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Donna P. Crilly, Spring 2013 Students

Cosplaying is a genre-bending trend in San Diego

Cosplay means is the art of costuming and play.

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By Donna P. Crilly

One of the most popular cosplaying genres is anime, which means Japanese animation. Conventions, such as San Diego Anime Conji or Anime Expo in Los Angeles, are typically weekend-long events where thousands of cosplayers go to socialize, pose for pictures, attend panels or participate in masquerade contests held at conventions.

Academic researchers have found that many people cosplay for fun, to make friends, because they like the characters they get to portray, and to get attention.

In a survey of about 200 cosplayers at a convention, clinical psychologist and cosplayer Andrea Letamendi found some people cosplay for the “celebrity status” they get at conventions; however, the primary reason people reported they cosplay is because it’s fun.

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One anime, steampunk and Renaissance fan, Gabi Gonzalez, said people go “all out” at conventions. Gonzalez attends Renaissance fairs with a group of friends who like dressing up as “fay,” or fairy creatures. They hand-make all of their own costumes and props, except for elements such as corsettes, which can damage the body if not made properly.

Gonzalez moved to Southern California from Florida to become a graphic designer after she graduated from college. She said the costuming on the West Coast is more advanced than in the Southeast, though on par with the Northeast and Midwest, where large conventions draw thousands of people. However, Southern California is home to the largest anime convention in the U.S., Anime Expo in Los Angeles, and San Diego Comic-Con International draws comic book and cosplay fans from around the world.

The 22-year-old says she’s been cosplaying and making costumes for 10 years. Looking at other people’s costumes inspired Gonzalez to make her own.

As for why Gonzalez likes to cosplay, she says it’s “so much more fun than being ‘normal.’”

When Gonzalez attends steampunk, anime and Renaissance events without a costume, she said she feels “abnormal” because so many people are dressed up.

“You get into the characters, you know, you watch an anime or a comic book or something,” Gonzalez said. “You want to be like your favorite characters, so why not make their costume and dress up?”

Gonzalez’s costumes have cost her anywhere from $10 to more than $100. When she adds other elements to some of her costumes throughout the years, she could end up spending more than $500 overall for a single costume.

Gonzalez said she learned how to make her own costumes from watching other people at conventions.

“You ask them how they do it and most of them are really nice and will help you out,” Gonzalez said. “You message them on their blog, they’ll give you hand.”

So you think you can cosplay?

A panel at Anime Conji 2013, called “Intro to Cosplay,” featured veteran cosplayer Crystal Graziano, who makes and models costumes and props. Graziano, AKA “Precious Cosplay,” spoke about her first costume: Aerith from the late ‘90s video game, “Final Fantasy VII.” She said her first costume looked terrible and was poorly made. Her second costume was worse.

Throughout the next eight years, Graziano worked on her costumes and developed her craftsmanship. She now models her favorite characters for photographs and speaks at convention panels.

VIDEO: Crystal Graziano, AKA 'Precious Cosplay,' explains why she loves cosplay, and gives tips for beginning cosplayers. By Donna P. Crilly

Graziano told beginning cosplayers at the panel to start small; don’t try to make something too complex without costuming experience.

“We’ve all been there. When you start out, you’re going to suck at it,” Anime Conji 2013 Masquerade judge Johnny Zarabate said, adding that the cosplay community as a whole is accepting of newcomers.

Zarabate, a structural engineering student at UCSD, cosplays professionally for Crunchroll Ambassadors and coordinates photo shoots with a small group of cosplayers.

As a veteran cosplayer, Zarabate said beginners shouldn’t be intimidated when they start cosplaying. His first costume in 2003 wasn’t nearly as detailed as his more recent work; however, people have to start somewhere.

“It takes a lot of courage to try to get out there and make something you’ve never tried before and then wear it out in public – essentially be judged by your peers and passersby,” Zarabate said.

John Zarabate shows his craftsmanship in 2012 compared to 2003 on the Junkers Cosplay Inc. Facebook page. Photo courtesy of Junkers Cosplay Inc.

John Zarabate shows his craftsmanship in 2012 compared to 2003 on the Junkers Cosplay Inc. Facebook page. Photo courtesy of Junkers Cosplay Inc.

If it’s an authentic look cosplayers want, Graziano said people should cosplay according to their body types and choose characters with whom they share physical characteristics. However, Graziano said the most important thing is to have fun with the character.

“You should cosplay the characters you like from the series you like, otherwise, you’re not going to have a good time,” Graziano said.

Matthew Lewis and friend participate in the Anime Conji 2013 Masquerade, winning best veteran performance.

Matthew Lewis and friend participate in the Anime Conji 2013 Masquerade, winning best veteran performance.

Graziano advised new cosplayers to use resources online, such as for costume-making tips, and to purchase heavier fabrics to give the costume a more authentic feel vs the “costumey” Halloween look.

Graziano also said cosplayers should wear makeup – men too – because it keeps the skin from looking shiny in pictures, adding that if cosplayers are going to spend time making costumes, they might as well makeup their faces.

San Diego steampunk community ‘gathers steam,’ boutique in Oceanside sells steampunk gear

The steampunk genre imagines a world where steampower is the prevailing technology. The costuming revolves around the imagined style of that world. Because time travel exists within the steampunk community, a blend of Victorian, goth, the “Wild West,” and anything sans Internet-tech-style is appropriate costume wear.

Fans within the steampunk community don’t have as many popular fictional characters to choose from to cosplay compared to anime fans; however, their costume designs are just as complex and time-consuming.

Originating from literary sci-fi and Victorian-era authors, such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, steampunk cosplayers tend to create their own characters based on – but not limited to – time travel, Western and/or Victorian motifs.

“It depends on the individual, but (the costumes) can be very elaborate,” Sam Luke, member of the popular steampunk band, Steam Powered Giraffe, said. “That goes anywhere from painting your face to look like some sort of unworldly being, to having this huge backpack, or metallic angel wings or elaborate hats. I’ve even seen paraplegic people deck out their wheelchairs to look like a tiny steam-powered tank.”

Sam Luke plays bass and performs as "Hatchworth" for  the band Steam Powered Giraffe at the La Jolla Playhouse in March 2013. Photo by Donna P. Crilly

Sam Luke plays bass and performs as “Hatchworth” for the band Steam Powered Giraffe at the La Jolla Playhouse in March 2013. Photo by Donna P. Crilly

Luke travels with Steam Powered Giraffe to play at well-known venues, such as the La Jolla Playhouse, and steampunk conventions in the U.S. The band got its start busking at Balboa Park. The costuming allowed the band to carve its niche into the steampunk community. In May, Steam Powered Giraffe’s music video, “Honeybee,” reached 1.4 million YouTube views.

Experienced “steampunks” design their costumes based on the characters they create for themselves. For many steampunks, one of the most important aspects of cosplaying is creativity.

Like anime cosplayers, making costumes may take hours of work and a lot of money.  Many steampunks say the time and effort is worth it when they go to steampunk events or conventions, such as the Gaslight Gathering: A Steampunk & Victoriana Convention in San Diego, and are complimented on their costumes.

For steampunks with minimal costume-making experience or who want to purchase accessories to add to their costumes, they can go to Dr. Watson’s Steampunk Odditorium in Oceanside, a boutique attached to a tattoo parlor that specializes in steampunk gear.

Shoppe Manager Celeste Barbier said she hadn’t heard much about steampunk before the shop opened more than a year ago, but it’s been “gathering steam” in Southern California for about 5-7 years.

Barbier grew up in the rockabilly and goth community. She says “steampunk is for the goths who discovered the color brown.”

From corsettes to Amelia Earhart-esque goggles, to vests, to bowler hats, to ornately-designed Victorian-style dresses, Barbier said she appreciates the aesthetics of steampunk.

Though Barbier says people can easily spend a couple hundred dollars at Dr. Watson’s in one trip, she said she’s amazed at the creativity of people who create their costumes on a minimal budget.

“It’s almost hard to have a steampunk shop, because almost everyone makes their own costumes or designs their own props or their own hats,” Barbier said. “So we try to provide some basic clothing so they can embellish.”

Dr. Watson's Steampunk Odditorium manager Celeste Barbier explains steampunk and theme of the shop. By Donna P. Crilly

Based on her observations and conversations with dozens of steampunks at various events, Barbier developed a theory about steampunk’s growing popularity within the U.S. She says in a consumerist society of mass-produced, streamlined products, people yearn for quality and individuality.

“With every action, there’s a reaction,” Barbier said, “and I feel with the direction that this society is going, this is almost becoming stronger as a reaction to that simplification, like the Mac look, you know, everything being white and sterile. This is a complete opposite; and it’s a reaction, and I think it’s keeping things in balance.”


About Donna P. Crilly

San Diego State University J-school alumna. Living to learn, learning to live. Twitter: @donnapcrilly


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