This weekend at the Overland Park Convention Center, an unlikely and increasingly influential sector of the fashion sphere will be showcased. Naka-Kon, Kansas City’s local anime convention, is into its twelfth year of festivities, and its cosplay competition ranks among its most anticipated events.
Cosplay, most often done in specially designated fan conventions, is a fashion art form in which people dress up as their favorite characters. While it started as a do-it-yourself process dominated by expert costumers, mass-produced wigs and other costume components can be found online. There is still some elitism within the community itself about whether or not these costumes should be considered “true” cosplay, but the general consensus is that the art comes from capturing a character’s personality—store-bought or otherwise.
Though it is most often associated with anime, people have cosplayed since the 1930s and its origins are not actually Japanese. Rather, it is rooted in American science fiction, the genre which also spawned the first fan conventions. In 1939, Forrest J. Ackerman, a renowned science fiction aficionado, wore the first known cosplay to the early Worldcon, “[striding] the streets looking like a proto-superhero.” A year later, Worldcon began holding masquerade balls, and costumes became a logical extension to this mix of fandom and masquerade. The science fiction community quietly continued this trend until the ‘70s, when the newly created San Diego Comic Con created their own costume masquerade.
At that point, elaborate fan costuming came to countries like Germany and Japan, whose first popular cosplays were of anime classics like Urusei Yatsura and Mobile Suit Gundam. Even as new conventions sprouted, Worldcon was still very much at the center, and in 1984, Japanese reporter Takahashi Nobuyuki coined the word “cosplay” after attending it.
While details about cosplay’s spread since the ‘80s are largely open to speculation, many attribute its popularity to the anime boom and turn-of-the-millennium pop culture. To this day, many of the most popular cosplays have their roots in late 20th century television and movies, such as “Sailor Moon,” “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” The rise of the comic book film has also played a role—superhero cosplays can be found at nearly any convention. As adults are engaging more and more with the pop cultural media, cosplay is as synonymous with the fan climate as conventions and collecting.
Cosplay itself has inspired a trend towards everyday clothing with fictional influences, with new movies often receiving fashion lines at stores such as Hot Topic. However, it has also been linked to popularizing other types of fashion closely associated with it, such as Gothic Lolita. Lolita, a clothing style that focuses on ornate Victorian-style outfits, is commonly worn by anime characters, which led to cosplay popularizing it as well.08 All in all, cosplay has led to a new exploration of various fashions overlooked in the everyday, and takes its “costumey” status in stride.