Diving into the Colorful Multiverse of Cosplay

Costumed fans bring their favorite characters to life

DC and Marvel cosplayers from Costumers for a Cause at Children’s Hospital // Photo courtesy Costumers for a Cause

DC and Marvel cosplayers from Costumers for a Cause at Children’s Hospital // Photo courtesy Costumers for a Cause

Emily Bartel has always enjoyed dressing in costume. “That passion goes all the way back to my earliest memories in my childhood,” she recalls. After moving to the Twin Cities, she began designing costumes based on her favorite characters—first from anime series, then from sources like comics and Disney movies as her interests changed. “I really enjoy expressing myself through fashion and costuming, and now cosplaying,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life without it.”

Bartel isn’t alone. She’s one of thousands of people that make up the cosplay scene in Minnesota and hundreds of thousands more around the world.

The story goes that the first people ever to wear costumes to a fan convention were attendees of the inaugural World Science Fiction Convention in 1939. And it’s reportedly in an article about the 1984 edition of that same convention that Nobuyuki Takahashi coined the term cosplay, a portmanteau of “costume play,” for the art of recreating your favorite character. Worldcon, as it’s known, is still held yearly, and sci-fi characters continue to be a popular choice among cosplayers at a variety of events—along with those from comic books, anime, video games, and much more.

Anime Detour 2018 // Photo by Dan Murphy

Many cosplayers create their costumes specifically for conventions where they can compete in masquerades against other makers and interact with fellow fans on the convention floor. Some do it exclusively for photo shoots posted to blogs, social media, or websites like Flickr and DeviantArt. Whole industries have sprung up to support cosplay creation, from specialty wigs and other finishing touches to costumers who sell entire custom-made outfits. 

Some can even make a living based on cosplay. Yaya Han parlayed her online popularity, built up over many years, into selling cosplay accessories and appearing on reality shows like SyFy’s “Heroes of Cosplay.” Jessica Nigri launched to instant internet fame with a viral photo of her dressed as “sexy Pikachu” at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, paving the way to deals as a spokesmodel for video game companies and events. But these are the outliers—most cosplayers do it just to have fun, to represent their favorite characters, and to spend time with their friends.

Cosplayer at Anime Detour 2018 // Photo by Dan Murphy

Here in Minnesota, there are plenty of opportunities for costume creators to show off their talents. Multigenre convention CONvergence, which celebrates its 20th year in 2018, draws some 6,000 fans to a Bloomington hotel every July. Anime Detour, AniMinneapolis, and Anime Fusion cater to lovers of Japanese animation. Crypticon is all about horror. And there are conventions just for devotees of specific franchises, like “Doctor Who” and “Pokémon.” Although these events aren’t solely for cosplay, it’s a large component for many attendees, some of whom spend weeks and months crafting their costumes. But conventions aren’t the only opportunity—one newer option is the Cosplayers/Costumers Social Hour at Ground Zero Nightclub, which is organized by Bartel. 

Rick Rietow, 51, of Brooklyn Park has a long history of dressing up. His first major experience with being in costume as an adult outside of Halloween was playing Goldy Gopher while he was a technical theater major at the University of Minnesota, a gig that brought him a lot of joy. Some years later, he was dressed as a stormtrooper at the Como Zoo’s ZooBoo Halloween event when he ran into members of the 501st Legion—an international Star Wars costuming organization—and learned that there were people who regularly dressed up at other times of the year than October 31. Some 15 years later, he is now the head of the 501st’s Minnesota arm.

Rietow has enjoyed the camaraderie and the various appearances he makes as part of the 501st, whose members are often called up for movie premieres and other themed events, but it’s the charity angle that appeals to him most. “Going to movie premieres is fun, but I want to get that experience again and make that difference again I did when I was Goldy Gopher,” he explains. The 501st participates in a variety of charitable activities—including a memorable holiday season when Darth Vader and a group of stormtroopers out-collected the Vikings cheerleaders when both were ringing bells for the Salvation Army at the Mall of America. But there are limitations, and beyond that, Rietow had gotten to know a lot of non–Star Wars costumers who were interested in charity work as well.

Cosplayers attend conventions like Anime Detour 2018 in Minneapolis to be their favorite characters // Photo by Dan Murphy

Cosplayers flock conventions like Anime Detour 2018 in Minneapolis // Photo by Dan Murphy

This led him to create Costumers for a Cause, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that organizes appearances for a variety of local cosplay groups, including Minnesota Superheroes United, Minnesota Force (another Star Wars group), and the Royal Sisterhood (Disney princess costumers). The organization’s nonprofit status means they can accept donations, 100 percent of which they use to buy craft materials, goodie bags, and other supplies for their appearances. The organization has been operating since fall 2015, and members now appear monthly at the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, among other places.

As with any hobby or subculture, conflicts are inevitable. Some are gatekeeping issues: Certain cosplay purists will look down on people who buy costumes instead of making their own or for turning their hobby into a money-making opportunity. Cosplaying a popular character, like one featured in a recent blockbuster movie, can lead to accusations of not being a “real fan” and just hopping on the bandwagon. Female cosplayers, in particular, tend to be targets for accusations of being “fake geek girls” who don’t actually know about the fandom and are just dressing up for attention. (As Daniel Nye Griffiths wrote for Forbes some years back, “In the face of this insecurity, ‘fake geek girls’ are the equivalent of Communist sleeper agents in the uncertain ‘50s—the number of women who have no interest in geek culture but want geek attention at a personal level is vanishingly small, but their phantom is used to justify prejudice more generally, with the aim of keeping an unknown quantity out of the clubhouse.”) But by and large, the naysayers are in the minority, and cosplayers as a group tend to be welcoming, positive, and encouraging.

Cosplayers at Anime Detour 2018 // Photo by Dan Murphy

Bartel notes that despite being the organizer of a popular cosplayer event, she isn’t the serious costumer you might expect—the social hours at Ground Zero are the main events she cosplays. But she’s never felt judged for that relative inexperience.

“Since I created and was hosting the event, I thought there would be an expectation that I was the best cosplayer ever—or at least a really good one—when in reality, I was brand new to it and was more on the costuming side of it,” she says. “I was so nervous before the first event, but then I met everyone and felt immediate relief. Everyone was so welcoming and amazing, and no one was judging me for where I was, or wasn’t, on my cosplay path. […] It’s become an important scene to me, and I appreciate that they welcomed me in so quickly.”

Worth more serious attention are the problems of harassment and bullying—which, of course, are not unique to cosplaying. Sexual harassment and assault are perhaps the most visible of these problems, and in recent years, cosplay communities have collectively stepped up their efforts to combat sexual harassment. Variations on the slogan “Cosplay Is Not Consent” have appeared at an increasing number of conventions, including those in Minnesota, and behavior policies are always evolving and expanding in reaction to attendee feedback and wider discussion. Although it’s hard to directly measure the impact of these changes, New York Comic-Con, for its part, has reported a marked decrease in the number of harassment complaints since they started posting anti-harassment signage. Efforts are also being made by conventions and cosplayers to combat harassment based on body type, race, and more.

Rietow notes that the members of Costumers for a Cause, particularly the Royal Sisterhood, are strong advocates of inclusivity and body positivity. “The size and shape of the men and women who do costuming for charity break all of the ‘You’ve got to be this thin to play Cinderella’ [rules]. And honestly, the kids don’t care.” He acknowledges that harassment is an “ugly underbelly” of the cosplay world but says the Twin Cities communities he’s part of are very vocal about standing up to it. “When some of our members do get bullied, there’s an army of people who support that person,” he says.

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Photos by Dan Murphy

And at the end of the day, it’s all about having fun. “I have a really technical job, so this has always been a great creative outlet for me,” says Bartel.

“I’m playing someone who’s not me—which is kinda fun!” says Rietow. “We play roles at work, we play roles as spouses, we play roles as friends. So why not play a role where you get to pick all the rules and have fun?”