What is Cosplay?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2019
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Cosplay or costume play is a form of art in which people dress up as characters or ideas. Cosplaying can take the form of performance art, with the cosplayer inhabiting the identity of the character and acting, or it may be viewed more generally as a form of artistic expression without a performance aspect. Cosplaying is not the same as dressing up for events like Halloween or masquerade balls, although cosplayers may don their outfits and personas for such events, and it is accompanied by a very distinctive and unique subculture.

People have been wearing costumes for centuries, but the tradition of cosplay really started to arise in 1980s Japan, when people began dressing up as characters from their favorite anime and manga series. In addition to outfitting themselves like noted characters or concepts, people also engaged in play where they took on distinct personas, taking their costumes to a new level. Over time, the trend spread to other regions of the world, and cosplayers today inhabit characters from a wide variety of fandoms, from the Harry Potter novels to Princess Mononoke.


A cosplayer can spend a substantial amount of time and money on a costume. There is a heavy focus on very precise detail, with the costume matching known information as much as possible. For example, a cosplayer would take the time to dye fabric if he or she could not find a perfect color match, and amulets, snaps, and unique ornaments might be hand fabricated if replicas could not be purchased. Cosplayers also work very hard to step into the personas of the characters they are dressing as so that they behave and speak as their characters would.

The Harajuku district of Tokyo is a famous site for cosplaying, and for radical youth fashions in general. Cosplay can also be seen on display at major conventions, parties, and events thrown specifically for cosplayers, including contests in which people are judged on the basis of their costumes, knowledge of the characters, and acting abilities.

People sometimes confuse cosplay with fetishism or role playing games, especially since many cosplayers indulge in crossplay, in which they dress up as characters of the opposite sex. In fact, cosplay is distinct from these subcultures, although some cosplayers do like to engage in role playing games, and others may be involved in fetish communities. The goal behind cosplaying is to dress up, have fun, and bring a fictional or historical character to life, and to experience interactions with the community as that character. Cosplayers can also animate concepts, or anthropomorphize things which are not alive, such as famous railway trains.


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