When Did Cosplay Start?
by Justin Sevakis,
I've heard it said that cosplay originated in America in the 90s, but that doesn't seem like it's true. Is it?
Cosplay definitely started far, far earlier than the 1990s. Whether or not it started in America really depends on how you want to define the term. It's generally accepted that the first costume worn specifically for a convention was done so by Forrest J. Ackerman, the late sci-fi literary agent, writer and magazine editor. In the 1930s, sci-fi conventions were usually small men-only affairs that dealt with small-press magazines and sci-fi literature. The comic book characters that would later become convention staples largely didn't yet exist (Superman himself had only debuted in 1938).
The first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) took place in New York City on July 2, 1939, and Ackerman decided to commemorate the occasion by having his girlfriend, Myrtle R. Jones, design a costume based on the space military uniforms in the film Things to Come. The costume she made -- green satin cape, peg pants, and shoulders that stuck out in an art deco style -- caused a sensation among the fans that attended. Ackerman and Jones stood at the entrance of the event, greeting people and speaking to them only in Esperanto, the made-up "language of the future". The two reprised their performance the following year, performing a skit based on the film.
From that point on, "costuming" became an integral part of fan conventions. Since reference material was in very short supply (there was no home video and few color pictures), many costumes veered towards the original and generic. Worldcon, which was seen as the standard bearer for fan events, in 1940 featured a "masquerade." Unlike cosplay masquerades of today it was actually a real masquerade: a costumed dance party. According to CapsuleCorp's Stacey Lee Feldmann, by 1950 Worldcon's masquerade had transitioned to the judged, stage format now ubiquitous at anime and comic conventions.
By the late 1970s science fiction fans were starting to take notice of a wave of engaging science fiction animated TV series coming out of Japan. This is where anime cosplay first seems to take the stage: prominent costumer and anime fan since childhood Karen Schnaubelt Turner Dick (then just Karen Schnaubelt) dressed as characters from Space Pirate Captain Harlock in 1979, and then assembled a group of Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato cosplayers for Worldcon 1980. This appears to be one of the first, if not the first, American anime cosplay to have taken place. (In 1983, Schnaubelt founded Costume-Con, which is still going today.)
But anime cosplay had already become a thing in Japan. It's very difficult to pin down when the movement started specifically. Sci-fi conventions around Japan have been documented as having costume events as early as 1974. Coincidentally a lot of early Japanese cosplay also was inspired by Yamato, predominantly at small meet-up groups for Yamato fans in the Tokyo area. According to an interview with prominent Yamato fan Hideaki Ito (conducted by Tim Eldred), such cosplay usually only happened in the projector screening rooms, and only a handful of people were doing it. Ito himself was known as "the weird guy who did total cosplay" for a time. But these were small fan events, usually involving students. It appears to still have been a pretty rare thing.
Hobbyist magazines, happy to run striking photos of fans in cool looking costumes, covered these things sporadically. Nov Takahashi of Studio Hard came up with the term "cosplay" -- a typical Japanese word-mash portmanteau of "costume" and "play" -- for his articles on such fan activities. The earliest use of the term was found in an article of his in a 1983 issue of My Anime magazine. But when he was sent to Worldcon '84 in Los Angeles what he discovered caught enough attention that the term really stuck. Here were Westerners, a half a world away, cosplaying as both Western and Japanese characters. And they were doing it with real organization and aplomb! It was a sensation. Takahashi may not have realized that what he was seeing was the result of decades of organized fan know-how and organization. But the image acted like a gigantic feedback loop: Japanese otaku magazines like Animage and My Anime covered the American sci-fi cosplay scene throughout the rest of the decade, and those images further bolstered the practice's popularity in Japan.
Firsts for this sort of thing tend to be hard to track down. The first people to engage in fun fan activities tend to only become a point of interest years after the fact, when the activity gets popular and people start wondering where it came from -- the humble origins are usually not well documented. It's entirely possible that we will find other, even earlier cosplay pioneers.
Thanks to Helen McCarthy for her research and assistance on this topic.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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