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Paul Jacques charts the modern memes of fancy dress.

SF convention attendees had been dressing up as fictional characters since before Studio Hard’s Nov Takahashi was even born, but it was Takahashi who kicked off a new meme in 1983 with an article on what he saw as a “new trend” in “Costume Play”.

At first, the term was used solely to refer to anime and manga characters, but cosplay now describes the hobby of dressing-up as a character from any game, book, film, comic, graphic novel or TV series, regardless of the country of origin. This widening of definition can be traced back to the big Japanese gaming companies who started to cross licence their characters into other media. Pretty soon this cross-pollination between manga, anime and gaming got to the point where characters where totally inter-changeable and their origins became somewhat oblique. Street Fighter II the game begat Street Fighter II the manga, which begat Street Fighter II the anime and Street Fighter the live-action movie (which we don’t talk about). At which point, did it stop being “Japanese”…?

Although some may grumble about what characters constitutes a bona fide cosplay, and others even grumble about the need of the word at all, it’s a healthy sign that cosplay continues to evolve by encompassing characters from other media. For Cosplayers “dressing up” is about being different and assuming the persona of a fictional character.  For some it’s about looking as pretty as Sailor Moon, or the huge buzz to be had from defending the earth as a Gundam unit. An ongoing thrill of cosplay is to relive the enjoyment of whatever it was that had inspired that person in the first place, as well as the attention it inevitably brings when out in the public eye? Although there is an oddly common situation where certain cosplayers dress to be noticed, but actually don’t enjoy the attention. Make up your minds!

The roots of UK cosplay were already established in the early 1990s. “At first it was okay to just turn up in a costume, and everyone thought you were cool,” recalls one old-time attendee. “But I remember at one of the early Minamicons, someone did ‘a ninja’ and just walked on stage wearing a balaclava. They were met with unremitting silence, because now the audience weren’t impressed unless he did a back flip or something.”

It took the likes of the MCM London Expo in 2004 to boost the profile of cosplay by sheer weight of numbers. Finally people had somewhere huge and public to go and see people dressed as cool characters. Starting with just a few thousand attendees in 2004 it now has over 46,000 visitors.

People will spend hundreds of hours sewing, gluing, filing, stapling, spraying, soldering, sweating and complaining on Facebook to make their cosplay the very best. Only those who have had their costume made from scratch are allowed into the competitions. As such most cosplayers develop some amazing handicraft skills and seamstress talents.

What is cosplay today? It encompasses fictional characters from any genre with just a smattering of showbiz personas. Some people have cosplayed as corporate identities and a few have even created their own originals. A very small number attempt to cosplay that ever-changing thing, Japanese street fashion.

Nov Takahashi now describes modern changes as being cosplay 2.0. People can earn money by making cosplay for others, the entertainment industry or selling photos of themselves as cosplay characters. Plenty of pro cosplayers get to travel the world and display their artistic talents at conventions

Cosplayers would still be happy to just stand in their bedroom and look at themselves in the mirror. But it’s a short and rewarding step to heading out into an environment when they are with other like-minded people, and even better if you can be competitively rewarded or photographed as well.

Who doesn’t like to be admired for doing something they love.? And let’s not forget what cosplay is all about: fun.

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