‘Fandom’ has become a widening phenomena in recent years, in particular with the rise in popularity surrounding the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Fandom’s are groups of fans of a particular piece of media who engage with each other to discuss and interact with their media of choice. These fan interactions can be a wide variety of activities from simple dissections or long breakdowns of the piece to fanart or fanfiction.
In many cases these activities form their own subcultures regardless of the fandom an individual belongs to. Fanfiction Writers, for example, are writers who will create stories using characters from existing fiction often referred to as fanfiction (shortened to fanfic or even just fic).
They have created a language of tags and descriptors to communicate to frequent readers what a piece is about, a language that is recognised across fandoms to the point that someone who has gained a knowledge base of these terms is easily able to switch between fandoms while still completely understanding the lingo. A ‘one-shot’ means a short fanfic of usually one chapter that serves as a short story and ‘angst’ is used to tag a fic that covers a lot of upheaval or conflict whether you’re reading about the avengers, an anime from 1998 or a niche podcast.
For anyone who’s been in pop culture fan or fandom spaces, it’s obvious that cosplay is a fairly prominent subculture. But what is cosplay? Why is it so popular and how do you get involved with the community?
What Is Cosplay? What Is A Cosplayer?
Cosplay is a compound word, Costume supplies the cos- prefix and play provides the -play suffix. Put that together and you get Costume Play shortened down to Cosplay. The term was created in japan around 1983 using english words, nowadays the play is sometimes used to refer to role-play adjacent to live action role play (LARP) groups.
Though that explanation may seem fairly self explanatory, it isn’t particularly helpful as for many the role-play aspect of the hobby is a very small part if not non-existent, while others are not particularly interested in the nitty gritty of the costume side of things beyond its ability to enhance the role-play.
If thats the case what is cosplay? Well in its most basic terms its the act of dressing as pre-existing character generally from pop-culture and anime though it does extend to other media such as books, podcasts, musicals, video games and so on.
Beyond that each person who engages with the hobby or ‘cosplayer’ finds their own focus within the space.
For some the costumes are the heart of the subculture, focusing on accuracy or detailed construction. Some will design and print custom fabrics or hand bead complex appliques to apply to their garments. They may dive into code to search game data-bases for full character sprites so they can construct perfectly accurate recreations or alternatively design incredibly elaborate costumes that may not have been possible on the original show due to time, clarity or budgetary restraints or even just for the joy of creating something that tests the limits of their capabilities.
Similarly there are other cosplayers who focus on props, creating amazing recreations of weapons, armour and other ephemera from their favourite fiction. These props can have layers of cutting, sculpting and construction, some will even create their designs in a 3d rendering software and 3d print aspects or the entirety of these props. Some will have moving parts or glowing lights all before the piece is sanded, primed and lovingly painted. In the same vein, there are others who put the same efforts into incredibly well crafted wigs or makeup expertise.
For those who are more concerned with the role play aspects they might buy a costume from a vendor or off of another cosplayer who no longer wants or needs the costume for themselves or may sew costumes as a business. These cosplayers might be more interested in acting out scenarios with friends who like the same properties or recreating scenes from their media of choice to stage elaborate photoshoots as a love letter to the property. For those who enjoy cinematography or photography these photoshoots might be their main focus.
There’s a lot of cosplayers posting videos and photos across social media. Tiktok is popular with many cosplayers as the short video form makes it easier to create small edits about head-canons (non-canonical beliefs or interpretations of a text) or stitch with other cosplayers all over the globe which is especially helpful for those in a small fandom with only a few cosplayers. Others post long explanations of costume construction or scripted short films involving the characters online, predominantly on YouTube.
Of course none of these sectors are exclusive, any cosplayer may post to social media, someone may spend months constructing the perfect costume solely to role-play with friends in, someone else may put all of their time into creating props and buy the costume they wear. This diversity can be overwhelming to new cosplayers but it does mean there is a niche for basically anyone regardless of how they want to interact with the hobby.
Even the basic definition of cosplaying a character from an established piece of media gets a little shaky as many people cosplay original characters of theirs, such as a dungeons and dragons character they play. It might sound trite but cosplay really is whatever you make of it.
Getting a Start in Australia
Living in Australia can make getting into the hobby a little tricky as many of the most prominent cosplayers are based in Europe and America, at least the English speaking ones are and they often suggest suppliers that are either inaccessible from Australia or simply horrifically expensive with incredibly long shipping times.
In some cases it’s easy to substitute. Many of the supplies you will need are no different than that of a normal seamstress and those are fairly regularly accessible.
Spotlight and Lincraft are the go-tos in many places and can be great especially if you’re in a rush or after something generic, a last minute zip or hook and eye, elastic, new sewing needles etc. Though for fabrics, looking into what small shops are open in your area will generally mean a wider array of options for much better prices and the same goes for haberdashery supplies. If you’re in Melbourne for example, Jimmy Buttons is a fantastic resource for buttons and trims.
Some cases ordering online still makes sense, if you’re after a very specific wig colour or construction shipping it in even if it means waiting on a longer shipping period may still save time in the long run and if you dig enough some online options are cheaper even once you factor in shipping fees especially if you are able to find Australian owned businesses such as smaller costume shops.
It’s also not a bad idea to keep an eye out on Facebook, there are groups set up specifically for cosplayers to buy and sell pieces of costumes. Buying in these marketplaces is a great way to support local cosplayers but it can also be far more convenient as well. It could be as easy as going down the road to pick up your next costume or even just receiving a piece from a different state which is still far quicker than worrying about international postage.
While on Facebook, it’s also a great resource to find cosplay events going on in your local area as well as to connect with other local cosplayers to get their recommendations on the best suppliers in your area or state.
There are also groups where you can post pictures of ongoing projects and ask for advice with many cosplayers more than happy to help a novice when they can.
Types of Costumes
When it comes to cosplay the costume is integral even if it isn’t the main focus for some cosplayers. Because of this there’s a lot of variety within costumes to choose from and having a concept of what the general categories are can be a huge help.
Handmade costumes are exactly what it says on the box. These are cosplays made usually by the cosplayer who is wearing them though they will sometimes be made for a model instead or commissioned. Some will do this simply to indulge in the hobby for fun but others will enter competitions to attempt to win prizes.
Craftsmanship is a point of pride for many cosplayers who will spend long periods of time constructing cosplays, on average months but it can span far beyond to years for particularly complicated projects. Depending on the style of costume this can mean any number of skills from sewing and fabric manipulation to sculpting and electrical work.
While some aim to perfectly recreate a costume from a show they enjoy others will create new designs to better translate the general concept of a character to existing in real life whether that’s just to account for things that are physically impossible when brought into reality, to be able to cosplay a non human character without a full mascot suit or just for the fun of making something different.
For those not interested in costume construction it might make more sense to buy their costume and there are companies that specialise in this though normally you’ll be purchasing from overseas.
Though some look down on people who buy their costumes there’s no shame in doing so if you don’t know how to make a complex costume but would really like to cosplay the character (Genshin Impacts highly detailed designs come to mind), if you simply don’t have the time or you just don’t want to make your costume.
That being said if you are looking into entering a cosplay competition it’s important to understand that many are focused on the quality of construction of a costume and don’t allow bought cosplays to be entered, particularly in craftsmanship competitions, even in cases where you can enter its a good idea to make a note of saying so in your application for the sake of transparency. But many categories such as skit or dance are fairly open to all since the costume itself is not necessarily what is being judged.
But bought cosplays are a great option for some if you can afford them and open up the hobby to a whole swathe of people who were previously locked out for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what character you would like to dress as, or you want to test out your sfx makeup skills, in which case you might put together a closet cosplay. Closet Cosplays are incredibly low effort versions of a character, the term coming from the idea that in most cases you’re trying to use only items from your closet to put together a rough idea of a character. Think of these as the sketch before you actually paint.
Generally speaking they’re used to avoid committing a lot of time and money into acquiring or making a costume only to find out you don’t enjoy cosplaying them. They can be as simple as dressing in the colours associated with a character, using makeup to add scars and the like and possibly a wig.
More experienced cosplayers tend to have more elaborate closet cosplays as their wardrobe also includes all the pieces they have from previous costumes like wigs or staple pieces like sleeveless turtlenecks or coloured gloves.
Casual Cosplay sounds like a closet cosplay but it’s actually quite different, it generally refers to a costume or costume pieces you can wear without appearing as though you’re wearing a costume at all.
If you’ve cosplayed a member of a sports team from an anime you might wear their tracksuit out to do your normal workout to inspire yourself to push a little harder.
Or if you want to go out with friends in cosplay but are feeling a little self conscious you might all agree to wear modern clothes that match your characters and just wear a wig and eye contacts.
It’s not dissimilar to the disney-bounding phenomena that happens at theme parks but isn’t associated with any brand in particular.
How to Begin?
Cosplay is a fascinating global community and the branch that exists in Australia is just as fun as any other. Cosplay is a great way to connect with fans with similar interests to you and in a world that seems crazier day by day, escaping into a world of fantasy on occasion has an obvious appeal.
So if you’re interested, throw something together even if it’s a simple closet cosplay and head out to an event in your area or just look into posting online even just in private cosplay groups at first.
Pick a character your passionate about, if your really committed to being recognised it might be a good idea to pick one from a popular franchise but in most cases your going to have more fun as a character you truly care about, and it will make being recognised all the better as you’ve just found another fan of something you hold dear.
There’s no bad time to start so just follow your heart, there’s a world of costumes and community waiting for you regardless of where you come from.