What is Cosplay?
As many of you who have attended BBG’s Sakura Matsuri in years past have noticed, something very unique is drawing in a different crowd: a multicultural swath of people young and old coming to the annual celebration of Japanese cherry blossoms in strange, sometimes exotic, garments. This phenomenon is known as cosplay, a sort of culture within a subculture.
Etymology and Brief History
“But what exactly IS cosplay?,” you ask. Cosplay as a term is a Japanese portmanteau of “costumed play.” The component of play is what differentiates cosplay from simply wearing a costume like you would at Halloween. In cosplay, instead of simply donning the costume of a character, you are becoming the character, and in many cases, interacting with others as such. The emphasis is on costumed interactivity.
Despite its reputation as a Japanese subculture, cosplay is, in fact, born of an inherently American tradition. The term cosplay finds its roots in the American Science Fiction convention (it was coined by a member of a Japanese studio at a Los Angeles-based convention in 1984) where fans of a certain program or genre dress in strange, sometimes exotic, garments. While Japanese otaku (“fans”) no doubt were dressing up in costumes independent of the happenings in the West, it wasn’t until the globalization of American sci-fi in the 1970’s and 80’s that things really started to take off and international cosplay networks began to develop.
In the late 1990’s/early 2000’s a cosplay boom began in the United States. This was thanks in large part to television programs like Pokemon and the mainstream U.S. releases of numerous premier titles from Japan (Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, and the Mobile Suit Gundam side-series Gundam Wing) which inspired the geek community. What followed was an exponential increase in the popularity of anime and the propagation of fan gatherings at conventions. The rapid evolution of the web at the time fostered many forums and websites dedicated to information about costuming, cosplay, and its role in Japanese popular culture. Some of these sites (such as American Cosplay Paradise and Cosplay.com) offered galleries to display one’s work and forums for people to plan meetups at conventions, exchange costuming ideas, or just talk about new shows from the East.
Cosplay Culture in America
Today, sites allow fans and costumers to increase their construction abilities thru video tutorials or use social networking tools to link up with others. The community is constantly evolving. With conventions running almost every week of the year all across the country, people from different geographical regions are finding opportunities for cosplay interactions.
These days, cosplayers more often than not learn about events through social networking with friends or in online forums. Carrie Wink-Troy, a veteran cosplayer since 2002 who started a manufacturing business with fellow cosplayer Carolann Voltarel, explains how she started: “When I was in school for graphic arts I met a friend who was into Sailor Moon, and she was a cosplayer. So I thought, ‘hey, this should be fun!’ ” Despite having (at the time) rudimentary sewing skills, Wink-Troy ordered her first costume off eBay, and her success at her first convention, the Virginia-based Katsucon, brought her back for more. “I met other people who were really into anime, into the whole dressing up thing...everyone was really chill and really accepting, so I was hooked.”
These days it is popular (and sometimes necessary) to commission costumes or purchase them from websites dedicated to ready made components. The quality of these items has increased drastically in the last few years. Even many of my friends now order from Asian sites that specialize in character-specific wigs (through options like the Chinese shopping service Taobao), which offer products almost simultaneously with new program releases. As starter costumes or last-minute options, ready-made costumes can make both novices and veterans feel more comfortable enjoying what they love about cosplay with minimal fuss.
Once a cosplayer has arrived at a convention, they seek to increase their exposure through photo shoots, hall cosplay contests (costume judging for workmanship), and the masquerade (a costume competition with a theatrical slant). Photo shoots are one of the most appealing and universal aspects of cosplay, allowing participants to capture the hard work put into their costumes or satisfy their inner desire to be fashion models. The majority of “professional” images you’re likely to encounter were shot during these sessions. Culturally, the photo shoot is universal, while cosplay performance, which is my own personal specialty, is more often than not secondary to the photography and craftsmanship elements.
Cosplay at BBG’s Sakura Matsuri
With its lush landscapes and broad spaces, Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri has become a magnet for local cosplayers. At this time of year, players can mimic the look of shooting in Japan without having to travel there. From a cosplay photographer’s perspective, the exotic costumes and beautiful landscape form a winning combination.
The festive outdoor atmosphere also allows people who normally feel confined within the walls of a convention center to enjoy reveling (or “playing”) with friends in a space that, like the costumes they wear, transcends the daily norm. With new events like the Cosplay Fashion Show ( on special Sundays), there are now even more opportunities for cosplayers to display their work without the intensity of competition. In short, Sakura Matsuri serves as a perfect venue for people to maybe dare to go a little bit beyond the contemporary.
In the end, it’s really the experience that allows one to truly understand cosplay—though you don’t have to go as far as putting on a costume and acting like a Japanese schoolgirl (or boy) in order to catch the enthusiasm that makes cosplay so popular. Take this post as an invitation to give cosplay a look with more knowledgeable eyes at this year’s Sakura Matsuri; to see this world with some knowledge of what it is these kids (and grown-ups) see in it themselves.Catch Mario Bueno during Sakura Matsuri at the J-Lounge Cosplay Cabaret at Osborne Garden South.