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75 Years Of Capes and Face Paint: A History of Cosplay

July 24, 2014

Cosplay certainly wasn’t born at Comic-Con. The art of dressing up in elaborate sci-fi or comic-book inspired costumes existed long before the convention’s modest first outing in 1970, but San Diego’s annual celebration of comics, TV, and movies helped launch the once-niche craze into the mainstream. (All of those Leias in gold bikinis probably didn’t hurt either.) With Comic-Con International opening Thursday, we’ve taken a journey back to the beginning of cosplay — when it was dubbed “costuming” — and assemble a timeline of some important moments in the history of fan fashion.

Forrest J. Ackerman in his “futuristicostume” in 1939

1939: Forrest J. Ackerman, perhaps the greatest fan of science fiction who ever lived, attended the first ever World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, in “futuristicostume.” Ackerman “strode the streets looking like a proto-superhero” speaking Esperanto with his friend and the designer of his costume, Myrtle Douglas. He was the first sci-fi fan to attend a conference in costume.

1940: A year later in Chicago, the first Worldcon masquerade was held. According to Mike Resnick’s book …Always a Fan, “for the first couple of decades it was actually a masquerade ball.” There was a band, drinks, and dancing, with prizes handed out at the end of the night.

1941: In the fanzine The Southern Star, Milton Rothman, who would later become a nuclear physicist, describes a handful of costumes observed at a sci-fi convention, including one of a man who came dressed as a “bug-eyed monster” from one of Saturn’s moons: “Completely hand made. A blue and yellow suit with a helmet made of dozens of feathers pasted on one by one. Horribly hot to wear.”

1956: Seventeen years after he wore the first costume to the first Worldcon, Forrest Ackerman returns to the convention to report for Fantastic Universe. By this point wearing costumes is so well established that, he writes, “Monsters, mutants, scientists, spacemen, aliens, and assorted ‘Things’ thronged the ballroom floor as the flashbulbs popped.” Ackerman also reports that Olga Ley, wife of writer Willy Ley, “won for the Most Beautiful costume.” According to Resnick, Ley was “the first great costumer.”

Bruce Pelz in an Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired outfit

1963: Bruce Pelz, described by Resnick as “the most creative” costumer, attends Worldcon as Fafhrd from the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories written by fantasy legend Fritz Leiber. By the early 60s, Resnick writes “a number of fans spent considerable time — weeks, sometimes months — preparing their costumes.”

1970: The first Comic-Con is held at the US Grant Hotel in San Diego. Three hundred people attend, but costuming did not play a prominent role at the event.  

1971: For the first time in over two decades, someone in a nude costume shows up at Worldcon. Resnick writes that “throughout the 1970s and 1980s there were half a dozen or so nude costumes every year.”

1974: Resnick reports that Worldcon masquerades have grown to more than 100 participants each year.

Superman and mini-Superman at the 1974 Comic-Con

1974: In its fourth year, San Diego Comic-Con, as it was then known, begins staging its own masquerade. June Foray, best known as the voice of Rocky the Squirrel and Natasha Fatale, emcees.

1975: A report in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung describes sci-fi conventions as “largely devoted to costume dances, parties, and mutual flattery.”

A robot from Mobile Suit Gundam

1980: The manga series Urusei Yatsura is released. Along with the 1979 TV series Mobile Suit Gundam, it helps cosplay take off in Japan.

1982: Worldcon masquerades are so popular, Resnick writes, that organizers separate the competition into three categories: novice, journeyman, and master.

1983: The inaugural Costume-Con is held in San Diego. The new convention, which invites costumes depicting “anime, comics, video games, fantasy, sci-fi, theatrical/film/TV costumes, millinery, fursuits, and more,” takes costuming from the sidelines and makes it the main attraction.

1984: Japanese reporter and manga publisher Takahashi Nobuyuki is the first to use the term “cosplay” after attending Worldcon in Los Angeles. Takahasi coined the term by combining the words “costume” and “play” and encouraged his Japanese readers to partake.

1984: Captain Tsubasa, a manga about a soccer team increases cosplay’s popularity in Japan because of the ease of dressing up like a soccer player. 

1986: With the term “cosplay” yet to infiltrate the US, the LA Times describes the Worldcon masquerade as “much like a fashion show,” which “brought out master craftsmen who had spent hundreds of hours producing costumes that could grace a film with a $38-million budget, and novice consumers who use a minimum of materials.”

1996: On NBC’s hit comedy Friends, Ross admits to a fantasy likely shared by most straight men his age: Return of the Jedi era Princess Leia in a gold bikini. Rachel complies with the request and even throws in some side buns for good measure. 

A magical Japanese schoolgirl from Sailor Moon

1997: The wildly popular anime Sailor Moon airs for the last time on TV Asahi in Japan. According to the Japan Times, it “inspired a gazillion cosplayers to don Japanese schoolgirl miniskirts, prudence be damned.”

1999: The first cosplay cafe open in Akihabara, Tokyo. Many more follow throughout Tokyo and Osaka.

2003: Dengeki Layers, a magazine targeting the Japanese cosplay community launches. 

2003: The first World Cosplay Summit is held in Nagoya, Japan. Cosplayers from four countries, including Japan, partake in the festivities.

Cosplay celebrity Jessica Nigri

2009: Jessica Nigri is photographed at San Diego Comic Con in a sexy Pikachu costume. The photo goes viral as she begins her ascension to one of the biggest cosplay celebrities in the world

Syfy’s Heroes of Cosplay

2013: The reality competition Heroes of Cosplay premieres on Syfy. Despite heavy criticism from the cosplay community, the series is a modest ratings success, with its premiere drawing three-quarters of a million viewers.

Photo credits: www.thebigbanglife.com, Pelz002/Flickr, courtesy of Shel Dorf, Akita Shoten, Kodansha, Facebook, Syfy