Folklore Thursday: The Seriousness of Cosplay

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Today we examine the contemporary folk traditions of the counterculture of cosplay.

German veteran cosplayer Svetlana Quindt (AKA Kamui Cosplay) poses in her Wonder Woman cosplay. Here she poses in a rocky backdrop under a clear sky, her stance is powerful and shows off the red, gold, and silver of her Wonder Woman costume,which she hand-built using Worbla's Finest Art.
German veteran cosplayer Svetlana Quindt (AKA Kamui Cosplay) poses in her Wonder Woman cosplay.

What is Cosplay?

Cosplay is defined as, “the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and anime.”

In its purest form, cosplay originated as a costume style derived from Japanese anime and manga. The object of the costume was to recreate the anime or manga character to such an extent that the person became the character. The cosplay is often judged on accuracy and attention to detail. Even forcing one’s own hair–or styling a wig–into the often unrealistic anime or manga style presented in the source material is taken into account. Seen below is one of my personal favorites: a cosplay of Sebastian Michaelis from Kuroshitsuji Project, or Black Butler.

Cosplayers depicting Sebastian and his master Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler pose for the camera. Sebastian stands in the foreground while Ciel, dressed in his lady's outfit from His Butler: Capricious.
Cosplayers depicting Sebastian and his master Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler pose for the camera.

Anime and manga utilize a literary character called “bishonen”. This refers to a male character in anime and manga that exhibits feminine facial and body characteristics. Usually a Bishonen has long hair (but not always), a pointed chin, high cheekbones, and his clothing can sometimes be drawn to suggest the presence of breasts. I go into detail about this in my anime/manga breakdown. A bishonen male is also often characterized by incredible power and audacity. He is usually a threat to more traditionally masculine characters.

I chose the above version because it illustrates several tropes of Japanese anime and manga that are unique to the fantasy subgenre. I touched on this in a guest lecture I taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2014. The class was a two-part lecture entitled “Cultural Eroticism in Japanese Anime and Manga”. Day two of the lecture involved cosplay as a gender fluid fantasyscape. Because the trope of the bishonen male is represented as an androginous gender in cosplay, to achieve the most realistic depiction of an anime or manga character, it is common and acceptable for women to portray male characters. In the example above. Sebastian poses in front of Ciel Phantomhive dressed in his lady’s dress from the episode, “His Butler: Capricious” in which Ciel must infiltrate the mansion of the Viscount Lord Druitt and discover is he is in fact Jack the Ripper. Ciel is a characteristic “bishojo”, a young male with androginous facial features. Here we see Ciel swap his gender for a female identity. In the cosplay depicted above, we see a male character dressed as a female. In the cosplay culture, this is acceptable and expected. However, though it is not always the case, Ciel and Sebastian are often played by females, introducing a triple gender swap: a female playing a male pretending to be female.

This is a depiction of Sebasian and Ciel (right) and Claude and Aloise Earl Trauncy (left) in cosplay. All of the characters depicted here are played by females.
Sebasian and Ciel (right) and Claude and Alois, Earl Trauncy (left).

Notice that each character depicted above has the suggestion of breasts. That is because all of them are females playing male characters. Notice that each character’s hair matches their source.

A promotional still from Kuroshitsuji Project, AKA Black Butler. From left to right: Alois, Claude, Sebastian, Ciel.
From left to right: Alois, Claud, Sebastian, Ciel.

Judging by the appearance of the costumes versus their source material, you can see how seriously cosplay is taken, but that is nothing compared to how seriously cosplay is judged. In the Japanese culture–that has rapidly spilled into the United States–failure to commit fully to the character is not acceptable. Amateurs are labeled as such. Those who fail to fully depict the character can be torn down a peg rather quickly. Good cosplayers enjoy celebrity status online and in the convention communities.

This is not the case in the United States.

Cosplay in the United States

As I discussed in my lecture, gender stereotypes in American literature–even in the American “Comic” or “Con” Cultures–are drastically different than the gender stereotypes of Japanese anime and manga. Women are expected to portray women. Men are expected to portray men. Though it is not often the case, and sentiment is shifting, women who step into male costumes can expect at least a low-to-medium risk of being labeled a “fake gamer girl”. As I discussed in my previous article regarding anime and manga, this stems from a “Sorry Mario, your princess is in another castle,” complex in which a female is a prize to be won by a male if he is good enough and strong enough. Females are supposed to be the last achievement, the unattainable made attainable by strength and success. It is still common for women in social media and in the Con Culture to be sexually harassed in public and threatened and humiliated online.

Though many women embrace their sexuality and prefer female characters, particularly strong ones (Wonder Woman and Black Widow are just two examples), many women in the online SFX community embrace male characters as well.

Black Widow (cosplay by Kelsey Moore) poses dramatically in a photoshoot.
My personal friend Kelsey Moore’s Black Widow Cosplay.
Self-taught YouTube sensation Ellimacs poses as Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.
Female, self-taught sfx artist and YouTube sensation Ellimacs poses as Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.

Cosplay rules are not as strictly followed in the US Convention Community. Cosplay has come out of the realm of anime and manga and now encompasses video games, books, film, and even music (I mean, just look at KISS’s old fanbase). Usually the most recognizable forms of iconography are all that is needed to achieve cosplay success. However, there are cosplayers that take it to the extreme. This is done through the amazing world of cosplay armor-making

The Evolution of Plate Armor in Cosplay

A young lady plays a Troll from World of Warcraft. She has long, red hair, and striking blue maks on her face to characterize her as a troll. Her armor is huge, constructed of Worbla.
Blizzard Entertainment hosts its annual BlizzCon, featuring this Troll tank from World of Warcraft.

Armor has come a long way from the functional plate armor protection worn by feudal soldiers. Cosplay armor has become a life skill that many in the Geek culture consider not only the pinnacle of artistic success but also the purest expression of true fandom. Judging by the attention to detail in this cosplay of a Troll from World of Warcraft, you can see that cosplayers enjoy lavish costumes to go with our lavish games.

Cosplay armor is a mixed media project. It can consist of anything from EVA foam heated and warped into plates to a thermal plastic called Worbla that can also be heated and warped into any shape necessary.

Three views of a Mass Effect Cosplayer in the gray armor of an N7 Armor set from Mass Effect.
This cosplayer used EVA foam to create is Mass Effect Cosplay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This BlizzCon attendee is dressed in the armor of a ranger from World of Warcraft
Another example of BlizzCon armor, this time using Worbla. The most convincing part of the costume is the GoPro on one of his pauldrons.

Though there is no real playbook to how to design a cosplay armor set, Worbla has become widely available (and almost affordable) to the general public in the last ten years. Worbla is a thermal plastic that, when heated, becomes soft and malleable. By pressing patterned Worbla over craft foam and allowing it to cool, one can create stunning pieces of armor. The skill level depicted above is Master Class. Getting Worbla in the pattern, shape, and appearance of the character in question takes time, practice, patience, and skill. Though Worbla comes in a variety of colors, it is important to finish, prime, and paint the Worbla armor to give it the illusion of being made of metal. Worbla starts out in large sheets.

I took a picture of my Worbla Black Art arranged on the floor in the patterns I used to create the armor pieces.
Pieces of Worbla shaped into patterns arranged on the garage floor.

It is then stretched over craft foam and heated until it is soft. Then it can be formed into whatever piece is being created. Gauntlets, breast plates…spinal columns, and so on.

Last week I finished assembling my armor pieces. I arranged them in pairs on the floor. It's made of Worbla Black Art.
My basic armor is finished and ready to be detailed.

Like anime and manga cosplays, the cosplayer is looking to recreate the effect of the character from top to bottom. The cosplayer uses a combination of color, fabric, hard material, paint, and iconography to distinguish their character. For example: a Tyrial cosplay consists of Tyrial’s swords, and his wings. A Stormwind soldier from Warcraft depicts the Alliance emblem on shields and tabards. Some cosplayers cast their ears and faces to create prosthetics to wear as elf ears and larger facial features to match those of the fantasy characters they are trying to portray.

A young lady with black hair has her head turned in profile to show off her long, conichal ears, the ones closely associated with the elf races in World of Warcraft.
This lady has crafted a pair of ears belonging to a Blood Elf from World of Warcraft.

Conclusion

Though highly-regarded as a self-serving fantasyscape by both the Japanese and American popular culture, Cosplay Culture is a thriving industry driven by fans who push the limits of homemade crafts every year, creating artwork that Hollywood would be proud of, perfecting costumes single-handedly that take Hollywood artists months to create with help in just a few weeks (if you don’t have a job). Though relegated to the weird and subversive by many, Cosplay offers its participants a creative outlet based on community and connection, and it is steeped in evolving traditions that continue to shape the definition of what it means to be a Geek in the Twenty-First Century.

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