Cosplay as a form of Reception

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

performative act.

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, 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.

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