Returning from my first Dragon Con ever, I was struck by many, many amazing things. Great panels, wonderful people, and the incredible cosplay. It feels like a con shaped by fans and nerds over years, rather than one framed by a larger commercial enterprise, like PAX or Blizzcon. Those are also rad, but in different ways. Dragon Con feels like eighty thousand people felt like dressing up, hanging out, holding panels, and partying until dawn.
The cosplay was definitely what got to me. The creativity and commitment that people brought to it was incredible. There are plenty of cosplay highlights videos out already, but the part that moves me isn’t the mere technical strength, but the way costumes bolster identity. Costumes don’t necessarily tell me a fact about the wearer, that’d be a conclusion that involves a bit of projection, but they do help me believe a thing about them. If you spent time, talent, or treasure on your cosplay, you are the real deal, and I enjoy invoking such.
At a different Con a few years ago, I needed to set my bag down to do a thing. My bag full of my id, assorted snacks, and expensive camera stuff. Nearby I found someone dressed as the tenth Doctor, and our conversation went something like this:
“Hey, can I set my bag down here for a bit? I don’t want to leave it alone.”
“Sure? …Why next to me?”
“Because you’re the Doctor.”
She immediately sat up straighter. The implication was clear. Anyone dressed like the Doctor is a person who can be trusted. I believed that, I saw her, and she did too. I am in love with the notion that cosplay lets us wear the people we want to be on the outside. By invoking those names, we step into their shoes, even only for a moment.
Passphrases and codes are another way of unpacking this part of each other. I asked a Fallout cosplayer “Do you have a Geiger counter?” Their response told me everything I needed to know. There were definitely some quizzical looks, but it also creates a bond that runs deeper than “Great costume, I love it.” It doesn’t work on everyone, but digs deeper into their fandom and gives us an opportunity for conversation.
Codewords also let me read their reaction a bit. Sometimes people laugh and respond, but if I ask in an earnest tone, their response reflects that seriousness. You can find the same thing with Assassins, from Assassin’s Creed. The ideas of our fandoms are bound up in who we are, and we respond to those ideas.
Beyond simple call and response, some costumes come with allegiances. The Avengers, Shield, Wakanda, the Brotherhood of Steel. The characters involve commitment to a common cause. Green Lanterns are probably the easiest example, and there were plenty of those at Dragon Con. They know the oath. No one who shells out for a Green Lantern body suit does it on a lark. There’s something pretty special about looking one in the eye and asking “Say it with me?”
I’m romanticizing a bit, of course. I talked with lots of people who cosplay because it’s easy, or fun, or for a million other reasons. Wearing a costume doesn’t obligate a person to an idea, character, cause, or identity. But it does create a language that we can use to communicate on a different level, and to recognize each other in a way we wouldn’t in our street clothes. We can access parts of each other that are normally hidden, and we’re not the same kind of strangers anymore. We are nerds who see each other.
I love that language. I love speaking it and listening. I love seeing people in that way. Cosplay is a way of saying “This is who I am today.” In response, I only ever want to say one thing.
I believe you.