The UK’s cosplay army is growing, and this weekend it’s coming to London. We take a look behind the scenes
Words: Frankie Mullin
How’s this for an impressively bizarre job description: Freelance fur-suit and monster maker. Such is the occupation of Kimberly Rust (better known as KpopKimi or Kimi-Chan), who’s living proof costumes are not just for Halloween.
This weekend, the capital will be swamped with zombies, devils and sexy cats – standard All Hallows fare – but at the ExCel Centre in east London, something else will be going on.
Here, adults dressed as superheroes, anime, computer game and comic book characters will converge en masse for the UK’s biggest annual cosplay event.
Cosplay, for the uninitiated, simply means ‘costume play’. It’s a close-knit, slightly obsessive world in which grown-ups ditch normality to become figures of fantasy, if only for a few hours.
The scene is massive in Japan, where teenagers in statement anime-dress gather in Tokyo’s Harajuku district to see and be seen. The subculture has spread, albeit in a slightly altered form, and the MCM Expo London Comic Con 2011 will attract more than 50,000 devotees.
To create an outfit based on a favoured fictional character is the first objective; parading it in front of fellow cosplayers the second. The unabashedly exhibitionist, wildly creative energy that goes into players’ attire is staggering.
And on October 29, it’s time to show it off. “It’s more than just dressing up,” says Rust, 23. “You spend a lot of time creating something then you can relax and be yourself, or go that step further and actually become a character you love.”
The extent to which cosplayers actually “become” their characters varies. For some, wearing the costume is an end in itself, others take on attributes of their character, seeing it as a chance, perhaps, to escape or express something about themselves.
“There are no rules,” says Rob Dunlop, co-creator of cosplayfever.com and associated book, Cosplay Fever Red.
“But some people take it very seriously and stay in character. I once asked a Silent Bob lookalike if I could take his picture and was met with silence. We carried out the whole shoot without him speaking a word.”
So what exactly will these face-painted, weapon-wielding, satin and fur-covered lovers of fantasy be doing at the MCM Expo on Saturday?
Aside from perusing comics and related merchandise, playing new video games, attending workshops and listening to talks, many will be taking part in the second EuroCosplay Championships – a catwalk masquerade offering contestants the chance to be crowned European Champion.
If you’re planning to visit the expo as a civilian, this is the crowning event you should not miss.
Even without the possible glory of winning the championship, there’s a competitive edge to cosplay and costumes are made to be flaunted.
At an event like this weekend’s, players will be seriously checking each other out and someone in a good costume can expect to be photographed hundreds of times. Originality and creativity are highly valued, so turning up in a mail-order Batman outfit just won’t cut it.
“Cosplay isn’t elitist, but you won’t get same attention and adoration if you haven’t made your outfit,” says Dunlop.
“Some people spend months on their costume and they get a strong feeling of accomplishment from having 10,000 piers praising it.”
Rust epitomises cosplay’s DIY ethos. “I’ve made all my outfits,” she says. “I raid charity shops, car boot sales and markets; then it’s like putting together a puzzle.
“I spend six to 10 hours a day working on my costumes in sections, then put them together piece by piece. My favourites would either be a steampunk character I made called Excelda Gastra or Pale Man from the movie Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Away from its Japanese anime roots, European cosplayers reference diverse influences and costume trends reflect the tidal changes of pop culture.
“Zombies were big a year ago and Sucker Punch spawned lots of ‘girls kicking ass’ costumes,” Dunlop says. “There are staples like Batman and Harlequin and characters from Star Wars, Back To The Future and Alien will never die.”
It’s not always a case of simply recreating an outfit, however. “Cosplayers do a lot of interpreting when they’re making their costumes,” Dunlop says.
“I’ve seen a character from retro computer game Doom recreated in very blocky, pixellated way using boxes. At one event, people were dressed in black with coloured boards behind them, posing with iPods to recreate the adverts.”
Battle of ingenuity it may be, but ask any cosplayer what they love about it and “sense of community” will be up there at the top of their list. It’s a niche hobby, cool in its unrepentant geekiness, and in this is fellowship.
“It is a fantastic moment when you’re walking around in cosplay and you spot a character from the same anime as you. Instantly you know that this stranger, in this costume, has something in common with you and it is probably the easiest way to make friends,” Jenny Brundle says.
Some of the costumes, especially those worn by women, are undoubtedly hot. Brundle, 20, admits to keeping her hair long and staying slim especially to look the part of midriff-baring anime character Winry Rockbell from Fullmetal Alchemist.
So is there a sexual side to all this dressing up? Is the expo really just some giant, rather tame, fetish ball?
Cosplayers say no. “It’s no more sexual that real life,” Dunlop says. “Some girls wear risqué costumes, some don’t. What cosplayers are attracted to is the social aspect.”
This community extends beyond any organised event and thrives year-round on internet forums where cosplayers chat, plan costumes and share tips.
Social networking has played a huge part in the growth of the scene and in the run-up to the MCM Expo, websites such as cosplayisland.com and Cosplay Fever’s Facebook group are buzzing with works in progress on which advice and encouragement are handed out with surprisingly
“Need help making a Tardis headband,” a female user cries on cosplayerisland.com. “I’ve almost finished my Tardis dress, but now I’ve just realised I have no idea how I’m going to make the light on top!”
Cue a detailed response, complete with diagram of bean-tin, pipe-cleaners and glue. Other forum topics include, ‘Armour help’, ‘Need to find characters with orange hair, ‘How to create fake wounds’ and ‘Spray paint and latex swords’.
All of these are answered in a have-a-go style any Blue Peter presenter would be proud of.
Unsurprisingly, some cosplayers use their hobby to launch a career in a creative industry like special effects, photography or costume making. Maha, 20-something singer in rock band The Kut, from London, discovered the Harajuku scene on a trip to Japan and has, since then, woven together her passions for music and costume.
“I regularly go out to Japan with my band and every time I’m taken with the effort people put into cosplay. Back in London I organise events for the Cosplay and Harajuku Meetup group. There are always lots of photos, hanging out and music, and I love all those things,” she says.
“Cosplay, like music, is about self-expression.”
For the majority, though, cosplay will never lead to a colourful job and, like most hobbies, is more likely to be a way of escaping a mundane one. Beats fishing? Get down to the expo this weekend and decide for yourself.