What started as a subculture is now an international phenomenon that has given birth to an industry. While some people might dismiss cosplay as merely a hobby, Knudsen’s clients—who come from around the globe—consider it a passionate lifestyle. “You are always you,” she explains. “You go to work and pay your bills as ‘Mr. So-and-so’ or ‘Mrs. So-and-so.’ In cosplay, you become that person you’ve always admired but didn’t have the confidence to be.”
Ask a cosplayer if you can snap her picture and she’ll strike a dramatic pose, snarling ferociously as Catwoman or majestically summoning lightning as X-Men’s Storm. That’s because in cosplay, the goal is to look and act like your favourite superhero. First popularized in Japan during the 1990s, cosplay spread to the rest of the world at the same time as big-budget, star-studded superhero movies began making billions at the box office. Being a fan of comic books, video games and all things geeky became not only acceptable but also cool. Comic book conventions went from being the exclusive haunts of hard-core collectors to international pop culture extravaganzas. Toronto is known for its Comicon convention, and Fan Expo makes stops in Regina and Vancouver, but the epicentre is Comic-Con International: San Diego, which attracts major Hollywood stars along with hundreds of thousands of attendees every summer.
In this alternate fashion reality, cosplayers are the supermodels and the comic book convention floor is their catwalk. “You literally can’t go anywhere without people wanting to take pictures,” says Victoria Ikerd (a.k.a. Wonder Woman Is Real). In real life, the San Diego-based attorney defends the rights of children with disabilities. She got into cosplay a year ago, but she says for years people would tell her she looked like Wonder Woman because of her six-foot frame and strong build. She adds that Wonder Woman was her childhood superhero and that dressing like her namesake emboldens her both in and out of costume. “If I have a moment in court when I feel weak, I can actually reflect on how I feel when I wear my Wonder Woman costume,” she says. “It gives me the strength to remember that I’m a warrior.”
Heather Kennedy (a.k.a. Heather Starsailor), a Toronto-based ICU neonatal nurse, says that she has been playing dress-up since she was a child but officially started cosplaying in 2008. Many of her costumes—including a recent one that is illuminated with LED lights—are inspired by Pokémon characters that she loved as a child. “When I first started working with the LED lights, it kind of went over my head even though I have two degrees in science!” she says, adding that all the effort is worth it when she sees the fans’ reaction to her work. “Making other people happy with my costumes definitely makes me happy.”
It’s a sentiment that also rings true for Kimi Hughes (a.k.a. Golden Lasso Girl). “There’s nothing more fun in the world than being dressed as Wonder Woman and having a seven-year-old girl run up to you thrilled out of her mind,” explains the Los Angeles-based elementary school assistant principal. And there’s a certain pressure that comes with wanting to stand out in the crowd: “It’s very akin to fashion,” she laughs. “It’s a faux pas to show up in the exact same outfit each time.” Some cosplayers create their own outfits, and Golden Lasso Girl—like many others—will go to great lengths to learn new skills to improve her costumes. She once joined an online forum for car customizers to ask them how to create an aluminum chest plate for her Wonder Woman costume. Others seek out designers like Knudsen to recreate their coveted superhero style. “I remember the day that photos of Suicide Squad actress Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn costume were leaked to the Internet,” she says. “Immediately clients began asking ‘Can you make this?’”
For comic book artist and Molly Danger creator Jamal Igle, it’s flattering to see one of his costume designs turned into reality by a cosplayer. “It’s extremely humbling,” he says. “I immediately have to go over and take a picture with them. I love it!” But how do the women themselves feel once they’re laced into corsets, with false eyelashes and wigs in place, brandishing their weapons and striding triumphantly onto the convention floor? “I get a rush,” says Heather Starsailor. “I don’t feel like myself. It’s playing somebody different for the day.”
Assuming a different identity through fashion is nothing new. For years designers have reimagined women as creatures of fantasy, from Thierry Mugler’s chrome-plated robot look to Alexander McQueen’s armoured Joan of Arc to Gareth Pugh’s masked, angular femmes fatales. The Spring 2017 collections saw a further blurring of the line between fashion and costume with Chanel’s chic “Cocobot” storm troopers and The Blonds’ silver-clad space goddesses. Will a new, larger-than-life persona be the must-have accessory in the future? “Everyone is looking for that special something that will set them apart,” says Knudsen, who predicts that the worlds of fashion and cosplay will continue to intersect in the coming years.
As cosplay moves into the mainstream, companies like McCall’s and Simplicity are offering licensed sewing patterns for would-be Batgirls and Black Widows, while retailers like Hot Topic sell ready-to-wear costume elements. But Golden Lasso Girl thinks the real money is to be made in “casual cosplay”: clothing inspired by Captain Marvel or Harley Quinn for those who want to channel their inner hero in their everyday lives—and perhaps explore their fashion fantasies. As Quinn once remarked: “I’ll never understand why Superman wears the same outfit every damn day.”