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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 at 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, the purpose of cosplaying is to be 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?

What is cosplay? 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.

Cosplayers dress up as characters from pop culture, drawing inspiration from books, comics, movies, TV shows, Japanese animated series (anime), and video games. Outfits that cosplayers wear 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.

Why do people like to cosplay?

Short answer? It’s fun to wear a costume and pretend you’re someone else for a little while!

Comic book and science fiction conventions have a long history of encouraging attendees to dress up in costume, even hosting masquerade competitions for them, which may explain why so many people cosplay at those events and even why cosplay has grown dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years. Now there are even conventions dedicated specifically to dressing up.

But the world of cosplay is more than just a creative outlet. It can help introverts come out of their shells and allow young people to find their tribe. Because 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.

Convention and cosplay communities lift people up, making each participant feel special.

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 of attending Comic-Con. 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.”

The woman was Erin Grey from Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons fame. Brianne beamed as thanked her. For my niece, having a woman she didn’t know complimenting her was phenomenal—the best gift she could have gotten that weekend. It was her moment to feel special.

How to support your cosplaying teen.

The easiest way to support your cosplaying kid is to let them do it. Help them buy or make the costumes and shop for accessories together. You can and should be a part of their imaginative journey. Your participation gives you insight into what they’re doing; who they’re hanging out with; and what they’re wearing in public, and why.

It goes without saying that 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, for example, 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 photos are acceptable and 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 cosplay 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.

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