If you go to any fan convention these days, from comics to sci-fi to anime, you’re bound to see hundreds of costumed visitors. Cosplay has become not just accepted but expected. It’s part of what makes a convention a convention. But it’s exploded in the last couple of decades. Still, where did it all begin? How did it grow and evolve to what it is now? Where did the term “cosplay” originate? My goal was to answer those questions and truly understand the history of cosplay.
Dressing up in costumes came into vogue in the early 20th century. During a time of great societal change due to the Industrial Revolution, people harkened back to simpler mythology and especially embraced the idea of disguising yourself from evil spirits for Halloween. There are documented stories of people dressing up or “mumming” for holidays like this and Christmas and other big rituals going back into the 15th century at least. But Halloween became popular for both children and adults and manufacturers began selling mass produced costumes in the 1920s and exploded into the mainstream in the 1930s.
Around this same time, people were beginning to gather together for the first self-described fan conventions. Six or seven science fiction fans from New York traveled to meet local fans in October of 1936 and dubbed this the first science fiction convention. From there it grew by a couple dozen every year as an event was held in New York until 1939 when it was formally dubbed Worldcon. And it was this year that massive, trendsetting sci-fi fans Forest J. Ackerman and his friend Myrtle Douglas wore the first costumes to a convention.
The two had met at gatherings of fans of Esperanto, the “world language”. Myrtle was known as Morojo and Forest was known as Fojak. That year, Myrtle designed costumes for each of them. She used an evening ball gown and satin to build them jumpsuits with a capes. They were original designs created to make them look like they were from the pulp future that writers at the time would describe. The pair called them futuristicostumes. Forest later said he assumed lots of people would dress up for such a convention but it caused quite a stir among the more conservative writers and artists sitting behind plain tables. Forest and Myrtle were trendsetters. They published some of the first zines and later full magazines about fan culture. Others soon copied their idea. However, in the late 30s there was a lot less media – most sci-fi at the time was short stories in books and magazines. So early costuming (as it was called then) was primarily based on original ideas. It’s also worth noting that women actually weren’t allowed into the convention proper until the mid 1940s, so Forest was the one seen the most. But Myrtle made them and her contribution should not be downplayed.
Worldcon was the largest and most influential fan convention for the next several decades. It also held the first masquerade in 1940, in Chicago. This was a contest where the best costume won an award. So costume contests have now been a standard event at large conventions for over 70 years.
In 1956, Forest Ackerman wrote for magazine Fantastic Universe about the state of the Worldcon costumes, describing “Monsters, mutants, scientists, spacemen, aliens, and assorted ‘Things’” throughout the convention with flashbulbs going off. He focused special attention on Olga Ley who won for most beautiful costume that year. Writer Mike Resnick, writer of the book “…Always a Fan” describes Ley as the first great costume maker.
1963 is an important year for costuming as Bruce Pelz appeared in costumes based on existing characters. He dressed as Fafhrd from the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories written by fantasy legend Fritz Leiber. He also dressed as a Heavy Trooper from The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance. He won awards for both prizes and costuming began to adapt more and more existing material moving forward, mirroring the growth of science fiction in comic books, television and movies.
In the mid 1970s, a new thing emerged: nude costumes. To be fair, a single one had happened back in 1952. But by 1971, about half a dozen girls every year would appear in bikinis or body paint each year until conventions finally had to create a new “no costume is no costume” rule in the early 1980s. This is pretty far removed from today’s common rule when you enter a convention: “cosplay is not consent.” In other words, you can’t touch people or act in an inappropriate manner just because they’re in a sexy costume.
In 1974, the fourth year of Comic Con in San Diego, they staged the first of their annual masquerades. It quickly grew into the largest venue for costume contests.
While costuming originated in the United States, it took off in a massive way in Japan. Costuming started at fan convention in Japan as early as 1975 but exploded around 1980. The popularity of that year’s manga series Urusei Yatsura combined with the 1979 TV series Mobile Suit Gundam helped fans there begin in earnest. Urusei Yatsura and other entertainment inspired scantily clad costumes and nearby residents complained about it being indecent. In 1983, Japan’s Comic Market fan convention added a new rule that costumes were only allowed within the boundaries of the event itself.
In 1984, Nov Takahashi was sent from Japan to report on the 1984 WorldCon, held that year in Los Angeles. He coined the term cosplay, which quickly supplanted costuming. Japanese have a tradition of creating portmanteaus of western words so he joined costuming and role-play.
In 1999, the world’s first cosplay cafe opened in Akihabara, Japan, a district of Tokyo that originally was an electronics haven but quickly adapted to become home to everything nerdy from videogames to toys. They are also known as Maid Cafes and you can always find maids passing out flyers to their restaurants on the streets of Akihabara. By 2003, Japan had launched a magazine devoted to cosplay called Dengeki Layers.
Also in 2003, the World Cosplay Summit first took place in Nagoya. Invitees from Germany, France, and Italy showed up and awards were given to the best costumes. It 2005 they began a Cosplay Championship with elimination brackets. It is the world’s largest cosplay gathering and the latest gathering brought the number of participating nations up to 28.
It’s really only in the last decade that some cosplayers have become celebrities and are essentially professional cosplayers. Linda Le, Jessica Nigri and Yaya Han are just a small sample of the dozens of cosplayers who regularly attend conventions and compete in masquerades and also dress up as official mascots for video game companies, host competition shows and more. The ubiquity of the Internet and social media allows fans from around the world to follow and support cosplayers in a way they never could until the last couple of decades.