I had just been dumped by my first serious boyfriend, Danny. We’d talked about getting married, and I’d devoted so much of my time to him that I had little other life to speak of. My social circle comprised his friends, which made it hard to find support when they inevitably chose a side.
I did have a few friends outside the circle, all of whom were much geekier than Danny’s friends. Feeling sorry for me, they invited me on their annual trip to Dragon*Con, a major sci-fi and fantasy convention in Atlanta.
I would need a cosplay, they said.
I was no stranger to costumes. I was an avid trick-or-treater as a child, then a theatre kid. I’d made my own costumes for years and trotted them out on Halloween and at college parties. Rushing my theatre fraternity was a weeklong costume parade.
Cosplay, however, was a different beast. I was intrigued yet intimidated by the idea of performing a character outside the confines of a theatre. “Just, like, walk around and be that character?” I asked my friend.
“You don’t have to stay in character the whole time, but people get pretty into it,” he said.
I learned quickly that in the world of cosplay, your costume had to come with a story and be executed at a certain standard. Significant deviations from a character’s design would be frowned upon, although mashups were okay. Plus, you’d have to be okay with being constantly approached and photographed. I wasn’t sure about this, but figured it could help me overcome my shyness.
Given my state of grief, I chose a rather dreary character: “Dark Willow” from season six of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Like me, she was grieving the loss of a loved one (albeit due to murder, not an early midlife crisis) and was having an evil period. She was powerful, but her magic was turning to darkness. That resonated with me.
I dyed my hair black and did my best to create the costume worn by Alyson Hannigan. My seamstress skills weren’t the best at the time, and the end result was…not great. However, I enjoyed the ability to let a character take me over. No lines to memorize, no cues to listen for… I could just explore a new part of my personality.
Over the next few years, I become a professional costumer and a regular cosplayer. I learned how to design and build costumes at a higher standard, and I spent absurd amounts of money on fabric, wigs, and makeup. Each year at Dragon*Con, I tended to choose characters who reflected my own life experience. Unbeknownst to my fellow congoers, cosplay was giving me an intense therapy session.
This year, I was in a snarky mode. I wanted to cosplay characters who took no shit, but I was also discovering new layers of myself. I found myself drawn to characters who were damaged yet adorable. At the conclusion of this year, I would realize that I’d been in an abusive relationship. Looking back, I can see the pain I felt expressed through my cosplays: Columbia from Rocky Horror, Ramona from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass. From the comments I received, I learned that men at Dragon*Con can be pigs, but I also found a new sense of empowerment, even if my costumes still needed work.
This year, I’d discovered a new love of puppetry through my now-husband, and after watching The Dark Crystal for the first time, I just had to do a gelfling cosplay. Despite my happy relationship, I also was still reeling from the abusive one, so I chose characters who had experienced profound loss or loneliness. In addition to Kira, I cosplayed the Corpse Bride and learned that the Georgia humidity is unforgiving to special makeup.
This was the year that I discovered both burlesque and circus. I had a strong sense of mischief as I sought to launch my own business and recover my life. So, I cosplayed as characters who had a bit of a dark streak along with a sense of fun: Arya, Lorne from “Angel,” and Delphini from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. For some bizarre reason, I took almost no photos this year, but someone did capture my Lorne cosplay, which I femmed up in the style of the “Lornettes” from Lorne’s Vegas stint.
I was feeling like a badass this year, but also a touch of imposter syndrome. I chose characters who were strong but thrust into situations beyond their control. My cosplays included Ruby Roundhouse, a Buffy/Wonder Woman mashup, and Princess Bean. I particularly enjoying toting around my Luci puppet and drinking in character.
Throughout the years, as my costumes and performance improved, I realized something important. While technique and construction are important, the ability to overcome your self-doubt is the real benefit of cosplay. Performance is healing. By channeling my pain and delight into these characters, I was finding new ways to label my experiences. I was losing my shyness and learning to celebrate with strangers. At Dragon*Con, I’m not just a face in the crowd. I’m part of a community, and cosplay is not only the icebreaker but also the means of participation.
That’s what party costumes simply can’t achieve. When you dress up for Halloween, you’re putting on a filter and giving people a conversation starter. When you cosplay, you’re finding new depths to your experiences and living your life in conversation with your favorite characters. You’re signifying the importance of stories to your life. In this art form, you’re uniquely empowered to discover yourself.
That’s the power of cosplay.