BARRE,Vt. — A Vermont historian has merged his two passions, history and science fiction, into a new book about the history of cosplay.
Andrew Liptak, a Norwich University graduate and public relations and guest services coordinator at the Vermont Historical Society, is the author of “Cosplay: A History — The Builders, Fans, and Makers Who Bring Your Favorite Stories to Life.” Published by Saga Press, the book comes out June 28 and has a forward by former MythBusters co-host, Adam Savage.
Liptak began cosplaying not long after graduating high school in 2003. Specifically he would cosplay as a Stormtrooper from the Star Wars franchise. He got involved with the 501st Legion, a global group of Star Wars fans who cosplay as Stormtroopers and participate in parades, fundraisers, conventions, and other such events. His master’s degree in military history from Norwich positioned him well to write a history of cosplay.
What is cosplay?
“I didn’t really put down a strict definition in the book because it’s one of those things, people get very passionate about it and there’s lots of variations on it, but overall… what my guiding principle here was, it’s the idea of relating to a story through the art of costuming,” he said.
Modern cosplay, as it’s generally understood, is when people dress up as characters from a work of fiction, be it Star Wars or Star Trek, or from an anime or television show. They’re often seen at fan conventions or similar events.
“It’s trying to relate to the story somehow and sort of expressing your fandom by dressing up as your favorite character or your favorite moment or something like that,” Liptak said.
There’s a lot of overlap between that and people who reenact Civil War or Revolutionary War battles or who engage in live-action role playing with costumes, said Liptak. His book covers it all, looking at how social media and 3D printing impact the hobby today as well as how it got its start.
It took him six years to write this book, he said. He originally wanted to write a book just about the 501st Legion, but to understand the Legion one must understand cosplay itself.
He found that modern cosplay seemed to have its start as far back as 1939, during the world’s first science fiction convention in New York City where some people went in costume.
“Then you look for earlier predecessors that may not be at a convention, but it was people dressing up. There’s examples that are littered throughout history,” he said.
While not everything he found made it into the book, Liptak’s research turned up examples of cosplay going pretty far back in history. Science fiction author Jules Verne, according to one report, threw a costume party once where people showed up dressed as his characters. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle enjoyed cosplaying from time to time as well, according to Liptak, though not as Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a bigger fan of Professor George Edward Challenger, a character he invented for his story, The Lost World, and would cosplay as him on occasion. There are even reports of a Roman emperor dressing up as Hercules.
Liptak said he’s interviewed cosplayers from all walks of life to get a sense of what the cosplay scene has been like. If one looks over the programs and promotional material from old conventions one can see the popularity of cosplay through the expansion of costume contests over the years.
He said that social media and 3D printing have changed the cosplay landscape quite a bit. When he was young it was rather difficult to learn how to build your own Stormtrooper costume. He had to look for a long time on the right forums for people with the right knowledge. Before his day, people had to watch Star Wars in theaters several times while taking notes on the costumes they saw on screen. These days there’s no end of online tutorials and forums, and the community is, overall, very welcoming.
“It’s a really broad overview of all this stuff, and hopefully people will find it an enjoyable insight into what nerd culture is, and what the science fiction fandom is like,” he said.