The Economics of Cosplay
Salt Lake City—It looked like Halloween came early downtown last week. But far from being simply a celebration of spooky, the characters stuffing the sidewalks were from movies, television, books, video games and comics—part of a growing trend from pop and geek culture enthusiasts.
The practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, television show, game or comic, called cosplay, is especially popular around events like Salt Lake ComicCon, held last Thursday through Saturday. Cosplay is so popular at ComicCon that the event even has an official contest for it. Saturday, Salt Lake ComicCon even claimed the world record for the most people dressed as comic book characters gathered in one place with a staggering 1,784 cosplaying fans turning for the attempt.
“There’s an explosion of interest around the country in cosplay. There are YouTube videos—it’s definitely out of the barn now,” said Jennifer McGrew, owner, designer and producer at McGrew Studios, a custom production design studio that makes costumes sets and props for the industry, both commercial and for fun.
McGrew Studios itself was present at ComicCon, but was also well represented by customers, she said.
“We participated with a booth and we were exhibitors this year. We primarily showed off a few costumes, but mostly we did custom props that we did for different films and commercials and commercial entertainment,” she said. “There were several people running around ComicCon with our costumes that we made this year and previous years.”
Cosplay has as wide a range of devotion as it has complexity. One cosplay of The Joker from Batman might include an old suit, face paint and green hair spray all thrown together in a few hours, while another might involve painstakingly replicating an outfit from a specific movie, episode, comic book or game, complete with Hollywood-level makeup and wig.
The hobby has grown to be irrespective of ages or genders, and McGrew says it is becoming more inclusive of those with special needs, as well.
“One thing that’s amazing to me is the disabled community cosplay. The wheelchair or device becomes a part of the costume. I heard about one guy who cosplayed Radagast, a wizard from Lord of the Rings who has a chariot pulled by rabbits,” she said. “It makes the community more visible in ways we don’t often get to see.”
In addition to a wide spread of interests and interpretations, the cost varies widely, too: costumes can range from a few dollars of thrift-store finds to hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars. The time it takes to assemble a costume can be as little as however long it takes a person to cobble an outfit together from their closet to years of careful detailing.
“If you want the quality [in a costume], you have to invest either the time or the money, and as we all know, sometimes time equals money,” said Aaron Forrester, a cosplay consultant and judge who was on a Salt Lake ComicCon panel about making affordable cosplay costumes.
The panelists, all experts at cosplay, suggested would-be cosplayers plan out their costumes, look for sales at stores and repurpose accessories, pieces of clothing or common household items whenever possible. Another big tip from the panel was for cosplayers to learn the basics of sewing, painting, molding and other skills to be able to make a costume from raw materials or alter not-quite-right pieces.
For many cosplayers, that last suggestion can be trial by fire.
Logan Berrett of Clearfield took a year to make his costume of Predator from the sci-fi movie franchise by the same name. He had never cosplayed before, he said, but he had gone to the first Salt Lake ComicCon in 2013 and was inspired by the costumes he saw then.
The ensuing year of work was filled with hard-learned lessons, including how to make latex forms for the costume’s dreadlocks and mask. He’s worn it to every local ComicCon since, he said, and estimates the total cost as somewhere between $1,800 and $2,000—but it was worth every hour and every penny.
“The best part of the whole thing has just been seeing the looks on people’s faces,” he said. “I meet people from all different ages who’ve grown up on the Predator and just showing them it is possible [to make a great costume] is great.”
David Dorsey of Provo also learned volumes when making his life-size remote-control replica of a dalek from the Doctor Who franchise. While it’s not a costume, the robot is big enough to hold a person and features lights and sound. Dorsey said he made it to help his mother with a Doctor Who-themed day at the school where she works. Last week’s event was his ComicCon debut.
Although he spent 11 months building, painting and tinkering with the dalek, for him, it’s a perennially unfinished project.
“It’s probably something I’ll always tinker with,” he said.
Dorsey said he had to learn skills including how to make the fiberglass dome for the $1,000 project. But those skills will come in handy—including at his studies at Utah Valley University.
“As I’ve studied, I’ve done more things. I’m studying robotics at school at Utah Valley University now. I’m getting better as I go,” he said.
Trial and error is another common theme for cosplayers making their own costumes. A pair of brothers dressed as Optimus Prime and Heatwave from Transformers, Stan McShinsky of Spanish Fork and Joe McShinsky of West Jordan, spent months trying to find the perfect fit for their predominantly cardboard costumes.
“All the joints have to match your joints, and then when they don’t quite match, it’s like walking baby steps,” Joe said.
The brothers lost track of how much the costumes cost, but estimated the highest cost was in paint. Besides eyeballing a pattern for their creations and trying to make them fit just right, the most time was spent in making them look good from both close up and far away.
“The details are what make the difference,” Stan said.
For some, cosplaying is a group experience. Whole teams of Power Rangers, the Fantastic 4 or the Avengers are a common sight at events. The groups are often a bunch of like-minded friends, or themed family costumes.
The Despain family of South Jordan made a gladiator-inspired Justice League featuring Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and the Flash. Bree Despain wanted to dress up as Wonder Woman, but didn’t want to wear a revealing costume.
Her husband, Brick Despain, had some experience with costume design, and hit upon the idea of giving the Justice League a warrior twist. Themed and fitted chest plates for himself as Batman, Bree as Wonder Woman, and their sons, Zealand and Asher, as Green Arrow and the Flash, respectively, became the focal point of the costumes.
Headpieces followed, as well as themed accessories. The boys were involved in the process, as well—Asher suggested the wings on the sides of his boots, as well as his weapon, a two-piece chakram. All together, the Despains estimate their costumes cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $400.
While designing and executing the costume wasn’t without its tricky spots, Brick said the process was exciting overall for everyone involved.
“I don’t know that it was a challenge so much as it was fun,” he said.
Although in many cases, cosplay obscures a person’s identity—some cosplayers try to act the part as much as they look it—Katie Nielsen’s costume was geared toward bringing people together.
The St. George cosplayer engineered her costume of Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon, to come on and off just by bending down or standing up. The costume, which she built over three months last summer, has the bulk of the character on a backpacking frame. When she bends down—on all fours, thanks to padded crutches that look like dragon claws—it slides up, making her a life-size Toothless. Kids flocked to her as she walked around ComicCon, asking for a glimpse of the animated character.
“There are a lot of great costumes out there but a lot of them, all you can do is look,” she said. “But with this, I feel like you can connect with it, and it’s fabulous.”