The Big Idea: Andrew Liptak
When you’re doing something that seems patently ridiculous, it helps to have friends who’re there with you.
I’ve had a variation of this thought over the years as I’ve changed from street clothes into a suit of plastic armor, sometimes in a frigid parking lot, sometimes in a cramped bathroom or storeroom, and sometimes in a well-furnished dressing room. There’s always a strange, awkward transition as you bring something that was fictional into the real world. I’m a stormtrooper with the 501st Legion, and it’s an exercise that I’ve done literally hundreds of times over the past two decades as I go out into public to take part in all manner of events.
A good friend of mine in my local group had a funny saying that has stuck with me for years: “one stormtrooper is a dork in plastic. Ten is a platoon.” It’s good to have backup.
This is a thought that I came to realize was the central core of the book I wrote, Cosplay: A History: The Builders, Fans, and Makers, Who Bring Your Favorite Stories to Life. This isn’t just a straight-up book that charts the extraordinary rise of cosplay to the point where it’s become a mainstream thing; it’s a story about community, and how we come together to share our interest in some common thing through the art of costuming and prop making. By donning the armor of an Imperial Stormtrooper, Darth Vader, Spider-man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Starbuck, T’Challa, Zelda, Link, James Holden, James T. Kirk, or any other beloved character from decades of books, games, movies, TV shows, and more, we’re sending a signal out into the world that “I am a fan of this thing.” Inevitably, whether you’re at a convention or an event in a store, at Halloween, or something else, someone will come up to you and take a picture, or tell you that they’re a fan of that thing too. And thus, a community is born. You’ve made a connection with someone based on a common interest.
Some of those communities are small: I don’t think there are too many people who’re clamoring to dress up as Sam Bell from Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon. But the people who know, they know. The 501st Legion counts more than 15,000 people amongst its ranks of active members (in total, there’s something like twice that if you could everyone, even past members) across the world. Going to a convention like Star Wars Celebration is like visiting an enormous, boisterous family reunion, one where you can fall into easy conversation with folks that can turn into fast friendships in minutes.
This is a thread that snakes through the history of cosplay. At the very first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939, two fans, Forrest Ackerman and Myrtle Douglas (aka Morojo), dressed up as characters from the film The Things to Come, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ book, The Shape of Things To Come. These were the early days of fandom, but while people were initially confused about what they were doing, they’d found a vibrant and passionate community of fellow fans, and the next year in Chicago, more people showed up in costume, and the year after that in Denver, even more followed suit. Costuming became a fixture of just about every world con since (with one or two exceptions.)
When Star Trek debuted on NBC in 1966, it introduced a huge number of people to the concept of science fiction, and they joined the ranks of fandom. There were some tensions and cultural adjustments, but these new fans not only found their fellow nerds, but they went out and formed their own spaces and put their own spin on fandom: they brought fan fiction and hall costuming to the forefront. Star Wars brought even more people to fan circles a decade later, while the rise of anime and video games has done in the years that followed. Each time, a broad umbrella of fandom grows just a little bigger. This isn’t limited to just folks who’re fans of science fiction and fantasy, either: groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), reenactment groups, and living historians have all found that costumes are powerful tools to connect people to stories, and help create their own communities of friends and colleagues.
Along the way, the foundational building blocks that underpin these communities have changed and evolved. Where costumers might have once only gone to a regional or national convention once or twice a year, we now have hundreds of cons taking place across every single weekend around the world, ranging from behemoths like San Diego Comic-Con to small, locally-focused events that fit nicely in a local library, community center, or school campus. And, cons are no longer the exclusive purveyors of cosplay: the internet brought with it forums and message boards dedicated to connecting cosplayers to one another, where they could coordinate group costumes for cons, trade fabrication tips, or buy and sell parts and entire costumes to one another. The most important tool for the cosplay world isn’t the introduction of the 3D printer, but of social media, which has supercharged the cosplay movement with networks like Facebook and Instagram and TikTok allowing cosplayers to show off their builds, costumes, and photoshoots with astonishing ease.
Each step along the way grows the community just that little bit more. Every new person who joins adds their voice and expertise to the cosplaying world. Those newcomers might bring a new perspective, a new building hack or technique, a renewed appreciation for that one character from that one film you saw years ago, and a new person to strike up a conversation with while you’re waiting for your flight to or from a con. That new member of your group might be someone who’ll become your next best friend, trusted build buddy, or partner. All of them have your back when you step out onto a convention floor, into a store, or along a charity walk. Being the single dork in plastic can be fun, but it’s so much better when you have a group to hang out with.
Cosplay is community. It’s a community that’s gone from a maligned, misunderstood, and thing that was often made fun of to a global movement of makers and builders who put their creativity literally on their sleeves to bring their favorites stories and characters from something that lived in our shared imagination into the real world. That’s no small thing: stories have the power to inspire us and bring a bit more joy into our lives to help distract us from the state of the world. A growing community of cosplayers helps make the world a better place, one costume at a time.