‘Cosplay lets you become anything you want’: Inside the UK’s fastest growing subculture

It was once pop culture’s best-kept secret. Now it’s a global industry worth almost £300m. From creative costumes to sex-abuse scandals, Olivia Campbell undresses the art of dressing up

Sunday 08 December 2019 12:20 GMT
Roon Todd is known for her elaborate eye make-up
Roon Todd is known for her elaborate eye make-up (Cinder Cosplays/Rowan Todd)

Roon Todd is in character and ready to go. Her wig is styled, her costume perfected and her make-up – which she describes as “very anime-esque” – has transformed her into a living version of a fictional character.

Today, she is dressed up as Ibuki Mioda, a character from the video game Danganronpa. She takes photos in her room, ready to post for her almost 20,000 followers on Instagram.

Todd is a cosplayer, one of a growing community of costumed, role-playing enthusiasts in the UK who recreate characters from their favourite films, TV shows and books. For some, it’s a hobby, while others fully immerse themselves in becoming their character and even make a substantial living.

But what exactly is cosplay?

On paper, it’s a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play”, which sums it up pretty well. Cosplayers come in all shapes and sizes, and there is no limit to what you can create.

But how different is it to fancy dress, you might be asking. “Cosplay is a hobby that you do regularly and is more something you usually try to constantly hone and perfect,” Todd says. “Whereas fancy dress is usually when you dress up just to have fun.”

Other cosplayers argue that it is a form of performance art. “You’re essentially embodying a fictional character and playing as them,” explains Jayce Antique, a marketing manager who has been cosplaying since 2008. “Your interpretation is what brings them life. It’s definitely become an evolving art form over the years.”

Although cosplay first came to prominence in the 1990s, the art has its origins as far back as the 1930s. Early iterations began in the US, where Forrest J Ackerman and Myrtle R Douglas arrived at the First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 wearing futuristic dress inspired by Things to Come, a 1936 sci-fi film written by HG Wells (Ackerman is widely considered as one of the founders of science fiction fandom).

In subsequent years, conventions began running costume competitions, which helped to spread cosplay’s popularity around the world. The first such record of a competition in the UK was the 1953 London Science Fiction Convention. Decades later, cult fans of 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show attended screenings in costume.

However, the cosplay we’re more familiar with today actually has its roots in 1990s Japan. Although the term “cosplay”, or kosupure, was coined by film director Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1984, it was the rise of popular Nineties anime TV shows such as Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion that really brought it to the fore. The characters became popular choices among the cosplay community, popping up at conventions around the world. Now, the industry is booming, estimated to be worth around 40 billion yen (£282m).

Costumes are the beating heart of cosplay. While many companies sell ready-made costumes, there are plenty of cosplayers out there who make their own.

Antique, who specialises in video game characters, says his handmade costumes often take him up to six months to complete; some have even taken up to a year. “Often, I’ll have ideas mulling in my head for two to three months,” he explains. “I like the methodology behind the design. I come from a creative background, so the entire process is something I love doing.”

Much of his work involves armoury – a skill Antique has honed over the years. Costumes often become a labour of love for cosplayers, down to the finest detail.

But his work hasn’t always been that way. “My first attempts at cosplay were very DIY. It was loads of random material and I spent a lot of time just trying to work it out. Back then there were no tutorials or YouTube guides! Just me and a friend trying to work things out from scratch.”

The beauty of cosplay is that inspiration can come from absolutely anywhere. Mairon Oakley, who became interested after attending the premiere of Iron Man 3, prefers a more historical style.

“Anything that has a historical quality tends to influence my work,” he explains. “I’m also a fabrics person and I’m also like anything that’s armour or weapons-based.” Oakley, aka Loki of London, who has more than 3,000 followers on Facebook, is known for his fantasy cosplays from the likes of Game of Thrones and Interview with the Vampire, and has developed quite an audience, with over 3,000 followers on Facebook.

For both Antique and Oakley, being as authentic as possible is important. And sometimes, the process can be intense. “I go through it screen by screen to get all the angles of the costume,” Oakley tells me. Sourcing the material for a costume can be an adventure all on its own. “Fabric research takes up half the time,” he says. “I have several shops I go to, but it still takes a very long time because I try to match the fabrics so they’re as historically accurate as possible.”

“Now it’s the fun part,” Oakley explains. “After making the patterns, it’s time to put everything together. I’ll do all the finishes such as buttons and clasps. As my creations are historical, I don’t use zips or anything similar. I like to keep my costumes as close to the original as possible.”

Putting cosplay costumes together can often be complex and time-consuming, but not without its rewards. “It’s really cool when costumes are your own creation,” Todd says. “You feel really proud like you’ve achieved something.”

Some cosplayers turn to body modification to complete their look. This can range from wearing coloured contact lenses, getting permanent tattoos, or, at the more extreme end, plastic surgery.

Oakley dressed as Thranduil from Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy (Jamie Flack)
Oakley dressed as Thranduil from Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy (Jamie Flack)

But for the majority, the focus is on the costume. And for some, there’s an even greater emphasis on the make-up and hair that accompany a costume. A quick browse on YouTube will bring up thousands of videos of people demonstrating different techniques – from basic contouring to Oscar-worthy SFX prosthetics.

A large part of Todd’s cosplay is the techniques she uses to give herself the doe-eyed anime look. “I’d say the extreme eye make-up is definitely my thing” Todd tells me. “It’s definitely the part I’m known for.”

Cosplay is defined by its creativity – but, of course, it’s also about the money, earnt and spent. The cost of a completed costume, consisting of the outfit, accessories, wigs and make-up, can add up quickly. Time magazine estimates some cosplayers spend upwards of £1,000 on a single costume.

Todd as Junko Enoshima from ‘Danganronpa’ (Rowan Todd)
Todd as Junko Enoshima from ‘Danganronpa’ (Rowan Todd)

“I guess the average price I spend is around £200 to £600, but the most I’ve spent is £2,000 on my Loki costume,” Oakley tells me. “The cost has largely come from commissioning the armour and importing props from America.”

But cosplay doesn’t have to be expensive, sometimes it’s best to just get thrifty. “While some costumes can definitely become expensive, the average I spend is around £40,” Todd says. “I’ve gotten good at making things cheaper, often by sourcing other materials or reusing things.”

Cosplayers come in all shapes and sizes and the community is known for being open-minded and friendly. “When you’re starting out it really does feel like you’re accepted into the community very quickly,” Todd tells me. “It’s one of the things that I love – that we are so accepting of new people.”

While a big part of the culture has now moved online, meeting up at conventions is still common practice, with cosplayers travelling around the world to attend these events.​ MCM London Comic Con, first held in 2002, is the UK’s biggest convention and a huge deal in the cosplay community. In 2016, more than 130,000 people attended and the numbers continue to grow every year.

Both Todd and Antique’s love of cosplay began after visiting MCM in 2015 and 2018 respectively. “I was a bit overwhelmed when I attended my first convention,” Todd says. “I’d never been to a space where there were so many people who shared the same mindset.”

Todd dressed as Ibuki Mioda, also from ‘Danganropma’. Photoshoots are a big part of getting into character (Jon/Roon Tood)
Todd dressed as Ibuki Mioda, also from ‘Danganropma’. Photoshoots are a big part of getting into character (Jon/Roon Tood)

But the community is constantly evolving, as more and more people discover cosplay. Antique became involved when it was at a fraction of the popularity it is now, and knows others who have been cosplaying for over 20 years.

“Back in 2008, you still had that sort of connectivity through sites such as 4chan and Cosplay Island. Then Twitter and Instagram popped up, with YouTube becoming a lot more prominent as a platform for cosplay. This exposure has definitely rocked the cosplay world.”

A search for #cosplay on Instagram brings more than 39 million results. This online connectivity is bringing more and more people into cosplay and formulating change on a global level.

Todd says having such a big following can sometimes feel “surreal”. “Seeing that number on a screen doesn’t feel real. If it saw that many people in real life... I can only imagine,” she says.

While for some taking part in this growing subculture is just a hobby, there’s definitely money to be made. Some cosplayers have even been savvy and entrepreneurial enough to turn it into a full-time job and gain international recognition, with big stars like Yaya Han and Alyson Tabitha reportedly bringing in seven-figure salaries.

This is as much down to the quality of the costumes as it is cosplayers’ ability to bring their characters to life. Han and Tabitha’s Instagram accounts are filled with editorial-standard photoshoots that highlight their technical skills.

In the age of influencers, cosplayers have found a whole new medium, with some becoming “promotional models” – they are literally paid to cosplay and promote one product over another.

Holly Allen, who describes her cosplay as “villainous”, has worked for companies who use this particular form of marketing.

Holly Allen prefers more morally-complex characters, such as Alice from the video game ‘Alice: Madness Returns’ (Sonesh Joshi)
Holly Allen prefers more morally-complex characters, such as Alice from the video game ‘Alice: Madness Returns’ (Sonesh Joshi)

“Over the last few years I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work with various companies,” she tells me. “I was once asked if I wanted to put on a costume and fly out to Amsterdam in character. It was great. I’ve also recently worked for a Japanese casino company, who flew out a lot of cosplayers to represent them at an industry event. We basically handed out video games and helped with the launch.”

Big companies like Netflix and Square Enix have been known to hire cosplayers to help promote their TV shows, films and video games. Some agencies even represent “costume performers”, who negotiate brand deals and book events on their client’s behalf.

Allen has also been invited by conventions to guest host cosplay competitions, thanks to her skillset and commitment to the craft. “I also teach workshops where I teach other people how to cosplay,” she says.

Using the skills he learnt while making his intricate costumes, Oakley set up a costume business, Dapper and Dust, with his partner, creating bespoke historical garments for a range of clients.

Oakley is drawn to costumes with a more historical style, such as Loki from the Marvel franchise (Jamie Flack)
Oakley is drawn to costumes with a more historical style, such as Loki from the Marvel franchise (Jamie Flack)

For a number of people, cosplay can be a gateway into other creative industries, such as professional SFX make-up, wig creation or even bespoke weaponry.

Antique is also a cosplay photographer on the side and helps to bring other people’s work to life. Photography is a massive part of the community for both hobbyists and professionals, meaning there is a profitable niche for those with the skills. It’s not uncommon to see them hauling around an unwieldy amount of kit at conventions…

“It’s actually a lot more fun to do recently!” Antique says. “The pressure is off you to look really good and instead you can focus on the person in front of the camera. Also, because of my experience, I’m able to direct the person I’m photographing. It’s given me such a unique perspective.”

But I do think there’s still unconscious bias of people preferring white girls in scantily clad outfits or white boys who are ripped to pieces. People just prefer that imagery

However, the art form is not without its controversies. Diversity, or lack thereof, has become a source of contention in recent years. In the west, cosplay remains overwhelmingly white and many POCs feel that they have been left out of the community.

“I do think it is getting better,” Antique tells me. “But I do think there’s still unconscious bias of people preferring white girls in scantily clad outfits or white boys who are ripped to pieces. People just prefer that imagery.”

In the face of this inequality, cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch-Tinsley created #28DaysOfBlackCosplay. Its aim is to celebrate black cosplayers while highlighting the bias that is still present in the community. It’s been used more than 36,000 times on the picture-sharing platform, showing that POC cosplayers will not be sidelined

More recently, there’s been debate over whether dressing up as anime characters is problematic (given that most characters are Japanese) and constitutes yellowface. French cosplayer champion Alice Livanart was banned from competing in the EuroCosplay finals after she was accused of blackface for her cosplay of League of Legends character Pyke. Commentators were split down the middle – it’s still very much a controversial subject.

Racism isn’t the only problem. Years before #MeToo was the “Cosplay Is Not Consent” movement, created by Rochelle Keyhan, Erin Filson and Anna Kegler, who were tired of the groping, touching and verbal abuse that accompanied their decision to cosplay.

While it definitely has its flaws, there is a beauty to cosplay. You can be anyone and anything you want to be; there’s no limit to your imagination. As soon as a cosplayer puts on their costumer, doing up the last button of their intricately crafted garment, they become another person.

“Cosplay is a way to express yourself,” Todd tells me. “It can be such a confidence booster. I know there are a lot of people who are insecure about their appearance and cosplaying is a way to change that.

“Everything about it is so extreme that you can become anything you like.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in