Cosplay is the most visible aspect of convention participation, hands down. It’s the first thing that draws the eye, stops the crowd, and frequently defines the convention experience for so many attendees. Beyond colorful outfits and expert craftsmanship, there deeper emotions and connections to the act of creating and wearing a costume. The idea of the second skin, the visible identity, plays into cosplay decisions, from inception to creation, and eventually building the “cosplay identity” of the person in particular.
While the idea of cosplay is gaining considerable traction in mass media here and now, one cannot fall into the “trap” of approaching the concept temporally. Ritual clothing is hardly a new idea, nor has the assumption of new identities based around changing appearance. But while the former holds deeply sacred meaning, and the latter often implies (or connotes) deception, there is a middle ground through which people might dress a “special” way, in order to becomes closer to a constructed/ascribed/idealized identity.
I would like, for a moment, to consider the case of Japanese writer Koizumi Yakumo. A “commoner” who married the daughter of a samurai, he lived during the tumultuous Meiji era, in a Japan in the throes of transformation. He built his reputation as a vocal appreciator of the culture and traditions of his home, going to far as to adopt traditional dress, mannerisms and modes of speech in the end years of the 19th century, while the Japan he loved so dearly was moving towards a Eurocentric political and economic model. For Koizumi, the clothing was, in part, a physical tie to the culture he advocated. It was an aspect tied directly to his identity, making a statement about who he was, the strength of his convictions, and the Japan he idealized.
It is also critical to mention that Koizumi Yakumo was born in Europe to Greek-Irish parents, lived in America, and had a penchant for sensational journalism. We knew him as Lafcadio Hearn.
Now while Hearn’s adoption of the Japanese customs and dress that would speak to his adopted identity smacks of the Orientalism of its day, its important to note that to Hearn himself, this was a very real emotional connection he had to a people not of his birth. He dressed like a Japanese because he wanted to become Japanese. (He even naturalized himself a Japanese citizen before he died, completing the transformation he began when he first set foot on the islands.) Though biologically not of Japanese ancestry, he took whatever steps available to at least demonstrate his devotion- in a sort of inversion of Homi Bhabha’s notion of mimicry (whereby the colonized mimic the colonizer through adoption of imported clothing and customs), Hearn constructed a fantastic alternate version of himself - be it through clothes or words - and he built the persona of Koizumi around it.
One of the questions I asked cosplayers while writing my thesis was why they chose to cosplay a certain character. At the time (2011), 36% of cosplayers cited identification with character as their main decision-maker. Assuming the traits, appearance, and persona of a character that held strong meaning to them helped them integrate into the often confusing and chaotic con floor. It provided a shield through which they could interact, maintaining a sort of anonymity while being highly visible. It also broke down the walls between strangers over the weekend, and encouraged interactions between the unacquainted. By assuming the identity of the character, the cosplayer gained confidence, and eventually a voice of their own...and their subsequent cosplays reflected this dimension of personal growth. All because they put on a costume and embraced the identity it contained.