The first costume I ever wore in my life was a handcrafted Thorin Oakenshield from the Hobbit when I was one or two years old. Then, when I was in fifth grade, I tricked my mom into sewing me a Mortal Kombat costume -- Scorpion -- for Halloween. Since then, I've never really thought about wandering around in costume or projecting myself into other worlds through slight-of-hand clothes changes, but plenty of people, old and young, do it at nearly every convention. This weekend at StarFest, people were decked out in all types of outfits, but no matter what you might think, their reasons weren't always the same, nor were the results.
To the general observer, there are two different types of cosplayers: those who dress as a character and those who dress as a part of the universe. This doesn't seem like much of a difference, and to most people looking in from the outside, it seems like adults dressing like kids on Halloween. But that difference is crucial, both in the way the cosplayers present themselves and how they view their costumes.
Take the above two girls, both dressed as videogame characters, both passionate about what they're doing, but not obsessed. Why are they dressed up? Both pretty much gave the same response -- "because I like the character design." Nothing more, nothing less. No deep-seated emotional problems and weirdness, just two people who enjoy the one to two weeks of preparation for a day out at a convention showing off their work. The same goes for Zapp Brannigan below, a nice young man who simply enjoys the crap out of Futurama and happens to like having his picture taken. He chose Zapp not because he wanted to live out a sexy-space captain dream, but because comic characters are underrepresented and he knew he'd be the only one.
The same goes for about half of the Star War players as well. These are the costumes you're likely picturing in your head right now -- the Darth Vaders, the Obi-Wans, the Boba Fetts (and there were a lot of Boba Fetts). They like the movies and they want to express that to friends and other like-minded people, so they dress up for conventions in costumes, get their pictures taken by fans and enjoy a pleasant day of having tons of attention drawn to them.
Then there are those who live by the rules of another universe. The ones who dress not as specific characters, but as part of the world. This includes the Star Trek fans, who, for the most part, don't dress as singular characters from the show, but instead in Starfleet uniforms (okay, they're usually wearing sneakers too). It includes the Browncoats from Firefly, the generic stormtroopers, the Vikings, the steampunks and plenty of other non-specific costumes. It might not seem like it on first glance, but these are the real die-hards. The ones who don't change it up from convention to convention, the ones who aren't really vying for attention so much as simply existing, because this is what it's all about.
Take the members of the 501st Legion, a nationwide group dubbed "The World's Definitive Imperial Cosruming Organization." With a booth set up right at the entry way to the hotel, these were the first guys you saw when you walked in, decked out in costumes ranging from standard stormtrooper to the biker scouts. Their only goals were to promote interest in Star Wars (which at StarFest wasn't particularly needed) and to give back to their communities.
The cosplayers who spent time not just working on their costumes but who picked characters who fit their personality and body types had the best results. The ones who failed are the ones who tried to fit into a role they couldn't possibly have worked in. Fat Boba Fett, short Darth Vader or male Princess Leia didn't have realistic visions of themselves. They were fantasizing their own images and turning themselves into something they couldn't possibly be. That's what's great about the generic costumes though. There is no rule stormtroopers can't be a little chunky, or that Starfleet doesn't accept seven-foot, cross-dressing giants. It allows people to exist as themselves in another universe, together in one place. It's escapism to an extreme, but for just one weekend, fantasies can become a bit of reality. None of this is to say there is a right way to dress for a convention nor is there a "type" of person who does it. Sure, for every normal person having a good time, there is an eccentric one (which included a rather creepy Gollum whom we couldn't get a picture of), but for the most part, StarFest and the cons like it are all about showing off your crafting skills and your smile and meeting new people. When asked "Why?" most people responded, "Why not?" When I donned that Scorpion costume as a kid, it was a challenge to my parents to see how much they were really paying attention to what I was doing, but it was also a tribute to a game I loved that I wanted to show off to friends at school. For the most part, the same goes here. It's an art show of sorts where you're allowed to show off your skills and your dedication.
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