I was eating lunch outside Derby Comic Con a couple of weeks ago, sun shining on a college car park as conventioneers and Stormtroopers. In a doorway stands a young woman dressed as Harley Quinn from DC Comics. Suddenly, an ecstatic squeal rings out; another, much shorter Harley, probably about seven years old looks at the young woman and shouts “YOU’RE SO COOL!”
“You’re so cool too!” replies older Harley, making the little girl’s day. And meanwhile, just around the corner, a toddler is giving the biggest hug ever to someone dressed as Olaf the Snowman from Disney’s Frozen.
Cosplay has seen a massive growth over the last couple of decades, expanding alongside geek culture from being a niche hobby to becoming, well, a niche hobby that’s a lot more recognised. On its surface we see people dressing as characters from movies and comics and anime, a Halloween fancy dress party that’s broken its boundaries, but dig deeper and cosplay reveals itself to be so much more.
In some ways cosplay is creativity in its purest form – no-one needs to dress up as Batman – but it fires the imagination, it encourages problem-solving, it promotes the development of skills – dressmaking and textiles and model making and make-up and prop design. Cosplay’s about learning through creativity – learning in community, or developing self-taught skills through trial and error. Say what you want about its immediate practical application but the world’s a little smarter because someone figured out how to make a replica Ghostbusters proton pack.
But it’s not just about the nuts and bolts, the needle and thread of it all. Adam Savage, in a TED Talk covering his love of cosplay, talks about clothing as a narrative, an expression of the story we want to tell about ourselves. Cosplay is a step beyond that – it’s a way of interacting with our wider narratives, the modern myths and stories we tell each other and watch on flickering screens, communicating our love for these characters and their adventures. And then those stories are brought to life, momentarily; the world is re-enchanted. Walk past a member of the 501st Legion in a car park outside a convention and, for a second, you’re transported to Tatooine or Coruscant; you laugh but you’re a bit intimidated, and then you laugh some more.
Some might deride this as escapism, but as Tolkien once said “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?” It’s easy to get imprisoned by the world – to watch dreams fade, to imperceptibly transition to being an anonymous work unit, to lock away the attic the stories you wrote and the doodles you drew.
Cosplay can be a momentary escape from that. It gives the shy the chance to be extrovert, it gives reserved the chance to pose, it makes fixed identities malleable, it embodies the fundamental transformation of comic books – the ordinary throwing on a costume and, for a while at least, being extraordinary. The picture above? It was taken when a little boy got lost at a comic convention. He knew he’d be okay though, because Wonder Woman and the Flash were there to keep an eye on him.
Meanwhile, outside Derby Comic Con, a toddler is leading a member of the 501st around by his hand. The grey of the car park seems a little lighter; the colours of cosplay brighten up the world.