Someone could play a very dangerous game of taking a shot every time they see a Harley Quinn, Slave Leia, or Doctor Who character being cosplayed at a convention. I only recommend that for people who are fans of ER trips and having memory gaps though.
Joking, of course. I actually get a cool buzz from seeing popular favorites that I enjoy and recognizing some of my beloved lesser-known characters, but even more than that, I appreciate being introduced to new fandoms through some crazy outfit or a whole subculture of costuming that I didn’t even know existed. So this year at Dragon Con, a Georgia nerd culture convention that began in 1987, a close friend convinced me to take a special look at all of the alternative cosplay options instead of just posing for pics with another group of Ninja Turtles or dollar store Star Trek captains.
Alternative cosplay is an umbrella term that can include gender swap, parody, punk, rockabilly, political statements and a slew of other twists I’m forgetting. The two popular ones that have picked up the most in recent years are mash-ups—which are combining two characters/intellectual properties or a character and another genre—and steampunk, an alternate history aesthetic that re-imagines Victorian-style gears, clocks and steam engines in modern ways.
As much as I like cosplay and have learned a lot about it, I’m certainly not an expert, so I took the time at DragonCon to walk around and talk to anyone that didn’t scare me off.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
“I was drawn to steampunk and fantasy over traditional cosplay because of the creativity it allows me,” Amy Wilder, a professional steampunk and fantasy model, told me. “There are lots of amazing characters, but I like to be my own.” As a professional she realizes that it’s like any other performance art, where the key is to stand out and be memorable.
With the popularity of cosplay rising from television shows like Heroes of Cosplay and a bigger media focus covering it at growing conventions, standing out is becoming harder, according to Carlye Starr, another model. ”With this influx of new cosplayers it’s extremely easy to get lost in the crowd,” she said.
So how does one take that extra step to make sure they stand out? Being too creative or daring can be risky, especially among more cantankerous fandoms, not to mention expensive. Many of the steampunk cosplayers discussed the long hours and expenses that came with making a bigger and better costume, but that may not be an option for everyone. Even mash-up characters can force a little creative thinking to stay under budget.
“Materials are always a challenge with any costume but these days you can buy everything from Wonder Woman to Princess Bubblegum at Wal-Mart,” Starr said. “You can’t go to your local JoAnn’s [a fabric store] and expect to find the right materials for a custom piece. Hours of research and phone calls happen to track down plastics, sequins, dyes, and closures. I spent an hour in home depot trying to pick the right nails for my Pin-Head fascinator. You become a wizard at using everything in your reach to create original versions of characters. Nothing is safe in your home. I’ve used place mats, shower curtains, cat toys, and tree branches for my costumes.”
Being bold has its own set of problems as well, not only with the risk of drawing criticism—like the story Carlye told me about someone being upset that her Sailor Jupiter bow was a quarter of an inch off in size—but also in standing out above everyone else (sometimes literally, stilt woman who held up traffic). That can create unwanted attention, cheap imitations, or even jealousy. I learned quickly that the cosplay community has claws, and not just the press-on variety.
“Years ago I quickly found out that fandom can be extreme and nasty,” Carlye said. “I think the biggest reason there are still so few original takes on characters is because in a subculture of standing out no one wants to stand out that much. People like a sense of community that mainstream cosplay brings. I’d personally prefer to make a scene and stand out.”
There are certainly those who aren’t afraid to cross a few lines, to wear something different, or just grab attention by going against the trend. Someone like Chace Ambrose, who got tired of seeing a sea of similar Marvel characters, decided things could be shaken up with a good mash-up of the classic superheroes with Hello Kitty.
“A few years ago a friend of mine in the Ghostbusters Community built a Hello Kitty Proton Pack,” Ambrose said. “It was beautiful and horrible all at once. I wanted to do a costume group that stood out from the crowd and the idea of an all Hello Kitty themed group of heroes was just too funny to me….and apparently I wasn’t alone. We had great group participation and the con crowd seemed to love it.”
For something a little less tame, and for those who like to keep up with current events, I found a few cosplayers that pushed the limit with political commentary and those that brushed against the distasteful, like a cosplayer who combined the internet meme “Pedo Bear”—a pedophiliac bear—with former Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle, who’s currently facing prison time for charges involving sex with minors and child pornography. I asked one particular cosplayer why he chose such an outfit, even though I was sure it was just for shock value, but he told me the costume was about pushing political correctness and making people think. He almost had me convinced—until he described his priest outfit from last year, at least.
TO STAND OUT
As much fun as it can be to border on irreverence, I found that the costumes I spent the most time talking about were the characters people made themselves or those with small tweaks. A 1960s version of Ms. Marvel, showing how Predators would fair in the Star Wars universe, or seeing Fallout Mario; whatever it was, I spent a lot of time asking people why they chose the costume or persona that was settled on, and the consensus was that all these cosplayers were just trying to stand out.
Carlye summed up the “why” pretty well: “To take a character and put a new spin on it is addictive,” she said. “Three years ago I redesigned a number of Disney princesses in Dia De Los Muertos style. The response at Dragon Con was electric.”
That response is why we will continue to see alternative cosplay grow. All of the metalworkers, armor makers, fashion students, and models, whether they are hobbyists or professionals, want to stand out and be noticed. The creative types and innovators will keep looking for what is outside of the box or at least how the box can be used differently, inspiring others to step their game up. What’s best is that we, the fans and admirers, will benefit from some truly awesome work.
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