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The History of Cosplay
Researched and Written By Stacey Lee Feldmann (CapsuleCorp)
There are a lot of myths floating about the internet regarding the origins of "cosplay," or media recreation costuming and the costuming hobby in general. I've spent so much time and energy repeating myself while correcting the myths and misnomers that I've decided to compile a page solely for education on the history of cosplay. It is by no means an exhaustive history, there is probably much I could include, but it does contain the important points to help dispel myths and inform the wider fandom audience of the facts.
First of all, cosplay did not start in Japan and is not an original concept of the Japanese. The actual word "cosplay" was invented by a Japanese reporter, yes, but that is the extent of Japanese involvement in the creation of the hobby. In 1984, Nov Takahashi was sent to report on the goings-on of the '84 WorldCon, being held that year in Los Angeles, CA. He coined the word "cosplay" to describe what he saw going on at WorldCon - people wearing costumes in the halls, and a stage masquerade featuring the biggest and brightest of the costumes of the weekend. In Japanese linguistics, they often form composite words ("portmanteau") out of loanwords from other languages, such as English; in this case, he took "costume" and "play" and smashed them together to try to describe what he was seeing at WorldCon. What is important to note is that while we can only speculate on what he meant by "play," what is almost certain is that he did not necessarily refer to "acting," since the only stage performing at WorldCon is the masquerade, in which performances did not necessarily involve spoken dialogue. In fact, many of them that year didn't.
More importantly, the sort of costumes and costume-wearing habits and traditions viewed at WorldCon in the early 80's were the culmination of literally decades of convention traditions. The creation of costume, the genres and styles of costume, and the times and places for proper wearing of costume had all been well-established by that time via science fiction conventions across the country. The state of costuming and costume-wearing habits evolves very little among those sci-fi conventions, so even though it has been over 25 years since that infamous WorldCon, one can look at fan and costumer behavior at any mid-size regional sci-fi con still running today and discern what Takahashi probably saw. This includes the masquerade, which is often a convention's crowning point of Saturday evening entertainment; media recreations regardless of the media source, and daily hall costuming.
It is not hyperbole to say that hall costuming has been going on for decades, longer than many of today's anime-convention fans have been alive. The first documented hall costume was worn by Forry Ackerman in 1939, at WorldCon held in New York. Early WorldCons and other small sci-fi conventions were primarily attended by young men only, and revolved around the discussion and distribution of science fiction anthologies and periodicals. The sci-fi of the time was less in novel form, more along the lines of comic books and magazines dedicated to short stories. Forry Ackerman's first costume was an original design, a "space military" style uniform. Being as Ackerman is credited with being a trend-setter in more than one fandom tradition that lasts to the present day, it is presumed that his decision to wear a costume instead of street clothing while inside convention space gradually spawned imitators and emulators. Because little existed in the way of "media" besides literature, those early costumes were likely to be informal and original or generic design. Women were either not admitted or not often seen at sci-fi expos until sometime in the 40's. Among these expos, the biggest and most influential for the longest time was WorldCon, because it changes location annually and is billed as a world meeting of sci-fi buffs. In the modern era, there are many conventions that haul in annual attendance rates triple that of any given WorldCon, but it is so firmly entrenched as the longest-running convention in the world and the mother of all sci-fi conventions - and by extension, the mother of all anime, gaming, literature, and other genre media cons. Thus, trends established at WorldCon and the host conventions that carried it through the 1940's, 50's, and 60's are the ones that should be understood as the origins of hobby costuming.
The first documented masquerade that I could find was WorldCon 1950, hosted by NorWesCon. Whether there were other conventions holding masquerade contests at that time, I haven't been able to find. Many conventions held (and still hold) parties and informal contests, but as of 1950 WorldCon established the tradition of a staged masquerade contest involving the presentation of costumes for the purpose of award. Because media at the time was still somewhat limited, and there was no outside reference material to assist costumers aside from drawn movie posters or comic books, the costumes of the time were still primarily original or generic. There is no documentation for what point in the 50's, 60's, or 70's that the standard of judging changed, but speak to any veteran costumer who was there (yes, they are still alive and of sound mind) and they could tell you stories of the origin of many classic masquerade rules. This includes "no costume is no costume" from the days when young men would strip their girlfriends naked/to a bikini and pasties, paint them green, and throw them on stage as "Star Trek alien woman." Over time, with the proliferation of science fiction and horror themes in movies and the heyday of superhero comic books, recreations of popular media characters began to creep into both hall costuming and stage masquerade costumes. This includes anime, as there were nerds getting their hands on "Japanimation" in the late 60's and early 70's. It is suggested that Karen Schnaubelt might have done the first anime costume in the US, when she put together costumes from Captain Harlock for the halls in the late 1970's, and then entered a Starship Yamato group at WorldCon and other west-coast conventions in 1980. That group went on to win Best in Show regionally, the first anime costumes to be awarded the highest honor in a masquerade, four years before Takahashi even heard of WorldCon.
In the 1970's, fandom proliferated through the distribution of 'zines, informally mass-produced fan-made mini-magazines featuring short stories of original fiction, art, and fanfiction. Yes, fanfic. An ad in a 'zine in 1979 is said to be the origin of the decision for costumers to start getting together and re-showing, archiving, and discussing their costumes separately from conventions and SCA or re-enactor events, but the groundwork for what became CostumeCon and the International Costumer's Society was laid at the 1981 WorldCon in Denver (Denvention). This was the first year the WorldCon Masquerade instituted the three-tier skill division system for judging workmanship, and the year when costume-related panel programming brought about a sudden wildfire of interest and attendance. The first CostumeCon was held in 1983. The International Costumer's Guild itself began in 1985, comprised of many of the convention committee members who organized and put on the first three CostumeCons and continue to this day to be instrumental in the field of costuming.
New information has come to our attention that Takahashi's coinage of the word "cosplay" predates 1984! That may be the known publishing date for a US source using the term, but it appears that the first usage in Japan was in the late 1970's, when sci-fi/fantasy conventions began in Japan as well. There were, in fact, people in Japan building costumes and wearing them to conventions around the same time as Schnaubelt's costumes were being built and worn in the US, so neither country can claim to be the "first" to do anything regardin the actual term "cosplay," but the fact is that Japanese conventions and costume-wearing were inspired by other Western countries, so we evolved the terminology and the habit together.
In 1984 when Nov Takahashi was sent over to write about these strange Americans and their science fiction conventions, what he saw was the outgrowth of a minimum of 30 years of solid costuming tradition. People wore costumes in the halls while attending convention panels and events, either media recreations or their own designs and fantasy-inspired clothing. Saturday night featured the stage masquerade, in which anyone from novice to master could enter their costumes into competition and present them on stage. This means the tiered system and the tradition of workmanship judging was already established. There are photo galleries of this very convention online where anyone can view the range of costumes that were presented at the masquerade, it appears to be an even mix of original designs and media recreations: Klingons, a Ghostbuster, Disney's Fantasia, and some amazing Egyptian and Hopi Indian fantasy costumes, as well as generic fantasy and sci-fi robot costumes. There is documented proof that the Japanese were doing exactly the same thing in the 1970's and 1980's, so it appears now that Takahashi's word "cosplay" was simply imported from already being used in Japan to describe American costuming traditions, both original and media recreation, which were shared by both cultures simultaneously. These costumes were both amateur and professional variety; at some point in the 70's costumers became very particular about their standards, insisting on workmanship judging and presenting their best work on stage, but they still did casual costuming and garb in the halls. Takahashi's term encompassed everything from cheap and amateur to high-quality, elaborate "Grand Opera" style presentations, from fairies and robots to movie-replica Klingons and Darth Vaders.
It turns out that the Japanese actually began to copy the Western traditions of holding conventions and wearing costumes in the mid to late 1970's, and photos are now appearing online documenting the phenomenon. We can't yet really say for certain whether the first Japanese-made media recreation costume was of Japanese-media origin, or instead an America-media source such as Spider-man or Han Solo, but a lot of the photos found tracing to the 1970's are of popular mecha-anime like Macross and Starship Yamato. Because some thing are still unknown and undocumented, no one can make a claim that the Japanese originated cosplay itself, only the word. One thing is certain: the concept of creating and wearing a costume of a character from a media source was not in any way originated by anyone inside Japan with no contact with the West. No one in Japan can claim to have invented or started cosplay, no matter how popular a phenomenon it might have become in the present day over there. Now that global social media has taken up the word "cosplay" to describe all costumes worn at genre conventions, those who wish to use the word to describe only costumes from an Asian media source are becoming fewer and fewer. No one should feel ashamed for preferring "costuming" or "cosplay" to describe what they do, for the term is evolving in modern parlance and there is no one "true" definition.
There are a few things we can state with certainty: cosplay was not invented by the Japanese, it was not started in the last ten or twenty years, and there is nothing unique about wearing anime costumes at anime cons compared to all other geek-genre cons. It's part of a very, very long-standing tradition that continues everywhere today. It's useful to understand what laid the foundations for what goes on at conventions today, because it explains why masquerades exist, why craftsmanship judging is important, and why we're still allowed to run around in costume at all hours of the convention. We modern-day cosplayers owe most of our traditions and the very idea of costume creation to those who came before us, before most of us were even born. It doesn't mean that all traditions are carved in stone - after all, the evolution and revolution of costumes and costume design will keep the hobby alive for many more decades to come. Knowing where it came from will help us all to perpetuate the concept and ensure that cosplayers will live on.
Disclaimer: All trademarked names and images of media characters are the legal copyright of their respective license holders. Resemblance to their designs is coincidental, and no attempt is being made from this site to profit off copyrighted names. I'd pay good money for licensed costume patterns if they made them (hint hint). Don't sue me, I just sew what people tell me to sew.
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