For the Love of Cosplay: Or One Girl’s Foray Into the World of Costumes and Self-Discovery

By Jenna Johnson

(Editor’s Note: The photos Jenna has included do belong to her as she took them during her time at DragonCon. Please do not steal them. To quote her: “It’s not

nice.”)

Cosplay Couple
Gereth and Sarah/Photo by Jenna Johnson

I only began going to conventions recently. The year was 2012, I was 25 years old, and I had just really put on my geek shoes. (Okay, so they are just a pair of black, low rise Converse, but they are very comfortable.) I wanted to do something to mark the occasion of finally being true to myself, so I gathered up some of my college friends for the long Labor Day weekend in Atlanta that would inevitably change our lives.

If you’re familiar with the convention circuit, Labor Day weekend marks the largest Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention to rock the nation: DragonCon.

DragonCon in Atlanta, GA is a four-day Geek-a-Rama that focuses on science fiction, fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film; there is literally something there for everyone.

Now, I grew up in a very small town in Virginia, with a population of 1,700 people, so making it to a larger populated area was something that would, unsurprisingly, happen over the course of my lifetime. I’ve been to many cities in the Eastern US: New York, Orlando, Charlotte, Louisville, and even Atlanta before, so I was expecting a culture shock with the mass amounts of people around. But it was the fact that 52,000 people swarmed downtown Atlanta for the same reason I did that really flabbergasted me.

Monster thingy
Odd/Photo by Jenna Johnson

I admit it, I was a bit overwhelmed.

I had read the numbers DragonCon releases each year regarding attendance statistics, so I knew about the mass amounts of people who would be there, but there was one thing that I wasn’t expecting: I wasn’t expecting just how many people dressed up in costume. 

Again, I’m a small town girl who’s only idea of dressing up in character is the trunk-or-treat at the local churches on Halloween, so I really was not prepared to see embodiments of my favorite characters of book, film, and television just walking up and down the sidewalks of “Hotlanta.” (That’s another fact I’m not joking about, late August and early September in Atlanta is a scorcher, and wearing a costume in that weather seems double reason to pack plenty of anti-perspirant and deodorant.)

There were costumes of all sorts: from Daleks to Disney Princesses, from Captain Mal Reynolds to Captain Jack Harkness, from the 1st Doctor to the 11th, and plenty from every video game I’ve never been able to play (for some reason or another). Everywhere I looked there was a different character, and my senses were enthralled with the colors, designs, and creativity these people have to create such mastery in outfits.

Yes, there was the occasional Party Store costume, but a vast majority was hand made by either the wearer, or some very talented costumers and designers. People watching quickly became my favorite thing to do at DragonCon.

(The photos I am posting do belong to me, I took them; please do not steal them, it’s not nice.)

Fem Doc
Female Dr. Who/Photo by Jenna Johnson

When I got home from D*C ’12, I knew immediately that I’d be going back the next year. I bought my ticket for 2013 my first day back home from the trip, and I started compiling a list of characters that I could – possibly – successfully pull off; there weren’t that many. One thing I began to notice when I googled cosplay and cosplay ideas, not too many of the participants are big boned like me.

Now, there was the occasional photo I came across that depicted a plus-size hero or heroine, and I knew that it took guts to really put themselves out there for others to judge dressing in a costume of a character half your size. (Actually, there is one article that I read after this year’s DC that really hit home for me, that should be read by everyone: “It Happened to Me: I’m a Plus-Size Cosplayer”)

For those of you that know men in real life, you probably already know this, but for those who do not, I think I’m supposed to be a Disney Princess. I really do; therefore, I decided that I was going to revamp the Princess image and prove that you don’t have to be small in order to have fun and cosplay. I would take two costumes to DragonCon: a Steampunk Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), and Princess Merida (from Brave).

Dalek
Dalek/Photo by Jenna Johnson

I spent a great amount of time researching patterns, fabrics, and sewing techniques, but I found that the patterns I liked the most, didn’t go up to the size I needed it to in order to make it. I decided to turn to the professionals at that point. I spent around $300 on a beautiful, made-to-order, custom size outfit from a reputable seller on Etsy; I got to pick the color fabric I wanted for my skirts (one blue and one yellow), the fabric for my bodice (one side a beautiful, brown leather type and the other a blue and yellow brocade), the color and sleeve length of my chemise, the works! It was making my own costume without making my own costume.

However, in order to make this particular outfit Steampunk, I needed to really work with my accessories as my Belle was looking more like a Tavern Wench than a Steampunk Beauty. (And there goes another $100. Needless to say, cosplay isn’t necessarily the most affordable hobby, and my bank account was crying by this point for a break).

My Merida costume, on the other hand, was a bit more affordable. And much easier to put together: dress $50, wig $20, toy bow $15, Disney plush Hamish bear $10, and the accessories I made (tartan plaid cloth quiver/pouch) $15. (Personally, I liked this one much better than my Belle, and it was much cheaper.)

I knew that I had to time my costumes perfectly. Technically, the convention is from the Friday before Labor Day until Labor Day itself; however, more and more convention goers are arriving on Wednesday and Thursday to begin festivities early, and to really get the most of their memberships.

Brave wig
At least I THINK I can pull off the wig!/Photo by Jenna Johnson

So, Belle would debut on Friday, Merida on Saturday, and no matter how hot it got, or sore my feet got, I wouldn’t bow to the pressure to return to the room and change clothing. Pfft. I don’t even think I made it an hour the first day. (I maybe made it 4 hours on Saturday, though. I just can’t say no when kids ask for a picture with “Brave”).

Oddly enough, it wasn’t only the heat that began attacking me, it was all the people who were looking at the costumes that really got to the insecure girl that was trying to fit in with all these other people. In the cosplay world, these insecurities can keep you from having the confidence that you want in portraying the characters you love. Sometimes this confidence means that you missed the character completely.

For me, my insecurity is my weight. And it was just there, on the sidewalks of Downtown Atlanta, that I reverted back to those high school days where I was talked about behind my back; suddenly all of those feelings just resurfaced, and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, and I just had to escape from the confines in which I had placed myself. I just knew that I was being judged, and I was being judged negatively for trying this new thing and for failing miserably.

But as it turns out, that was all in my head; I didn’t have anyone coming up to me saying that I shouldn’t cosplay because I’m overweight, I didn’t have anyone whispering negative things about my outfits, and I didn’t really have to worry about that. I shouldn’t have worried about that.

That’s one of the best things about the Geek community; although we’re all different, we all know the feeling of being ostracized by others, and that’s one of the biggest reasons we come together in support of one another in our endeavors.

The world of cosplay, although diverse and challenging, is still filled with nerds and geeks who just want to fit in.

While DragonCon 2013 may not have been the best year for me in cosplay, I know that I just can’t give up. So I had a bad year? We all have those. However, in order to avoid it for 2014, I decided to take to the message boards on Facebook Cosplay groups, Reddit, and other cosplay websites, to talk to others who have been where I currently am, and I’ve met a lot of great people who have given me some great advice on cosplay; especially getting over the insecurities when they creep into the psyche and wreak havoc on the emotions in the duration of conventions.

So I may not have had a successful start to my cosplay adventures. So what? I know now that I can’t just jump into this without forethought again. Without forethought, and the attitude behind the character you’re embodying, it’s not cosplay, it’s just dressing in a costume. Cosplay means “costume role play,” and it is a performance art, and you have to preform your character in order to be successful at it.

The 2014 convention season will be a different one for me. I now know what I was missing, and I know that it’s the confidence that I need to work on. Ultimately, I will be back on that Marriott floor come September, and I will be in costume like the thousands of others in attendance, but this time, I’m not going to let my head get in the way of doing something that I know I’ll love to do.

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