Behind the Cosplay Costume: Three Dutch Girls and their Practice of Cosplay


By Anita van der Aar

Dressing up once in a while is mostly just something small children do, right? Well, no. In the case of cosplay many young adults take part in an activity that goes beyond simply dressing up. The word “cosplay” is a portmanteau that combines “costume” and “play.” “Play” in this sense implies a sort of performing activity, while “costume” implies that people who conduct the activity need particular outfits and accessories in order to perform. Most people simply see cosplaying as a form of dressing up in weird clothing, pretending to become a fictional character in order to escape from reality. But I became curious about the people behind the cosplay costume. Are they really trying to escape from reality by acting in a deviant manner or is more nuance required? I believe that an approach that pays attention to the agency of young people who cosplay is important if we want to understand what moves them to cosplay.

Cosplay requires money, time and effort, so there must be some sort of fulfillment cosplayers feel when “doing” cosplay. I was curious about how cosplayers make their decisions in the process prior to a cosplay convention, and whether this person totally goes into their fictional character. How do cosplayers choose their character, and to what extent do they consider it to be an extension of the self or a temporary identity? In this essay I analyse cosplay with the use of in-depth interviews with three Dutch girls who have been practicing cosplay for several years, and look at the dynamics that are at play within their cosplay experience. For example, I examine the role of the internet and social media within cosplay and how the respondents interact through these media. I present several factors that have influenced the decisions of the three cosplayers and conclude how their form of cosplaying can be seen in relation to identity practice.

Bringing the character to life

A long process of preparation precedes each cosplayers’ gathering at a convention. The chosen fictional character is often closely examined. Many fans spend many hours and money searching for the right costumes and accessories or fabrics to handcraft their outfits. Hale (2014: 8) gives the following definition of cosplay: “a performative action in which one dons a costume and/or accessories and manipulates his or her posture, gesture, and language in order to generate meaningful correspondences and contrasts between a given body and a set of texts from which it is modelled and made to relate”. Cosplay is a process of converting the two-dimensional (2D) image or fantasy from a page of manga, a screen of anime, or any 2D character to a three-dimensional (3D) living character in real time (Rahman et al. 2012: 321). This description of cosplay corresponds to most cosplay research, which deals almost exclusively with anime and manga cosplay, the two largest genres within the field of cosplay practice (Lotecki 2012:3).

The three young women that I interviewed each have different preferences. Mariska (23)[1] can be placed within the genre of manga and anime but she also cosplays Disney characters. Daniëlle’s (20) form of cosplay is more related to films and series but lately she has mainly been cosplaying Disney or Game of Thrones characters. The third cosplayer, Annelie (23), is mostly interested in films, series, comics or game characters. Cosplayers choose a character based on the role and personality the character signifies, while others or at the same time base their choice more on the physical appearance of the character. For example, a cosplayer choosing to portray Superman will need to pick a recognizable sign that would generate an association with the chosen character. This could be done by wearing items like a cape, Superman’s iconic logo, the huge ‘S’, and expanding all this by taking on poses like pretending as if one is flying through the sky. The cosplayer decides which particular features he or she wants to imitate and to what extent. The chosen character does not necessarily have to match their own physique, although physical similarity can be a reason to cosplay this particular character (Rahman et al. 2012: 321).

Hale (2014: 12-14) distinguishes two types of character representation in cosplay. The first type, which he calls discrete representation, involves the material and performative reproduction or replication of a distinct and recognizable subject from a particular body of texts. This may include nonfictional personalities, like politicians and historical figures, but the majority of cosplayers prefers to represent fictional characters from comics, video games, or television programs. The second type, which Hale calls generic representation, is a practice that does not focus on reproducing a specific character. These cosplayers rather choose a generic type of character – such as zombies, pirates and ninjas – assuming that their costumes and performances will be recognized by fellow cosplayers. The young women that I interviewed fit the first type of cosplay, since all three prefer to choose specific characters to cosplay.

The chosen character is often based on personal taste and can be any character from a comic book, film or series. It is unlikely that every co-cosplayer will know what character is represented when a less recognizable, mainstream character is chosen. This may be a reason for not choosing a main character which may be less subjected to critical opinions and observations. However, this was not the case with my respondents, in particular Annelie and Daniëlle, who are mainly into the film and series genre of cosplay and choose characters such as Harry Potter and Disney princesses. In the case of the manga and anime cosplay fan, Mariska is more of an exception. She has experimented more in the sense that she has dressed as a typical Harajuku-style Japanese schoolgirl, which can be seen as a generic representation, using Hale’s typology, while she has also recently shifted to a more film-related genre, cosplaying various Disney princesses such as Jasmin from the Disney movie Aladdin and Ariel, the little mermaid.

Anything goes?

To some extent, all three of my respondents can be considered imitative cosplayers as they all prefer to cosplay a character in accordance with the image from the film, series, or comic book. However, all three put the emphasis on the costume and accompanying accessories and make-up, rather than the character’s role. Before interviewing them I assumed that role-play, along with the costume, was a crucial part of cosplay. But my respondents gave the impression that this does not have to be the case, giving me an insight into the vast possibilities, a sort of “anything goes” mentality within cosplay. At the same time, though, original sources like books, films or series are not only generative; they are also restrictive as they indicate how a given character should not look, sound, or act (Hale 2014: 17). This does apply to my three respondents since their choice is to resemble the character as much as possible. Although the restrictive aspect of cosplay seems to contradict the “anything goes” mentality, in practice it is more a matter of duality. This can be explained by taking a closer look at crossplay.

Crossplay involves dressing up as the gender other than your own. While all three of my respondents are open to crossplaying, only Annelie has actually tried it. Reflecting on what cosplay means to her, though, she came to the conclusion that she probably will no longer crossplay anytime soon, since her main objective is to resemble the character as much as possible. Feeling that she can never resemble a male character as much as she would like to, she decided not to continue crossplaying.

“For me, crossplaying a male character is hard to accomplish, like I’m not able to cover my feminine facial features with make-up. Experimenting with crossplay is how I learn that as a cosplayer certain things are just not granted for me”.

Annelie cosplaying Jack Frost
Figure 1a: Annelie cosplaying Jack Frost

The original Jack Frost
Figure 1b: The original Jack Frost character

Discussing gender in relation to performance, Butler (1990) has argued that, although we may be born with a certain biological sex, most of what we have come to understand as characteristics associated with male or female are really socially constructed within a gender identity. In a way, cosplay serves as an example of the philosopher Nussbaum’s (2000) critique of Butler’s gender theory. According to Nussbaum, Butler not only puts too much emphasis on the unchangeable social structure of gender, but also wrongly assumes that this structure should necessarily be a bad thing (or in the words Butler uses: a “repressive”, “subordinating” and “oppressive” fact) that can only be resisted through mockery in the form of parodic performance (Nussbaum 2000; in Nieuwland 2005: 28). Most cosplayers do not resist gender roles, they do quite the opposite. They embrace the broad spectrum of gender identities as constructed in the series and stories they import from another culture, and freely ‘try them on’ during cosplay meetings.

Although cosplay originates from Japan and cosplayers have traditionally focused on Japanese pop culture for inspiration, many fans in the Netherlands and elsewhere have discovered cosplay outside the context of Japan through the Internet, and it is becoming more common for cosplayers to look at Western, mostly American, movies and series to base their choice of character on (ibid.: 3). While cosplay has long been associated with Asian youth, in the Netherlands it is not uncommon for white girls and women to participate within the cosplay scene. I asked my respondents whether their ethnicity influences their choice of character. Daniëlle argued that ethnicity can sometimes be a sensitive subject within the cosplay community:

“There is this character that I would like to cosplay but she has a darker skin color and I know that within the cosplay community this can be an issue. If it was not that much of a problem maybe I would do it. Like one time a white girl used facial paint to make herself black and a huge riot emerged online. Or another time when an Asian girl cosplayed a normal looking person… as in a normal white, European girl if I can put it like that. There are people who just don’t accept it. My opinion is that people should do whatever they like to do, but I personally don’t feel like being accused of cosplaying the wrong race when I’m proudly wearing my cosplay outfit.”

Remarkably, she dislikes the reaction of other cosplayers who disapprove of a cosplayer’s choice if it does not match that person’s ethnicity, yet she seems unaware of portraying the “white race” as being the norm. She often chooses to cosplay Disney princess characters, which mostly have a white skin color. Thus, being a Dutch white girl, it appears to be easier for her to move freely between the normative boundaries that are constructed within the cosplay scene.

When I asked Mariska if being half Dutch, half Indonesian influences her decisions, she told me:

“It has benefits, since I don’t have a very colored skin but also not a very white skin for me it is easy to shift between ethnicities. I cosplayed white Disney princess Ariel, but I also cosplayed Jasmin who is an Indian woman. If I cosplay Jasmin  I wear dark hair so my skin will also look more tanned just like her. So for me there is actually a lot of choice.”

Her “Asian” features also makes her more suitable for anime/manga characters which are mostly Asian characters, and being accused of not having the “right” ethnicity is less likely to happen.

Mariska cosplaying Ariel  Mariska cosplaying Jasmin
Figure 2a&b: Mariska cosplaying Ariel (left) and Jasmin

Besides the issues of gender and race, my respondents mentioned that having a bigger posture as a cosplayer, resulting in deviation from the character’s physique, can also provoke animosity. Annelie, who is well aware of her bigger posture, mentioned that some people believe that if you want to resemble the character, you should match the character’s physique. She insisted that this will not influence her in choosing which characters to cosplay, showing me some of her characters who do not match her physique. Annelie further told me about the role of Internet forums. Besides receiving support on certain forums, they are also sites where people post their concerns regarding cosplaying characters. So I looked on the Internet and found the following discussion on a cosplay forum:

“I may be new to cosplaying, but I heard there has been some prejudice towards bigger cosplayers and those who are of a different race (e.g. an African American girl dressed as a white anime character. I saw a girl dressed as Mami on Tumblr and I thought she looked fantastic!) A good friend of mine told me that two girls got turned down for a job at an anime store (which I won’t name and shame) because one of them was apparently “too big” and another one was “too dark”. If you ask me, that doesn’t sound right! So, my question here is this: Has anyone ever experienced any kind of prejudice for their weight or race whilst cosplaying? If so, what’s your story behind this?” [2]

One visitor responded as follows:

“Cosplay’s an incredibly visual medium, so of course you’ll find people with prejudices  or opinions based on appearances. Sometimes it’s pure racism or body-shaming, but other times it’s a little more “innocent” and they’re just wanting the cosplayer to look canon. There’s some cosplayers who do make the personal choice to only cosplay characters they physically resemble rather than just wearing their costume, but that’s their prerogative. Other people shouldn’t be trying to influence their decision unless they specifically ask “which are characters I look like?,” and doing so with rude comments in regards to their race or weight is totally inappropriate”. [3]

While she is aware of the animosity that exists within the online community, Annelie’s bigger physique does not deter her from cosplaying characters that she likes. “There are people who accuse other cosplayers of being too fat to cosplay and it happens a lot. You need to have a thick skin.” This made me curious about how she displays her determination in ignoring such insults. Annelie showed me a short blue dress as the outfit of comics character Felicity Smoak which she has cosplayed, saying that this was something she would definitely not wear on a daily basis. However, while discussing the topic, this suddenly became an option for her.

“With Felicity, I think she’s super awesome and her clothing is a step out of my comfort zone because normally I don’t wear dresses and definitely no tight dresses, but if I wear it I do feel confident, that is also what attracts me to do it. For me it is that I push and develop myself, thinking “yeah, that’s is also something I am able to do” – and that this also transcends to my own life, like, I feel more comfortable in my own skin”.

Annelie cosplaying Felicity SmoakWhen wearing these characters’ outfits she also tries to be confident, because being timid simply does not match the character. In my analysis the costume thus functions in a way that allows her to adopt certain characteristics that she, according to her, normally does not possess. When I asked her if the feeling disappears as soon she takes off the outfit, she replied with a confident voice: “No, actually not.” She was clearly surprised by this question but looked happy when realizing that this was the case for her. “Specific personal characteristics of the character may fade away, but the confidence stays. Cosplaying has made me more confident.” After the interview, she showed me her outfits and I caught her saying: “Hmm…I think this one will probably end up in my closet between my normal clothing.” I was surprised but smiled, without her noticing, when I saw her holding the short blue dress.
Fig. 4: Annelie cosplaying Felicity Smoak

Insecurities and Opportunities

All my respondents were aware that their appearance may deviate from the original character, which at some point made them hesitate whether to continue with the process of cosplaying the character. Mariska, when cosplaying for the first time, chose an anime character who wears a pretty daring outfit:

“I have cosplayed characters that show a lot of skin, like showing my belly, and there are times that I don’t feel like wearing such an outfit and then I decide not to cosplay a certain character. I do worry about how others see me, which I shouldn’t because I do it for myself, but in the back of my mind I wonder if people think if it doesn’t look good or it looks funny on me or they think that I look fat. You’d say that as a cosplayer you wouldn’t pay attention to this since you’re wearing very special outfits, but personally I do mind”

Mariska cosplaying anime character Yoko
Figure 5: Mariska cosplaying anime character Yoko

Yet, Mariska stuck to her choice and made parts of the outfit herself. Since making an outfit takes more time than simply buying it, in the process of handcrafting and buying accessories she became more determined to cosplay her chosen character. It seems that the investment in buying the materials also contributes to the commitment of staying with the chosen character. Changing character while already having bought all the materials is an uncommon thing to do. Even when the costume is worn only once, the decision to wear it again and so cosplaying the same character is easily made. In the case of Annelie, her budget plays an important role when choosing a character.

“Sometimes it is simply not possible to do a character when looking at the amount of money I’m able to spend, and then I decide to do another character that costs me less. Now that I don’t have a full time job I really have to consider which character I pick and look in my own closet to look for stuff that I can use for cosplay, to keep it as cheap as possible. So if I get to earn more I am definitely willing to spend more on cosplay”.

I did notice the higher appreciation for making a costume compared to buying ready-made parts to compose an outfit. As Daniëlle argues:

“Making the costume is more fun to me than actually wearing it. See, I’m not a show-off to put it like that, I like wearing the costume to show people what I made, but wearing it only lasts one day while making it takes about one or two months.”

As Condry (2013: 25) puts it: “Fan conventions are a space where dressing up is appreciated – note the language of value – in terms of an ethic that accords state to do-it-yourself costumes above store-bought wear.” Still, I did not discover clear rules concerning the right ways for piecing an outfit together. All three respondents gave examples of friends who were new in the cosplay scene and were unsure what to wear. Their advice was not to start with choosing a very difficult character to cosplay, but a character whose outfit should not be too expensive and hard to recreate. This suggests that the cosplay scene might be less accessible for those of lower class backgrounds. Yet, being a good cosplayer is not determined by the amount of money spent on the outfit; if someone manages to assemble a good costume on a small budget, this is also approved and appreciated.Cosplay as a subculture – not in the sense of being fixed as the term may imply (Bennett 1999: 605) – allows individuals to take part in a scene where their own selective choices contribute to the fluidity that characterizes cosplay. It is the know-how, or to borrow Thornton’s (1995) concept, “subcultural capital,” which enables an individual to blend in the scene. .

I was not sure whether to call the respondents’ form of cosplay a lifestyle, since to me this implies a way of living in the sense that cosplay determines the cosplayer’s everyday life. However, Bennett’s (1999: 607) definition of lifestyle as a “freely chosen game” rather than a “way of life” made me rethink the meaning of “lifestyle.” Describing a lifestyle as ‘a freely chosen game’ is in my view a proper way to describe the voluntary character of my three respondents’ way of conducting cosplay. It is their agency that can be recognized in how they make their decisions when cosplaying. They decide for themselves what kind of cosplayer they want to be and how they carry out themselves.

Each of my respondents highlighted the fact that they consider themselves in some way to be a bit shy. They made this clear by such phrases as: “I would not normally do that,” when discussing certain cosplay acts, or: “This is not something that I would wear on a daily basis.” Annelie has studied animal care and currently works part-time in a slaughterhouse. She is not that happy with her job and is often bored being stuck at home four days a week. Her friends, most of whom are also cosplayers, live far away and due to the fact that she does not earn a lot of money she is not able to see them often. She mentioned that the costume is often what attracts her to choose the character to cosplay. Focusing on making her costume and looking forward to a convention makes her happy. Interestingly, when I asked her if she still recognizes herself when she is cosplaying, she replied that as a person she might be shy but the characters she cosplays are often confident characters: “I still recognize myself but I’m more confident than I normally am.”

For Mariska, cosplay offers her a way to act in a manner that is harder to achieve in real life:

“People [within the cosplay scene] share the same interests and the barrier to talk to one another is very, very low, so basically what happens at a convention is that everybody approaches each other which is something I would normally not do. Everybody acts loosely. People come to you and make comments like, “oh… your costume looks beautiful and I really like that character, can I give you a hug?” And that is like a normal thing to happen.”

Daniëlle, a 20-year-old English media design graduate and former classmate of Mariska, who currently works as a web developer, mentioned that cosplay for her has a therapeutic effect. She works full-time and being able to work on her self-made costumes sometimes makes her forget the “real world.” She spoke with great pride when talking about her Elsa costume, a Disney princess from the movie Frozen. Her main interest goes to movies and series that are recently broadcasted or are popular at the moment. She mentioned:

“Since I started cosplaying I often focus on the costumes I see in series or films. Of course the storyline also attracts me, but that is something I start to appreciate more while working on a costume.”

I noticed that she often used words that indicate that she views cosplaying as a sort of profession. “Love for the job” is something that according to her is widely shared among cosplayers. And as she frequently mentioned that she purely cosplays for her own benefit, like Mariska and Annelie, Daniëlle also enjoys getting some sort of recognition from others. Although she emphasized that “becoming big” within the cosplay scene is not her goal, “likes” on her own cosplay page on Facebook do give her a sense “that people appreciate your work.”

Danielle in her cosplay costumes
Figure 6: Daniëlle in her cosplay costumes (the second from the left is Daniëlle cosplaying Elsa)

I asked Daniëlle: “Are you attached to your costumes, or would you be willing to sell them, for example?” Her reply:

“On the one hand, if I’m one hundred percent sure that I’m not going to wear it anymore and I can make somebody happy with it and at the same time earn some money, indeed maybe I should sell it… But it’s more like, I think that maybe my costumes are not good enough so people won’t be willing to buy it. Maybe they will laugh at me asking me why I made it this way.. but maybe I should look what I could sell because then I can buy some new materials!”

Expectation, Acceptance and Approval

Representing a character with mass appeal can ensure that one’s costume is likely to be recognized, appreciated, and photographed by convention attendees, all of which would increase the cosplayer’s subcultural capital (Hale 2014: 18). On the other hand, there is the risk of being judged negatively since choosing well-known characters like Disney princesses makes it easy for co-cosplayers to assess whether a costume can be considered successful. In relation to their costume, all three of my respondents go to great lengths to make their costumes authentic to the original source, and they do not hesitate to choose an easily recognizable character. Choosing a well-known character requires some courage, especially when the cosplayer considers themselves to be introvert or insecure. As one respondent in Hale’s (2014: 18) study argues: “if one cosplays  a particular individual, then that individual should re-create that character with precision and remain “true” to the source text.” He then continues: “You just have to stick with your character, because if you don’t, you’re not true” (ibid.). Opinions about what makes a good cosplayer may differ on this matter. There is no such thing as a commonly shared opinion among all cosplayers since the cosplay community is not homogeneous. Still, my respondents mentioned some sort of expectations of a cosplayer. For example, one should at least have read the book or seen the movie. They disapprove of cosplayers who have never seen the original character playing. Daniëlle gave the example of a friend who wanted to cosplay a character from a particular series and chose a character that did not yet appear in the current season which her friend was watching. Although she did not approve of her friend’s decision, she decided not to confront her with her that since, after all, it is her own choice.

By chance, all three of my respondents said that one can cross the line of the acceptable when conducting cosplay, and each mentioned this particular cosplayer they saw at a convention which all three of them had attended together. This person cosplayed “The Joker” and according to them he took his role-play a bit too seriously. He displayed obnoxious behavior like coming too close to their group and using a creepy voice. Mariska mentioned: “You can cross the line … when this person does not take up signs that I don’t want to talk anymore or comes too close while not knowing this person which can make me feel uncomfortable.” Despite the respect for someone’s dedication to their character they all agreed that one should know the limits.

If the cosplayer’s goal is not to imitate a character fully but merely to resemble the character, they can get fulfillment from believing that they actually look like the character. According to my respondents there is no need to speak, sound or act exactly like the original character in order to cosplay. In line with this, cosplaying can be viewed as being more “true” to their authentic self rather than imitating the chosen character in every detail. Nieuwland (2005: 25) argues that the minimal expectation means that anything goes, and in this lies the consequence of maximal acceptation. Within the safe zone of the cosplay meeting, no one expects you to be anything or act in any one way. To me this sounds a bit too idealistic, but while listening to my respondents I could recognize an attitude that all three of them shared. Cosplaying does appear to bring greater acceptance, and to discourage stigmatization when it comes to people’s preferences and behavior.

The three cosplayers idealistically mentioned that they really do not care what others say about their outfit or about the fact that they are cosplaying. Unfortunately, I was unable to conduct participant observation at a cosplay convention since none of my respondents would attend one during my research. Therefore I had to rely on my interviews with them to find out how their actions matched their statements, but this did leave me with the impression that they were serious about pursuing their interest. For example, Mariska told me that she chose to cosplay a character that her parents did not approve of as they considered the outfit to be too sexy. Despite her parents’ attempts to change their daughter’s mind, she still continued to make her costume and wear it.

So how do you know if you are doing well as a cosplayer? All three of the young women I interviewed responded in quite a similar way by saying that they cosplay purely for themselves and for fun, which to me initially seemed a bit idealistic. I thought that they inevitably also want to be recognized and hear from others that they do well. Indeed, they gave some indications on how to know if they did well in their cosplaying by referring to the reaction of others at a convention, as well as to the process prior to the convention in which all three respondents ask their friends for their opinion. Mariska told me when she knows:

“I don’t you think you know…. but I think it is through feedback from others. If you’re walking at a convention  and people say, “You look so good,” or, “Hey you’re that character right?” Then you know that you’re doing a good job. And also when you’re personally satisfied with the result. Besides that I do always ask my friends’ opinion saying, “Okay, you’re all always honest with me, does this look funny or not, otherwise I’ll change my outfit.” And if they say it looks good and resembles the character, then for me it’s good enough ”.

Another occasion for my respondents to feel recognized as a good cosplayer is when they are asked to be photographed by professional photographers at a convention. Another way to know that you are seen as a cosplayer that succeeds in resembling a character is by social media. Daniëlle and Annelie chose to make a separate Facebook account for their cosplay selves in order not to annoy their non-cosplay friends and feel free to upload pictures of themselves while cosplaying. When a picture is posted on social media and the likes and positive comments keep coming they know they did a good job. Daniëlle mentioned:

“To me, it’s not about “becoming big” within the cosplay scene, of course receiving “likes” on Facebook is nice, it’s great that people appreciate your work but that’s not the reason why I do it. I do it purely for my own, of course it’s nice to get compliments from people who are curious and ask questions like “How did you do that?” and that’s enough for me.”

The response of co-cosplayers, who can be friends, does shape how the respondents feel when cosplaying. Yet, in a different way, so does the response of the general public, whose judgment is based on very different criteria. Mariska mentioned that she occasionally wears her cosplay outfit in public space when she has to travel a long distance, and she recalled the difference between the time she wore an anime/manga character outfit and another time when she wore a Disney outfit. One time, she and her group moved through public space, a space where cosplayers and non-cosplayers meet.

“If it recognizable then it is often less perceived as weird. Of course I would probably also find it weird if I’m not familiar with cosplay and I suddenly see this Disney princess in the train, but when somebody sees an anime character they are more likely to think, “okay, and what are you wearing and why that crazy hair?”

While in the train she noticed that people reacted more enthusiastically when she was dressed as a Disney princess and people started to recognize the character. People started to ask where they were heading to and made compliments on their outfits. While moving through public space wearing an anime/manga outfit, however, people often just stare with a strange look on their face. She admitted that she enjoys it when people and small children pay attention:

“It is exciting when I’m cosplaying and I meet other non-cosplayers on the street, who are staring at you but at the same time I enjoy getting the attention from these “outsiders”… I think… it gives a positive feeling, because if I would go outside right now there’s nothing but when I go outside wearing a crazy wig and a special outfit then people would be like, “wow, wow, look, look!” And it may sounds weird but getting attention from people who do not know anything about it asking “hey what are you wearing and what are you planning to do?” is really nice.”

Each individual cosplayer’s body is “read” through and in relation to a receiver’s prior experiences with a given source text. It is from these moments of “recognition and remembrance [that] the pleasure (and risk) of experiencing an adaption” derives (Hutcheon 2006; in Hale 2014: 14). In that regard, the level of recognition has a great influence on how people react to cosplayers, and both Daniëlle, Mariska and Annelie are very aware of it. The reactions of others, non-cosplayers, is often less valued since they “don’t understand,” so their opinion counts less or is not taken that seriously.


Choosing a cosplay character is based on several factors, including the appearance of the costume of a certain character, as well as the character’s characteristics. Notably, though I initially thought that costumes might function as some sort of mask, my three respondents did not feel like hiding behind their costume. Each has a passion for craftsmanship and they often catch themselves filtering a movie, series or comic book by focusing on the characters’ costume. Since cosplayers are often depicted as people who shift between identities, I wondered if this was really the case and expected that more nuance was required.

Role-play does not function as an indicator for a good cosplayer, according to my respondents who were really convinced of this. They adapt to their chosen character at times when they feel like doing this, for example posing in a photo shoot or answering questions related to their chosen character. But in the end they decide for themselves what cosplayer they want be, which shows the agency they have within their cosplaying.

It is a selective choice when it comes to adopting certain characteristics of a chosen character.
Their know-how, or subcultural capital, in the scene enables them to mix in without noticeably deviating from co-cosplayers, and they feel accepted in the scene.

Cosplay offers them the opportunity to, among others, get out of their daily routines, be it because they have a full-time job, which can be dissatisfying, or just boredom at home. One respondent indicated that cosplay offers her some time to forget about the real world when she is busy making a costume, which to her has a therapeutic effect. In making the conscious choice to engage in more than merely role-play, they remain relatively close to their “true self”. They stated that they clearly recognize themselves when they are cosplaying. The low barrier at a cosplay convention, as Mariska calls it, allows her to approach people which for her is less easily achievable in everyday life. Not so much performing another identity is needed to achieve this, but rather the opportunity for sociability and connection which cosplay can provide. Costumes facilitate conversation; it may function as ice breaker for people who meet for the first time or may raise interest on the part of non-cosplayers.

Dressing up as a character, and sometimes performing in character, is rewarded by the attention one receives by both cosplayers and non-cosplayers. This can be achieved through social media where Facebook and cosplay forums may function as a medium for support, (dis)approval or admiration. Having a different physique or the “wrong” ethnicity that does not resemble the original characters’ appearance can engender disapproval or even animosity, which is mostly shown in the online cosplay community. Yet my respondents showed that such ideas did not stop them from wearing costumes even though they may not have the “right” body or appearance for it. Costumes that show a lot of skin or are very tight represent outfits that are preferably not worn on a daily basis due to social norms, yet cosplay allows them to wear it anyway.

Whether cosplay can be considered as an extension of the self or a temporary identity cannot be answered with either one. The line between reality and fantasy is often all too clear already. The three cosplayers in my research do not adopt a temporary identity while cosplaying, as they consciously decide not go fully in character but mainly “just” try to resemble the character’s appearance. Basing a choice of character on the awareness of one’s own appearance and gender, like knowing that you a have a bigger posture, a white skin, “Asian” facial features and being a woman, may imply that “the self” is always taken into account. Cosplay for these three respondents in particular is viewed rather as an opportunity to wear and do things that seem less easily achievable in everyday life, but at the end of the day it can merge with who they want to be in real life. In this sense it seems likely that cosplay brings the ideal self more to the surface and eventually becomes part of the individual at times when the costume has been taken off.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context, Spring 2015)

[1] The three respondents gave me their permission to use their real names in this paper.

[2], accessed on 10-05-2015

[3], accessed on 10-05-2015


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