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strange_doings ([personal profile] strange_doings) wrote2012-07-28 05:46 pm
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The History of Cosplay

This is up on the SLC site as well, but the link is sort of buried and I know sometimes people have a harder time reading light text on dark backgrounds. So, repost!

I wrote this essay in order to correct some misconceptions among the newer members of the cosplay community. It is, actually, a history of hobby costuming in general, but with a slant toward connecting it to what cosplayers perceive as the state of the hobby today. Given that in some corners of fandom there are now rumblings that people need to somehow "prove" their geek cred in order to "earn" the "right" to wear a costume at a convention, a history lesson is what everyone needs right about now. And yes, I put all those words in quotes because I find them all to be ludicrous. No one needs to prove how geeky they are in order to be allowed to cosplay. As long as they're following the con rules and basic social etiquette and aren't, well, stealing the costume from a store or anything, everyone is free to do as they please with their costumes.

But now, your lesson for today: nerds have been wearing costumes to cons a lot longer than you might think!

The History of Cosplay

There are a lot of myths floating about the internet regarding the origins of cosplay, which includes all media recreation costuming and the costuming hobby in general. I've spent so much time and energy repeating myself while correcting the myths and misnomers that I've decided to compile a page solely for education on the history of cosplay. It is by no means an exhaustive history, there is probably much I could include, but it does contain the important points to help dispel myths and inform the wider fandom audience of the facts.

First of all, cosplay did not start in Japan and is not an original concept of the Japanese. The actual word "cosplay" was invented by a Japanese reporter, yes, but that is the extent of Japanese involvement in the creation of the hobby. In 1984, Nov Takahashi was sent to report on the goings-on of the '84 WorldCon, being held that year in Los Angeles, CA. He coined the word "cosplay" to describe what he saw going on at WorldCon – people wearing costumes in the halls, and a stage masquerade featuring the biggest and brightest of the costumes of the weekend. Quick linguistics lesson: Japanese language often forms composite words out of loanwords from other languages, such as English; the term is portmanteau. Most Japanese portmanteau are formed from the first syllable of each word borrowed, or the whole word in case of single-syllable words. In this case, Takahashi took costume and play and smashed them together to try to describe what he was seeing at WorldCon. What is important to note is that while we can only speculate on what he meant by "play," what is almost certain is that he did not necessarily refer to "acting," since the only stage performing at WorldCon is the masquerade, in which performances did not necessarily involve spoken dialogue. In fact, many of them that year didn't. LARPing or pretending to be your character in the halls did happen, but it was fairly rare and usually contained to events.

More importantly, the sort of costumes and costume-wearing habits and traditions viewed at WorldCon in the early 80's were the culmination of literally decades of convention traditions. The creation of costume, the genres and styles of costume, and the times and places for proper wearing of costume had all been well-established by that time via science fiction conventions across the country. The state of costuming and costume-wearing habits evolves very little among those sci-fi conventions, so even though it has been over 25 years since that infamous WorldCon, one can look at fan and costumer behavior at any mid-size regional sci-fi con still running today and discern what Takahashi probably saw. This includes the masquerade, which is often a convention's crowning point of Saturday evening entertainment; media recreations regardless of the media source, and daily hall costuming.

It is not hyperbole to say that hall costuming has been going on for decades, longer than many of today's anime-convention fans have been alive. The first documented hall costume was worn by Forry Ackerman in 1939, at WorldCon held in New York. The very first WorldCons and other small sci-fi conventions were primarily attended by young men only, and revolved around the discussion and distribution of science fiction anthologies and periodicals. The sci-fi of the time was found in novel form, comic books, and serial magazines dedicated to short stories. Forry Ackerman's first costume was an a "space military" style uniform based on a piece of literature and made by his girlfriend (who wore a matching ladies' uniform). Being as Ackerman is credited with being a trend-setter in more than one fandom tradition that lasts to the present day, it is presumed that his decision to wear a costume instead of street clothing while inside convention space gradually spawned imitators and emulators. Because little existed in the way of "media" besides literature, those early costumes were likely to be informal and original or generic design. Women were either not admitted or not often seen at sci-fi expos until sometime in the 40's, after WW2. Among these expos, the biggest and most influential for the longest time was WorldCon, because it changes location annually and is billed as a world meeting of sci-fi buffs. In the modern era, there are many conventions that haul in annual attendance rates triple that of any given WorldCon, but it is so firmly entrenched as the longest-running convention in the world and the mother of all sci-fi conventions – and by extension, the mother of all anime, gaming, literature, and other genre media cons. Thus, trends established at WorldCon and the host conventions that carried it through the 1940's, 50's, and 60's are the ones that should be understood as the origins of hobby costuming.

The first documented masquerade that I could find was WorldCon 1950, hosted by NorWesCon. Whether there were other conventions holding masquerade contests at that time, I haven't been able to find. Many conventions held (and still hold) parties and informal contests, but as of 1950 WorldCon established the tradition of a staged masquerade contest involving the presentation of costumes for the purpose of award. Because media at the time was still somewhat limited, and there was no outside picture-reference material to assist costumers aside from drawn movie posters or comic books, the costumes of the time were still primarily original or generic. There is no documentation for what point in the 50's, 60's, or 70's that the standard of judging changed, but speak to any veteran costumer who was there (yes, they are still alive and of sound mind) and they could tell you stories of the origin of many classic masquerade rules. This includes "no costume is no costume" from the days when young men would strip their girlfriends naked/to a bikini and pasties, paint them green, and throw them on stage as "Star Trek alien chick." Over time, with the proliferation of science fiction and horror themes in movies and the heyday of superhero comic books, recreations of popular media characters began to creep into both hall costuming and stage masquerade costumes. This includes anime, as there were nerds getting their hands on "Japanimation" in the late 60's and early 70's. It is suggested that Karen Schnaubelt might have done the first anime costume in the US, when she put together costumes from Captain Harlock for the halls in the late 1970's, and then entered a Starship Yamato group at WorldCon and other west-coast conventions in 1980. That group went on to win Best in Show regionally, the first anime costumes to be awarded the highest honor in a masquerade - four years before Takahashi even heard of WorldCon.

In the 1970's, fandom proliferated through the distribution of 'zines, informally mass-produced fan-made mini-magazines featuring short stories of original fiction, art, and fanfiction. Yes, fanfic. An ad in a 'zine in 1979 is said to be the origin of the decision for costumers to start getting together and re-showing, archiving, and discussing their costumes separately from conventions and SCA or re-enactor events, but the groundwork for what became CostumeCon and the International Costumers Guild was laid at the 1981 WorldCon in Denver (Denvention). This was the first year the WorldCon Masquerade instituted the three-tier skill division system for judging workmanship, and the year when costume-related panel programming brought about a sudden wildfire of interest and attendance. The first CostumeCon was held in 1983. The International Costumers Guild itself began in 1985, comprised of many of the convention committee members who organized and put on the first three CostumeCons and continue to this day to be instrumental in the field of costuming.

Thus, in 1984 when Nov Takahashi was sent over to write about these strange Americans and their science fiction conventions, what he saw was the outgrowth of a minimum of 30 years of solid costuming tradition. People wore costumes in the halls while attending convention panels and events, either media recreations or their own designs and fantasy-inspired clothing. Saturday night featured the stage masquerade, in which anyone from novice to master could enter their costumes into competition and present them on stage. This means the tiered system and the tradition of workmanship judging was already established. There are photo galleries of this very convention online where anyone can view the range of costumes that were presented at the masquerade, it appears to be an even mix of original designs and media recreations: Klingons, a Ghostbuster, Disney's Fantasia, and some amazing Egyptian and Hopi Indian fantasy costumes, as well as generic fantasy and sci-fi robot costumes. Whether or not anyone was wandering around the halls in a Japanese media costume is unknown and undocumented, so it is more likely than not that Takahashi's description of "cosplay" was entirely about American character costumes, both original and media recreation. And these costumes were not usually of a closet-raided or amateur variety; at some point in the 70's costumers became very particular about their standards, insisting on workmanship judging and presenting their best work on stage. Having spoken to some of the people who actually presented in Master class in 1984, it is clear that whatever young people new to the hobby perceive as being "cosplay," is not at all what Takahashi saw in 1984 when he made up that word. His term encompassed everything from the halls to the stage, from cheap and amateur to high-quality, elaborate "Grand Opera" style presentations, from fairies and robots to movie-replica Klingons and Darth Vaders.

What is still unknown is how soon after the '84 WorldCon and Takahashi's article that the Japanese actually began to make costumes and display them at local conventions. Also unknown is whether the first Japanese person to actually don a media recreation costume was wearing something of Japanese origin, or instead copied the Americans to the point of making a Spider-man or Han Solo costume first. Because these two crucial things are unknown and undocumented, no one can make a claim that the Japanese originated cosplay as we know it today. One thing, however, is certain: the concept of creating and wearing a costume of a character from a media source was not in any way originated by anyone of Japanese nationality. No one in Japan can claim to have invented or started cosplay, no matter how popular a phenomenon it might have become in the present day over there. There are some who might use the term to describe solely costumes originating from a Japanese media source (anime, manga, or video game), but even then, without proof that a Japanese person in Japan created a costume of a Japanese media character prior to anyone in America doing the same, "cosplay" under the narrow definition still cannot be claimed by the Japanese. In fact, since Karen Schnaubelt was making and displaying Harlock costumes in 1979, she has Takahashi's audience beat by five years.

Therefore, this is what we can state with certainty: cosplay was not invented by the Japanese, it was not started in the last ten or twenty years, and there is nothing unique about wearing anime costumes at anime cons compared to all other geek-genre cons. It's part of a very, very long-standing tradition that continues everywhere today. It's useful to understand what laid the foundations for what goes on at conventions today, because it explains why masquerades exist, why craftsmanship judging is considered important, and why we're still allowed to run around in costume at all hours of the convention. We modern-day cosplayers owe most of our traditions and the very idea of costume creation to those who came before us, before most of us were even born. It doesn't mean that all traditions are carved in stone – after all, the evolution and revolution of costumes and costume design will keep the hobby alive for many more decades to come. Knowing where it came from will help us all to perpetuate the concept and ensure that cosplayers will live on. – the 2.9 issue "All your YIPE are belong to us" Sept. 2010
Forry Ackerman wikipedia article, and scattered obituaries after his passing

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