my costume bag, so I helped her pin the piece back on while other attendees watched along.

As artists and cosplayers themselves, We Are Cosplay saw a need for fan support. Their tables are the emergency room for costumes and are filled with different kinds of tape, super glues, hot glue guns, pins, markers, mirrors. They provide and monitor changing rooms with doors that lock for safety and privacy. Many of the cosplay workshops are held on a nearby stage.

Paul Heid, creative director, said the group wanted to have a community that was a “throwback to the 70s art community,” where members could share ideas and “grow as creatives. Once you start getting involved with other creatives, you can’t help but feed off of that.” Their organization also does volunteer work, such as bringing comics to kids at Lurie Children’s Hospital on Free Comic Book Day (the first Saturday in May). They also occasionally host social events, and this year they organized around 50 cosplayers to march in the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Paul was attracted to cosplay from his childhood love of Spider-Man. “I always had the idea of dressing up as Spider-Man and doing random good deeds in the neighborhood, like go cut somebody’s lawn.” His Spider-Man costume reflects his heritage: he changed the original spider symbol to an orb-weaver spider indigenous to Thailand, making his costume “a little different from other people’s [costumes].”

C2E2, Saturday

Joseph Ahn is working the crowd as Joffrey Baratheon. Fans approach him, eager to take a picture with the villain from the Game of Thrones television show and books. They kneel, pretending to cower as he aims his crossbow.

Joseph Anh as
Joseph Anh as Joffrey Baratheon

“I love how much people hate him,” Joseph explains. “the vitriol that surrounds this character. People pass him off as a psychopath, but in reality he has too much fear, he’s too cowardly to be a psychopath. He has so much power to be a terrible person, but he is so weak. It’s fun interacting with people [as Joffrey].”

This costume took Joseph about six months to make. He realized he simply didn’t have the time to do it all at once (“Plan ahead,” he advises cosplayers). Some of the accessories, such as his crown, were cast metal, and it took time to find a foundry that would do the job.

As we talk, a woman dressed as Margaery Tyrell, another character from Game of Thrones,approaches. They laugh, delighted to see each other. I ask if they are together, and they exclaim “no” in unison. They pose in character for photographs, Joffrey glaring and Margaery regally holding his arm, but part as new friends.

“There’s something great about being in a community where people get to be nice to each other, and everyone is smiling. It’s fun,” he says.

Cosplay for the convention culminates with the Crown Championships of Cosplay. In its first year, the competition was simply a costume contest that anyone could sign up for the day of. The prizes were collectibles, toys and comics. It is now the final competition for the year in ReedPOP’s international contest with celebrity judges and over $10,000 in cash prizes. Contestants must apply at least a month in advance with a completed costume. The applicants who are accepted are judged before the main competition. Those who make that cut are brought on stage before an audience.

This year, regional winners were brought in from eight countries. From Austria, the impressive Wheeljack was flown in to complete. The costume is a massive Transformer robot complete with sound effects and robotic voice. The cosplayer inside walks on stilts and towers over the crowd. Like the Iron Man Hulkbuster armor, another costume in contest, the costume is so large that it requires a team of handlers to monitor and support it.

Though she has made other costumes, this is Monica Gonzales’ first competition. Her costume is Galacta, Marvel Comics character who is the daughter of the villain Galactus. Not only was it her first time applying for the contest, it was the first time she worked with LEDs and Worbla (a thermoplastic modelling material).

Monica Gonzales as Galacta
Monica Gonzales as Galacta

Monica spent about a year researching her costume idea. “We have a lot of similarities. This character is always hungry. I’m always hungry,” she jokes.

Monica adapted the costume to her aesthetic. In the comics, Galacta usually wears a miniskirt, but she designed a floor-length hoopskirt. The front of the skirt is the earth made with over 800 squares of blue and green tulle; on the back, LEDs form stars and planets.

Monica explains, “this was the first time I wanted to compete in a large-scale professional cosplay [contest]. Before I would make my own costumes but [] nothing on this scale. I had a job that wouldn’t allow me that flexibility to have time to really make anything. So this time I have the job that would allow me to do [this].”

“I’m an accountant. I got to do something else besides crunch numbers, right?”

C2E2, Sunday

Sunday at C2E2 is family day, and the aisles are choked with strollers. Toddlers pose for pictures with Disney princesses, who stay in character during each encounter. The likenesses are eerily accurate, from wig to shoes.

Just outside of Fan Village, the 501st Legion have their tables. The 501st, also known as “Vader’s Fist,” is an organization of Star Wars fans who create costumes of the various Imperial troops and major villains. The staff of the booth represent the Midwest Garrison, one of the regional units of the Legion. On their table are pamphlets about the Legion and trading cards of their members in costume. Behind them are various styles of stormtrooper helmets.

As I chat with a Legion member, her eyes widen. “Uh oh, the boss is here!” I see Darth Vader approaching.

For the benefit of the children around the booth, the staff stay in character and pretend to be intimidated. It isn’t difficult; the cosplayer is tall and imposing, and his costume is very convincing. Even so, children surround him, and he then stops to take pictures with them at a Star Wars backdrop.

Eugene Almazan says he and his wife Sandra joined the 501st for their son, Alex, who is a fan of Star Wars. Eugene is an Imperial Gunner, while Sandra and Alex are Jawas. Nearby, a few kids disguised as Jawas swarm a life-sized R2D2. Eugene explains the membership process. The applicant must provide photos of the costume from different angles to show its craftsmanship.

The costume doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to fit the standards. Accuracy is emphasized.

The process seems intimidating, but he stresses that members are helpful to novices. Some types of armor are available as kits that can be cut and shaped to size.

“Even for someone 5’1” tall?” I ask.

The staff thinks for a moment, then someone suggests, “maybe kids’ armor?”


Any Given Saturday…

Dara Williamson becomes an Orc for C2E2
Dara Williamson becomes an Orc for C2E2

On a cold and wet Saturday, Dara Williamson is transforming into an orc. The character, Greshka, is her own invention, a character she plays in a Live Action Role Playing game (LARP). In costume even her demeanor changes from her cheerful, friendly self to a glaring warrior.

“When you’re short, you have to let people know you mean business,” she says.

She describes a LARP as “a big game of pretend.” Unlike tabletop roleplaying games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the players act out what their characters do and say. It’s like improv, but with more rules, props and costumes—and sometimes bashing each other with weapons. A few weekends a year, she goes to a campsite to game with 20-30 people for two days. Elaborate costumes like Dara’s are not required, but they are encouraged.

Greshka’s costume evolved over the years. When Dara first started, her armor was a simple leather coat. She later invested in leather armor and high-quality, weather-proof boots purchased at renaissance fairs. But most of the costume pieces were handmade from fabric remnants or recycled from other sources. Her rabbit fur cloak was rescued from someone else’s discarded costume.

Dara first cosplayed in high school with her friends at conventions like Anime Central (ACen). Her first costumes were anime characters she loved. Her mother, Judy Perlman, a talented seamstress and costumer, showed her how to design and sew the pieces (her advice for cosplayers: use upholstery fabrics for costumes, as those fabrics tend to be cheaper and sturdier). Dara’s house includes two work spaces with various tools, including an antique White Sewing Machine that can sew through leather.

Dara Williamson with sword

An integral part of her LARP game is a kind of stage combat requiring soft, light, safe weapons. After nearly destroying a mass-produced weapon, she wondered if she could make her own. Using her talents for sculpting and painting, she now has a small business making weapons and other props for roleplayers. Basic weapons range from $75-150, but she also carves custom weapons by request. All of the props are made by hand. The most elaborate thing she has created to date was the Buster Sword from Final Fantasy VII. Though the weapon is over six feet long, it weighs around two pounds.

“Why did you choose to play an orc?” I ask.

“I wanted to do an elaborate costume, but I wasn’t confident, either in myself, my appearance or my abilities,” she explains. Dara recasts her imperfections in new ways with her “elaborate, midriff-bearing, green-body-paint orc-girl costume. And it let me kind of reconnect with myself and see myself as a positive thing, as a positive being. Because, OK, this is mine, I own this. And it’s not perfect, it’s not what the media is telling me what I should have, but it fulfills my need. Some of it is about control. Some of it is about learning to let control go.”

Learning from Cosplay

I was surprised me to learn through these conversations about the proliferation of organized cosplay communities. Most cosplayers I spoke with are involved with a cosplay group, whether a local circle or an international organization. All of them have a generous spirit, too: while large groups like We Are Cosplay and the 501st Legion are involved with multiple charities, even individual cosplayers volunteer their time to mentor each other or to just entertain kids for a few hours.

The beauty of cosplay is that by pretending to be someone else, cosplayers find each other, and sometimes even themselves.

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