For a rising number of sci-fi devotees, watching your favourites on screen isn't enough - you have to bring them to life. Welcome to the world of cosplay, where dressing as your idol is the sincerest form of flattery.
Fuelled by an explosion in fandom and social networking, cosplay – once a fringe hobby for geeks – is now a global phenomenon. Its followers, known as cosplayers, take their art seriously, meticulously creating their costumes, often in workshops and with space-age materials.
Before the late 90s, cosplay was dismissed as a nerdish fad. But, as sci-fi and fantasy enjoyed a resurgence, thanks to hits such as the revived Star Wars franchise and the Lord of the Rings movies, fans came together in their thousands at conventions and online. It has since spawned communities, magazines, shops, TV shows, books and performance art.
‘Fans are recreating unreal characters in a very real and tangible way,’ says Brian Ashcraft, co-author of Cosplay World, a new book that celebrates the scene. ‘The attention to detail is often incredible. The passion is inspiring. It’s not enough to simply be a fan. They express their appreciation for a character in the most flattering way – by bringing said character to life.’
Devoted photographers, themselves sci-fi fans, portray cosplayers in creative ways to bring the scene to a new audience. ‘Their work is helping people appreciate that cosplay is an art form, not just a pastime,’ adds Cosplay World co-author Luke Plunkett. ‘It can take months of hard work. The preparation and skill involved is mind-boggling.’
Jay Tablante, who has been photographing cosplayers for decades, shot Ariana Barouk, a one-time Miss Cuba, as Silk Spectre from the graphic novel Watchmen. ‘This is about bringing out the childhood fantasies in my head,’ he says. ‘Since I can’t draw, cosplay is my means of expressing my imagination.’
‘Everyone in the cosplay community is super-passionate about what they do,’ says photographer Darshelle Stevens, who shot Lyz Brickley as Lightening from the video game series Final Fantasy. ‘Being surrounded by that commitment and creativity drives me to produce great images.’
Yaya Han, pictured as Carmilla from the anime film Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, has turned her cosplay hobby into a business. ‘I’ve dressed up as more than 250 different characters at conventions across the world and get paid to make costumes for other cosplayers,’ she says. ‘I still make every outfit myself and love the craftmanship and performance.’
‘The amount of work cosplayers put into their costumes continues to amaze me today,’ says Darrell Ardita, who shot cosplayer Tham as Queen Amidala from the film Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. ‘Their attention to detail and skill at bringing some of my favourite characters to life inspire me to create along with them.’
Benjamin ‘Beethy’ Koelewijn is one of the most prolific cosplay photographers, although he admits it’s his subjects that get the notoriety. Here, Yasemine Arslan, as Marvel Comics‘ anti-heroine Black Cat, takes centre stage. ‘I’m happy for her to get the attention,’ he says. ‘As long as it means people see my picture.’
Little Wren, pictured above as Storm from X-Men, learned the art of embodying a fictional hero through her work as a burlesque dancer. ‘You want the end result to be an expression of how much you love the character,’ she says. ‘Researching, buying materials, sewing, crafting and even just leaving the house are all huge investments in a cosplayer’s life.’
‘I’ve always been a nerd at heart,’ says photographer Darrell Ardita, who shot Meredith Placko as Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider franchise. ‘I feel like cosplay photography has been that escape for me. It’s my way of expressing myself as a gamer and comic-book fan.’
A great deal of effort goes into bringing a character to life. Cosplay superstar Meagan Marie worked with an artist to design her vision of a warrior Wonder Woman. She consulted a leather-work and corset expert before hand-cutting, dying and stitching her costume, then crafted her armour with thermoplastic. Even getting the right shot is a mission, she says. ‘While there may be a few giggle-worthy images floating around of me failing spectacularly at looking tough, I think the risk paid off.’
Cosplay World by Brian Ashcraft and Luke Plunkett (£19.99, Prestel) is out now.