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What Is Cosplay and Why Do People Like It?

You’ve seen them on the news: adults, teens, and kids decked out in colorful costumes and descending on a local comic book convention. This act of dressing up for a fan convention is called “cosplay,” and these folks are cosplayers. Much like the atmosphere characters at a Disney theme park, they’re part of the rich tapestry that make these events exciting and fun.

But for parents, this can raise some legitimate questions from the basic what is cosplay to a more cerebral question, why do people do it? And, most importantly, should I let my teen cosplay when some of the costumes seem a little skimpy?

First Things First: A Definition

The term “cosplay” is a mashup of “costume” and “play.” (For grammar nerds out there, combining multiple words into a new one is called a portmanteau, such as when “motor” and “hotel” were combined into the new word “motel”). The story goes that writer Nobuyuki Takahashi coined the word in the Japanese magazine My Anime after attending the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles.

From books and comics to movies, TV shows, Japanese animated series (anime), and video games, cosplayers dress up as characters from pop culture. Outfits range from the basic “costume in a bag” variety that you might buy your child for Halloween to elaborate pieces of art that participants spend hours designing and sewing.

Comic book and science fiction conventions have a long history of encouraging attendees to dress up in costume, even hosting masquerade competitions for them. However, cosplay has grown dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years, and there are even conventions dedicated specifically to dressing up.

Why Cosplay is a Great Hobby

The short answer is that it’s fun to dress up. But it also offers something much more important than that.

Years ago, I attended Comic-Con in San Diego with my 15-year-old niece, Brianne. Her father brought me to my first Comic-Con, and she loved Japanese animation, so it seemed appropriate that I pass on the tradition. She excitedly donned an Asian-inspired beautiful red silk dress with intricate embroidery, and she wore her hair up in a tight bun. Maybe it was based on an anime character she loved, or maybe she just thought it was pretty—I honestly didn’t know—but she looked amazing.

As we stood in line for coffee and I scoured the convention map reviewing exhibitors to check out, a woman in front of us turned around.

“I love your dress!” she said. “You look very pretty.”

Brianne beamed as she thanked her, so I looked up and smiled. That’s when I realized it was Erin Grey from Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons fame. For my niece, having a woman who wasn’t her mom compliment her was phenomenal—the best gift she could have gotten that weekend. It didn’t matter that my friends had posters of this same woman hanging on their bedroom walls when we were Brianne’s age; this was someone Brianne didn’t know, and she thought Brianne looked pretty.

That’s what the convention and cosplay communities do. They lift people up.

Whether you’re an experienced cosplayer or a newbie, people will talk with you, ask about your costume and your inspiration, swap stories about favorite characters and shows, and even ask to take your photo. It can help introverts come out of their shells, allow young people to find their tribe, and ultimately give each participant a moment to feel special.

Support Your Cosplaying Teen

The easiest way to support your cosplaying child is to let them do it. From helping them buy or make the costumes and shopping for accessories, you can and should be a part of the journey. It not only gives you insight into what they’re doing and who they’re hanging out with, but also what they’re wearing in public.

It goes without saying, but you don’t have to approve whatever outfit your child wants to wear—even if other people are wearing that same costume. Comic artists and animators have designed many different variations of Harley Quinn’s costume, so there is a suitable version of this popular character for every age.

Before attending any convention, you and your teen should review the convention policies regarding cosplay. The policies list everything from checking in prop weapons with security to appropriate convention behavior. Likewise, a lot of people will want to take your teen’s photo, and while most of these folks are just fans wanting to remember the event, it’s important that your teen understand what is acceptable and to get a refresher course in being safe around strangers.

Finally, consider attending the convention with your teen. You don’t have to hang out with them the entire time, but being there will let them know you support their hobby, as well as give you better insight into the convention and cosplaying communities.

And who knows? Maybe next year you’ll put on a costume of your own. Group outfits are a hit among cosplayers, after all.

Richard Andreoli

Richard Andreoli grew up in San Diego and was a Comic-Con volunteer for many years. He is the editor-in-chief of the tech/parenting website Parentology.com, and his new novel, Battle at the Comic Expo, is available now. For more information, visit BattleAtTheComicExpo.com.