When people try to describe themselves in the modern day, it’s typically associated with some sort of common ground. Aside from physical attributes, you say things like “I like rock music”, “I’m an artist”, or “I enjoy wearing skirts instead of pants”. We construct social media profiles and use songs other people have made to determine our personal stance in the world. Among the fashion world, however, putting on a costume comes off as paradoxical to fashioning one’s identity- it involves dressing up and assuming the appearance (and sometimes personality) of another character. Most people who participate in this hobby of cosplay (known as cosplayers) describe this as the best way to express their true selves- but how can a mask bring you closer to who you are under it? Identity is a set of practices we set forward to construct ourselves as separate from others; through cosplay, people differentiate their personal identities by taking on the identities of others, and show to define themselves through the similarities they find in fictional characters.
Part One: What Is Cosplay?
Cosplay is the art of dressing up- as fictional characters, as historical figures, as original designs. The word “cosplay” comes from a combination of the words “costume” and “play”, and has gone from an underground hobby to gaining major traction all over the world in the last 20 years. Cosplayers will make costumes, typically go to conventions to model these costumes, and get photographers to take professional shots for posting on social networking sites. Cosplay is largely about creating- making your costume is a large part of the subculture, and while some people only model and buy their costumes, a majority take pride in the creation of their costumes and the selection of the costumes they make. However, cosplay is not only about the costumes- it’s about the way people use it to show their own selves through transgressive methods.
A large part of cosplay is the creation of another identity alongside one’s own, that’s meant to enhance the original. Looking at cosplay as it’s own culture, it can be thought of as a “spectacular subculture”- a distinct subculture that has it’s own ideology and set of norms. Transgression occurs in the cosplay subculture by manipulating pre-conceived notions of appearance and presentation. Sometimes this involves the manipulation of gender (many people “crossplay”, or make costumes that are the opposite of their biological genders), others the manipulation of race (many cosplayers will cosplay against their race, with people of color cosplaying traditionally white characters and vice versa). On a smaller scale, it can also involve the manipulation of class (people will cosplay characters that range from princesses to beggars, and anything in between). In Dick Hebdige’s book,”Subculture: The Meaning of Style”, he describes spectacular subcultures by saying, “Similarly, spectacular subcultures express forbidden contents (consciousness of class, consciousness of difference) in forbidden forms (transgressions of sartorial and behavioural codes, law breaking, etc.). They are profane articulations, and they are often and significantly defined as ‘unnatural’.” (p. 91-92) While cosplay rarely enters the realm of law-breaking, it’s transgressive issues of gender, race, and class presentation are a large part of the subculture itself. For example, I am a young, white, middle class girl. In my 8 years of cosplay experience, I have dressed as everything from a thousand year old god, to male teenagers, to a rich princess of an alien kingdom. These can all be de-constructed within the realm of the costume.
Part Two: Displaying The Self Through Costume
Like the image pictured above, cosplayers often consider themselves to be a part of the character they’re portraying. The phenomenon of cosplay is the idea of imitation, and using the appearance and personality of others to let your identity shine. In Georg Simmel’s piece “Fashion”, he talks about imitation, saying “The charm of imitation in the first place is to be found in the fact that it makes possible an expedient test of power, which, however, requires no great personal and creative application, but is displayed easily and smoothly, because its content is a given quantity. (…) Imitation, furthermore, gives to the individual the satisfaction of not standing alone in his actions.”(p. 542) Imitation is known as a “safe” way to experience and to show transgression, and cosplay as a subculture encourages and fosters the growing identity created through imitating another’s.
In Portwood-Stacer’s article “I’m Not Joining Your World”, she talks about spectacular subcultures and their cultural contexts. “In fact, all bodies are ‘spectacular’ in this sense — the ways that humans present themselves are always culturally shaped and are thus communicative of social meaning.” (p.52) Like any subculture, cosplay is imitating social grounds and norms-and simultaneously breaking them down. In standard society, people are held to certain norms of their gender, race, and class. In cosplay, you can be anyone or anything, and express yourself in those fashions. Many people have compared cosplay to drag in terms of performance and technique, but they are only tangentially related. Ester Newton states in his work “Role Models” that “the whole point of female impersonation depends on maleness” (p. 5). Cosplay doesn’t depend on a certain specification to begin, or compete against. However, cosplayers and drag queens can agree on one thing- with the costume on or off, that presentation is a part of who you are.
On the other hand, costumes can literally help people find themselves, as with the case mentioned above. Because cosplay is an accepted space for the practice of transgression, the cultivation of the self can form without judgement of generalized culture. In it’s fantastical nature, cosplay can be compared to carnival and it’s larger-than-life presentation. As Stallybrass and White write in their piece “From Carnival to Transgression”, “Carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth of the established order; it marks the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions.” (p. 294) Many cosplayers, when asked, will say they cultivate themselves with a ‘type’ of character that helps define who they are. There’s very little literature written about this, so I turned to some of my friends to see this discussion in action.
In interviewing Artie for the project, I asked them to describe why they chose the characters they chose. “Having been asked repeatedly what my character “type” is, I’ve come to settle on the description ‘Socially Awkward Type-A Personalities’, which obviously doesn’t cover EVERY character I like, but it strikes on a certain presentation of character that I’m drawn to.” Asking her about the character they’re dressed in above, Artie also described some of their own traits among the character’s personality:
“Lelouch is also incredibly prideful, and has difficulty admitting to himself, let alone someone else, when he’s at fault, which is also something I identify with. I have an awful time being confronted on my mistakes, especially if I’m approached in a way that makes me sound ignorant or stupid. I pride myself on my logic and intelligence and ability to present myself competently, so having that perception shaken is incredibly uncomfortable for me. (…) While seeing yourself reflected in a character’s strengths is meaningful enough, I think the connection you find through a character’s weaknesses is that much more.”
Stallybrass and White mention later in their piece that “”What is socially peripheral is often symbolically central, and if we ignore or minimize inversion and other forms of cultural negation, we often fail to understand the dynamics of symbolic processes generally.” (p. 300) Understanding why people cosplay, and why it means so much to them, is all in understanding the defiance of social norms.
In terms of cosplay, the sensationalist nature of the hobby allows people to portray transgression in safe spaces, and better determine their own identity through the identity of others. Within imitation, cosplayers cast a better light onto the kind of person they are in the cosplay community and in their lives in normal society. Cosplay helps cosplayers understand themselves in the context of the characters they portray- where a masquerade brings you closer to a true face.