This week, I spent incalculable hours cutting paper, embroidering, gluing and checking reference pictures in pursuit of the perfect Halloween costume. I even have bruises around my right thumb from using my weighted fabric scissors so much. While sitting in the middle of my floor surrounded by cardboard and paper scraps at two in the morning, I had a startling realization: Some people do this just for fun, year-round. And, better yet, I know such a person.
To better understand the subculture of cosplay, which I define here as any sort of costume-wearing outside a Halloween context, I caught up with Julianna Bencze ’21. Her cosplay Instagram has over 7,000 followers, so she seems qualified to answer any cosplay queries I could come up with. First, she told me about her humble cosplay beginnings, stating, “Sophomore year of high school, I spent the entire year getting my Halloween costume ready. And then, as soon as Halloween was over, I was like, ‘All right, what I am I doing next year?’ It took me a year to realize you don’t have to wait until Halloween to dress up in costumes. And once I found out there was an actual community of people who dress up all the time, well, I was just kind of trapped.”
When I asked why she enjoys cosplay, Bencze remarked, “It’s about being able to create something … A lot of people enjoy being able to hang out with their friends as a different character. And that’s the part they find the most rewarding, but for me, it’s really just the ‘making things’ process and being able to kind of add your artistic vision to someone else’s.” I absolutely related to this, having felt immensely satisfied after I added the final dabs of Mod Podge to my own costume.
Next, we discussed how Bencze develops an idea. “What I basically do is pick a character that I connect with, and that also has an interesting design, and that I think I can complete within a reasonable amount of time,” she informed me. Once she acquires the raw materials, the real work begins.
Bencze described her approach; she creates each garment from scratch using blank fabric. “I’ll get my dress form out and make the whole pattern, and then go through the whole ‘fit’ thing. It’s a lot of very technical things that feel less like cosplay and a lot more like actual costume work,” she revealed. By contrast, other cosplayers start with ready-made items. “A lot of people I know will buy pieces on Amazon, just clothing pieces that they can cut up, and adjust and modify to make the character,” she explained. “That’s a skill I really admire, because…I don’t think I could go online, pick out five items and be like, ‘this is what I’m going to change [about] each one, and then it will look like the right thing.’ I have to start from actual blank fabric, or I won’t know what happens.”
Once she constructs the costume itself, it’s time for makeup. Bencze expounded on this aspect of her design process: “I feel like the place I can have the most fun is with makeup, because the clothing is pretty set, for what [the character] wears. Different styles of makeup are one of the most unique ways that different people can make characters their own.” In makeup design, a cosplayer can showcase their own artistic vision for the character.
Shifting gears, I asked Bencze if she has a favorite costume so far. She laughed and responded, “It changes so fast. It’s usually the thing I’ve most recently made.” After thinking for a moment, she answered: “I did some cosplay work this summer where I made costumes for other people, and that was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, because it’s working with other people’s proportions, and what they want, their artistic vision. But it was very rewarding to see it come together in the end.”
Finally, I gave Bencze the opportunity to share anything she wants those outside the community to know. “I would like people to think that we’re normal people,” she said, “but I feel like that’s not an accurate representation of most of the cosplay community.” I laughed, and she elaborated, “I would say, actually, most of the cosplay community is a bunch of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers who just really connect with characters and want to dress up and have a good time with their friends.” She added that, contrary to popular belief, “The really popular types of cosplay that you see are not the most common types, it’s just what makes it to the top. So there’s all the sexy armor cosplay people, and those are pretty rare.”
From my conversation with Bencze, I gained a more thorough understanding of what cosplay means to those who enjoy it, beyond just a mode of artistic self-expression. By creating costumes, a cosplayer brings life to a character, which is a rewarding exercise. And, of course, seeing the results is exciting.