Don’t look now, but cosplayers—or people who dress up as fictional characters—are everywhere these days. They’re at conventions, they’re in every other web gallery, there may even be one behind you right now.
And why wouldn’t cosplay be so popular? It’s a chance to become your favorite video game, anime or comics characters. It can be hard work, and expensive, but cosplayers get to live out a fantasy while also gaining membership in a community that loves the same shows and appreciates the crafty skills used to create your badass gatling gun or set of leather armor.
Of course, I’m just a humble writer, so to find out what it’s really like to be a cosplayer, I called up Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and her legendary bodyguard Corvo Attano, who also go by the names Sheila and Sylar when they’re not cosplaying Dishonored characters.
It’s possible you’ve already heard of the pair, as they’ve been cosplaying for more than four years under the alias “Aicosu,” which is a rough amalgamation of the Japanese words for “love” and “cosplay,” so it kind of means “Lovers-Cosplay,” which is also really appropriate because the two have been dating ever since they met at a convention in 2009 and bonded over their shared love for the crazy sci-fi anime Code Geass. Lelouch and Shirley Fenette were the first of many characters they’ve cosplayed, some of which have been featured on Kotaku, Fashionably Geek and a bunch of other places.
Choosing characters can be a difficult decision, but Sheila and Sylar suggest a few ways to approach it. “When we first started out,” Sylar recalls, “it was less about the aesthetic and really about how much we liked the characters for who they were and how much we’d love the chance to be them.” It might be their voice acting or costume design, or maybe just the way the character moves. When I ran into Aicosu at PAX East, I had to back away from Sylar-Corvo when he struck an “I’m-a-deadly-killer” pose (also, because I’m a wuss). There’s no wrong way to choose a character as long as you’re invested enough to bring them to life.
As a costume designer-in-training, Sheila creates all of Aicosu’s outfits and she says that these days they might not cosplay as characters if their outfits don’t offer enough of a challenge. But whether you’re an experienced hand or a total newbie, there are plenty of resources on getting started. You can find several on Aicosu’s website, like how to untangle wigs or craft foam armor. I asked Sheila for some more tips and she recommended looking for second-hand clothing and cheaper alternatives whenever possible. “Cosplay gets really expensive really fast,” she warns. “Shop locally, try to buy used clothes and alter them. If you go straight to Jo-Ann and buy some fabric it’s really surprising how much some plain white fabric for a jacket you’re making can stack up to like $200.”
Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, it’s easier than ever for cosplayers to connect and share advice, which Sheila says can be a lifesaver when trying to learn how to make something complicated. And chances are someone has already made whatever it is you’re working on, even pointy devil teeth. When Aicosu first started, cosplay wasn’t as popular as it is now, and Sheila says it was often difficult to get basic advice, which is one of the reasons why she’s happy to share what they’ve learned through Q&A sessions and costume progress pictures. “When I started learning things and posting them on my blog, I wanted to be sure to help anyone who wanted it,” Sheila says, “because I don’t know how many times I used to message cosplayers and they just never got back to me.”
The good news is that once you finish your Ezio outfit, you’ve already earned automatic membership into a passionate fan club. “I know for a fact that most of the people who cosplay as Assassin’s Creed characters know everyone in there,” Sheila says. “Most of the time if you’re cosplaying and you see someone else cosplaying, just from your experiences being relatable you become friends that much easier.”
Unfortunately, not everyone’s friends and family will understand. “There are definitely stories out there of cosplayers who don’t have supportive families,” Sheila says. That might be because parents can see their kids spending lots of time and money building “costume candy” that might not yield any immediate rewards, Sylar says. But as Aicosu shows, that’s not necessarily true, especially in their case. Beyond just making friends, Sheila is able to show off samples of her costuming skills while Sylar, who is studying to become a voice actor, is able to develop professional connections while attending cons. Most cosplayers may not have those ambitions, but their hobby can still lead to serendipitous connections. I mean, that’s how Sheila and Sylar met after all.
And if there’s one practical thing that cosplaying teaches, it’s how to manage money. From handling expo travel expenses (staying with friends and family is key, as is carpooling when possible), to saving for food and tickets, there are ample opportunities to flex money-saving muscles. “We’ve definitely gotten a lot better at budgeting because of cosplay,” Sheila says.
So let’s recap. Cosplaying can be difficult and time consuming, yes, but it also allows people to become a favorite character, while polishing their budgeting and crafting skills, and it could even lead to a career and possible romance. Well, geez, with possibilities like that it kind of makes you wonder why more people aren’t doing it.
Matt Marquez is a freelance writer and photographer whose grade school teacher briefly thought he was a genius when he turned in his Shadowrun fan fiction for an assignment. Follow him on Tumblr and Twitter @mattmarquez.