You’ve heard about it from friends and on TV, you’ve seen it all over social media, and you may have even gone to a convention or two, but what exactly is cosplay and how did cosplay become mainstream in today’s pop culture? The following article will discuss exactly that; the history of cosplay. We will go over a brief definition of the term cosplay, the origin of conventions, the first cosplayers, and how cosplay evolved into the worldwide phenomenon it is today.
BRIEF DEFINITION OF COSPLAY
Before we can begin any discussion on the topic, let’s define cosplay…
Cosplay is the combination of the English words costume and play, and therefore cosplay is when someone dresses up and roleplays as a fictional character. This activity often takes place at science fiction, anime, and comic conventions, however cosplay existed before there was even a word for it (we’ll get to that later).
ORIGIN OF CONVENTIONS
As we just mentioned, cosplay is a major part of science fiction, anime, and comic conventions. Nowadays there is a convention for almost every type of fandom you can think of, so it may be difficult for you to believe that these types of conventions did not exist prior to the 20th century. This is because things like science fiction and comics didn’t even exist back then and you can’t exactly have a convention for something that doesn’t exist! Although there were a smattering of novels in the early 1800s with science fiction themes (i.e. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 and The Last Man in 1826) the genre was not exactly embraced until much later in the century. Science fiction’s popularity grew as the century progressed, but it was still relatively new to the world of literature by the dawn of the 1900s.
Comic books and comics also didn’t exist until the early 1900s. The first recognizable comic book in history was published in 1933. This comic book was a collection of humorous comic strips that previously ran in newspapers that were reprinted into a book. This humble beginning started an industry that soon began to create longer original stories in a comic format instead of the typical short cartoon strips that ran in newspapers. Nowadays, we often associate comics with superheroes, however despite the first comic book being published in 1933 it wasn’t until 3 years later that the first superhero graced the pages of a comic book. Lee Faulk published the first superhero adventure, The Phantom, on February 17, 1936. It’s important to note this history in order to show that comics (as well as science fiction) were relatively new forms of entertainment when the first convention occurred.
However, despite their infancy, early science fiction and comic works found a huge audience. There was a large enough market to sustain multiple magazines devoted to science fiction in Sweden and Germany. Although prevalent in Europe, an American man named Hugo Gernsback is credited with creating the foundation of modern science fiction for American and English speaking audiences (he called it scientifiction). In 1926, Gernsback created a magazine called Amazing Stories, which contained stories describing what could potentially happen when a scientific gadget was invented. It was sensational and imaginative, but was not considered serious literature at the time. But, as with many things, audiences loved it and Amazing Stories paved the way for several competitors to further explore science fiction, fantasy, and horror in the 1930s (notably Weird Tales and Wonder Stories). These types of magazines helped audiences imagine things that were previously unimaginable, and they wanted more.
It was this market that spawned the first ever science fiction convention in 1939, named aptly the 1939 First World Science Fiction Convention in NYC. It would later be called Worldcon or Nycon. This first convention took place from July 2nd to July 4th 1939 in conjunction with the New York’s World Fair, which just so happened to have the theme “The World of Tomorrow”. This theme linked perfectly with the futuristic concepts described in science fiction literature. It gave attendees a tangible way to participate in their favorite fandom and see what the future might look like.
Prominent guests at the first science fiction convention included authors Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, magazine editor John W. Campbell, illustrators Frank Rudolph Paul and Hannes Bok, and even well known rocket scientist John D. Clark.
It was attended by 185 people and two of those people are considered the first ever cosplayers.
WHO WERE THE FIRST COSPLAYERS?
There are two trains of thought when identifying the first cosplayers – counting the individuals who dressed up prior to conventions or strictly counting those who dressed up after conventions started.
Prior to conventions, a couple from Cincinnati Ohio named Mr. and Mrs. Fell wore alien costumes to a skating rink in 1908.
This couple dressed up as Mr. Skygack and Miss Dillpickles, who were popular characters from a newspaper comic strip created by AD Condo. These characters were Martians that comically tried to understand life on Earth. Their costumes were considered to be a masquerade or fan costuming.
Four years later in 1912, a man named August Olsen wore another Mr. Skygack costume at a masquerade contest in Tacoma, Washington. He won first place.
However, despite these two instances of fan costuming, most people credit the first recorded cosplay to have taken place at the 1939 First World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in NYC by Myrtle R. Jones and Forrest J. Ackerman.
Their futuristic costumes were inspired by the cover art of the science fiction magazines Science Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories of Super-Science. Jones designed and created both of the costumes; her’s was a gown-turned-romper that was based on designs from the 1936 HG Wells film Things to Come and Forrest dressed as one of the star pilots from the film with large shoulder pads and a shiny cape. These costumes were futuristic, fun, and embraced “The World of Tomorrow” spirit of Worldcon. They were such a hit with the attendees that they inspired about a dozen fans to come to the convention dressed up the following year. In fact, the second Worldcon featured a masquerade as part of the official program, as well as an unofficial masquerade in Jones’ room.
Brief Biography of Myrtle R. Jones: So who exactly was Myrtle R. Jones? Often going by the nickname Morojo, Jones was an editor of multiple prominent fanzines, a big proponent of Espernato (an auxiliary language that promoted the communication between cultures), a member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, and co-financier of Ray Brabury’s first sci-fi zine. Similar to the unfortunate fate of many female pioneers in history, her contribution to the birth of cosplay went uncredited for many years. However, due to internet sleuths, fans across the globe now know that Morojo was instrumental in the creation of cosplay. She passed away in 1964 in California after spending her later years as a proud nudist and she is remembered as a kind person who believed in the goodness of humanity.
Brief Biography of Forrest J. Ackerman: Who was Forest J. Ackerman? He was a lifelong fan of science fiction. Throughout his life, he was magazine editor, science fiction writer, literary agent, actor, and one of the world's most avid genre book and film memorabilia collectors. Some notable achievements were naming and writing the backstory for cult icon Vampirella, championing lesbian stories in the 1950s, helping to run the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, running the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, and serving as early inspiration for media icons such as Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Danny Elfman. His collection of memorabilia contained well over 300,000 items, including iconic props used by Abbott & Costello. Although a storied life and a prominent figure in the literary, science fiction, and horror communities, his adult years were riddled with sexual misconduct allegations, many involving minors. These allegations are still debated amongst fans. He passed away in 2008 and is buried under a simple marker that reads “Sci-Fi Was My High”.
COSPLAY FROM THE 1950s – 1980s
Many notable years in the history of cosplay are notable because that’s when new rules were established for cosplaying at conventions. These benchmark years often involve improving the safety and wellbeing of those who attend the conventions. For example, nudity. One of the attendees at Worldcon 1952 showed up completely naked. Although it wasn’t terribly common, after that first instance a few cosplayers showed up nude to every convention for roughly the next 30 years. Nudity peaked in popularity throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. This type of exhibitionism led to the rule “No Costume is No Costume”, which effectively banned full explicit nudity at conventions (note: partial nudity is occasionally still allowed if it is representative of the character). This rule was created to protect the individuals from explicit attention but also children who might be in attendance.
Another notable year in the history of cosplay is 1962 when a man brought a prop blaster gun that shot out real fire, flamethrower style. For obvious safety reasons, this instance led to banning fire at conventions.
On the food side, peanut butter and other foods were banned in 1972, when the artist Scott Shaw covered himself in peanut butter. Due to peanut allergies of other attendees, this led to the rule of no foodstuffs on the convention floor in order to keep everyone safe.
And over time, additional rules were established. However despite some limitations, this relatively niche hobby continued to gain popularity. Movies such as the cult hit The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975 even encouraged viewers to wear costumes during the interactive screenings of the movie. This encouragement made fan costuming an event.
CREATION OF THE WORD “COSPLAY”
More and more individuals would attend conventions dressed as the characters they loved over the next 50 years. But this entire time, what we now call cosplay was simply called fan costuming or masquerading. It was not until the 42nd Worldcon in 1984 that a man named Nobuyuki Takahashi created the word kosupure to describe it (note: the English translation for kosupure is cosplay). As a writer for the Japanese magazine My Anime, Takahashi wanted to write about his experience attending the convention. He felt that the Japanese translation of masquerade (ie aristocratic costume) did not fit the fun, lively, and colorful costumes he saw at the convention. So after throwing around a few ideas with some university friends, he used the common Japanese practice of mashing up two words to create a new one. Kosupure, and therefore cosplay, was born.
In that article for My Anime, Takahashi encouraged his readers to dress up in kosupure when attending conventions. This endorsement helped popularize it worldwide, since, at the time, it was less common outside of the United States.
It took several years, but the word cosplay would eventually be used worldwide.
Brief Biography of Nobuyuki Takahashi: Who is Nobuyuki Takahashi? He is a film director and artist that began his rich career as a writer. He is the owner of Studio Hard and a prominent figure in the Japanese animation community.
RISE OF COSPLAY IN POP CULTURE
With the universal adoption of the term cosplay in the 1980s, the community was given a singular, unique way to describe the activity. People around the world could reference it and it would be instantly recognizable to them. The word really gave it a grounding and, subsequently, a launching pad. Cosplay cafes sprung up and media brands actively started to use cosplayers to help promote their new comics, television shows, video games, and movies. The utilization of the medium as a form of promotion helped bring it to the forefront of pop culture, especially as video games and blockbuster superhero movies became more mainstream. Nerd culture became cool and what had been previously seen as a niche subset of pop culture became the preeminent form of mainstream pop culture. Cosplay came along for the ride.
COSPLAY AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Due to the prevalence of social media, cosplay has not only gained mainstream acceptance, but it has also become a year round activity. Cosplays are no longer confined to a convention floor and cosplayers are now able to express the love for their fandoms year round. Using the visual aspect of social media to show off their costumes, cosplayers have gained followings and become mini celebrities in their own right. Because of this, social media has even helped many individuals create full time incomes from cosplaying.
A move to online cosplaying was especially true during the covid-19 pandemic, when the majority of conventions were canceled due to fears surrounding the virus. Conventions moved online and cosplayers followed suit, using digital platforms to express themselves and participate in their fandoms as best as possible during challenging times.
Cosplay has come a long way since the humble beginnings in 1939 when Myrtle Jones and Forest Ackerman dressed up in futuristic costumes at the first ever science fiction convention. Over the years, conventions have grown to include literature, comics, radio, film, television, and animation. There are conventions for nearly every fandom and category out there because of fans who want to express themselves and their love for their favorite characters. People like Nobuyuki Takahashi played a pivotal role in forming cosplay into a worldwide phenomenon. At this point in time, cosplaying is still in its infancy (it hasn’t even been around for 100 years yet), so it will be exciting to see cosplay culture continue to grow and evolve in the years to come.
If you liked this post, feel free to give it a share. It helps spread the word about how awesome cosplay is to do! But, before you go, where do you think the field of cosplay is going next? Sound off in the comments below!