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Polyfoam, collective care and absolute expression: The purity and power of cosplay

Posted on 24 Feb 2023

In this extract from Thurstan Redding’s ‘Kids of Cosplay’, Tom Rasmussen explores the vast, vibrant cosplay community, whose ‘heart is not for sale’.

Mystique (X-Men). Manicurist. © Thurstan Redding.

‘They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man,’ says Danny to Withnail, as they sit at the end of what was then understood to be mankind’s greatest decade. I think of this quote often. It describes the well-known, often heartbreaking, pipeline from underground culture to mass market commodity.

Cosplay is a huge industry, valued at $4.62 billion. It stands proudly in giant convention centres around the world, and the internet is teeming with an entire community of trend setters, influencers and followers – complete with rifts, rivalries and micro-communities – most of whom have never even met.

And yet, despite the very neurones of cosplay being inherently linked to the hypercapitalist machines of movie studios and franchises, behemoth television networks and computer game empires, it seems as though the cosplay community has somehow avoided the fate of hippiedom, punk, drag, indie, hip hop and countless other communities, which made their way into the mainstream and, in the process, lost so much of their meaning. While the neurones of cosplay are connected to a corporate brain, its heart is not for sale.

Ursula (The Little Mermaid). Hospital receptionist. © Thurstan Redding.

The reasons for this are manifold, but when I spoke with people embedded deep in the community, two things stood out. Firstly, when considering cosplay, one must always remember the second part of the name: play. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to live by the hard-and-fast rule that cosplay is not about winning or having the best costume. Judging or rating the execution, detail or accuracy of someone else’s costume is, in fact, widely frowned upon. This is a community based on mutual exploration and self-expression; mistakes are welcomed. This commitment to play forms a key part of the resistive shell protecting the cosplay community from cultural death by corporation.

In drag, a community that one might argue parallels cosplay (both involve altering your appearance and creating or mimicking beloved characters), we have seen the Withnail and I quote take distressing effect. A community once based so dedicatedly on liberation and expression has been pushed through the meat mincer of capitalism; queens are now judged, people are excluded and there’s always money at stake. This isn’t the fault of the drag artist – I am a drag artist myself and have been for over a decade – so I’m not here to bemoan people getting paid to complete a highly skilled task. But here is where cosplay is different, the second reason it resists the crushing force of capitalism: cosplay – as I was told multiple times – is a hobby. It’s about the love of, and dedication to, craft and character.

All the people I spoke to were adamant that they would never monetize their cosplay. Because monetizing cosplay would mean losing its status as hobby – and so a sense of play would be lost. This was a revelation. In a culture based on selling your image and your brand, these cosplayers – some of the most image-focused and brand-aware people – rejected the notion that to feel good, to have success, one must sell. In fact, the people I spoke to felt that they were most successful when they were able to create a seamless polyfoam piece of armour, which might take eleven hours. Or when they spent three hundred hours crafting a dress, simply for the feeling of wearing it, for the feeling of becoming someone else for a day – maximum. So, is it fair to say that the prerequisite for being a cosplayer is also being a nerd?

‘I love that word,’ says cosplayer Georgia, who appears as Satan from Devilman in Kids of Cosplay. ‘And I do think that a prerequisite to being a cosplayer is being a nerd of some description. I don’t want to push the word “nerd” into just one little bottle because there are all kinds of different nerds. We are a diverse consciousness, and everybody has their different reasons for engaging in cosplay. But there’s always a mutual respect for the passion behind cosplay. Is that what nerd means? Someone with passion?’

Batmen. Lighting technicians. © Thurstan Redding.

From the outside, the cosplay world has faced continued and extreme criticism. For many, it is known merely as a category on Pornhub or a thing that sexually frustrated nerds do. But speaking with Georgia, it is clear that – like most communities that house those on the social fringes – the world of cosplay is in fact fair and open; accessibility is a concern, support for sex workers is widespread, and there are accountability processes for those who might engage in accidental or intentional cultural appropriation.

‘I support sex workers. And there are people in the community who make money from sexual cosplay. There’s a bit of a taboo surrounding it because obviously a lot of people are anti sex work. But as long as the character you cosplay is an adult and you are of consenting age yourself, then cosplay can be an art for people who want to express themselves sexually.’

There are also parts of the art that are not OK. Cultural appropriation, for example, can be an easy space to enter in the world of computer games, sci-fi and fantasy. But the community has been actively working for a long time to minimize, educate against and eliminate cultural appropriation.

‘Rightly, there’s been a huge uproar about it recently,’ says Georgia, ‘where as soon as someone shares something appropriative the whole community will engage. It’s not like we go witch-hunting; instead of throwing people out of the community, a lot of people try to educate.’

Like with any diverse and successful community, there are processes for justice and accountability that succeed in maintaining the cosplay community as a safe space for expression. The culture and community of cosplay is cared about immensely by its members. Like bees in a beehive, the members of the cosplay community dedicate themselves to preserving cosplay as a site for liberation, freedom and absolute expression without judgement from the outside world. Instead of depending on a single fertile queen, the prosperity of their community depends on their collective care for their own culture.

Resistance Pilot (Star Wars). Retail worker. © Thurstan Redding.

Of course, in contrast to this kind of collectivism, sometimes people come along and rise through the community to swift fame. But among the community, people feel cautious of these individuals and this kind of Capital Gains Cosplay.

‘There is this vein within cosplay, where people treat it like fast fashion,’ says Bella, a dedicated Star Wars cosplayer who appears as a Resistance Pilot in Kids of Cosplay. ‘People will go all out on their costumes, which is great. But then sometimes they get this superiority complex where they feel that they are able to pass judgement on other people. As a cosplayer, you cannot do that. Because we are all very, very different in what we do, and we need to remember our common ground.’

The cosplay community is self-protective, but also incredibly open if you are willing to engage in a respectful way. Bella and Georgia tell me that, if I wanted, I could come to a convention wearing what might technically be the world’s worst costume, and I would still be embraced so long as I embraced others.

Truth is, we’re all seeking this kind of acceptance. Whether it’s online, at techno raves or in giant convention centres, we are all looking for a place to be ourselves, free from judgement. For Bella, cosplay helped her hugely with her transition. For Georgia, wearing cosplay makes her feel uber-confident.

Spider-Man. Energy industry worker. © Thurstan Redding.

One difference between cosplay and other modes of expressing yourself, which are sometimes deemed more authentic, is that in cosplay the self takes on many other selves: one person could become Arwen from Lord of the Rings, Ursula or Chewbacca. Perhaps it’s the apparent ‘dishonesty’, the dissonance between cosplayer and costume, that seems to evoke feelings of discomfiture or imaginations of the sinister in some. But for many, Bella included, cosplay can be a site for healing.

‘I’m going to be a little personal here. I never had a good relationship with my father. The one thing he gave me that I adored was Star Wars. And it continues to be a big part of my life, even though he’s not part of it now. So, to have something that I can hold on to like this, it means a lot. It’s my way of trying to get back what I lost. I know that certain things will never come back, but if I look at the whole of that relationship and all the bad stuff that came out of it, this was the one little diamond in the rough.’

For so many, cosplay is about a reclamation of the past; it’s about healing old wounds by becoming like the characters who, to you, have always signified strength and power. Truly, becoming something on the outside that matches your desires on the inside is maybe the closest you can possibly get to being your authentic self. And so, perhaps, understanding that people will judge you but continuing to pursue your desire to dress up regardless, makes cosplaying despite the costume, the artifice, the external cloaking – one of the most honest acts there is.

Storm Troopers (Star Wars). Photographer (unmasked). © Thurstan Redding.

This is why we all dress up. It might be in a Raf Simons shirt and a pair of Doc Martens, but we all dress up to express our interior life on the outside. And yet so many of us can’t – or don’t – do this in the ways that we truly wish we could. Because somewhere, nestled in our cortex, we think of how someone has told us that it’s not OK to wear that. The incredible thing about cosplayers is – whatever the cost might be to their personal, financial or temporal lives – they dress up with vigour, with drive and with playfulness.

Beyond this, as Thurstan Redding told me, ‘Cosplay allows anyone to become a hero for a day.’

Discover the book

Kids of Cosplay

Thurstan Redding, Katie Grand, Tom Rasmussen, Sara McAlpine