How Cosplay Changed & (Possibly) Saved My Life

“Saved” may be a bit of hyperbole, but bear with me while I take you back about 17 years to the year 2000.

Introduction to Anime, Stumbling into Cosplay

In 5th grade, I started watching Sailor Moon on Toonami. As far as animes go, it was pretty mainstream because it was on a major television channel during a popular time slot. The word “anime” wasn’t even used a whole lot when discussing it with classmates; the distinction between “cartoon” and “anime” just weren’t there for us yet, so no one was really seen as weird for enjoying it. Lots of girls in my class got into the show and went so far as to claim sailor scouts for themselves. “I wanna be Sailor Mercury!” “I call Sailor Moon!” At one point there was a big fight between two girls over who’d get to be Chibi Chibi Moon, but that’s irrelevant. Point is: Sailor Moon was very popular. I found myself learning how to draw the sailor scouts and the like.

The following year, when I was in 6th grade, my brother got me into Dragonball Z. Still toonami, still similar time slot. The major difference was that none of my girl classmates were watching it; only the boys were. Suddenly, I lost that group of girls to talk to and I slowly shifted to talking to the guys more. I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy and had interest in masculine things (I had even been on the boys soccer team) so this wasn’t really new. One thing however was new. I felt a really, really strong desire to dress up as Android 18.

I didn’t know that “cosplay” was a thing yet. I didn’t know that this strong desire was felt by thousands of people. I didn’t know that there were conventions where similarly minded people hung out in cosplay to buy merch from their favorite fandoms. As an 11-year-old, that world was not even in the realm of possibility yet. All I knew was that I wanted to be Android 18. I somehow convinced my mom to buy me a jean skirt and jean vest (lol) and I would wear it whenever I could. I never went so far as buying a wig, but this definitely sparked the “I want to stealthily incorporate clothing from animes and video games into my normal wardrobe” mindset. (I still do that. Lots of clothing that gets bought for cosplays tend to make their way into my rotation of normal clothes. Nothing crazy or very obviously anime, but things like boots, skirts, and jackets.)

Finding Home Among Fellow Nerds

In high school, I was finally introduced to the term “cosplay” and the existence of conventions. I joined the sci-fi club solely because my high-school-mandated-big-sister was running around the student club fair as a jedi and I was immediately hit with the thought “Omg my big sister is a nerd and in costume and why aren’t I in costume right now!?”

I went to my first anime convention A-kon in Dallas. I went as Edward Elric. It was not good. It consisted of: a red jacket, made of some weird velour fabric that would get crusty if you spilled something on it; white gloves from party city; black pants; a black pair of boots; and a black hoodie, which I pinned together in the front with a piece of cardboard I had painted silver and a safety pin to look like Edward’s jacket. No wig. The pocket watch I got later at the con. (I think it was supposed to cost $50 but the guy let me have it for $32 cause it was all I had.) It was a terrible first cosplay. But I loved it. I loved that outfit. I wore it to non-conventions things, loving the fact that it was unique but not so obviously a cosplay. I would later cosplay Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill, using my best friend’s high school uniform skirt (the color on hers was more accurate than my own) and also Yoruichi Shihoin from Bleach, using pieces from my drill team practice uniform like the pants and jazz shoes. I was officially a cosplayer.

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My Yoruichi Shihoin cosplay, the summer after graduating high school

College Cosplays: Cosplaying on a Budget

College really kicked off my cosplay career. I went to more cons and put together more costumes in that span of four years than I ever have outside of them. I still wasn’t confident enough to make anything from scratch, but each year I tried to improve. Cosplays were made from random crap in my dorm room (a contacts solution box, a pringles can, paper plates, manila folders, and shampoo bottles) and things I’d buy from thrift stores or Amazon. (God bless Amazon.) These were experimental years. Cosplay was more about getting things “close enough” but not 100% accurate. I went less for accuracy and more for “could someone familiar enough with the fandom recognize this?” I made a number of Pokemon gijinkas, three different versions of The Warden from Adult Swim’s Superjail—but never OG Warden because how the hell would I get a purple suit?— and a few Valve cosplays. Those were good cosplay years.

I was an active user on deviantart and was becoming a part of something larger than myself: the cosplay community. I made friends online that I would later meet at conventions and some I would never meet. I gained a meager but respectable following and was posting regularly. I was doing #costests before hashtags or the term “costest” were a thing. I was front and center to what would become a huge online sensation.

College was also when I finally picked up a needle and thread to take my cosplays to the next level. I never made any clothing, but I would modify existing clothing to match my needs. Then, in 2010, my boyfriend at the time bought me my sewing machine.

Game changer.

Depression Puts Cosplay on the Backburner

I graduated college and needed to focus on getting an actual career going, so more time was spent practicing graphic and web design and less was spent on cosplay. My sewing machine got used a handful of times, but my lack of skill was frustrating. I was at the point that I was such a beginner that I didn’t know what I needed to do to improve, so I’d get flustered and give up without giving it a second shot.

Then, in 2012, a series of events and circumstances took me down the path to what is now chronic depression. I had never experienced depression before. I knew of it and had friends in college who dealt with it, but I personally knew nothing about it. Looking back, I don’t think this was some underlying chronic depression that I’ve always had that surfaced. I think it was depression stemmed from environmental triggers (a break-up, a shitty job, and living alone) that hasn’t ever truly left me. It rears its ugly head from time to time. There are days where it hits for no reason other than my brain chemistry forever being altered in 2012.

I was making maybe one costume per year, mostly just for Halloween. Then, Legend of Korra came out and I wanted to cosplay Korra. I bought fabric, got as far as dyeing some of it, but then let it sit. I had no confidence. My mental health was not prepared for what failures may come if I started a new—more ambitious than I was used to—cosplay. In fact, I was convinced I would fail. My depressed brain was sure of it. So it sat for years.

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The one process picture I took during this first attempt at Korra. I bought fabric and dyed it for her leotard. This is as far as I would get with the cosplay in 2012.

My sewing machine gathered dust. Only being taken out once in a while to put together a small lopsided plushie for a friend’s birthday.

I swore off cosplay, calling it immature, trying to hide the fact that I really did love it. I told myself I didn’t need it, when in reality, I was just scared of failing.

RWBY Reignites the Cosplay Flame

RWBY came out in 2013 but I wouldn’t get into it until two years later, after Monty Oum, the creator, had died. I didn’t know anything about Monty when I heard about him passing. I might’ve seen him randomly in Rooster Teeth videos or RT Animated Adventures, but I didn’t watch anything he was involved with. Despite this, his death had an effect on me. Not because I watched his content, but because I had gotten to know the Rooster Teeth family through Achievement Hunter and other shows. Seeing them so grief-stricken and knowing how young he was (just two years older than my fiancé!) left a strong impression on me. So I started watching RWBY on Netflix. I fell in love with it. Most of all, I fell in love with the character design. I knew I wanted to cosplay it. I think I would’ve preferred to cosplay Ruby, but I went with Blake, knowing it’d be a lot simpler.

So I bought shorts online from Uniqlo, a top from Banana Republic, shoes from Modcloth, and tights from Etsy. I was then faced with the challenge of making the vest from scratch. The vest was too distinct to find online or in a store. Nothing would come close to it, not even close enough to use my old trick of modifying. I had to make it from scratch, there was no other way. So I studied it, blueprinted it, made multiple prototypes, and made the vest. It wasn’t perfect and I did not use any sort of sewing technique whatsoever, but it got done. And it felt good. I made something and it wasn’t complete and utter shit. Tim Minchin sums up the sentiment perfectly with his lyrics “It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.”

My confidence slowly started to return. I thought I was out. RWBY pulled me back in. I was a cosplayer again.

The Move

After Blake, there was Wanda. And after Wanda was the big move.

My fiancé (then boyfriend) Jason was scouted for and offered a big opportunity. Jason worked as a gameplay programmer and was offered a position at Bend Studio, a subsidiary of Sony. This was huge. His previous job entailed doing contract work for other big-time studios, but this job would mean getting to work on brand new IP. The studio would get to call the shots, retaining its sort of indie vibe while getting the big bucks from a major studio. Jason brought it up with me and wanted me to move with him from Austin, Texas to Bend, Oregon. He gave me the choice and I took it, knowing the alternatives were either a long-distance relationship (which we both know we’re not very good at) or breaking up. I said “hell no” to both those options and said a “hell yes” to Oregon. Something new. Somewhere not Texas. I had always said that I needed to move out of Texas for once in my life. I just never had the push or pull to do it. This was my chance to explore.

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I’ll say it now from the comfort of my apartment in Richardson, Texas: it sucked. Bend and I did not get along. My list of complaints would be entirely too long to include in this already long post, so let me shorten it to these four words: I was not happy. My mental, emotional, and physical health deteriorated in the year I lived there. The weather affected me more than I thought it would and the isolation made getting out difficult. I wasn’t making progress on making friends. No one really warns you until you’re already suffering through it that it’s much harder making significant friends after graduating college.

But alas, one silver lining. And it’s quite the silver lining. During the summer, I looked into conventions in the area. There was nothing in Bend, but quite a few in Portland. I joined the facebook group for Kumoricon and then volunteered myself to be in my first huge cosplay group: Eeveelution Pokemon gijinkas based on Sunset Dragon’s D&D concept art. The only female character left was Sylveon Bard, so I took it and used it for fitness motivation.

How a Bunch of Eevees Pulled Me Out of My Funk

I can say with 100% certainty that had I not joined that group, my depression would have been a thousand times worse. Being in that private facebook group with the rest of the cosplayers gave me something to work towards and friends to motivate me. I went in knowing no one and came out with some friends I hope to stay in touch with for the rest of my life. Two notable ones are Drisana and Sydney, who you may recognize from my “Meet a Cosplayer” series. Their cosplays are truly inspiring and their positivity and support of each other is admirable. They both got me into vlogging and I’ve been churning out so much more cosplay content just trying to keep up with them. I took a leap of faith joining that group and an even bigger one by staying with them at Drisana’s house for the con. It’s always a bit of a gamble meeting someone you met online. There’s that concern that they’re some sort of psychopath but there’s also the less obvious concern of “does this relationship work in person as well as it does online?” Thankfully, it did! We may have different tastes in fandoms or have different styles in cosplay, but they’re two truly amazing women who I’m honored to have met.

Kumoricon not only gave me this amazing group of cosplayers I can now call friends, but it gave me the push to make Korra. After all these years, I was making Korra. The show was long over by this point but I still had the fabric. I switched gears and made her outfit from the latest season instead, siting a better design (to me) and more connection with her Book 4 character over her arrogant, less emotionally mature Book 1 character. With Drisana and Sydney’s support, I entered her into my first ever cosplay contest and did pretty well! No awards, but a decent score with some ideas of what to improve for next time.

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Bend made me feel isolated. I felt cooped up and I rarely left the house. But my god, did I sew. I made more things from scratch in Bend than I ever did in Texas. I feel like my technique and skill skyrocketed in this year. I used cosplay as an escape. I let myself get lost in sewing patterns and thread and hot glue.

When I was sewing, I was happy.

Cosplay was the creative outlet I needed to survive last year. My mind leapt to extremely dark places at the drop of a hat. I was stressed, overworked, and gaining weight fast. I was exhausted, unappreciated at work, and losing control. Too many times I cried on the short 15 minute commute to or from work. Too many times did I have to excuse myself to the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to cry in front of my coworkers. Too many times did I have thoughts no one should ever have.

This is going to sound like hyperbole, I’ll tell you that now. This is going to sound overdramatic, but you’ve already read it just from the headline: Cosplay saved my life. I never carried out my deepest, darkest thoughts, but they were there. I think if I hadn’t dove headfirst into cosplay, the likelihood of me acting on those thoughts would’ve gone up.

Back in Texas

Jason and I made the decision to move back to Texas. As much as cosplay helped me survive day to day, just surviving was not enough. Feeling this drained and numb long-term would not have been sustainable. Dallas seemed like the best fit, considering I was born and raised there. I spent the first eighteen years of my life there. My family was there, some of my best friends were there, and I’d be back in a familiar place. Not only that, it would make wedding planning much easier.

Jason landed a spectacular job at another big name game studio and so we left as soon as we could. We had our last days at our respective offices April 21, drove the following week for a total of about 32 hours from Bend to Dallas, and arrived at my parents’ place—where we’d be staying until we found a more permanent residence—early in the morning around 2am Friday, April 28. After catching a few hours of sleep, we visited and applied to an apartment complex. By May 1, Jason was having his first day at work. By May 4, we were in our new apartment.

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Settling into the new apartment, sporting my goat kigu while doing freelance design work.

It’s scary just thinking back to a few weeks ago. I shudder at the thoughts I used to have. I don’t have them much anymore. I’ve gotten back into good habits: I’m eating better, working out consistently, and seeing friends and family often. I of course still have stressors (financial and otherwise) but overall, it feels like a weight has been lifted.

Conclusion

This is just my long-winded way of saying thank you to the cosplay community. It’s shaped the very core of who I am as a person. I am—and will always identify as—a cosplayer. I used to be ashamed of it or try to get away from it, but it’s a huge part of me. I love making things and I love watching other people make things. I love taking on a character and bringing it to life. Taking something 2D and making it 3D is a fascinating process of problem solving and creativity. It’s an art and a science. It taught me how to sew, how to draft patterns, how to make a katana gun out of craft board. It’s shown me what I’m capable of when I’m patient and disciplined.

Honestly, I didn’t really realize how much sewing I had picked up in the last year until I attended one of my childhood best friend’s wedding the first weekend of May. She and a few others were aware of my plan to make my own wedding dress (oh god, I really do need to start in earnest) and so we were talking about it. I talked about my ideas for it and during some downtime before the wedding, studied the bride’s dress as it hung on a hanger. I made notes of the horsehair, the appliqués, and the boning. I mentioned all of it and was met with confused faces. I had somehow managed to pick up legit sewing terms this past year without realizing it. These were things that are just commonplace when looking at process pictures of cosplays, but the lay person doesn’t know what bias tape is. I felt like Robin Williams learning how to fly in “Hook.” (“You’re doing it, Peter! You’re doing it!”)

Cosplay gives me something to strive for. It makes me want to be better, work harder, and improve. There’s something so amazing about having physical, tangible evidence of progress. It’s my lifeblood.

To create is to live. For some, that’s a kitschy phrase. For me, it’s a motto to live by. Literally.

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