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‘Originality is overrated, but we do it anyway’ Creativity in Cosplay

Abigail Stevens talks us through the artistic process of cosplay, and how it has become a unique form of creative expression and skill.

Fandom communities are harshly judged for their supposed disregard of the fabled concept of “originality.” Some people argue that fanfiction authors are inferior writers because they use other people’s characters and stories rather than devising anything of their own. Cosplay, while not as inherently controversial as fanfiction, raises a similar question: is replicating another’s creation as good as coming up with a “new” idea? Setting aside the argument that all forms of media are ultimately derived and reconstructed from the media the creator has seen, what exactly is the artistic process behind cosplay?

Like fanfiction writers, cosplayers are unbound. There is something freeing in making art which has no commercial value; you don’t have to worry about what will please an editor, producer, corporation, or potential customer, and its only purpose is to bring you joy. Cosplay is also a way to hone your skills; artists often start out by copying other works to practise their technique before trying to break new ground. But don’t underestimate the creative process of recreation, especially in the case of cosplay. Even the ones that are exact replicas from a film, television show, video game, theatrical performance, or another medium, require creative thinking.

While watching the series finale of Game of Thrones, my friend and I eagerly discussed what we would have to do to cosplay Sansa’s gorgeous coronation dress. NB: a few cosplayers on Instagram are working on this very costume, and it is taking them years to complete it. It is an intense and laborious process, especially since due to the obvious copyright problem most people don’t do this for a living and must work a paying job. It involves scouring the internet and bookstores for decent tutorials, digging through bargain bins, and getting inventive with old clothes and accessories.

First and foremost, cosplayers face the challenge of having to recreate something with resources that will never match those of a Hollywood costume shop. Figuring out how they did it isn’t really the point. They probably did it using professional equipment far outside your budget. The question is, how can you, an amateur costume designer with limited funds and tools, do it at home? Can you get some materials from a charity shop? Buy fabric on sale? And if there isn’t a pattern available resembling what you want to make, can you freehand it yourself? Or assemble pieces from different patterns?

With every new project, a new skill is learned, such as careful hand embroidery to fashion a Stark direwolf or moulding foam into armour and weapons. Photoshoots and editing images are a beast in themselves; some pros specialise in cosplay photography, but many cosplayers who want to share their creations with the world will resort to scouting nearby locations, assembling mini sets, co-opting family and friends as photographers, and building up their photoshop skills over time. When they finally complete a project, even if it looks exactly like it did in the show, who will dare say that they didn’t think creatively to get there, or that it is not art?

However, there are those who still think that ‘copying’ someone else’s work shouldn’t be considered ‘creative’. What qualifies as creativity? The process or the final product? How different does it have to be? I find that when cosplayers reassemble old clothing into something that looks enough like what the character wore to convey who they are supposed to be, they still end up with something distinct. And while I will always celebrate cosplayers for the time and energy they put into ‘copies’, there are still many examples of how they come up with their own original ideas. The cosplay community is by no means restricted to only recreating things—in fact, I would argue that they would feel very confined by that.

Some cosplayers will borrow a concept or aesthetic to get started, such as the colours and images associated with a specific character or piece of media. If you have a look at @starbitcreation’s Rapunzel dress, you can see how it was inspired by Disney’s film but is still her own. There are a plethora of additional ways to put a personal spin on costumes seen on screen. Mashups are so much fun, such as Merida wearing Hawkeye’s gear (@armoredheartcosplay), Rey’s Jakku garments layered with Hamilton’s military uniform, or Loki wielding a lightsaber (@silhouettecosplay). Some people will transport a medieval princess to the modern era or gender swap a superhero or anime protagonist. The only limit to what you can do with a character is your imagination.

Yet some cosplays do rely on completely original visualisation, such as book characters with no corresponding adaptation. Book cosplays are some of my favourites; cosplayers are given a general idea of what an outfit might look like, but it is still up to them to design the costume and bring that vision to life. Characters from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone were very popular on Instagram long before Netflix adapted the series, and you can see how many different people were given the same basic framework, but all delivered unique results. Finally, cosplayers occasionally dress up as characters of their own—I have seen a few people bring their D&D characters to life this way.

Cosplayers must think creatively, otherwise they would just buy a costume on Amazon. Trying to recreate something that was made in Hollywood or Broadway takes hours of conceptualization and planning, watching DIY videos on YouTube, ripping up your work and starting again. Cosplayers are creative, persistent, and come up with new things every day. Ultimately online fan communities are a way for the fans to express themselves through the characters and stories which inspired them.

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