Photo provided by Wolf’s Ink Photography
Picture this: You’re on a family vacation in San Antonio for Labor Day weekend. On the blistering hot morning you plan to take your kids to see the Alamo, you walk into your hotel lobby and see it swarming with hundreds of people, most of whom are wearing brightly colored costumes. You gawk, take out your phone to grab some pictures to show the family over the slowly-cooling continental breakfast and wonder what the ever-loving hell is going on.
I have to imagine that this was an experience a few people had just a few weeks ago during San Japan, the annual anime convention held in downtown San Antonio. In its twelfth year, this self-proclaimed “largest anime and gaming convention in the South Texas region” was home to thousands of attendees for three short days. Like many anime, gaming and comic conventions, a large portion of the event’s attendees were cosplayers — including myself.
“Cosplay” is a portmanteau of “costume play.” The term was coined in 1984 by Japanese journalist Nobuyuki Takahashi in an article for the magazine My Anime, describing costumed fans attending the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention (now known more informally as Worldcon) in Los Angeles. Up to that point, fans dressed up to attend conventions were said to be in “masquerade.” In Japanese, “masquerade” translates to “an aristocratic costume,” which did not match up with Takahashi’s experience at Worldcon whatsoever. Not wanting to misrepresent those he observed, he instead combined the first portions of the Japanese words for costume (“kosu”) and play (“pure”), resulting in the term used today: cosplay.
While 1984 was the year the word “cosplay” came to be, it was far from the start of cosplaying itself. With roots in 15th-century masquerade balls and 19th-century costume parties, cosplay goes back generations. The practice of fan costuming started in the early 20th century, with various individuals attending costume parties dressed as popular characters from science fiction comic strips. In 1939, Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas attended the first-ever Worldcon dressed in “futuristicostumes” of green capes and breeches, based on characters from the popular science fiction film “Things to Come.” The trend of dressing up in costume for Worldcon caught on fast, with an official masquerade becoming part of the Worldcon programming in 1940.
From the very beginning, cosplay was never a solitary activity. Ackerman and Douglas attended Worldcon together, gained somewhat of a following, and inspired others to join in the fun. For generations, individuals of every size, shape and background have come together and bonded over this singular activity. I know firsthand about the cosplay community—I’m a part of it!
When I was 14, I was, like many other 14-year-olds, desperate to fit in. I wasn’t super popular, I didn’t consider myself pretty, and I wasn’t particularly good at a sport or an instrument. It didn’t help that I had just transferred schools, leaving me with no friends to speak of. By some stroke of luck, I discovered a series of “cosplay vlogs” on YouTube which featured a group of cosplayers going to conventions, participating in contests and panels and just generally having the time of their lives. I remember how desperately I wanted to be a part of something like that as I sat on my bed and watched a group of complete strangers laugh and play.
My first attempts at cosplay were … well, “memorable” is probably the kindest word for them. I was young, had little experience, and was fueled purely on my desire to be a part of a community. While my costumes were so terrible that I’m actually incredibly happy no pictures exist of them, I was sucked into the cosplay community from the first moments of stepping into my first convention. People complimenting my outfit, people recognizing my character, people noticing me and smiling at me—it was all a bit overwhelming for a 14-year-old, but eight years on, I’m so glad I took that first plunge.
Two of my closest friends were brought to me through cosplay. One of them is my roommate and best friend here at Trinity. Funnily enough, it wasn’t until we both decided to trek to a convention in Dallas that we became fast friends, and now she’s never getting rid of me. I can’t imagine where I would be without her, or any of my cosplay friends. The relationships I’ve formed have made me the person I am today. If you want to see our cosplays in action, check out my Instagram, @the.lexi.camille.
To sum it up, cosplay is way more than just wearing a cute outfit and pretending to be a character. It’s a community of incredible people who can change your life. And I think that’s worth strangers in hotel lobbies looking confused and a little alarmed.