Cosplay 101: What is Cosplay?

Kara Michelle
6 min readFeb 10, 2021
Photo by ELSIE ZHONG on Unsplash

The year was 2012. I was a very geeky 13-year-old struggling with immense social anxiety, and, like most young teenagers, I was trying very hard to find myself. I’d always been a bit of a thespian (that is, a drama queen); I loved theatre and performance and had dreams of starring in a Broadway show. The thought of becoming different characters — namely, dressing up in elaborate costumes, as well as altering my appearance with wigs and makeup — was utterly enchanting to me.

The film of the summer was Marvel’s The Avengers, and after seeing the movie three times in theaters, I dove deep into the world of Internet fandom, joining websites like Tumblr and Reddit to chat with likeminded fans. It was then that I came across something completely new to me: a photoset of a girl dressed as Avengers villain (and fan favorite) Loki, complete with horned helmet. I read the word “Cosplay” for the first time, and after a bit of Googling, I was completely and perfectly sold. I wanted to know everything about this interesting world of costumes, and I wanted to be a part of it.

A lot has changed over the past decade. Cosplay, as an art, has become incredibly popular. What was once considered an obscure, geeky pastime is now a global phenomenon, capturing the imaginations of countless people around the world. With the rise of social media and fan conventions, it’s easier than ever for cosplayers to connect and showcase their talents and creations. For some, cosplay is a fun hobby. For others, it’s something of a lifestyle.

But what exactly is cosplay? What is it about? Why do people do it, and how?

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

These questions (and more) are commonly asked by beginners and those outside of the cosplay community. Perhaps you’re interested in cosplaying yourself, but you don’t know where to start. Maybe you’re a casual fan of the hobby and want to know more about it. The first in a new series of posts titled “Cosplay 101,” this article sets out to answer these basic questions and help you understand the very fundamentals of cosplay and its history. From there, we’ll discuss choosing which characters to cosplay, the making of cosplay costumes, and engaging with the broader cosplay community.

I hope this series proves helpful to you! Now, without further ado, let’s start from the very beginning.

What is cosplay?

Cosplay is a performance art in which participants called cosplayers wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific fictional character, celebrity, icon, or concept.

The word “cosplay” itself comes from the Japanese portmanteau “kosupure” (コスプレ), which combines the words “costume” and “play.” The term was coined in Japan in 1984, inspired by the practice of fan costuming at science fiction conventions. In the US, this hobby has been traditionally known as “costuming,” and began with Myrtle R. Douglas’ “futuristicostumes” created for the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in New York City in 1939. The costumes Douglas created caused a sensation among the fans that attended, and from that point on, “costuming” became an essential aspect of fan conventions.

With the rise of anime conventions in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the term “cosplay” became increasingly popular in America. The word can be used as a noun (“This is my new cosplay”) or a verb (“I love to cosplay”).

It’s worth mentioning that most fans and hobbyists make a clear distinction between actual cosplay and the act of dressing up on Halloween, or for theatrical or media productions. In essence, it’s the same thing (putting on a costume to represent a character or concept), but there are notable differences in the when, why, and how: cosplay is something you can do any day of the year, for social or creative purposes, and there’s often an obvious difference in quality.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t cosplay on or for Halloween, or that you can’t wear a Halloween costume to a convention — just that the terms “costume” and “cosplay” aren’t always interchangeable.

Why do people cosplay?

Cosplay has a unique appeal to all of its participants, and every cosplayer will have a different answer to the question of why they do what they do. That said, some commonly cited reasons for cosplaying include:

  • The love of the community or fandom. Cosplaying, especially at fan conventions and other events, offers participants the chance to connect with and meet others with similar interests. Mutual admiration of a character or franchise and a shared love of costuming have formed the foundations of many friendships among the cosplay community.
  • The chance to act or roleplay as a character. While it’s not strictly necessary by any means, many cosplayers enjoy roleplaying as the characters they portray, imitating their mannerisms, gestures, and speech patterns. For those of us who like to act, embodying a character can be a fun and imaginative exercise.
  • The creativity. Cosplay appeals massively to artsy types and serves as a wonderful creative outlet. Cosplayers may enjoy honing their sewing, crafting, and prop making skills, as well as designing an original costume or character.

When and where do people cosplay?

Photo by Johnny Wang on Unsplash

Cosplay is most often practiced at fan conventions, such as Comic-Con or DragonCon, or at other dedicated events, such as Renaissance or fantasy festivals. Some cosplay activities like photoshoots can be done outside of conventions; in addition to this, some cosplayers orchestrate meet-ups or gatherings in public spaces such as malls or parks. I’ve even known people to wear their costumes to the grocery store!

With the growing popularity of photo and video sharing apps like Instagram and TikTok, cosplaying at home has become fairly commonplace. Many cosplayers get into costume to take pictures and film skits that they can share with their followers. Cosplay has thusly become somewhat of a trend or “genre” on these networks, garnering a vast audience of admirers — there are subreddits and forums dedicated to sharing these pics and clips. These days, you don’t even have to attend conventions to have fun in cosplay.

Who can cosplay?

The wonderful truth is that cosplay is for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or body type. Cosplayers come from all backgrounds, expressions, and walks of life. Though naysayers do exist in the community, the vast majority of cosplay fans agree that anyone can cosplay. The “Cosplay Positivity” movement aims to spread this message of acceptance and inclusivity within the fandom.

Are there different styles of cosplay?

Absolutely. There are many different “subgenres” of cosplay. Crossplay is the practice of dressing up as a character of the opposite sex (i.e., a woman dressing as a male character), whereas genderbending reimagines a character as a different gender (i.e., the female version of a male character). Humanization refers to cosplaying as a ‘humanized’ version of an object, animal, or concept. Mash-ups involve combining the costume pieces and props of two or more characters to create a new type of character (like a Jedi Disney Princess).

Other cosplay styles include but are not limited to steampunk, Lolita, and AU (Alternate Universe).

Where do cosplayers get their costumes?

Most cosplayers make their own cosplays, either from scratch or by altering existing articles of clothing. Others may buy pre-made cosplays from online sellers, or commission custom costumes. Each method has certain pros and cons, and which method a cosplayer may choose typically comes down to time, budget, and skill level. These methods will be discussed in detail at a later point in this series.

Okay, I want to cosplay! Where do I begin?

If you’ve read this far and you’ve decided that cosplay is something you’d like to try, great! Whether you’re interested in attending conventions or just taking pictures at home, cosplay can be an incredibly fun and fulfilling experience. The process can be lengthy, and the direction in which you take it will depend upon several factors, but the first step to creating any cosplay is choosing the character you want to portray.

Unless you’ve got a character in mind already, choosing which character to cosplay can be surprisingly difficult! In my next Cosplay 101 post, we’ll take a look at what you should consider, questions you should ask, and things to remember when selecting your character. I hope you’ll join me again!

Photo by Kashawn Hernandez on Unsplash



Kara Michelle

Hi there! I’m Kara. I’m a 22-year-old geek who enjoys creating and becoming different characters.