Cosplay: The Obsession, the Art, the Life
A look into the world of comic-book gender-benders and Disney bounding cosplayers.
Cosplay, or “costume play,” used to be a faraway hobby that only the most die hard anime fans and closet cinephiles partook in. However, the last decade has seen an exponential growth in cosplay culture, especially considering the sensationalized San Diego International Comic-Con, which has been local to SD for 48 years now and, as of 2014, raked in over 19 million in revenues with an average attendance of 130,000 (every day). Nearly everyone has cosplayed one way or another, and there’s a slew of vocabulary to boot— “bounding” for when you just want a casual character-inspired look that could be worn to meet your girlfriend’s father, to “gender-bending” for when Jane/John just really wants to cosplay as a male/female character, all the way to “furry” for when you’re feeling a more full-bodied, you guessed it, furry cosplay. With more and more people thinking of getting their feet wet in this pop culture phenom, I’ve met with several cosplayers, some seasoned veterans, some just starting out, and all with varying degrees of commitment and strengths. These are their stories.
To five year veteran Brigid Dolan, or @blondeshellcosplay as her large social media following knows her (2k on IG), cosplay is about paying homage to your beloved characters.
“It's a great creative outlet; you can stick to details and make something very screen/book accurate, or design your own interpretation of a character.”
Other cosplayers agree; Kristen McLaughlin (@auburnmystique) says “you really embody this character from head to toe and have fun showcasing it.” She’s been “embodying” characters for over four years now, and from ‘Frozen’’s Anna to gender-bent Captain America, she’s having a blast.
John McCallie (@castlesandnonsense), who’s been cosplaying for seven years, considers himself the most casual cosplayer of the group.
“At it’s core I think it’s as simple as just dressing up as things you love with other people who enjoy the same.”
That’s the heart of cosplay; connecting with other people who love what you love. Dolan a.k.a. Blondshell agrees, saying that when fans decipher her more obscure choices, “it makes my day!” A perfect example of this was Blondeshell’s Wondercon 2016, where she partnered with other pop culture enthusiasts (including McLaughlin and Norfleet) to create a mash-up of ‘Frozen’ and ‘Scooby-Doo’— she was Fred ‘Elsa’ Jones and FYI she looked stellar, gang.
“Not many people figured it out but most thought it was funny once we explained. This is where we met the amazing artist Patrick Ballesteros, who immediately recognized and loved our costumes! It was so awesome to meet someone that appreciated our idea.”
Brigid Dolan as Bombshell Harley Quinn; as Classic Harley Quinn; as Emma Frost; as gender-bent Thor; as Jedi Elsa | Photos courtesy Brigid Dolan
Kylee Norfleet (@bamf_425), with nearly two years of cosplay under belt (but triple that in make-up FX experience) and 1.8k IG followers, puts a ton of effort into her cosplays and loves getting to see that final product.
“So many months of planning, preparation, fails, and improvisations and you usually end up with something pretty cool.”
Red-haired singer/songwriter McLaughlin says, “I also love bringing stories to life! I really do look like Anna from Frozen and when I put my hair in pigtail braids, just out and about, kids really think I'm her and they always get so excited. I had a coworker whose daughter really thought I was Anna and would brag to her friends that her mom worked with Princess Anna.”
Of the hardest parts of cosplay, they can all agree: time, price, and skill.
“The hardest part for me is doing everything I want on a limited budget. There are so many costumes I want to make but simply can't afford, and I often have to cut parts out of my original idea for a costume because I can't make it work within my price range,” says Dolan.
McLaughlin blames time management as cosplay’s biggest vice, confessing that she’ll usually end completing a look the “night before a convention.” Procrastination is a con’s favorite gift to its attendees.
Kristen McLaughlin as Dapper Jesse; as Poe Dameron; as Anna; as Anna Mystique. | Photos courtesy McLaughlin
Both McCallie and Norfleet blame lack of technical or artistic abilities for more complex works, which leads to many cosplayers collaborating with fellow artists in order to truly recognize a vision. Partnering with costume designers, make-up artists, and Etsy sculptors for hand-made props or accessories isn’t considered cheating, either. Cosplay is all about the teamwork and the process; if you’ve got the idea but not the know-how, don’t fret— this is a frothy and mirthful community full of super talented and passionate folks who want to see you succeed (they will expect obligatory in-character photos with you when it’s complete, though).
In fact, if it weren’t for artists like The Timeless Closet Shop, McLaughlin’s complex and well-made “Anna Mystique” cosplay (which also inspired her social media handle and cosplayer name ‘Auburn Mystique’) may never have seen the light of day.
“It was my first out of the box idea that came together amazingly!”
It’s this foundation of support that McCallie finds as equally rewarding as actually being in-costume. The YouTuber and gamer says he enjoys “being the idea and support staff”:
“My friend Hayley West (@hailstorm_adventures) wanted to be Annie from ‘Attack on Titan,’ and I helped her out with deciding on how she should do it. In the end, she pulled off a really good cosplay, and I was just excited that I could help her make some of the decisions, as well as be her handler throughout the day at Comic-Con.”
John McCallie as Hipster Cap and Winter Soldier Captain America, Jacey Aldredge as Black Widow; Hayley West from Hailstorm Adventures as Beetlejuice; 'Supernatural' group cosplay: West as gender-bent Castiel, Blondeshell Cosplay as gender-bent Dean, Auburn Mystique as Charlie, Ambiguous Leah Cosplay as gender-bent Sam. | Photos courtesy McCallie and Facebook
Cons aren’t the only place to find a cosplayer, though. Disneyland frequently does special events such as Dapper Day, where it’s encouraged to “dress to impress” in vintage suits and gowns, as well as themed days like “Rock Your Disney Side.” It’s the latter occasion where McLaughlin has her fondest memory as, you guessed it, Anna from ‘Frozen.’
“I ate lunch at The Blue Bayou Restaurant and this father came up to me and said ‘Excuse me, Princess Anna, my daughters could not stop talking about you the whole meal can they meet you?’ And these little girls came up and were so shy! It was adorable. One of them just ran up and hugged me and ran away. After the father thanked me and said that this made their day! I love moments like this.”
This sense of wonder and magic is huge part of cosplay, and a definite factor in many people’s burgeoning interest in the hobby. For Norfleet a.k.a Bamf Cosplay (Bamf stands for "Bad Ass Magnificent Female"; an accurate acronym) it’s an escape and a form of expression. Flash-back to 2016: fresh out of college but not sure of her next steps (sound familiar?), Norfleet reflected on when she felt the happiest; watching movies and playing video games with family.
“I was feeling really low about a year ago with family issues.... [cosplay] was a way to connect to happier times and express myself.”
For Dolan, her interest in cosplay just seemed like the next logical progression for someone whose favorite holiday is Halloween. She’s been attending cons since 2006 and loved dressing up for Renaissance Faires.
“I immediately became pretty obsessed with the idea of cosplay, I loved taking pictures with cosplayers and complementing their awesome work! I didn't think about doing it until 2012. I made my first cosplay, wore it to a con and I never looked back!”
Indeed, these cosplayers are not looking back. All four have hefty goals for the future, ranging from current cosplay updates to creating visual portfolios and collaborating for group cosplays (Dolan has a “Riverdale” photoshoot coming up; she’ll be Betty Cooper) to improving their technical and artistic skills.
“I plan on practicing to improve my sewing skills; the more comfortable I am with sewing, the more creative opportunities I have,” says Dolan. Dolan prefers cosplaying as blondes (hence the social media handle), and wants to create a Christmas version of her Bombshell Harley Quinn along with an updated Thor (with the success of “Thor: Ragnarok,” this would be perfect timing).
McLaughlin, a devoted Taylor Swift fan (peep her in the star’s famed “Shake it Off” music video), is preparing a look from Swift’s recent “Look What You Made Me Do” single. She’s also working on “Game of Throne”’s favorite Faceless Man:
“My dream cosplay is Jaqen H'ghar because we have the same hair so that will happen."
Her next completed work will be another rendition of Anna (we can never have enough, though, honestly), this time based on the princess’s outfit in the upcoming “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” short releasing later this month.
“I'm so excited for that to come in. I commissioned it from ACT Costumes and she's amazing so I know it's going to look great.”
Norfleet has her eyes set on expanding her special FX skills and her visual resume, while McCallie just wants to make things as “stress-free and fun” as possible (a lofty goal in and of itself). A big factor in whether your cosplay experience will be stressful or not usually relies on whether you’re going to DIY or buy, and to what extent you’ll go for each. While being able to say you’re the sole maker of your cosplay creation is a proud moment, it takes dedication, practice, and time; collaborating can be key in these situations. Our cosplayers are a part of the general consensus that “a little bit of both” is the best option, and even with tight budgets, a little imagination and McGuyver’ing can do the trick.
Kylee Norfleet as Tia Dalma/Calypso; @Behemoth91 as Star Lord, Norfleet as Gamora; as Ariel; as Lana from TV show 'Archer' | Photos courtesy Kylee Norfleet
“I like to buy parts of the costume and make parts, or take things I find and alter them. A good example is [my] Elsa; I found the dress and added the slit, got matching fabric to make the cape and then sewed that into the dress. I made the undershirt out of panty hose,” says Dolan.
McLaughlin is a firm believer that “cardboard and duct tape” will be your best friends. While cosplays such as her Medieval Poison Ivy may have been entirely commissioned, others were embellished or improved by her own hand, like sewing on a belt and patches to her Dapper Jesse cosplay.
At the end of the day (or the con), stress gets a backseat to the ultimate point of all the blood, sweat, and tears: having a good fucking time. If you’re just starting out on this crazy cosplay journey, here’s a few pieces of advice to the novice:
“If it ever stresses you out to the point of full craze mode, take a beat. It is cos-PLAY after all. Many people will forget that but you shouldn't.”
“Never forget to have fun! Don't take the play out of cosplay.”
“Start simple! I started with simplified costumes, or things I had parts to. One of my first costumes was regular clothes with a sign I made to become Stephen Stills from Scott Pilgrim. As time went on I improved my existing costumes, and tried out more complex ones. This should be something that is fun to do, not hard to do.”
“Try not to be overwhelmed by how big cosplay has gotten. When you're just starting out you likely won't know what to expect, and I feel like unfortunately the cosplay community can be very intimidating at times because now there is such a thing as ‘famous’ cosplayers. While it's great that nerd culture is being normalized and appreciated, it can also make something that's supposed to be a fun hobby feel like a contest. So remember that at the end of the day, the point is to have fun paying tribute to the characters you love; do it for yourself and enjoy it!”
There’s a whole world out there to explore when it comes to cosplay. Take your time, find your niche, enjoy the process. Whether you’re into mainstream Marvel comics, television shows like cult-favorite ‘Supernatural,’ or something a little more off-kilter (‘Slime Rancher,’ anyone?) there’s a place for you. Get to it!