A guide to the city's burgeoning scene.
In advance of this weekend’s Comicon, we spoke with a few of Toronto’s top cosplayers about their changing community, online trolls, and how exactly they get their hair to stick like that.
Cosplay—that is, the art of dressing up in super-accurate replicas of favourite characters’ outfits—may have been around since before the first Kirk and Spock Star Trek fanfic, but its popularity has exploded in the last decade. With international competitions, countless websites, and even a reality TV show dedicated to the practice, Cosplay is now a major cultural force and multi-million-dollar industry. Video games, science-fiction franchises, comic books, and anime remain the most popular genres for fans to mine for costumes, but now anything, hell, even Sharknado is fair game.
“Cosplay is not an activity for a fringe group anymore,” explains Toronto-based cosplayer Lee Scion. “I know lawyers, teachers, and architects who cosplay, as well as students and the unemployed. Cosplayers come from all walks of life, and this extends far beyond the stereotypical basement-dwellers that some people still think are the only ones who like sci-fi and comic books.”
Active in the scene since 2007, Scion’s witnessed its evolution from the inside. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen a greater acceptance of all fandom, not just cosplay, by the general public. In some ways it’s become trendy,” she notes. “Even this interview is evidence of the change.”
But this explosion in media attention has also led to increased friction in the cosplay community. For some die-hard fans, the hobby’s boom in popularity brings with it the threat of dreaded so-called “fake geek girls,” among other perceived poseurs, encroaching on their territory. And for some new attendees unfamiliar with cosplay (or basic decency), they’ve clearly had trouble distinguishing between the character portrayed and the real person doing the portraying.
Reports of sexual harassment, unwanted touching, and bullying directed towards cosplayers both online and at conventions have been frequent over the last few years. An informal poll conducted by the Daily Mail at the San Diego Comicon convention revealed that one in four female attendees had experienced some form of sexual harassment. In response, organizers of the most recent New York Comic Con implemented a new anti-harassment policy that included placing multiple large signs around the event’s perimeter to remind visitors that “Cosplay is not consent.”
Rogue Benjamin, a popular Toronto figure who cosplays under the name Northern Belle, has experienced such harassment firsthand. “Some people use cosplay as a means to victimize and bully other individuals,” she says. “Or they shame cosplay celebrities for using sex to sell, because of course no other industry professionals do this. Most if not all of us have experienced what it is to be on the receiving end of that cruelty.”
Cosplayers of all genders now face a double-edged sword, where they can face criticism for dressing too sexy, or by not being sexy enough. Roger Senpai, the organizer behind the popular GTA Cosplay Hangout Group, points to articles that shame cosplayers whose body types don’t match up exactly with the characters they’re portraying.
These issues are real concerns for the community, but Scion, Benjamin, and Senpai all stress how supportive and inclusive the vast majority of cosplayers are. Cosplay is first and foremost a social activity, an opportunity for fans to wear and share their passion among like-minded people. And while it may be experiencing growing pains, the core ethos of cosplay remains unchanged among its strongest supporters.
“Some people complain about cosplay becoming ‘too popular,’ or that the community has changed for the worse,” notes Benjamin. “I think those people have found themselves in unfortunate circles. Conventions are amazing atmospheres and can be a breeding ground for lifelong friendships.
“The cosplay world, like any avenue of life, is what you make it. Some people want to model around in pretty clothes, some people want to play characters. Some people are good at tactile skills like crafting, others aren’t. Who are we to judge or dictate what cosplay should be or mean to anyone else?”
So you want to be cosplayer
As long as you’ve got the passion—and the patience—assembling your first outfit is easy in a city with this many resources.
Getting the goods
“I personally do most of my fabric shopping in Hamilton, on Ottawa Street,” says Scion, “though there’s a very good fabric district on Queen Street West in Toronto. Stores like Active Surplus are great for LEDs, thermoplastics, and other crafting materials. And the internet is also a wonderful resource for finding anything on the face of the earth you could ever want.”
For cash-strapped cosplayers, Senpai offers up some helpful tips: “My friends head down to Fabricland to buy materials and tools for cosplay-making, such as hot glue. Value Village is also a good place to find fabric and accessories. Costume stores like Malabar and the Amazing Party Store can also be useful for smaller pieces.
And if you’re time-strapped and happen to live in Thornhill, you’re in luck. The retailer Cosplay Station offers up pre-made wigs and costumes for more than 300 different characters.
Perfecting your look
Cartoon characters don’t follow the same laws of physics as the rest of us, and so tackling their gravity-defying hairstyles requires some innovative thinking. Wire, starch, and horsehair braids are Scion’s go-tos, though she admits trial and error plays a major role in the costuming process.
Scion also notes that consistency is key: “For me, making a costume that feels true to the character is important, and it’s crucial to choose character-appropriate fabrics. For example, a farmer would never be in silks and satins. They would likely wear cottons and linens. Conversely, a princess character would be the reverse. In my opinion, a good fabric choice can really help bring a character to life.
Benjamin agrees that staying true to the character is the most important quality of a successful cosplay, regardless of the wearer’s budget or sewing skills. “The costumes that stand out for me are not just the ones with a high quality or professional feel to them. What really makes a costume stand out is when that person is not only wearing the costume, but channelling and playing as the character.
Finding your community
“The Cosplay Hangout Group organizes activities that emphasize socializing,” Senpai explains, “Our group is inclusive and friendly to newcomers, and we do group activities like scavenger hunting, board-game events, and cosplay skating. One of our main events is a cosplay picnic held throughout the spring and summer, where we meet up at a park in Toronto or Mississauga, get dressed up and cosplay and do fun activities together.
“We’re really fortunate here in Toronto and in the GTA that there is a convention or event every other week if not every week,” says Benjamin. “Events like Atomic Lollipop may not be as well known as Comicon, but they really should be. Where else could you rave with Hodor of Game of Thrones? There’s also Anime North, Unplugged Expo, Costume Con, Stage Select Gaming Expo—the other weekend there was even a Ragnarok Vikings–themed rave.”
Benjamin adds that not all events are “big-ticket” conventions or late-night parties. “As part of the nonprofit organization Northern Panic, we put on community cosplay events for various causes. We’ve done a Terry Fox Run team, we set up Cos-Skate for a Cure last year, and next month we have our second annual Cosplay City Clean Up event happening. On April 25, we’ll be headed to Allan Gardens in costume, with rubber gloves and garbage bags to clean up the park. It’s a family-friendly event, a great way to give back to the community and an excuse to hang out in costume for free!”