People about Cosplay...
Interesting question. If the word “cosplay” is referring to what is usually meant, then no, because the costumes in question are those of fictitious characters. There is no “culture” being appropriated. Not even if you wear a Japanese school uniform – because Ayanami Rei, or whoever, is not a Japanese girl, she’s a fictitious character and you are dressing like her.
There’s some interesting weirdnesses to explore though, even in this space. Some thoughtless racist fans were in the habit of making black cosplayers feel uncomfortable. The absurdity of this is almost galactic in proportion because if a black woman can’t dress like Sailor Moon because she’s not Japanese, then why would a white women be able to? She isn’t Japanese, either. And Sailor Moon is not Japanese, she’s fictitious. Obviously, critical thinking is not high on the list of people who are unpleasant to other people.
But the rising tide right now is that cosplay is for everyone and while I don’t myself cosplay, I support this. Dressing up as your favorite character is not cultural appropriation – it is a culture in and of itself. There are folks who cosplay Jane Austen characters and pirates and princesses. Cosplay has its own subculture aesthetic. Merely dressing up is for anyone, anytime, anywhere.
The world has adopted the word cosplay. It’s Wasei-eigo, which means the word was originally created by the Japanese using English as the roots. “Costume play” becomes “cosplay.” There is a world cosplay summit. So I don’t think you can argue that merely using the word is appropriation. Words for things spread. That’s how language works.
Calling offensive stereotype costumes “cosplay” is stretching the word uncomfortably outside what cosplay means, IMHO. Those costumes are meant to represent offensive stereotypes. It’s outside the culture of cosplay itself and is merely wearing a costume in bad taste.
So, I would say no, cosplay is not cultural appropriation, it is its own culture that is open to anyone, anywhere.
At risk of sounding like a Nike ad, just do it! Find a character you want to dress up as and get started. If you need help there’s plenty of tutorials (both blogs and videos), books, and forum you can turn to for advice, especially if you’re doing something popular. Or you can do what I did and just muddle through it yourself. My first costume I bought what items I could, mostly at secondhand stores, dyed and altered a shirt and made some simple arm wraps out of cheap cotton. I had no idea what I was doing (and no sewing machine – do your hands a favor and use one if possible) but it came out pretty well and I’m still happy with it.
These days I usually make mine from scratch, finding a sewing pattern that is somewhat close and adapting it as needed. When I can pick up patterns cheap I look for anything that might be useful and stock up. I’ve gotten unused patterns for as little as a dime before, so even if I never use them I’m not out much. I like to let other people do work for me when possible. Secondhand stores can be good for base items and even for fabric, either by cutting something apart (one of my costumes is 95% bed sheets) or if you’re lucky even plain fabric (I once found a piece juuuust big enough and in the right color for an outfit I wanted to do).
Remember you can decide how true to the source you want to be. If something is outside of your skill level or too expensive to do “properly”, you can find a way to do something. I once stumbled upon a pattern to knit Rinoa’s duster, but painting or sewing the wings on a plain blue one works too. Or you can stylize it to your own tastes. My costumes never look great, my skills aren’t at that level, but I can do “good enough”. And you’ll never be sure what you’re capable of until you try.
I have already emphasized elsewhere that I count cosplayers into the pretty small circle of subcultures that I consider “my tribe”. And that I will never hesitate to defend them from detractors and ridicule, be it online or offline, wherever the need arises.
That said, my personal stance regarding the enjoyment of cosplaying is a bit more complicated than that. Because… well… personally, cosplaying doesn’t really “work” for me. At least not in a certain sense.
See, right from the beginning of my anime career, I have always had this habit that I keep anime and real life strictly separate in my mind. In all sorts of ways, and for all sorts of good reasons.
As a result of this, I can admire the people and their awesome costumes, but I have a really, really hard time seeing the actual character “in it”.
Mind you, it’s not the fault of the people. Originally my authenticity demands when it came to character reproductions were insanely high, anyway. Never mind cosplaying. For the longest time, I couldn’t even accept 99% of the released anime figurines because deep down, I felt that “they didn’t look right”.
These days? Well, as far as authenticity is concerned: you only need to look at my shelf with several figures on it to realize that this demand has dropped at least somewhat… but yea, I still keep the worlds apart so strictly that it prevents me from emotionally accepting the “cosplay illusion”.
Needless to say, I never discuss this with cosplayers. Because I fear they could misunderstand it as me disregarding their efforts. Or worse, as criticism of their designs or even their hobby. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary.
Because I find it awesome what they do. I always have and always will deeply respect cosplaying for the amount of underlying fandom that it expresses, as well as for the effort people put into it.
Whenever I see someone with an elaborate/authentic/cleverly made costume, I cannot help but doff my hat at the driving passion behind it. Perhaps I’m even a bit envious about it. Either way, if I see that someone is willing to invest that many hours into designing and creating something like that… then that gives him/her my respect and a boatload fan cred. In short, it basically earns you the status of “card-carrying elite fan” in my book.
So no, when I look at cosplayers, I don’t see the character. But it still makes me happy – because I see a fan whose passion and efforts I wholeheartedly support and admire.