Cosplay (コスプレ, kosupure), short for “costume play”, is a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea. Characters are often drawn from popular fiction in Japan, but recent trends have included American cartoons and science fiction. Favorite sources include manga, anime, tokusatsu, comic books, graphic novels, video games, hentai and fantasy movies. Any entity from the real or virtual world that lends itself to dramatic interpretation may be taken up as a subject. Inanimate objects are given anthropomorphic forms and it is not unusual to see genders switched, with women playing male roles and vice versa. There is also a subset of cosplay culture centered around sex appeal, with cosplayers specifically choosing characters that are known for their attractiveness and/or revealing (even explicit) costumes.
Cosplayers often interact to create a subculture centred around role play. A broader use of the term cosplay applies to any costumed role play in venues apart from the stage, regardless of the cultural context.
The term cosplay is a portmanteau of the English words costume and play. The term was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi of the Japanese studio Studio Hard while attending the 1984 Los Angeles Science Fiction Worldcon. He was impressed by the hall and the costumed fans and reported on both in Japanese science fiction magazines. The coinage reflects a common Japanese method of abbreviation in which the first two moras of a pair of words are used to form an independent compound. Costume becomes kosu (コス), and play becomes pure (プレ).
For almost 50 years, costume fandom has had a consistent and widespread following with costumers markedly influencing science fiction writers, artists and the media. Costuming, as an innovative, three-dimensional art form, has probed and broken all limits of imagination in SF and fantasy. From the first Worldcon in 1939 to last year’s Worldcon in Philadelphia, costume fandom has emerged as a robust and dynamic force within science-fiction fandom.
At the First World Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939, a 22-year-old Forrest J Ackerman and his friend Myrtle R. Jones appeared in the first SF costumes among the 185 attendees. The future editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland was dressed as a rugged looking star pilot, and his female companion was adorned in a gown recreated from the classic 1933 film Things to Come. Both of them created quite a stir among the somber gathering of writers, artists and fen (plural of fan), and injected a fanciful, imaginary quality into the convention’s overly serious nature.
Frederik Pohl, in his book The Way The Future Was, described the couple as “stylishly dressed in the fashions of the 25th century” but feared that they had started an ominous precedent. He was right! So successful were their costumes that the following year, about a dozen fans turned out in their own “scientifiction” apparel.
Now, over a half century later, costume fandom has come to represent a large segment of the hardcore genre audience. Artists like Kelly Freas, Wendy Pini and Tim Hildebrandt, authors like Julian May and L. Sprague de Camp, and fans by the hundreds dress regularly in costume. Groups, such as the U.K.‘s Knights of St. Fantomy, the Society for Creative Anachronism and the International Costumers’ Guild, conduct business and ceremony in costume, and the masquerade has become the central event of most large conventions.
Of course, various Renaissance Faires, most notably the largest being the RenFaires in Novato and Saugus, have been recreating the Medieval and Renaissance eras since the late 1960’s. Also, in the last two decades, various fairy festivals, most notably Spoutwood Farm May Day Festival, FaerieWorlds Festival in the U.S. and The 3 Wishes Faery Fest in Cornwall, UK, have brought fantasy, particularly as envisioned by artists Brian Froud and Wendy Froud, into the public realm.
—From Costume Fandom: All Dressed Up with Some Place to Go! By Dr. John L. Flynn
Cosplayers in Japan used to refer to themselves as reiyā (レイヤー?); pronounced “layer”. Currently in Japan, cosplayers are more commonly called kosupure (コスプレ?); pronounced “ko-su-pray,” as “reiyā” is more often used to describe layers (ie: hair, clothes, etc.)  Those who photograph players are called cameko, short for “Camera Kozō” or “Camera Boy”. Originally the cameko give prints of their photos to players as gifts. Increased interest in cosplay events both on the part of photographers and cosplayers willing to model for them have led to formalisation of procedures at events such as Comiket. Photography takes place within a designated area removed from the exhibit hall.
Cosplay at fan events likely originated in Japan in 1978. Cosplay nevertheless gets a mixed reception in Japan even today. Events in districts such as Akihabara draw many cosplayers, yet there is no shortage of people in Japan who regard cosplay as a frivolous endeavor.
Cosplay in Western Culture
The popularity of cosplay in Japan encourages the misconception that cosplay is specifically a Japanese or Asian hobby. The term “cosplay”, though Japanese in origin, described a phenomenon which was witnessed in the United States. For almost fifty years, costuming has had a widespread following and continues to experience growing popularity in North America and Europe, and has more recently spread throughout South America and Australia.
Western cosplay’s origins are based primarily on science fiction and historical fantasy as opposed to animation. It is more common for Western cosplayers to recreate characters from live-action series such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter than it is for Japanese cosplayers. Similarly, animated series may be the origin for many recreations. Western costumers also include subcultures of hobbyists who participate in Renaissance faires or the Society for Creative Anachronism, and historical re-enactments such as Civil War battles.
The increasing popularity of Japanese animation outside of Asia during the late 1990s led to an increase in American and other Western cosplayers who portray Japanese characters. Anime conventions have become more numerous in the West in the last decade. They now compete with science fiction, comic, and historical conferences in attendance. At these gatherings, cosplayers, like their Japanese counterparts, meet to show off their work, take photos, and compete in costume contests. Anime conventions attendees are mostly seen dressed up as Japanese animated characters, but many others dress up as famous Western comic book characters, or as famous characters from movies like Star Wars, Predator, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It is quite common to see many dress up as Disney, Final Fantasy, Power Rangers and other characters like the Heartless from the game series Kingdom Hearts (キングダム ハーツ Kingudamu Hātsu?). Cosplayers also dress as popular characters from other games such as The Legend of Zelda, Mario Brothers, and Halo.
Differences in taste still exist across cultures. Some costumes that are worn without hesitation by Japanese cosplayers tend to be avoided by Western cosplayers, such as outfits that evoke Nazi-era uniforms.
Cosplay has influenced the Japanese advertising industry more than it has the commodity market.
Print media increasingly retain cosplayers as models. Good cosplayers are increasingly viewed as fictional characters in the flesh, in much the same way that film actors come to be identified in the public mind with specific roles. Cosplayers have modeled for print magazines like Cosmode, cosplay photography studios,
ADV Films has retained cosplayers for event work previously assigned to agency models. The ability of cosplayers to re-create their chosen characters with accuracy and vitality plays a part in this trend, as does the ability of cosplayers to appeal to an already existing market. E3 was occupied by a mix of both agency girls and cosplayers.
Japan’s burgeoning anime industry has been home to the professional cosplayers since the rise of Comiket, Tokyo Game Show, and other such powerhouse conventions.
A cosplay model, also known as a Cosplay Idol, is a promotional model who models cosplay costumes for anime, manga, or video game companies. A successful cosplay model can become the brand ambassador for companies like Cospa. The phenomenon is most apparent in Japan but exists to some degree in other countries as well.