Communicating through costume

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Robbyn Taylor

Faculty Adviser

Remember tying a blanket around your neck as a cape when you were a kid and pretending to be a king or queen ruling over the living room or backyard? Or maybe you cut holes in a ribbon to make a mask in order to protect your identity as you saved the neighborhood?

Donning a costume, for many people, has taken place throughout their lives – and not just on Halloween. Costumes at comic book conventions and similar activities has turned into a $46 billion a year industry, according to a whitepaper by Cure WorldCosplay. Global ticketer Eventbrite reported survey numbers that showed women were the bulk of that industry with more than 65% of cosplayers being female.

That’s a trend that has dated back to the beginning of cosplay as the first people on record to attend fan conventions in the United States and Japan were both women. Myrtle Nolan, affectionately known as Morojo by fans, wore a costume inspired by the H.G. Wells movie “Things to Come” at the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in 1939. Fast forward to 1978 and Mari Kotani was the first person on record to wear a costume to a fan event in Japan when she dressed based on the cover art from “A Fighting Man of Mars.”  

Cosplay, or kosupure, is a blending of the words costume and play that was coined by Japanese anime journalist Nobuyuki Takahashi after he attended the 42nd Worldcon in 1984. 

In America, cosplayers called costume contests and parades at conventions “masquerades,” but Takahashi knew that word wouldn’t translate with its new connotation in Japan. The term, and the practice of cosplay (dressing as a mediated character from pop genres) continues to gain traction.

But why do people choose to take part in this phenomenon? One of the reasons is to express aspects of their identity. 

I interviewed nine women at the Alabama Comic Con this summer as part of research for my doctoral dissertation and found that women use pieces of their identity far beyond the physical to connect with the characters they dress up as. 

For instance, one young woman who goes by the cosplayer name Panadonia, said she didn’t take part in cosplay at first because she didn’t see characters who looked like her – a woman of color. At the convention she was dressed as Elastigirl from The Incredibles and said, just like characters from movies, books and games, she is more than just her color. She identifies with Elastigirl’s spunk and independence. 

It is interesting to think the costumes we gravitate toward tell more of a story about ourselves than we might superficially think about, which is a fun way of communicating our identities visually. 

According to Google, the most popular female Halloween costume for the last two years was Wonder Woman. Perhaps that communicates that women identify both as a princess and fierce. Or perhaps choosing that costume is nostalgic for those who grew up watching the television show. 

With Halloween this week, we’d love to hear what costumes you chose and what aspects of your identity you wanted to communicate through them. 

Find this story on the Tropolitan’s Facebook page and comment your thoughts, and a picture if you’d like. We’ll create a slideshow of costumes and maybe share your thoughts in a future edition.

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