ITHACA, N.Y. –– As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many are looking to the internet as a means of inspiration and self-expression. In particular, ‘cosplayers’ or artists and fans that dress in costumes and make-up to represent characters from anime, video games, television and film, are bonding as a community and sharing their art online.
Cosplay, a mesh of the words ‘costume’ and ‘play,’ is a practice and pastime that many Ithaca residents participate in. “Dressing up” isn’t quite the right term — much more effort goes into cosplaying than just throwing on a few pieces of clothing. Cosplayers often spend hours on their costumes, using materials like tulle or cardboard to recreate their favorite characters’ iconic outfits.
Besides the costumes, national or local comic conventions are an integral part of the cosplay experience because they offer fans a space to geek out and showcase their work. Prominent conventions include New York Comic Con (NYCC) and San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). At these conventions, attendees can go to panels, buy merchandise or fan art in the artist alleys and take part in the Masquerade, a parade during which participants can show their cosplay to others and sometimes compete for prizes.
In Ithaca, students and residents alike were able to show their love for comics or anime at Ithacon, the long-running convention that was cancelled this year due to COVID-19.
Ed Catto, managing director of Ithacon, said he has been attending the convention since its first time running. He was 13-years-old back then, said that he didn’t quite cosplay to the extent some attendees do now, wearing a Fantastic Four shirt to the convention’s masquerade and later wearing a pseudo-cosplay of the Marvel character Kid Eternity, who wears a white turtleneck and a red sash.
“It’s just this wonderful gem, this treasure of pop culture,” Catto said. “I find it to be such an exciting, awesome event that I take responsibility to assist with it, to help make it grow, very seriously.”
Avery Alexander, 20, a junior at Ithaca College, attended Ithacon in 2019 and cosplayed as Nymphadora Tonks from the “Harry Potter” series. Alexander dons a head of vibrant pink hair now, like Tonks, though she didn’t when she cosplayed in 2019. She wore a wig instead.
Alexander said she thinks the environment and atmosphere of smaller conventions like Ithacon allow for more interactions with artists selling fan artwork, or fanart, in the convention’s artist alleys.
“[Ithacon is] really fun and small,” she said. “It’s a nice break, considering most of the conventions I go to now are bigger.”
Because of restrictions on large gatherings during the pandemic, fans have lost the ability to gather, share their cosplay and meet others in their “fandom.” Brooke Bernhardt, 20, a junior at Ithaca College who has been cosplaying anime characters for approximately six years, said that not having the ability to attend conventions in her home state of Maryland has been difficult.
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“I miss the social aspect,” Bernhardt said. “I miss seeing people in general, but I miss the crowds [at conventions]. I miss getting to dress up with friends and seeing them in person.”
The last convention Bernhardt attended was Katsucon, an annual 3-day convention in Washington, D.C. It was held Feb. 14 through Feb. 16, 2020 –– right before the pandemic hit the U.S. On one day at Katsucon, Bernhardt dressed as the character Mari Ohara from “Love Live!”, a Japanese anime about a group of schoolgirls who become idols, or entertainers, and create a singing group to save their school. At the convention, Bernhard wore a royal blue, gold, and white dress, with a vibrant bodice and a layered purple skirt, with angel wings protruding from the back.
“[Mari’s] just my favorite character from the show,” she said. “I love her singing voice too. … Since there’s all the different idol sets, [and] there are different songs, there’s so many costumes, so I’ve just chosen a costume that I like best. I have a ton of them since I’ve been cosplaying her for a couple years.”
During the pandemic, Bernhardt said she lacked the motivation to keep cosplaying, and for a stretch of months she did not cosplay at all. But inspiration returned through photography projects she completed for her minor, still photography, in the spring semester. During the summer, Bernhardt also staged a photoshoot, dressed as Mari, on a nearby beach in Maryland. This time, she wore a long, white coat outlined in sparkling navy and lined with sheer violet fabric. Now, Bernhardt is collaborating with a group of students to cosplay characters from “My Hero Academia,” a Japanese superhero manga.
Ben Jennings, 19, a sophomore at Ithaca College, said he has also been looking for ways to interact virtually with cosplay friends during the pandemic. Like Bernhardt, Jennings did not cosplay much throughout the pandemic because he wasn’t near friends. While classes were online in Spring 2020, he lived at home in Massachusetts.
However, Jennings said he thinks that when he and other students return to campus in the spring, he will feel better motivated to get into costume. Right now, he is working on a project with friends to record and edit together videos where each person “passes” a Santa hat through the screen while dressed up in cosplay.
“When I was at school, I was only doing a lot more because I had friends who were on campus who I would be able to cosplay with, so it is definitely a little bit frustrating, but I’m of the mindset that it is what it is,” he said. “The pandemic is really out of my control.”
Jennings has an Instagram account where he displays his outfits, @kaminaricos, and a separate account for his cosplay photography, @bej_photo. Snapping photos was something Jennings was interested in previous to cosplaying. In fact, the creative outlet fact the reason he started dressing up as different characters. His friends, whom he said enjoy his photos, asked him to tag along at conventions to take photos of them while there, and from those trips he was introduce to fan culture at conventions. During the pandemic, Jennings conducted two, socially distanced photo shoots with nearby friends.
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“A lot of the stuff that I post on on my [Instagram] feed on my page is that stuff I take myself, but I really get a lot more artistic with pictures I take of other people,” he said. “You can be a little bit more flexible when you aren’t just sticking a camera on a tripod [to take photos of yourself.]”
“The only way that we’ve really been able to communicate is over social media,” Bernhardt said. “Such a big part of the cosplay community is going to conventions and seeing people, but there’s also posting pictures online. … There’s a level to it [that] this is a cosplay photo of me, and then there’s a character in their natural environment or something more to the effect of, ‘This is a scene that we’re recreating.’”
Jaime Warburton, assistant professor in the Department of Writing who specializes in fan studies, said cosplay is an introductory way for fans to interact with the fictional worlds they love. Her interest in fan studies started with her own encounters with different fandoms (close-knit fan communities), namely “Star Wars” and “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Like cosplay, Warburton said that fan fiction is a participatory form of fan culture that allows fans to place themselves or other characters in a story, expanding the canon (what is or isn’t considered “official” source materials) or narrowing down a plotline.
Fan fiction is fan-crafted content, usually written work, that highlights fictional characters from movies, television shows, books and other popular media. Some fan fiction writers also publish stories — some that can reach upwards of 630,000 words — about real people, like musicians or celebrities. In July, Ithaca College alum Chloe Landau compiled a spreadsheet of all the fan fiction that takes place in Ithaca. The most popular topics of the fan fictions were “Twilight,” “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” “Riverdale” and “Glee.”
Cosplay takes this written participation a step further, Warburton said and has been a primary example of how the medium lives on during the pandemic. On the social media site TikTok, Warburton said that cosplay has grown in popularity, particularly among the “Harry Potter” fandom. Fans use green screens to visually place themselves in the story, using backdrops of the Great Hall or the Gryffindor Common room to make the video seem more realistic. They then act as part of the scene, interspersing videos from the “Harry Potter” films with subtitles as dialogue. Particularly popular in this genre are videos where users style outfits based on certain characters or love triangle dilemmas between Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy and the TikTok user.
“[Cosplay] embodies their fandom,” Warburton said. “It makes it completely corporeal. That’s one of the ways that people can truly become the characters that they love or really enter into the universe that they love. … People have the opportunity to not just imagine or write about themselves in their particular world but to literally see themselves in that world.”
Despite plans for conventions like Ithacon, SDCC and NYCC still being up in the air for 2021 it looks like cosplaying is living on.
Brooke Bernhardt echoed that sentiment, saying that regardless of in-person events happening in the future, she will continue cosplaying for herself.
“There’s so many different ways to interpret how to make things,” she said. “[Characters can be] however people want to cosplay. A lot of people will add different accessories that they think the character would wear or … think that, ‘This looks cool. I’m going to add it,’ and that’s completely fine.”