At any science fiction, comics or anime convention, you’ll see people in costume. Superheroes, TV and movie characters, cartoons, characters from Japanese anime and manga and video games and more. While it’s easy to dismiss them as kids dressing up — and there are certainly plenty of those — in many cases you’re witnessing performance art.
“Cosplaying,” short for “costume playing,” has grown from throwing on a Halloween costume to a full-fledged subculture of people who devote great amounts of time, money and attention on crafting their characters in every detail. Cosplayers often attends cons in themed groups, posing for pictures and role-playing their chosen characters as much as a convention center will allow.
For most cosplayers it’s a fun hobby, but Yaya Han, professional costume designer, model and cosplay entertainer (and celebrity guest at this weekend’s FX convention in Orlando), does it full time. She spoke to me recently about being other people for a living.
Why dress up for a convention? What do you get out of it?
It started out as a way to express my fandom. At the beginning it was just fun to portrait my favorite characters and interact with other fans. Costuming makes the most bold statement about what your fandom is, anyone can see what show you like from across the hall. It’s a lot more creative and eye-catching than, say, wearing a shirt with the show’s name on it, and it brightens the whole convention hall, which without costumers would be just a bunch of people in T-shirt and jeans.
In the last several years costuming has become more than just fun, it’s
turned into my career. I make all of my own costumes as well as design
for customers such as TV production companies, clubs, and
photographers. I also make regular guest appearances at conventions to
teach panels and workshops on costuming, judge and/or host contests,
and meet my own fans and sign photos.
On top of all that, I an an exhibitor (vendor) at over 20 conventions
per year, selling my hand crafted costume accessories and items to the
So simple dressing up has led to a solid, integrated presence in the fandom community for me.
How long have you been cosplaying? How did you get started?
My first anime convention in the US was Anime Expo ’99, and I went as
an artist showcasing and selling my work in the art show. From seeing
photos of the convention beforehand I knew people dressed up in
costumes that weekend, so I brought a kimono to wear and with the help
of a friend sewed a really simple costume. That was the first time I
used a sewing machine!
After that I was hooked like crazy. Until then the possibility of
dressing as your favorite manga/anime character never occurred to me so
all of a sudden the flood gates opened and all I could think about was
who to cosplay next! lol.
How do you choose which costumes to do next?
For replicating an existing character, It’s a combination of love for
the character and the design of the costume. There has to be both for
me to want to spend the time and effort on making the outfit. For
designing my own costume, I get inspired by almost anything – music,
books, artwork and photos, movies etc. Usually something strikes me and
I become obsessed with turning an idea into a costume, and I start
sketching and looking for materials immediately. Deciding on a new
costume to make is very exhilarating, and I love the process of making
a costume even more than wearing it.
How much does each one cost, and how long do they take to make?
They cost between $50 – $600+, depending on complexity, and I have
spent as little time as 6 hours on a costume, and devoted more than 5
weeks to one. I have become much faster at sewing and crafting these
days so outfits that used to take 2 weeks I can now finish in a few
Which ones are your favorites?
I love all my costumes, and it’s hard to pick favorites. But if I had
to, these following ones were especially fun to make or fun to wear:
Baelfir the Fire Fairy because I put so much time and love into the
costume, even when I had no idea what I was doing, lol. I would like to
re-make this costume with the knowledge I have now.
Lady Deathstrike (from the “X-Men” comics and movies) because it is so fun to take fighting photos with everyone at conventions!
Empyrean Eyes, my Peacock costume, is one of my favorite original
designs. It’s really comfortable to wear and easy to get into, but has
many textures and layers. I feel very elegant in it!
Which one do you think is the closest to your personality?
Ada Wong (from “Resident Evil”) because I love posing with guns and she’s such a kickass character.
Do you mind when people stop you to take pictures?
Of course not. As with every costumer, getting your photo taken is part
of dressing up. About the only time I do not enjoy photos of me to be
snapped is while I’m eating lol. You’d be surprised how often that
happens actually, to all of us costumers!
With all the attention, do you ever get to relax enough to have fun at a con?
I always make time for fun! The greatest benefit of traveling to over
20 cons per year is to see and meet people, and I am a lucky girl who
gets to see many of her friends who are scattered across the country.
Yes, it can be insane, getting up at 6 a.m. to go set up a booth, then
sell all day, and meanwhile dress up in costume and take photos, etc.
But I enjoy the cons a lot and at the end of day there is always a
group of us heading to dinner and then to hang out and chill.
Will you be cosplaying this weekend at FX?
All three days! I am bringing costumes for general wear and for
scheduled photoshoots. You will be able to find me at booth #1019 with
CMI Toys, signing photos and in costume. I will also have items from my
cosplay store available.
What advice would you give beginner cosplayers?
Have fun for yourself, don’t dress up in costumes for attention or to
fit in – those are not fulfilling reasons to put all this time and
effort into a hobby. Really try to find the joy in researching and
making your costumes – you can google for just about any crafting and
sewing technique these days and there are many tutorials.
Also, don’t judge other people and their costumes, and don’t let them judge you either. Just go have a blast!
You don’t have to be a professional seamstress or model to cosplay, of course. At least month’s MegaCon Crystal Rodriquez of Palm Coast became Mia the Unicorn, based on “Peter S. Beagle’s Last Unicorn, the Unicorn Tapestries, and a little bit of My
Little Pony.” Mia was her Rodriquez’s first costume, and it changed her con experience dramatically.
“Normally I go to conventions in a t-shirt and jeans and always enjoyed shopping
and taking pictures of cosplayers,” she said. “Megacon 2009 was Mia’s debut and the
reception I got, I could never have predicted it would be that big. At one point
in the costume, a 5-minute walk took me 45 minutes because everyone stopped me
for pictures. I’ve never been the center of attention before and it was very
new, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Christian Mercado, 18, from Apopka, cosplays at every convention he attends. “I wouldn’t have it any other way!” he said. “It’s definitely a completely different experience going in costume! It is so much more fun, in my opinion. And it’s immensely satisfying when people come up to you to take pictures and compliment on your work!”
Which characters does Mercado cosplay? It might be easier to list the ones he has not. “Being a Star Wars junkie, my first costume ever made was my Darth Vader, which was used for a movie themed Christmas showcase in December of 2007,” he said. His other costumes have included “the original Joker from Batman, Snake from Metal Gear Solid, Garindan from Star Wars, a New Republic Jedi from Star Wars, Mario from Super Mario Brothers, a Nazgul (Ringwraith) from Lord of The Rings, Rorschach from Watchmen, Luffy from One Piece, and Edward Elric from Full Metal Alchemist. I have also made my own interpretations of characters from either books or series that have pretty generalized characters, such as the Thought Police from the book ‘1984,’ The Pirate King from the musical Pirates of Penzance, a Robot based off the ones in the Animatrix, and a Hollow from Bleach. I’m also currently working on cosplaying Light Yagami from Death Note, Son Goku from Saiyuki, and Auron from Final Fantasy X!”
“It’s just so much fun walking into a hall or (dealers) room and seeing people scramble to take pictures of you and your friends,” Mercado said. “Good memories and tons of fun!”
You can find more about cosplaying and plenty of pictures of Yaya Han in costume — along with details on the characters and what each costume entailed — at her website AngelicStar.net. Don’t miss seeing her (and many, many other cosplayers) at this weekend’s FX convention at the Orange City Convention Center in Orlando. And if you’re interested in giving it a shot yourself, you can check out sites like cosplay.com or even my own tips on cosplaying here.
All Yaya Han images © AngelicStar.net and the respective photographers, used by permission. Mia image © C. A. Bridges. Rorshach image © Christian Mercado.