(Sheesh… This ended up being almost 3,000 words. I say this in the body of the piece, but let me reiterate something right here at the top so it’s not lost on anyone who reads this due to length. Some of my comments made here are directed at only a very specific part of fandom. You may prefer to identify yourself by a certain label I’m discussing below, but if you’re not doing the things I’m citing- I have no issue at all with you.)
Years ago… Well, actually it was decades ago, but typing “decades” makes me feel a lot older. Anyhow… Years ago the world of Star Trek fandom started growing in leaps and bounds. Somewhere along the way it took over the focus of the pop culture spotlight occasionally used by those outside of fandom to peek into our culture and report on it to the masses. It was an interesting time in more ways than one. It was also a time that, when looking back on it, sometimes feels like talking about a different planet rather than just a different time.
Science fiction fans would condemn Star Trek fans as a lesser fandom. Science fiction fans were into serious works of science fiction, books by renowned authors or television and film works held up by them as worthy of the genre, while Star Trek fans barely knew any “real” science fiction and just followed their canceled TV show like a cult. I think a lot of comic book fans just saw them as weird; especially when it became really big in Trek fandom to start dressing up.
But as bad as some of the people in fandom could be back then, they had nothing on the people outside of fandom. The pop culture commentators outside of fandom, separate from fandom, were, as they were with pretty much everything about fandom, far more brutal.
Somewhere along the way the term ‘Trekkie’ become as well known in the wider pop culture world as the Trek fans themselves were becoming. It was actually an old term that had existed as far back as when the show was originally still on the air, but it blew up huge by the 1980s. The thing is it had become something of a pop culture pejorative. It was a term that was most often used in newspapers, magazines, and entertainment news television segments when fans were being described in the most negative ways possible. The descriptions given of a Trekkie in these things were often examples of the most derogatory geek stereotypes one could possibly think up, and it was a label those outside of fandom were starting to use for all of Trek fandom whenever discussing it.
This was about the time you saw a big rise in the use of the term ‘Trekker’. It was also actually an older word with documented uses going back to the very early 1970s. Interestingly, even in its earliest usage, many people describing themselves by that term did so to claim themselves as the better form of Trek fan when compared to the Trekkie. Because, you know, fandom can’t ever make a new group without forming at least two small factions in that group to war with one another…
The interesting thing with the two labels and the fans that described themselves by those labels was the fact that there really was largely no difference between the two groups of fans. I knew a ton of people who called themselves Trekkies and a ton of people who called themselves Trekkers. When venturing out into fan gatherings, I encountered a lot more of both groups. The honest truth of the matter was you could not typically tell what their preferred label was unless they stated it, because, at least when not arguing about the labels, they came off to the outside observer as exactly the same.
Well, there was one difference. There was in the earliest generations of late 1970’s and early 1980’s Trekkers a sizable population of jackasses. Despite being more or less identical as examples of Star Trek fandom, early Trekkers could be downright nasty and pretty insulting about why Trekkers were better than Trekkies and why the term ‘Trekkers’ was the more accurate and dignified term for Star Trek fans. They would explain at length what poor examples of Trek fandom Trekkies were, often repeating, sometimes word for word, the stereotypes about Trek fans used as criticism by pop culture commentators outside of fandom. Trekkies were the pathetic nerd of their fandom’s high school, and they wanted the wider world to know that they, the Trekkers, were the cool jocks of that high school.
Of course, this ignored the fact that many of the people they were in part trying to impress and look cool for looked at Trekkers in the same way they looked at Trekkies and looked at Trek fandom as a whole. The people outside of Trek fandom who were putting down Trekkies saw no difference between the two groups outside of maybe thinking that Trekkers were fandom’s equivalent of the high school bathroom janitor who mopped up messes and plunged the odd clogged toilet while insisting he be called a Lavatory Custodial Technician. Decades later, some of the people who were involved in the most heated of fandom arguments over the terms have looked back at it, scratched their heads, and wondered what was going through their minds back then that made them think they were making any sense whatsoever.
That brings us to now. That brings us to fandom’s newest version of the original generation ‘Trekker’ movement. This is the minority of costumers making it about costumer vs the cosplayer.
Now, let me make something clear right here. I have friends who think of themselves primarily as costumers. I have friends who think of themselves primarily as cosplayers. The people I know are not particularly anal about the two terms. While they may have a personal preference as to which term they self-identify with in casual conversation, they know they’re going to run into people at large fandom gatherings or events who’ll call them by the other term. That goes doubly true for the ones who prefer to self-identify as a costumer.
Thing is, they really don’t mind. They know people- unlike commentators back in the day throwing around the word 'Trekkie' -aren’t trying to be derogatory or insulting towards them. The ones who prefer costumer as a label certainly know that they’re going to run into more people who see the act of dressing up in a costume as cosplay when attending modern fandom events. It doesn’t bother them since they see neither cosplay nor cosplayers in a negative way and they don’t bristle at being identified as a cosplayer.
If that describes you, this isn’t directed at you.
More and more often of late, as cosplay has grown so large and so popular in fandom that there are now conventions popping up and being held primarily for and about cosplay, this generation’s obnoxious Trekker is rather vocally rising up. They’re popping up in threads on social media pages and blog forums devoted to major fandom conventions, sometimes starting the thread themselves, and spitting venom. These are the ‘costumers’ who feel the need to declare that they are not cosplayers while flinging insults at cosplay in general and/or claiming artistic and creative superiority over the lowly cosplayers.
Much like the ‘Real Fans’ who insist others are not ‘Real Fans’ like them, many of the statements made to prove the differences between the two and/or their superiority is complete and total bollocks. Here are some of the oft repeated highlights in these discussions.
[*] Costumers make everything they wear whereas the inferior cosplayers don’t.
False- Yes, it is true that some cosplayers do not make everything they wear. Some don’t do it because they’ve discovered the limits of their ability- be it sculpting or working with certain materials –while some might seek help from others because they’re just starting out and are still learning their craft. But here are the two things with that.
There are actually quite a few very good cosplayers out there who take pride in the fact that they’ve gotten skilled enough over time to make some amazingly good outfits put together almost entirely with things they’ve made. There are also some cosplays that are so simple even beginners can do them on their own and make them look damned good.
There’s also the tiny fact that some costumers, including the ones being insultingly anti cosplayer, don’t actually make everything they wear. There are a number of people who are extremely skilled costumers when it comes to most fabrics and even leathers. Give them the proper time and they can create an entire outfit complete with boots, belts, and straps. Of course, ask them to do any intricately complicated work with metals or jewelry and they’ll have a problem.
There are professionals working in television, movies, and major theaters who will tell you point blank that they have limitations. They can put together 95% of what’s needed for a perfect costume, but make them supply the other 5% through their own craftwork and there will be a noticeable drop in quality. That’s why they have other people working with them who can do these things, have a professional connection with a person or group who can reliably make some items, and/or know what secondhand stores to dig through to find the basic framework for what they need to build a needed piece on. When well paid and/or well respected professionals can admit they can’t do everything themselves, it’s a good bet the groups of “I create every piece of all the outfits I wear totally from scratch!” crews have more than a few members falling 5% or more short of that claim.
[*] Costumers are far more original and creative, making wholly original outfits to wear while cosplayers have to copy other people’s creative works to make something to wear.
The only thing I love more than the obvious ignorance of what many cosplayers do when seeing this argument put forward is the colossal level of an absence of self-awareness by the person making this statement. We’ll start with what they’re getting wrong about the cosplayers first.
Do cosplayers look at some cool new movie, TV show, book, comic, anime, etc. and decide that they want to make an outfit, an outfit exact in every detail they can find, as an expression of their passionate love for some new character? Yes they do. You absolutely have lots of cosplayers who at some point or another will work insanely hard to create the most perfect replica of an existing character’s outfit. Of course, you then have all the other cosplays they do that don’t fall under that particular description.
Cosplayers love to be creative. A huge number of cosplayers out there love to figure out how to take the things they like and tweak them or blend them. Sometimes this can take the form of something very simple like a female cosplayer taking a male character’s design and reworking it into a female character. Sometimes the tweaking is just for modesty’s sake, other times the tweaking is an all-out redesign. Sometimes they get even wilder than that.
Cosplayers can be very intelligent and creative people. This means you get more than the occasional creation with a surprising amount of research and development behind it. I’ve seen cosplayers take a well-known character and recreate them as a 13th century samurai. I’ve seen a Storm Trooper rebuilt- armor, weapons, and all -from the ground up to look like what a Storm Trooper would be if it was made in the fictional era of Steampunk. Then there’s the guy I saw one time who designed as a future cosplay a “robot” suit based around the idea of what the TARDIS would look like if it were a Transformer. I could easily cite another thousand examples of cosplays along those lines, and that’s not even getting into the cosplayers who design their own thing from time to time for everything from the fantasy genre to Steampunk.
On the flipside of this coin are the costumers making this comment essentially undercutting their own jabs at cosplayers with their other comments. A part of the “wholly original” discussions tend to lead towards talk of the authentic looking period pieces or extravagant Steampunk outfits they wear to fandom events. Can you kind of see the problem with the two concepts banging heads a bit here?
If you’re, say, making an resplendent dress that one would see on a well to do lady visiting the royal courts of Spain in the 1600s, you’re working off of a template. You may not be making an exact copy of a dress you saw in a museum, in a painting, or in a book about the topic filled with old sketches made by the dressmakers of the time, but you are still essentially just tweaking and combining the preexisting designs you’re looking at. You can’t not do that and claim you’re making an “authentic” period piece.
The same can be said to a degree with Steampunk designs. Unless you’re going full tilt boogie and designing some armored, weaponized juggernaut suit, you’re doing more modest designs. If you’re doing the more modest designs, you’re starting with the set template of the established fashions of the time period Steampunk is set in. After you’ve built your foundation on that, you’re still, in attempting to be authentic to the genre, working off of a set variety of specific items that define the genre.
You can certainly claim to be creative with your work and rightly so. Anyone who can create something that looks or feels “new” or “original” in a genre or setting already so heavily populated deserves any accolades for doing that. But the fact is that you’re not really doing anything different than the cosplayer who starts out with a template design for Green Arrow and reimagines it as Shaolin archer in the aftermath of the attack on their temple by the Qing government. Your designs are basically no different than a design by a cosplayer who looks at Green Lantern and Iron Man and works out how to create a new character representing a merger of the two characters that’s both original in and of itself while still strongly reflecting the character templates that are the recognizable design signatures of the original characters. You are both doing the same thing- you’re working off of a set, existing template and building from there.
There is one claim of originality made by this particular crew of costumers that I find very interesting though. That would be this one.
[*] Costumers are more original than cosplayers because every creation they make and present at events is an original character and/or persona.
I have to admit I find this one funny when it comes up in these sorts of threads. The reason I find it funny is twofold. First, it contradicts what other costumers from this branch of the group, often in the same thread, are saying. Second, but along the same line of thought, it hugely undercuts an argument some of their group are putting forward to define the difference between a cosplayer and a costumer.
A number of the people in this currently obnoxious minority of costumers will point blank tell you that costumers do not portray characters. Costumers create costumes and wear them, but they do not “costume play” and take on traits of the character or attempt to act like the character. So when one of their own group attempts to claim costumers are more creative than cosplayers by claiming they do only all original characters and/or personas when dressed up at events, it seems a bit contradictory.
Beyond that, this argument, used not only to take a potshot at cosplay in general by trying to claim superiority over cosplayers, basically says that the person putting forward the argument is in fact a cosplayer despite their own arguments to the contrary. The word has changed a bit since it was first coined and it now includes more than just what it was once meant to be, but the people saying they’re not cosplayers or cosplaying while saying this…
You’re cosplaying. You can say you’re not cosplaying, but you are, by creating a character or persona when costumed, following the original textbook definition of costume play/cosplay.
I could keep going point by point here, but I won’t. We’re getting long. I’ll add this though. If you’re wearing a costume at a fandom event or convention, no matter what you want to call yourself, society, whether it’s the society of geeks you’re with or society as a whole, is going to see what you’re doing as cosplay and see you as a cosplayer. Why? Because that is the word that is now synonymous with this activity in these places. You can try to argue against the changing nature of language, but you may as well be arguing against the 50,000 or so other evolutions and changes to language that happen with the turnover of every generation. Good luck with that.
You’re not talking about a situation here where you’re being paid as a professional to design costumes for theater, television, or film. Maybe you do that during other parts of the month and you are in those moments a costumer, but you’re talking here about that one day or one weekend where you’re putting on a costume to attend a fandom gathering and/or a giant genre event so you can see and be seen. You’re even, by some of your own words, putting on a character’s persona when you do it. You are cosplaying.
You’re also doing something else here in your quest to feel superior to other’s in fandom. You’re losing sight of what you’re primarily supposed to be doing this for. In your desire to be the costuming/cosplay equivalent of the some of the most obnoxious early generation “I’m a Trekker and better than you pathetic Trekkies!” crew, or, worse, the “I’m a real fan and you’re not!” twits, you’ve forgotten that you’re supposed to be having fun with this.
When you go to these events, it’s supposed to be about getting together with people who enjoy the same types of things you do and enjoying yourselves. When you join groups, pages, or forums dedicated to these events and pastimes, it’s supposed to be about continuing to have some of that enjoyment throughout the parts of the year the event isn’t actively being held.
It’s not about you pretending to be better and/or superior to others. It’s not about you trying to make yourself feel good about yourself or feel better about yourself, stroking your own ego or nursing your own fragile insecurities about what you do by attempting to put others down. Because if that’s what fandom and fandom events are about for you, do the rest of us a big favor. Log off, stay home.
And, you know what? That goes the same for any of the other little crews in fandom who seem to believe the only way they can lift themselves up is to put others in fandom down. This was focused on the cranky, noisy minority emerging out there in the overall better group of costumers with the occasional bit addressed to the “Real Fan!” crew, but the same goes for every little, obnoxious group in fandom. We, fandom, when we’re at these events, are supposed to be about having fun, enjoying what we love, sharing what we love with others, learning about cool new things we may end up loving every bit as much as our old favorites, and, typically, helping to prop each other up. But if for you these events and groups are about you polishing your ego by insisting that others in fandom are lesser fans who are beneath you and inferior to you…
Log off, stay home.
Jerry Chandler isn’t a cosplayer or a costumer. He’s just a fan who enjoys being able walk into fandom events, hang out with other people who are there to have fun and share what they love with others, and be a part of an overall positive experience had by all.
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