A Brief History Of Cosplay Culture

If you've ever been within a 10-block radius of a convention like Comic-Con or Anime Expo, you've seen people dressing up as their favorite characters from anime, video games, and comic books. You may have even participated in cosplay yourself. Even if you're a total cosplay maven, you still might not know about the history of cosplay.

Though many people think cosplay originated in Japan, it actually started in America during the late 1930s. It wasn't until 1984 that Nobuyuki Takahashi, the founder of Studio Hard, brought the practice from a science fiction convention in Los Angeles to Japan and started encouraging anime fans to do the same at their own conventions.

Whether you're a fan of the best cosplayers in America or just someone who appreciates fandom history, it's good to know how cosplay evolved into the thriving global community that exists today.


  • Cosplay Is About Transforming Into Fictional Characters

    Cosplay is the art of dressing up like a fictional character. This can include anime characters like Goku from Dragon Ball Z or Ochaco Uraraka from My Hero Academia. It can also include characters from video games, comic books, TV shows, movies, and even works of literature. Any kind of media is fair game for cosplay, as long as the character has a representable physical appearance. It's common to try to resemble the chosen character as much as possible, but some cosplayers get creative and use their unique traits to bring a new twist to an established fictional personality. 

    Some cosplayers sew and design their own outfits, while others purchase ready-made outfits. These outfits are displayed at conventions, in competitions, and in other cosplay-themed events. At these events, cosplayers might enter contests, participate in photo shoots, or act in skits or other performances.

  • Cosplay Dates Back To The 1930s
    Photo: Catherine McGann/Contributor / Archive Photos

    Cosplay Dates Back To The 1930s

    Cosplay is a far older activity than most people assume it is. The practice began in the late 1930s, when an American man named Forrest J. Ackerman turned up to a sci-fi convention in futuristic attire.

    He wasn't dressed as a specific character, though. Instead, he tried to channel the vibe of the genre to which the convention was dedicated. His idea caught on, and soon conventions were filled with people in costume. Those with particularly fantastic costumes won awards for their efforts.

  • Some Of The Earliest Cosplay Was Inspired By Zines
    Photo: greyloch / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Some Of The Earliest Cosplay Was Inspired By Zines

    Not all cosplay activity takes place at conventions. In fact, there's a thriving fan community that consists of informal get-togethers to discuss costume plans, work on sewing and construction, archive historically interesting cosplay, and just generally socialize with people who share enthusiasm for the same hobby. But where did these gatherings originate?

    One popular theory concerning the birth of these informal congregations started with an advertisement in a 1979 zine. Zines are fan-made magazines containing fanfiction, fan art, and other information relevant to fan activities. 

  • The Term Was Coined In Japan In 1984

    In 1984, Nobuyuki Takahashi, the founder of an anime studio called Studio Hard, traveled from Japan to Los Angeles, CA, to check out a sci-fi convention called WorldCon. There, he encountered the thriving masquerade scene, where people not only dressed up like their favorite characters from shows like Star Trek and Star Wars, but also re-enacted them. 

    Takahashi took this concept back with him to Japan, but called it kosupure, or costume play. The Japanese translation for masquerade implied aristocracy, and therefore did not describe what he saw at WorldCon. The word was eventually adapted to "cosplay," and Takahashi encouraged Japanese fans to start including it in anime conventions. 

  • The First Manga Cosplay Appeared In America In 1979
    Photo: Alan Light / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    The First Manga Cosplay Appeared In America In 1979

    American cosplay based on Japanese manga actually predated the practice's introduction to Japan. At the 1979 San Diego Comic-Con International, Karen Schaubelt and a group of fellow cosplayers showed up dressed as Captain Harlock and other characters from Star Blazers. 

    While Schaubelt and her friends were the first known fans to introduce manga-based cosplay to the West, it did not truly catch on until after Nobuyuki Takahashi's 1984 trip to WorldCon.

  • Post-World War II Shojo Manga Heavily Influenced Cosplay Culture
    Photo: Yumeji Takehisa / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Post-World War II Shojo Manga Heavily Influenced Cosplay Culture

    After World War II, shojo manga began to serve a dual purpose: the manga illustrated romantic stories meant to appeal to teenage girls, while also serving as an advertisement for clothing and accessories. This trend was pioneered by Yumeji Takehisa, a manga artist who doubled as a fashion designer, allowing fans of his work to buy the clothes his characters wore. Junichi Nakahara pushed this trend even further by providing full-body fashion illustrations of his shojo characters. 

    Not only did the creators of shojo manga help encourage the development of cosplay, its fans did too. Female fans of Nakahara, Takehisa, and other shojo manga artists wrote fanfiction, drew fan art, and created their own manga based on these characters. These activities contributed to an environment of participating creatively in fandom, which helped pave the way for cosplayers.