There is nothing quite like going to a fan convention, and being met with hundreds or
even thousands of colorful costumes. This fan practice, which involves dressing up as
fictional characters or icons, is known as cosplay. In the hallways of a convention, every
model stands out as unique and so does every costume. The outfits are often self-made
and involve construction skills, but also interpretive skills that consider the character
and fictional world itself. In their designs, cosplayers have to decide which fabrics, wigs
or materials best befit their character. Cosplay is a form of play, embedded in specific
social spaces and connected to skills.
The past years we have seen an increase of fan studies. The study of cosplay, specifically,
generates insights into identity, belonging and embodiment in various media. Cosplay
can be understood as a form of appropriation that actualizes an existing story or game in
close connection to the fan community and the fan’s own identity. Generally speaking,
cosplay is both a form of reception of existing media texts, as well as a productive and
As a form of reception, cosplay reflects the changes in our consumer culture. Rather than
passively consumed, media are increasingly lived, experienced, and embodied. Cosplay
is the theater of fandom. Known characters and icons are reconstructed, re-enacted and
re-circulated. Such visual and embodied connections to fandom signify belonging.
Cosplay is about showing what we love, and establishing a sense of ownership over this
content. From cosplay, then, we learn what it means to engage with pop-culture
As a creative practice, cosplay relies on craftmanship which involves sewing, prop-
making, make-up techniques and more. These skills are generally learned from other
members within the fan community. This learning process is similar to other practices in
fandom or game culture. In his seminal work What Video Games Have to Teach Us about
Learning and Literacy (2003), James Paul Gee describes player cultures as ‘affinity
groups’. Virtual worlds, modding communities, and other groups function as informal
learning spaces that connect participants by interest and allow them to learn from other
members. Cosplay is no different from gaming in this sense. Participants adopt skills
outside of the classroom. For instance, fans may learn to style wigs from each other or
receive make-up tips.
In fandom, these competences are not only gained offline but also online. At tutorials
and forums, such as Cosplay.com, fans converse about the craft. Digital media are
increasingly important in the practice of cosplay. Social media, video channels and
forums allow fans to show their outfits, collaborate on projects and learn from each
other. While online media are important in this process, traditional media matter as
well. Photographers and video makers, for instance, assure that a costume circulates
online or may increase the popularity of a player.
International championships, such as WCS, emphasize that cosplay is an important and
shared part of fan cultures. Livestreams of these events allow fans to support candidates
from their home country. While competitions and spectatorship are one part of cosplay,
the practice can also be local and playful. A good example of spontaneous dress up is
closet cosplay, which consists of costumes that are put together from one’s wardrobe
and involve little alteration. Though cosplay may seem exclusive, or not for everyone, it
allows for different types of fan involvement.
Studying cosplay allows us to directly examine how audiences are affected by pop-
culture. Further research from different disciplines could provide more insights into
local cosplay cultures, the materiality and construction of the costumes, and the socio-
psychological relationships between audiences and media texts.