Cosplay is a hobby where the participants (the cosplayers) dress up as specific characters from popular culture, e.g. characters from cartoons, comic books, live-action films, television series or video games.
The hobby is especially popular in Japan and the United States.
The term cosplay is a portmanteau of the English terms costume and play. The portmanteau was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi of Studio Hard while attending the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in Los Angeles. A lot of people dressed up as their favorite characters were present and this made an impression on Takahashi who wrote about the experience in the Japanese magazine My Anime.
Instead of simply using the Japanese word for masquerade, Takahashi made up the term kosupure. (In Japanese, masquerade translates into “aristocratic costume” and was thus not really fitting for what Takahashi was seeing at the convention.)
In Japanese, it is very common to create abbreviations using the first two moras of pair of words. So, in this case, costume became kosu (コス) and ‘play’ became pure (プレ), forming the new term kosupure.
From kosupure, the term cosplay was derived.
The concept of fans dressing up as their favorite characters was by no means novel for the Japanese readers in 1984; it had been a popular fan activity in Japan since the 1970s.
Dressing up as a character of the opposite gender is called crossplay.
The history of dressing up as a character is very long and this is something that humans have been doing both for fun and for religious / spiritual reasons.
During the 20th century, dressing up as characters from contemporary popular culture became increasingly common. One early example is from 1908, when Mr. and Mrs. William Fell dressed up as Mr. Skygack and Miss Dillpickles when attending a masquerade in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Both characters came from a science fiction comic.
In 1939, Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas attended the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in New York dressed in futuristic costumes based on caracters from pulp magazine artwork and the 1936 movie Things to Come. Ackerman (chiefly famous for creating the character Vampirella) later explained that he had been under the impression that everyone who attended the convention was supposed to dress up for the occasion.
Ackerman and Douglas must have made quite the impression with their costumes, because the 2nd Worldcon in 1940 featured a masquerade as part of the official program. (Also, an unofficial masquerade was held in Douglas room.) The prize for best costume went to David Kyle who was wearing a Ming the Merciless costume made by Lesli Perri.
Masquerade balls or other costume events have been a part of WorldCon ever since. Their attendance began to drop in the 1990s, but this trend was reversed with the concept of cosplay.
Comic book conventions
In 1965, a costume contest was arranged as a part of the 1st Academy Con in New York. This is believed to be the frist instance of a costume contest at a comic book convention. One of the attendees was Roy Thomas (the future editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics) who wore a Plastic Man costume.
The famous San Diego Comic-Con held its first masquerade ball in 1974. The prize for best costume went to (future scream queen) Brinke Stevens who had dressed up as Vampirella. Vampirella’s creator Ackerman was present at the event and he and his wife both became good friends with Stevens. It was after seeing a photograph of Stevens as Vampirella in the Ackerman household that Dan Golden contracted her for a role in his movie Zyzak is King (1980), the start of her movie career.
Costume-Con, a convention dedicated to costuming, premiered in 1983.
Costplay cafés began to emerge in Tokyo in the late 1990s, especially in the Akihabara part of the city.
World Cosplay Summit
The first World Cosplay Summit took place in 2003 at the Rose Court Hotel in Nagoya, Japan.