Even the most mainstream fan is familiar with cosplay, thanks to TV shows like Cosplay Melee and Heroes of Cosplay on SyFy. Most sci-fi, fantasy, and anime entertainment fans know what a blast it is to dress as favorite characters from beloved franchises.

And although it involves costuming and makeup for professional productions, the show Face Off is a huge source of inspiration, showing fans how it’s done by the big league artists that help create those franchises.

Many fans think that cosplay is strictly a Japanese phenomenon, or that the tradition originated in the land of anime. But they’d be wrong. Sci-fi and fantasy character costuming originated in the United States. And many fans don’t know how far it goes back in fandom.

Amazing cosplayer, Rumitto

The Origins of Cosplay

Did you know that cosplay is over 100 years old?

Most fans don’t. Even older fans of classic sci-fi franchises like Star Trek don’t know that the first recorded “cosplay” was in 1908. In fact, at a Cincinnati, Ohio masquerade party held at a local ice skating rink, Mr. and Mrs. William Fell appeared dressed as characters Mr. Skygack and Mr. Skygack and Miss Dillpickles. Featured in newspaper Chicago Day in 1907, the comic strip Martian, Mr. Skygack, came to earth on a meteorite.

Needless to say, Mr. Fell won first prize.

History's first documented cosplay, Mr. William Fell as Mr. Skygack.

Image: Public Domain, By August Olson – the Tacoma Times, via Wikimedia

Classic convention costuming

Actually, the convention costume tradition is also a lot older than you’d think, too. The first convention cosplayers were found at the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) back in 1939. Superfans Forrest Ackerman and Myrtle Jackson showed up dressed in costumes. By the second Worldcon in 1940, convention organizers added a Masquerade Ball to the program.

Since then, sci-fi conventions have scheduled costume balls and costume parades and contests as part of regular programming. British fans picked up the tradition in the late 1950s. Then, comic book conventions started adding masquerade events in 1965. Finally, costume play reached counterculture in 1976 when fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show started dressing up as characters from the movie and performing along in the aisles.

Eventually, costuming got its very own con, when Costume-Con launched in 1983. This con still runs annually, with number 36 gracing San Diego in May 2018. Costume-Con includes science fiction, fantasy, futuristic, and even historical costumes. You can check out the history of the winners and their photo shoots at the official archive gallery.

So why do they call it cosplay?

Although the cosplay tradition isn’t Japanese, the term is …sort of. The term cosplay comes from “kosopure,” a term coined by anime film director Nobuyuki Takahashi. After attending a Worldcon event, he shared the masquerade tradition with Japanese fans in an article in My Anime. Takahashi encouraged them to dress like their favorite anime characters with “costume play.”

So, although fans in the West were calling it Masquerade and Costume Parade, fans in the East were calling it something else entirely. Japanese fans had been performing masquerade and costuming at fan conventions from the late 1970s but hadn’t really settled on a term for it. In Japanese, the English translation of “masquerade” equates to something more like the masquerade balls of aristocratic Europe. Calling it cosplay made it more relatable.

Takahashi’s term “cosplay” gave fan costuming its own identity, distinguishing it from theatrical costumes and Halloween costumes. Japanese fans took to it with all the passion and creativity they had. As Japanese entertainment franchises grew in popularity in the West during the 1980s and 1990s — from anime to kids’ cartoons — the name and game of “cosplay” expanded into the mainstream.

What about other types of costumes?

These days, the term costume usually refers to dressing up as a favorite fictional character or from a beloved genre of books or movies. From Sherlock Holmes to Steampunk style to Luke Skywalker to Hobbits to Wesley and Buttercup, all the way to video game characters like Link or Desmond Creed.

Additionally, some people include historical costumes, like Victorian and Renaissance clothing, in “cosplay.” Many people enjoy both Live Action Role Play (LARP) and cosplay. Keep in mind, however, established organizations like The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) don’t call it “cosplay,” and it involves more than dress. Although they have a lot in common, LARP is a more involved activity that extends far beyond the realm of fashion and performance.

Cosplaying: Getting Started

Like every other human endeavor, there are purists, and there are those who are in it just for fun. Cosplay can be as casual as just dressing for work as a contemporary character in modern garb. As Takahashi put it himself:

“Typically, I wear casual clothes at the office. Whenever I wear a business suit, that’s me cosplaying. Cosplaying as a businessman.”

Everyday cosplay

Everyday cosplay can be as simple as adding a Doctor Who scarf to your regular coat. Got a trench coat? Suddenly, you’re the angel Castiel from Supernatural. You can show your love for your fandom with mainstream clothing that looks like it belongs in a particular world or to a favorite character.

Love Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? All it takes is an ’80 leather jacket. In fact, if you feel like changing it up, add a black hoodie, and Bam! — you’re Marvel’s Jessica Jones.

Hermione Granger wore clothes you can find at Target or H&M when she wasn’t in class at Hogwarts. In fact, there’s a whole Pinterest board dedicated to Hermione Granger inspired outfits!

Fan gear cosplay

Another form of everyday cosplay is choosing from a wide variety of specially manufactured apparel that reflects your favorite franchise. Tights, leotard, and a cape might be a bit much for civics class, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear a Wonder Woman-inspired dress from Her Universe. It’s not strictly “costume,” but it’s still a way for fans of the same franchise to make friends and show appreciation for their fandom.

If you’re a bit shy and new to the idea, play around with everyday cosplay or fan gear first to get a feel for it. Pretty soon, you may find yourself looking for ways to create more authentic outfits. Try out these great resources for ideas:

Geek and Sundry 
Cosplay All the Things 

However, if you’re looking to enter a cosplay competition, be ready to strive for perfection.

Cosplay Competitions

Cosplay contests at conventions vary widely depending on the event. The con sets the terms of the competition. Convention organizers decide which categories to consider and how costumes will be judged. They also decide what costuming events to throw.

Dragoncon in Atlanta, Georgia, for example, holds several cosplay contests: separate ones for Star Wars and Star Trek only, an opening night contest, a Masquerade Ball, and a “Hallway Contest.” In the hallway contest, contest volunteers take pictures of con-goers in their regalia, and attendees get to vote on their favorites. Hallway contests have been around a long time and have evolved from attendees just hanging out during the con in their costumes. The hallway contests are perfect for introverts who don’t want to get up on stage or perform.

Inspector Lemon Cosplay ready for a competition in costume from a popular manga.

At Worldcon, which is held in a new location every year, it’s still called Masquerade, and participants enter in advance. Managed by the International Costumers Guild (ICG), the Worldcon contest is divided into categories by experience. This includes a “Master” division for professional costumers.

At anime-focused Katsucon in Washington D.C., organizers have set up a selection of competitions for attendees. The Masquerade is the formal judging contest held onstage during the convention. They also hold a fashion show, which judges participants for close resemblance to their characters. Katsucon holds a hallway contest for the shy, and the organization recommends them as a great starting point for new cosplayers.

San Diego Comic-Con, probably one of the best-known conventions, also still calls it “Masquerade.” Although SDCC doesn’t hold a wide variety of contests during the event, they do offer prizes in a number of fun categories:

Best in Show
Judges’ Choice
Best Re-Creation
Top Original Design
Best Workmanship
Most Humorous
Most Beautiful
Best Young Fan

Amazing cosplayers at Katsucon pose together for photos.

What makes a cosplay fit for competition?

The four major conventions above provide great examples of the kind of contest organization you can expect from any convention near you. They also give an idea of how cosplays are judged in a variety of ways. While some costumes are judged for craftsmanship, others are judged for how closely the outfit resembles the character. In others, originality is key.

The most important part of any competition is to follow the rules. Some contests require handmade costumes by the wearer or a commissioned designer. Most decline store-bought or rented costumes, although rules differ.

Depending on the con, the rules may include only anime or video game costumes. While others are open to all genres. Most formal contests require you attend rehearsals, others, like Hallway contests just need you to register and show up for photos.

Cosplayer Izo shows off how she processes photos of her costume.

Characteristics of a good costume include the quality of assembly and materials. The accuracy of the original character design is important unless you’re doing a mash-up or an original costume. Functionality is included, because you may need to perform a skit showing off your costume.

And speaking of performance, your stage presence and how you present the character and cosplay are also taken into account. Do you engage with the audience, or just stand up there, trembling with stage fright?

First rule of cosplay competition? Find your con, then read the rules.

Where to learn more

If you want to elevate your costume game, check out Kamui Cosplay’s line of tutorial books and videos. Learn how to make realistic armor out of foam. Find out how to make screen-accurate props or work LED lights in your costume. They also have tutorials for sewing and painting. You can watch their YouTube channel.

You can also check out the cosplayers below, many of whom have online tutorials to help you get started with your own costumes.

Cosplay Careers

With all the TV shows about cosplay and the mainstreaming of con culture, many top-notch cosplayers have become real celebrities. High-level cosplayers support their passion for costuming through venues like Patreon. Others vlog on YouTube and make ad revenue while talking about the craft. The real big names make a living by channeling their skills into merchandise like photoshoot sets, commissions, and even product lines. Some travel as guest judges and professional speakers at fan conventions. Cosplaying is an expensive hobby, so it’s great that they get so much support from fans. It can even be a career all by itself.

Cosplayers often specialize in either skill or design choices. While some create costumes from well-known, even mainstream fandoms, others are known for their video game character portrayals. Many cosplayers have amazing build skills, creating the most amazingly realistic suits of armor or unique original designs. Others are well-known for incredible stage presence and charisma.

Top Names in Cosplay

Here are a few top names you may have heard. Follow them on social media to find out all about their latest projects.

Yaya Han

Yaya Han is one of the world's most well known amazing cosplayers. Here, she poses in an elaborate Renaissance style costume with wings.

Probably the most recognizable cosplayer on the planet, Yaya Han has turned her love of costuming into a real empire. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Han got her start in 1999. Starting with a used sewing machine, she has been featured in several shows and documentaries. Han frequently serves as a guest judge and expert at many convention and stars in the TV show Heroes of Cosplay. Known for her design talents, she has an exclusive line of costume patterns with McCall’s and a line of textiles with Joann Fabrics.

Jessica Nigri

Jessica Nigri is also a big name in cosplay. Starting her career in 2009, her “sexy Pikachu” costume from SDCC launched her into international fame online. More model than a designer, Nigri brings a big personality and lots of spunk into everything she does. She works as a spokesmodel for a number of video game developers, appearing at conventions as featured characters across the globe. She has also appeared in several commercials and music videos and does voiceover work. Her signature looks are “gender-bending,” when she appears as the female form of known male characters.

Mark Meer

Mark Meer cosplays his own video game character, Commander Shephard

Mark Meer is not only a cosplayer, he’s also a voice actor for video game franchises, cartoons, and movies. The Canadian performer is best known as Commander Shepard in Bioware’s Mass Effect video game series. And he cosplays a pretty mean Commander Shepard in real life, too.

Steven K. Smith

Known for his amazing props, Steven K. Smith is one of the top cosplayers in the world. Along with selling his professional quality builds, he also has a series of walk-through tutorials for costumes like a badass orc and a Dragon Age helmet. Smith mentors others by offering advice and doing Q&As. You can check out his talents on YouTube.

Names to Watch

Professionals aren’t the only great cosplayers out there, and there are always new takes on performance, costume creation, and prop building. Keep an eye on these newer cosplayers.

Moderately Okay Cosplay

Specializing in anime and bringing wit and humor is Moderately Okay Cosplay, also known as John. He reviews wigs, costumes, and accessories on his YouTube channel as well as giving tutorials. Specializing in anime and video games, his Kingdom Hearts Axel cosplay is amazing.

John cosplays Axel from the Kingdom Hearts video game series.

Ceruri Cosplay

Russian-American Ceruri Cosplay, also known as Anya, has been costuming since 2015. She specializes in anime and video game characters and sewing her own costumes. Her signature costumes are Yoko Littner from the Gurren Lagann anime series and Cindy Aurum from the Final Fantasy video games. Furthermore, Ceruri documents her travels to conventions throughout the Eastern U.S. on Facebook. You can also find her on Patreon.

Ceruri Cosplay poses in her Yoko Littner costume from Gurren Lagann

Prop Customz

Propcustomz, also known as Calen Hoffman, is a master prop maker and amazing cosplayer. The detail he puts into every sculpt is mind-blowing. Specializing in armor and weapons built to spec, you’ll find him at conventions like FanExpo and Wizardworld in the Midwest and Texas.

Cosplayer and prop builder Calen Hoffman poses in armor.

Time to Get Started

So, how will you design your first cosplay? It doesn’t matter if you show your fandom love with a pair of TARDIS socks or already have drawings for a full foam build to play Optimus Prime. Start where you feel comfortable. You may find that cosplaying a character makes you just as brave as your franchise hero. Or, you could be just as satisfied in your Firefly shirt that attracts every other Firefly fan at the next con.

Cosplay serves a number of real human needs. It helps fans find each other at cons and in the real world. It lets them explore life in someone else’s shoes. Creating your own costumes helps you develop artistic and practical skills. Most importantly, you can create your own universes through costumes and props if you start working on original design and mash-ups.

As Nobuyuki Takahashi, the artist who coined the term said:

“Cosplay is a fan’s expression of his or her love for a favorite character,’ says Takahashi. ‘Drawing a piece of artwork, writing a story, animating a movie and showing this to others is a manifestation of that love. And cosplay is one of those expressions in which fans use their entire bodies.:

And if you still don’t get it — or someone you love just doesn’t understand — watch the TED Talk from Mythbusters‘ Adam Savage and his love letter to cosplay:


Featured Image: Ceruri Cosplay, by Rumitto, with permission