ON HALLOWEEN 2021, my 10-year-old son begged me to purchase a Tanjiro Kamado costume for him with accompanying 3-foot sword, as well as a Nezuko Kamado costume for my daughter. These characters, I learned, were a famous brother-and-sister duo from the Japanese manga series “Demon Slayer” turned anime show turned subsequent film in 2020 — the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. Kamado’s iconic checkered robe started to make a regular weekday appearance over my son’s hoodie and sweatpants well after Halloween was over. For Christmas, he asked for a bunch of Naruto Uzumaki costuming, which he now wears daily, even layering the robe over his tennis gear.
I now realize I am living with a budding casual cosplayer.
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Cosplay — a portmanteau of the words costume and play — traces its origins to Worldcon, the 1984 science-fiction convention. Adjacent to Civil War reenactors, Renaissance Fair lovers, and hardcore Halloween zealots, cosplayers integrate their intense fandom — usually for comic-book, sci-fi, and anime characters — with detailed costuming to inhabit these characters, primarily at conventions that draw thousands of other like-minded fans. Cosplay differentiates from more plebeian costume wearing in that cosplayers often adopt body language, affectations, and mannerisms of the character they’re choosing to inhabit.
It’s also big business. The cosplay industry revenue was estimated at $4.62 billion in 2020, and is projected to reach $23 billion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research. This growth is attributed to the increasing size of major conventions such as the World Cosplay Summit, Anime Expo, Comic-Con International, and Gamescom. Movies make up 43% of the cosplaying costuming market share, with the Marvel series leading the pack.
Danika Massey, aka Comic Book Girl 19, talked to me about the phenomenon’s draw as a modern-day version of shamanism — dressing up as “gods” as a tool to manifest their energies. Massey is a YouTube personality and celebrated cosplayer, whose shrewd costumed commentary lends insight into the esoteric themes and meanings of pop-culture television shows, movies, books, and comics. She has always identified as an outsider, and acknowledges that most people in the cosplay community are on the nerdier, introverted side. “Cosplay allows people to take on and express things that they maybe aren’t comfortable with in their everyday life.”
Massey emphasizes the importance of identification with one’s chosen character in cosplay. It’s not just about aesthetics — however, the creative expression in original costume design and execution are bonus draws. In her captivating TEDx Talk, Massey describes her favorite comic book character: Kid Omega.
Cosplay at its core is driven by an ethos of being one’s authentic self, not blending in, and using these characters to dig deeper into personal psyches.
“I think Kid Omega is an avatar for the intellectually gifted. That feeling of being an outsider among outsiders, questioning existing power structures, and having a hard time dealing with social situations.” Massey found that the power of identification was potentially transformative for her. “If I love this character and identify so strongly with him, I realized it’s a small jump to also love myself by default.”
Similarly, she emphasizes that characters who get under our skin can reveal a lot about ourselves and what we may be struggling with in our own lives. A well-drawn villain contains multitudes. Take Lex Luthor. He’s a bad guy. But he’s also a brilliant strategist and terrific businessman. Embodying a Lex Luthor archetype may be useful when attempting to combat self-doubt and feelings of coming up short in one’s business affairs.
Cosplay at its core is driven by an ethos of being one’s authentic self, not blending in, and using these characters to dig deeper into personal psyches. The psychology of costuming is not merely theoretical. In one study, folks were asked to perform a task while wearing a white coat that was alternately described as a “doctor’s coat” versus a “painter’s coat.” The doctor group went on to perform their assigned tasks with a higher level of focus and accuracy than the painter group. And that was just a coat — imagine what a 60-pound RoboCop contraption might summon.
I tested out these concepts for myself. Ordering a 3-foot-long white wig off of eBay and a robe from Allcosplay.com, I drove to Anime Day in Knoxville, Tennessee, my excited son in tow. I was dressed as Kaguya from “Naruto,” a character my son suggested (I hope) for her supreme powers and cool jewel-toned third eye, and not because she’s a power-obsessed princess and supreme antagonist of Naruto’s life.
Stepping into the convention was like entering a portal I was not aware existed in Knoxville. Whole families — including babies — were ornately costumed, casually browsing the Japanese merch tables like it was just another day at the farmers’ market, only in a manga dimension. I was surprised by both the number of attendees and the preponderance of young people. The median age seemed around 12, with kids gathered around the hotel lobby eating packed lunches, crouched in their ornate getups.
I was immediately aware that these were the band kids, the theater kids — those “outsiders” that Massey spoke of — finding community with one another in a run-down Hilton off the freeway. The spirit in the air was one of appreciation. Unlike prom, seeing someone dressed the same as you was a positive thing, with identical characters snapping pictures together in solidarity. On the car ride home, I asked my son what it was he really liked about this cosplay universe. “It’s a way I can communicate with people some big things about who I am, and what I believe in, without having to open my mouth,” he explained.
Stepping into the convention was like entering a portal I was not aware existed in Knoxville.
I learned of another emotional benefit to cosplay: allowing people to process emotions they may struggle with in everyday life. For some, there can be a barrier when attempting to access difficult feelings such as rage and grief. But when a character experiences loss in a complex storyline (e.g., the death of one’s family at the hands of a villain, as in Batman or Demon Slayer), players can experience a sadness that they may have difficulty accessing in their own lives.
While the ascent of cosplay clearly has its roots in the development of the internet and social media, the rise of gaming and video-game culture feel inextricably linked as well. Gamers choose avatars, or skins. Cosplay is like an analog expression of the same practice, inhabiting someone else and perhaps feeling like them, for a time.
The opportunity to exist outside the gender binary is becoming more and more mainstream; I saw a lot of girl Tanjiros (my son’s male Halloween character) at the Anime Day event. Many in the cosplay world have used cosplay to dwell in a body of a different gender than their own, in an effort to awaken traits not traditionally as accessible.
While the pandemic unsurprisingly threw a wrench in the ability to gather at conventions, it only upped collective desires to connect. TikTok exploded with cosplay content for those trapped at home all cosplayed up with nary a convention in sight. TikTok’s cosplay hashtag now boasts over 103 billion views.
Developments in the tech space are creating more opportunities for cosplayers to connect more intimately with one another. In the last two years, blockchain has been integrated into the industry in the form of cosplay-specific tokens, allowing for famous cosplayers to further monetize their brands. Integrating merch with QR codes on the blockchain that offer owner-specific bonus content (e.g., a customized goodnight message), they can offer merch that can only be viewed on the device with the code. The crypto technology is growing as well; in lieu of loyalty points, fans can collect Cosplay Tokens, which can be redeemed for one-on-one chats with their cosplayer idol.
The use of 3D printing, laser-cutting technology, fiber optics, and robotics technology in the production of cosplay costumes are making even more sensational, sensorial cosplay possible. The Smart Spider Dress is installed with computer and sensor technology that assists and adapts to the wearer’s desires and emotions. The feedback loop between the costume and the costumed can be endless.
Ultimately, the fundamental tenets of cosplay are inclusivity, community, and authenticity. Letting your “freak flag fly” in person, among like-minded others, can be a warm respite from the increasingly isolating effects of both COVID-19 and the digital age. The next time my kid asks to dress up as a character I’ve never heard of, I’ll be looking more closely at who he chooses, to see what else I might learn about him. I’ll even dress up as his nemesis — if he still lets me.
Ivy Elrod Writer
Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.
Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.