Things To Do

What is cosplay? A beginner’s guide to Comic-Con tradition

7/21/16 Comic-Con Cosplay

No, it’s not Halloween, even if it feels like a national holiday.

Yes, the crowds in colorful and intricate costumes in the streets of downtown San Diego are the most charming and visible aspects of the largest comic-book conference in America,  Comic-Con.

So what exactly is cosplay? Here’s a quick look inside the cultural world that symbolizes the spirit of Comic-Con.

What is cosplay?

Cosplay is the art of costume role-playing. The etymology of the term combines words like costume and play to describe the art form in which people adopt the attire and personality of a fictional character in comic book or popular culture.


In an essay published online, Chris Kincaid describes four characteristics that constitute cosplaying: narrative, clothing, play and player. People who participate in cosplaying are called cosplayers.

Faces of Comic-Con
Zack Baur of San Diego dressed as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones at Comic-Con in San Diego on July 22, 2017. (Photo by K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

How is cosplay different than a Halloween costume?

Unlike Halloween costumes, cosplay costumes tend to be works of art. Cosplayers can sometimes spend a ton of time and money designing and assembling costumes from concept art, like in comic books or video games or television series.

Cosplay costumes can involve a wide range of average materials like foam and fabric to create armor or capes. But cosplaying is also a community, and it draws like-minded people to brainstorm ideas, exchange materials and gather at events like Comic-Con. 


Oh, and also, there’s no trick or treating.

Where did cosplay begin?

For centuries, people have worn costumes to celebrate cultural events. Modern cosplay, however, appears to have originated in the 1970s with the emergence of Japanese comic books known as manga and anime, according to the book " Cosplay World.”

Nobuyuki Takahashi  coined the term in the June 1983 issue of a Japanese publication featuring young people wearing super hero costumes. Takahashi said it took a few years for the term to go mainstream in Japan.

Faces of Comic-Con

Darth Lexii dressed as vacationing Harley Quinn at Comic-Con in San Diego on July 22, 2017. (Photo by K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

What makes good cosplay?

The list of qualities that make good cosplay will always be open to interpretation, but three main factors make the best cosplay stand out from the pack.

Creativity: Good cosplaying demands a lot of creativity to render a physical costume from concept art, especially when there are no instructions and no other models to replicate.

Accuracy: Attention to detail will make cosplayers stand out, everything from texture of someone’s fabric to the body paint that covers every inch of their skin.

Staying in character: Wearing the skin of a fictional character is just half of cosplaying, the other half is about adopting the personality, quirks or sounds that complete the character.


Does it pay to be a cosplayer?

Definitely, sometimes. Costume contests, like the Comic-Con Masquerade, offer cosplayers the opportunity to compete for prizes and bragging rights.

Such competitions can also be good for exposure, especially for those who make money from their cosplay efforts. Fox News once reported that cosplayers at Comic-Con in San Diego could earn several thousand dollars and that “top talents are pulling in close to $200,000 a year.” We picked the wrong careers, guys.

How much does it cost to create or buy a cosplay costume?

Cosplayers invest time, effort and often money into creating the best costumes. Though the cost of materials can vary from design to design, some outfits can be pulled together for as little as $50.

We met a  number of cosplayers at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con where they told us how much time and money they had spent on their costumes.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, do know a thing or two about cosplay, by the way. There’s proof.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, aka, Captain Kevin James T. Kirk Faulconer, kicked off Comic Con Thursday morning. (Debbi Baker)

Not to mention the San Diego couple who has been attending Comic-Con in costume since 2005.

Email: Twitter: @RunGomez



Celebrities expected to be at 2017 Comic-Con

Where to spot celebrities during Comic-Con

Comic-Con rules: Do’s and don’ts

Comic-Con 2017: You don’t need a badge for these 10 fun events

POW! Heroes Brew Festival to take over Waterfront Park

Even superheroes need to kick back with a cocktail

5 places to eat like a superhero during Comic-Con

Party (C)on: Where to mix and mingle all night long

Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter

PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.