Monday, October 13, 2008


Cosplay... in the before time.
(warning: this column contains blurry, low-res images. Please do not adjust your eyes.)

Before "cosplay" was a household word, before and the culture of tribes dressed as anime characters wandering from one hotel ballroom to another, like slightly-more-liable-to-have- bathed-recently Deadheads, had permeated every aspect of anime fandom, in the dark mists of prehistory, even then cosplay still existed. Only recently has documentary evidence come to light, enabling us to finally visualize these anime costumer pioneers.

Cosplay, or masquerade, or costuming, or dressing up like your favorite SF/F characters, or whatever you want to call it, is a new thing only on geological time scales. Back in 1939 at the first Worldcon, fan pioneer extraordinaire Forrest J. Ackerman was sporting cosplay (or as he called it, "futuristicostume") designed and sewn by Myrtle R. "Morojo" Douglas.  But this is an anime blog and we're here to look at anime costuming, aren't we?

The March 1987 issue of ANIMAGE gave the Japanese audience a glimpse of what their American counterparts were doing with fabric and foam core. Yes, Virginia-san, there are American anime fans! And they cosplay, too, as was seen in a photo spread helpfully titled "That's American Costume Play!" The Jigen and the Raideen are unidentified, but the modified Gatchaman outfit was created and modeled by Pat Munson-Siter , whose work in the field of pre-1990 anime fandom has rarely been matched.

March 1987 Animage photos; my scans

This was not the first ANIMAGE to highlight the champions of foreign otaku (even though the word "otaku" was still in the infancy of its usage) and it would not be the last. Three years later Project A-kon came into being - perhaps the first American anime convention, depending on who you ask and what time of day you ask them - and ANIMAGE was there, in spirit if not in flesh, with yet another look at those crazy Americans and their fandom for cartoons in languages they can't understand.

As captured on film by Jack Thielpape, the Dirty Pair pose provocatively as the looming spectre of Captain Harlock ensures a complete absence of any funny business, pal. In the late 80s-early 1990s there were several sets of Dirty Pairs costuming throughout the fandom convention world - one or two in California, a few on the East Coast, and the pair pictured here, who hailed from Georgia and who were actually real-life sisters. Their dedication to the Lovely Angels led them to create several sets of costumes based on the differing suits seen in the TV series, the film, and the OVA releases - even the silver suits from the Takachiho novel (and the Crusher Joe film).
Security camera footage of the Lovely Angels escorting a suspect to their space ship.

As A-Kon flourished, the culture of costuming permeated fandom, and even in late-night after-parties the cosplay spirit can be seen.

The latest in Arcadia-crewmember off-duty loungewear is sported by "S.H." as he digs through a pile of cassette tapes. Yes, cassette tapes, the year is 1992 and Project A-Kon is reeling through the teething pains of its third, crucial year. Meanwhile a Vampire Princess Miyu wonders who these people are and why they're in her hotel room, preventing her from sleeping. As these images were culled from private videotape, identities of our models have been concealed to protect the innocent.

Three years later in Atlanta the first Anime Weekend Atlanta would sport anime costumers from a wide variety of genres and shows. Though we were a few years away from full-blown Sailor Moon Fandom Explosion, the show's effects were being felt even then, as sets of Sailor Scouts competed for the attention of the male anime fan demographic, which had yet to be joined by legions of squealing yaoi anime fangirls. Here we see the first ever Sailor Moon costumer to take the stage at the AWA costume contest, as well as a friendly Sailor Mercury; the two would later entertain the crowd with an improvised Radio City Music Hall style kickline.

A wide variety of cosplay would be seen at the first AWA. Cyborg 003 and 001, from the 60s and 70s series Cyborg 009, would make an appearance, highlighting the lingering influence old-school anime had (and has) over certain of the surviving otaku of the area. 003 is portrayed by L.H. while 001 is portrayed by a stuffed doll. Neither possess cybernetic powers.

Other cosplayers would portray Yamato crewmembers, Slam Dunk B-ballers, and Ranma 1/2 characters, an example of which is the near-ubiquitous Ryoga. Ryoga was a character from Ranma 1/2 who got lost a lot, and sometimes turned into a pig. It was a great costume for regular-looking guys who wanted something colorful to dress up as, included a backpack so they could carry their stuff around, and had a ready-made comedy skit that could be rolled out at a moment's notice - run into any crowd of people and holler "I'M LOST!" Boy, that didn't get old AT ALL! Not in the slightest! It's as fresh today as it was back in 1995 when we were already thoroughly sick of Ranma 1/2 in general and that character in particular! Also seen - Princess Kahm from Outlanders, about to cut somebody's head off.

AWA would grow from a few hundred at its first show to over eleven thousand attendees at its most recent gathering (2008 numbers - 2015's attendance was 25K), but at the early conventions you could easily fit the entire costume contest and its judges and audience in a medium sized ballroom in a small-to-medium sized airport-area off-ramp hotel. Even the judges got into the act.

Lorraine "Anime Hasshin" Savage here sports a Yamato crew uniform as she sits next to future Dark Horse Manga editor Carl Horn, cosplaying as future Dark Horse Manga editor Carl Horn. Costuming at the second AWA was of an order of magnitude more impressive than the first year - most notably the Tatarek-built Patlabor Ingram, which was constructed entirely out of space-age foam-core and was mobile enough to enable the wearer to navigate fairly well. The handgun, however, was non-operational. Other, more recent cosplayers, attempting to add functional handguns to their regalia, have attracted the bemused attention of the police department. Other 1996 costumes would include Street Fighter II characters and the ever-popular Sailor Moon.

As we pass the mid 1990s, we move into a more documented world of cosplay - email mailing lists, digital cameras, and the world of the World Wide Web, which as we all know was created to facilitate the distribution of high quality images of sexy women - would all lead to anime cosplay becoming one of the dominant forces in anime fandom. Gatherings of anime fans today are a swirling mass of strangely garbed people taking photos of each other, the need of otaku to document their strange behavior an irresistible force of nature. But was it always thus? Yus, it wus. These recently unearthed images from 1983 are proof.

As we see from these images - captured in 1983 A.D. at the Baltimore Worldcon and New York's Lunacon  - anime fandom was alive, relatively fit, and could stand sunlight for minutes at a time. Representatives of Gundam's Zabi family peacefully co-exist with characters from Space Battleship Yamato and several different Captain Harlocks, while Leader Desslok battles Darth Vader and gets cozy with Endor-camo Princess Leia.  Early 1980s camcorders were also on the scene to capture the excitement of this photoshoot.

Here we see Leader Desslok working his Leader Desslok magic on all the females within reach, to the outrage of our various Harlocks, Zordars, and Yamato crew.

It may be difficult to conceive of a time when Matsumoto characters were the mainstream of anime fandom and not some kind of atavistic throwback, but pictures don't lie, even if they're low-res video captures. The influence of classic anime continues to linger in cosplay, as the recent AWA attracted Saint Seiya costumers, Yamato costumers, Harlock cosplay, and even 1984-era Macross crewmembers. Is anime costuming moving full circle, back to segregated rooftop gatherings of different Harlock iterations? I hope not,  though after a long convention season, lord knows we could all use a little sunlight and fresh air.

-Dave Merrill   

Space Battleship Yamato High School students chat in the halls before class

(images used in this article courtesy Animage, Jack Thielpape, R. Fenelon, K. Sewell, and promotional AWA videos produced by M. Murray.)

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Anonymous said...


Who is that 'SH' guy? what an ASS! Cassette tapes? I LOL'ed!

And that's Ardith perched on Fenelon's lap. Geeze.

Ah, the callow days of youth. Makes me all waga seishun and stuff.

I'm gonna eat a grilled cheese sandwich and watch Emergency now.

Anonymous said...

Those blurry pictures from 1983 just blew my mind. As much as I realized US fandom did exist back then, I had no idea they were costuming.

Awesome post, as always.

Anonymous said...

Haha wow, this was totally awesome. Thanks for sharing that.

Anonymous said...

Matt Murray said...

The disturbing part for me is the fact that the whole CPF/Ozone Commandos gang sort of started the tradition of cosplay in America-a tradition we quickly grew to hate-as we did the first (and only) anime skit at the first anime con in the US. Oh, sure, if we hadn't, someone else would've eventually, but it kind of makes my skin crawl.

Edward Hill said...

Heh. And to think I was a even a cosplay judge back then, in those halcyon days before it became SUCH A BIG DEAL! In fact, I recall pretty much being recruited by "Miyu" to do it precisely because it was taking place as an afterthought and nobody really gave much of a shit...

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was wild, trying to figure out HOW to judge the contest on the fly. Some damn fine costumes that year, I'm still impressed by 003 and 001.

And poor Robert Woodhead! Man, he was just...he just seemed very very tired.

But we POWERED THRU by virtue of MANLY POWER!

Cripes, I should have some pics of us somewhere...

Unknown said...

I bought a sweet mint in bag vintage My Youth in Arcadia T-shirt (M size) at Mandarake Shibuya for about 6 bucks. I tried it on when I got home and it proceeded to tear wherever I touched it and disintegrated like a million year old mummy. Ravages of time. Fucking sad.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, that's not the problem...everyone knows that Japanese clothing is designed to self-destruct if it comes in contact with a gaijin's body,it's a chemical in the fabric that detects the lack of the special enzyme provided in Japanese grown rice.

It's also why they refuse to make stuff in sizes that the average American can wear. I've seen some cool tees and jackets that I would have loved to own, but do they come in XXL? Oh HELL no. (and given Japanese sizing, I'd need to Sumo-size it!)

So don't feel bad, it's nothing you did, it's just your gaijin body betraying you to superior Japanese clothing technology...

Anonymous said...

Yikes. I know some of the people in those photos. The most well known Dirty Pair duo in California was Kevin Karvonen's wife and another girl. Kevin himself was most well known for his MST3K robots and costumes as well as manufacture of all sorts of prop guns. He's also done Harlock.

I remember at Silicon '89 that Anime costumes were a growing part of the costume contest. I don't remember if there were any at TimeCon '86 but I was real young back then and don't remember much.

I do vagely recognize a number of old faces in those images, I knew Carl Horn. A lot of the West Coast early fandom was a pretty tight knit group in the South San Francisco Bay Area (Foothill Anime and CA West) and the Berkeley Anime folks. Fanime grew out of Foothill Anime, and most of the AnimeCon '91 staff was Foothill, CA West and Berkeley folks.

Ahh the good old days...

I'm old.

--Mike (Harlock)

Anonymous said...

WEll Jigen is none other than Jeremy Morales of CFO/Furry Fandom , and my first cosplay partner , he hooked up with a Dirty Pair Yuri cosplayer and she convinced him it was stupid . Me? I was a Lupin of some repute, and one of the OG Cosplayers having made my debut back in '86 on a Halloween night and in public in '87 at BaYCON SAn Jose . Theres more to be found of this ancient fandom history on YouTube , just look for it. Mr.Lupin.

Anonymous said...

>> Me? I was a Lupin of some repute...blah blah blah...

HA! After all these years you're still a dick! Get over yourself, kid.

Anonymous said...

This is very cool


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. I continue to be amazed that things such as cosplay and anime cons existed when I was an infant.

Anonymous said...

OMG that's the BEST post ever! I was an otaku back in the 80's, and this flashback is priceless! Thanks so much!

Unknown said...

I was part of a large Space Battleship Yamato group that won Best In Show at the 1980 San Diego Comic-Con masquerade, and my Yamato and Captain Harlock costume groups from 1979-1981 are featured in a 1985 ANIMAGE article titled "Costume Play."
Just because the word "cosplay" didn't exist yet doesn't mean that the activity didn't.

d.merrill said...

Hey Karen, this is Dave, I'd love to write a Let's Anime column about your experiences in early 80s anime cosplay! If you're interested, email me at and we'll make it happen!

Wendy said...

Wonderful stuff. I only dressed up a couple times, once for an Atlanta Fantasy Fair back in the eighties (Acrobunch's Reika Randou - fairly obscure). Love seeing the old faces and outfits.

Gengen said...

That Jigen is my uncle! :D I remember seeing him in costume when I was just a tidgy little thing.

Rivercoon said...

Too bad they didn't do another live action Lupin III movie in the early '90s. Monkey Punch told Jeremy Morales he'd have his support for the part of Jigen.

Unknown said...

OMG I was just for giggles googling the Baltimore Worldcon and came across this. I was one the Black Tiger pilots in that group shot. It was so hot that Leader Deslock didn't do his makeup for fear it would melt. I think that was the con that started the whole Cosplay thing. It's funny, everyone thinks cosplay is a Japanese thing but they really got it from a bunch of Americans!