The Origins of Cosplay

If you’re in Japan right now you might have noticed the hordes of Cosplay enthusiasts in Nagoya and also Tokyo this year. Yes, it’s that time of the year again – the WCS – or World Cospay Summit is once again underway, bringing with it incredible costumes, dedicated fans, and perhaps one or two questions of why people are into this unusual hobby.

Derived from a combination of the words Costume and Play, Cosplay has become a world-wide phenomenon – and not just for young, comic/manga/anime loving otaku.

First of all, what is Cosplay?
At it’s core, it is a performance art in which participants, whether professional or amateur, wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent their favourite characters from comic books/manga, anime shows, TV series, or from popular video games, such as last year’s WCS champions from Mexico, playing Dhalsim and Chun Li from Streetfighter II.

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, other parts of Asia, and in the Western world.
Cosplay events are a common feature of various fan conventions these days; there are also dedicated conventions, local and international competitions, as well as social networks, websites, and other forms of media centered on cosplay activities.

Western Origins of Cosplay

Although Japan is generally credited as the origin of Cosplay, and the Term “Cosplay” itself was originally coined in Japan (surprise, surprise) in 1984, it is NOT an entirely Japanese invention, however. Costume parties and Masquerade balls have been popular since the 15th century, actually.

This might come as a surprise to many, but…
It was Myrtle Rebecca Douglas Smith Gray Nolan (June 20, 1904 – November 30, 1964), known in science fiction history simply as Morojo. She was a science fiction fan, fanzine publisher, and cosplay pioneer from Los Angeles, California. Together with her then-boyfriend Ackerman, she attended the 1939 1st World Science Fiction Convention (Nycon or 1st Worldcon) in New York City dressed in “futuristicostumes”, including a green cape and breeches, based on the pulp magazine artwork of Frank R. Paul and the 1936 film ‘Things to Come’, the costumes were designed, created, and sewn by Douglas herself. No one else wore a costume that first year, but all that changed at the 2nd Worldcon in 1940 in Chicago, where a parade and a short skit on stage were part of the festivities.
The rest, as they say, is history.

Cosplay in Japan

The term itself was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi of manga Studio ‘Hard’, after he attended the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Los Angeles. He was impressed with the masquerade, reported on it in ‘My Anime’, coining the term kosupure in the process, and subsequently used the word in some Japanese magazines in 1983/1984.

These days, Cosplay is all the rage with thousands upon thousands of people dressing up and getting into character. The get-ups vary greatly, ranging from simple-themed to highly-detailed costumes.
When in costume, the cosplayers often seek to adopt the affect, mannerisms, and body language of the characters they portray. As many have commented,
It is now big business in Japan – a whole world of conventions, events and dedicated stores have cropped up around this cultural and has turned it into an international phenomenon.

From a simple mask to an artful and painstakingly designed costume, cosplaying is endlessly adaptable. In anticipation of big events, many cosplayers will spend hours upon hours putting together an outfit, whether hand-making it or buying the components from a store such as Mitsubado in Akihabara.

To take part in an official cosplay competition, however, it is necessary that your costume be hand-made and totally original. In addition to clothing, accessories such as wigs, colourful contact lenses and temporary tattoos may also be incorporated into the cosplay.
Yes, the only time when it’s truly “acceptable” to display big tattoos (though fake ones) in public in Japan.

People put an incredible amount of energy, determination, creativity, and craftsmanship into their costumes – (not just in Japan) – and also into making their chosen character come to life.

Why Cosplay?

With the surprising and interesting history out of the way, let’s take a look at the question which is probably already forming in the back of your mind at this moment…
Is it the camaraderie, the chance to become someone else, the sex appeal (of certain characters), the creativity, the community, or something else entirely, which makes this such a huge cultural phenomenon?
We asked cosplayers in two different countries on two different continents, and here’s what they had to say…

The significance of the World Cosplay Summit

Arguably one of the largest and most important events in the world of Cosplay, the WCS helped to start and promote the current Cosplay trend worldwide. The annual event has been held since 2003 and is growing in size, scope, and significance every year.

2003 The first event was held on October 12 at the Rose Court Hotel in Nagoya. 5 cosplayers were invited from Germany, France and Italy; events included a panel discussion, photographs session, and mixer event.

2004 Held on August 1 at the Ōsu shopping district in Naka-ku, Nagoya, this year introduced the now beloved Cosplay Parade, which featured about 100 participants in addition to the official 8 cosplay teams invited from Germany, France, Italy and the United States.

2005 The WCS transferred from an invitational based system to a system where preliminary events were held around the world to select cosplay participants. This was also the first year to hold the Cosplay Championship. Single and group teams came to represent each country with 4 cosplayers from each nation. Along with supporting activities, the event took place in 2 main locations: the Cosplay Parade was held in Osu on July 31 and the Cosplay Championship was held at the Expo Dome on August 7 during Expo 2005. 40 people from seven countries participated in the first Cosplay Championship, with France winning the group category, Italy winning the individual category, and with the overall contest winner being Italy.[6] The initial goal of the event was to bring a part of Japanese youth culture to Expo 2005 and the event enjoyed the support of the Expo organizing committee — the Japan Association for the 2005 World Exposition

2006 The next year the event moved to the venue for the Cosplay Championship the location where it was held until 2013 at Oasis 21 in Sakae, Nagoya. 9 countries competed: Italy, Germany, France, Spain, China, Brazil, Thailand, Singapore and Japan, with a total of 22 cosplayers. Maurisio Somenzari L. Olivas and Monica Somenzari L. Olivas are a brother-and-sister team who represented Brazil, winning the grand prize at the 2006 summit. Dressed respectively as Hughes de Watteau and Augusta Vradica from Trinity Blood, they made their costumes by hand with help from their parents. This year the WCS gained the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT). Over 5,000 people attended the Cosplay Championship stage event and several thousand more attended the Cosplay Parade. TV Aichi broadcast another TV documentary special, “World Cosplay Summit 2006: New Challengers”.

From there the event grew each and every year in both size, but also in support. If you’re interested, you can read the full timeline and a plethora of other information about the WCS here…


… Camraderie, being able to express your creativity, a sense of community, making new friends and in some cases even finding the love of your life – these are all things possible through the world-wide appeal of cosplay. What started as a spur-of-the-moment idea in 1939 is now one of the most unique world-wide phenomenons of our time.

Where is cosplay heading from here? One thing is for sure.. this trend is not letting up anytime soon, and will only grow in popularity in the coming years, if the incredible growth of the WCS and other cosplay events is any indication. What amazing, interesting, scary, ingenious, funny, and entertaining character representations people have yet to come up with is something we’re definitely looking forward to at next year’s WCS in Japan.