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The Ever Changing Cosplay Scene

Some may argue that I don’t have much of a say in this matter considering I’ve only been cosplaying since 2009, but I am going to speak from my own experiences anyways. These are my opinions and my observations.  

The cosplay scene is a constantly changing environment filled with a wide range of people and personalities. To give a little background for myself and where I’m coming from as far as many of my opinions are concerned, I was introduced into the cosplay scene in 2009 after my first convention experience at SDCC. I didn’t start seriously cosplaying until 2010, though, the same year I accidentally started a costuming business. Yes, accidentally. Maybe I’ll write about that whole deal in another post with more detail, but for now let’s stay focused, Courtney! 🙂 Since then I’ve become a full-time costumer/business owner that caters to the cosplay scene 90% of the time. Aside from interacting with dozens of clients and potential clients monthly for the past 6-7 years who are seeking costumes, I also have a lot of experience vending at conventions and shows. I have also been guested at a few shows and judged a few contests, so I have tasted a lot of different sides of the scene and these are the things I’ve observed over the years.

When I first started out, I was so excited to start cosplaying. My first costume was Ada Wong from Resident Evil 4, one of my favorite games of all time. It made the costume from an old, over-sized prom dress that was given to me by someone who knew I could re-purpose it. It was a piece of crap, to be honest. Yes, I am a graduate of a fashion school and yes I knew how to sew, but I was short on funds and figuring out how to make an already made gown into something completely different was a challenge so it was very amateur, but I loved it nonetheless. This was in 2011, my first year vending at Phoenix Comicon. This was my first vendor experience at a convention. Before that it was small festivals and art shows, so it was a big change, but I was welcomed into the community with open arms. People LOVED my crappy dress and RE fans called out to me from across the hall to take photos and I met tons of other fans in costume and it was a BLAST. I was addicted after that and like many cosplayers, my costumes got more complicated and the projects more challenging in the years to come. 

As I immersed myself deeper into the scene, I started to find idols. People I looked up to. It’s no surprise that one of my first idols was Yaya Han. I admired her craftsmanship and her work was beautiful and her business sense was inspiring. By 2013 I was a full fledged business and my costuming work was a full time job, so I was attending more conventions for business purposes and networking heavily and finding booth space wherever I could to promote and sell product. I still enjoyed conventions so much that it took up most of my time, both as a hobby and a source of income. I had a fan page that I’d started years prior when my business was just for fantasy artwork, but I’d transformed it to suit my costuming business. I had NO idea how to be interesting…I still don’t, but back then it was embarrassing! At this time, there were a lot of other cosplayers with fan pages. It was a rising trend that I feel became incredibly popular after obvious, well known cosplayers started building large fan bases off of them. A select few BLEW UP on facebook and became “cos-famous,” earning a living off of selling prints, booking appearances, and branding themselves. Of course I am not saying the exact dates when these things started to really happen. This is just when I started noticing the trends more because I myself was trying to build an audience. 

Before 2013 the cosplay scene was one of the MOST welcoming scenes I’d ever been a part of. I finally felt like I was around people who loved the same things and didn’t think I was strange for being so passionate about the things I loved. In my younger years I was a loner by choice. I didn’t feel like I fit in and I separated myself from a social life because it felt comfortable to me. I am still like that. I love my alone time a lot because I am a creative and I can create best when I am on my own, listening to music, and watching K-dramas. However, the cosplay community allowed me to have something in common with others and I have found some of the best people through it and a lot of really amazing, life-long friends. Even when it came to my online work where I receive 90% of my costuming work, people messaged me with so much excitement and eagerness to get a hand-made costume and when they received it they were overjoyed to experience a convention in a new costume. It was thrilling and it made me so happy to know that I could make things for people that brought them so much joy. Wait times didn’t matter. Cost didn’t matter. There was a level of respect between cosplayers and costume makers because we all understood the art.

And then the shift started. AGAIN, these are my personal observations. The experience may be different for everyone. 

I know that there are a lot of people who will disagree, but in my personal opinion, the most noticeable changes started after the premier of “Heroes of Cosplay,” a reality show that emphasized the competitive side of cosplay and conventions. It also put a lot of light on the big, expensive, professional level costumes that very few cosplayers have the money or skill to do. Keep in mind that a large percentage of the cosplay community is filled with people who dress up just to have fun and mingle, not to compete or get judged. There is a fraction of the community committed to continuously competing in contests and masquerades, but in comparison to the community as a whole, that fraction is small. However, when the show was aired, it shined a light on that portion of the cosplay scene and showed it to a much larger crowd of people, many of which had never heard of cosplay nor had an interest in it. To those people, THAT was cosplay. Something requiring a lot of time and money and competition with others.

People saw an opportunity to gain popularity from cosplay once it became “mainstream” and the community quickly became over-saturated with people looking to turn heads rather than engage in a friendly hobby with others. And let’s be honest. Everyone in cosplay wants to turn heads. Whether it be for their craftsmanship or just because people love the character as much as you do, but the definition of cosplay changed when it was introduced to such a large audience. The show focused heavily on the competitive side, like I said, so the feel of the scene changed and the standards rose to some unreasonable levels. Outsiders coming in began to think that anything less than what was shown was not cosplay. 

And of course no one should care about standards when it comes to an activity that is so deeply personal to each individual, but what these standards do is create an elite. I watched cosplay groups become segregated over the course of a couple years and as a few, randomly selected individuals rose to popularity, the aggression started to rise. Almost EVERYONE entering the cosplay scene was looking for popularity after a while because it became the new “norm.” The more “likes” you have, the more “important” you are in the community. People started fighting over guest appearances at their local cons. Paying to promote their pages to get as many likes as possible. Acting friendly toward others only to utilize their connections. I know because I’ve been on almost every end of this over the past few years. I went for a few months trying my hardest to book appearances and got shot down many times. Only 1 in 5 requests got a response and even then the amount of people requesting to be guested at cons was so large that being a guest started to feel pointless and stressful and often times didn’t help my business at all. So many of these cosplayers that I spoke to thought they would make it on selling prints because “so-and-so” did and that’s not the case. Maybe for a few people it can work, but the concept of making a living strictly off of cosplay is a misconception that took over the community in the blink of an eye. Cosplay became a highly competitive business venture for a lot of inexperienced, short sighted individuals. I apologize, to an extent, if that might offend anyone.

For those looking to make money off of cosplay and cosplay alone, things got ugly. I recall many people who acted friendly toward me only for me to find out that friendship wasn’t their main agenda. There was an abundance of people trying to “make it” in the cosplay scene and acting nasty toward others to climb the cosplay ladder to…let’s face it…nowhere. But it progressed nonetheless. The cosplay scene began to consist of obvious groups, many of which were not very welcoming toward those in other groups. A large number of people began to look down on those with less than perfect costumes. Others look down on those who don’t make their own costumes. Then there are those who look down on others strictly based on the number of “followers” they have on social media. The list goes on and on, but the point is, the “community” became divided. There is a reason I no longer call it the “cosplay community.” I call it the “cosplay scene.” The sense of community became lost over the past few years and a growing number of people cosplay strictly for the popularity. Hell, I remember when cosplaying a character from a movie the week after it premiered was amazing. Now people compete to be the very first to cosplay something that won’t be out for another year! The earlier you do it, the more attention you’ll get because now the week later is old news. 

These changes weren’t only centered on the con scene either. I was noticing changes in the customer base I had. I do a majority of my business online. I work off measurements and I can create custom costumes off of almost any specifications given to me by clients. A couple years ago that was huge. People loved what I did and respected the work that went into it and respected my prices because ultimately I am offering a service with a skill someone else might not have. Recently the number of impolite messages I get has been increasing from people who want “quality” work at “affordable” prices. In other words, the number of people wanting a cheap costumes is increasing. And this, in my opinion, is due to the increase in people getting into cosplay for something other than the art or the mingling. They don’t want quality. They want fast cosplays that require little money because it is not about the art for them. It is about something else. The tone of their messages changes from “I’m so excited” to “you work for me. I’m more important than you.” I have even had people ask for free costumes claiming that it would be seen by a lot of people and they would give me credit. In that case, I usually say I have a full line of commissions and cannot take anymore…Or simply that I don’t work for free….

So, to sum it up, the cosplay community now is over-saturated, competitive, aggressive, and elitist. NOT all of it is that way. Over the past 6 months or so I literally said “fuck it” and I decided to separate myself a bit. I was becoming too stressed over who was my real friend and who wanted something from or from people I knew. It blew my mind how much I had to be wary of that. I left LA in 2008 because I felt the fashion industry there was too cutthroat and I was beginning to see the same thing in Arizona’s cosplay scene. I was too stressed trying to keep up with trends and popular costumes. I felt stupid for getting caught up in the hype and decided to step away.

I am a lucky person to have a business that is operated primarily online, so conventions were just an extra way to network for me, but did not make a significant portion of my income. So, getting rid of my booth at PCC this past month was a big step for me, especially considering I’ve had one since 2011 and since then it has become near impossible to get a space at that con after its growth exploded. The con scene in general has also been experiencing some major shifts, a subject I’ll address in another post. But in all, it wasn’t beneficial to my business anymore and the stress of it was getting to me and preventing me from having fun doing something that saved my life almost 7 years ago. Again, a subject for another post, but cosplay is extremely important to me and the community is as well. I am deeply saddened by the growing number of negative stories I hear from conventions about people being body shamed, costume shamed, or treated poorly by cosplayers who are more “popular” or think they’re more “popular.” Cosplay is not a competition (unless you actually compete). It should never be viewed as a competition because what are we competing for? What’s your end goal? What, if you are trying to climb the invisible ladder, is at the top? Showers of money and fame? 

Since I’ve separated myself a bit, I have started cosplaying things I love again. Not popular things, just things I enjoy. I’ve separated myself from people who contribute to the negativity and found myself a really amazing group of nerds that I call my con family. A group that builds each other up instead of knocks each other down. I’m not saying the cosplay scene is horrible, but I am saying that horrible aspects have become more prominent. And of course we can choose to pay attention to them or not. We can choose to give toxic people power, but it would only destroy the hobby for others.

Once more, this is my experience and what I’ve seen in my time as a cosplayer. I’m not in it for the money or fame. My business, while related to the cosplay scene, doesn’t require me to associate with people who are making cosplay less enjoyable and I am immensely thankful for that. I do it for fun and for a challenge and I do it with the people I love and my closest friends. Cosplay has not changed. The cosplay scene has, but once you step back and rethink what cosplay is to you, you’ll become indifferent to the negativity <3 Stick together. Do what you love.