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Cosplay (コスプレ, kosupure), a portmanteau of the words costume play, is a performance art in which participants called cosplayers wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character. Cosplayers often interact to create a subculture, and a broader use of the term “cosplay” applies to any costumed role-playing in venues apart from the stage. Any entity that lends itself to dramatic interpretation may be taken up as a subject and it is not unusual to see genders switched. Favorite sources include anime, cartoons, comic books, manga, television series, and video games.
The rapid growth in the number of people cosplaying as a hobby since the 1990s has made the phenomenon a significant aspect of popular culture in Japan and some other parts of Asia and in the Western world. Cosplay events are common features of fan conventions and there are also dedicated conventions and local and international competitions, as well as social networks, websites and other forms of media centered on cosplay activities.
The term “cosplay” was coined in Japan in 1984. It was inspired by and grew out of the practice of fan costuming at science fiction conventions, beginning with Morojo’s “futuristicostumes” created for the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in New York City in 1939.
The term “cosplay” is a Japanese portmanteau of the English terms costume and play. The term was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi of Studio Hard after he attended the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Los Angeles and saw costumed fans, which he later wrote about in an article for the Japanese magazine My Anime. Takahashi chose to coin a new word rather than use the existing translation of the English term “masquerade” because that translates into Japanese as “an aristocratic costume”, which did not match his experience of the Worldcon. The coinage reflects a common Japanese method of abbreviation in which the first two moras of a pair of words are used to form an independent compound: ‘costume’ becomes kosu (コス) and ‘play’ becomes pure (プレ).
Masquerade balls were a feature of the Carnival season in the 15th century, and involved increasingly elaborate allegorical Royal Entries, pageants, and triumphal processions celebrating marriages and other dynastic events of late medieval court life. They were extended into costumed public festivities in Italy during the 16th century Renaissance, generally elaborate dances held for members of the upper classes, which were particularly popular in Venice.
Costume parties (American English) or fancy dress parties (British English) were popular from the 19th century onwards. Costuming guides of the period, such as Samuel Miller’s Male Character Costumes (1884) or Ardern Holt’s Fancy Dresses Described (1887) feature mostly generic costumes, whether that be period costumes, national costumes, objects or abstract concepts such as “Autumn” or “Night”. Most specific costumes described therein are for historical figures although some are sourced from fiction, like The Three Musketeers or Shakespeare characters.
Cosplay costumes vary greatly and can range from simple themed clothing to highly detailed costumes. It is generally considered different from Halloween and Mardi Gras costume wear, as the intention is to replicate a specific character, rather than to reflect the culture and symbolism of a holiday event. As such, when in costume, some cosplayers often seek to adopt the affect, mannerisms, and body language of the characters they portray (with “out of character” breaks). The characters chosen to be cosplayed may be sourced from any movie, TV series, book, comic book, video game, music band, anime, or manga. Some cosplayers even choose to cosplay an original character of their own design or a fusion of different genres (e.g. a steampunk version of a character), and it is a part of the ethos of cosplay that anybody can be anything, as with genderbending, crossplay, or drag, a cosplayer playing a character of another ethnicity, or a hijabi portraying Captain America.