The Life Of A Cosplayer: An Exploration Of What It's Like To Bring Pop Culture To Life
Cosplaying is a pivotal aspect of pop culture that captivates people all over the world. Here, we talk to two individuals, Tiffani Daniel and Alex Hodgson, to delve into what it's like to be a cosplayer.
Fans. Geeks. Nerds. There are many adjectives to describe comic-book lovers. Those who become attached to superheroes on the printed page and respective film, television and video-game adaptations. We show our passion for such properties in different ways. Some collect figures and merchandise; others buy every home-media release to proudly display on their shelves. There are some, however, that choose to show their love for superheroes in a bolder manner: Cosplaying.
As the superhero movie genre has soared to the popularity levels it currently enjoys, so has cosplaying. Countless people dress up as their favorite crimefighters (and evildoers) for conventions, social media, or even just for themselves. Some who are unfamiliar with cosplaying may fall into the trap of assuming that dressing up as these characters is easy and stress-free, but to paraphrase Tobey Maguire in 2002's Spider-Man, "If somebody told you that, somebody lied."
In reality, cosplaying requires those who practice it to commit physically, financially and, often, emotionally as well. With that in mind, we wanted to delve deep into the activity, and see what exactly goes into it. To do that, we spoke with two cosplayers, Tiffani Daniel (@cosplayandcoffee) and Alex Hodgson (@spidey_alex_). Daniel has been cosplaying for the better part of a decade, and runs her own cosplaying blog, Cosplay and Coffee. Hodgson, on the other hand, started out relatively recently (he began his cosplay profile in the midst of the 2020 lockdown), but has been gradually getting more involved in the cosplay scene, constantly posting pictures of himself as the Wall-Crawler on his Instagram account.
Finding Their Path
Picture credit: Lee Reed (@reeds_reads)
There's usually an interesting story behind people deciding to take up cosplaying. In Tiffani Daniel's case, it was a memorable childhood tradition that made her want to get involved:
"[I] was aware of [cosplaying], and I went to a convention with my sister and my boyfriend, and it was just so much fun. I think [it] reminded me of going to theme parks as a kid. [When] we were kids, we would all go to Disney or Universal and have that family time together. And now, we do that with conventions. [The convention experience also] reminded me of going to midnight movie premieres. [...] And then, once I sat down and [opened up] to the crafting aspect of [cosplaying], I just loved it because it was a creative outlet."
For Alex Hodgson, he dreamed of being Spider-Man since he was little, and it was that wish-fulfillment desire that convinced him to purchase his first high-quality Wall-Crawler costume:
"I've loved Spider-Man [for] as long as I can remember. He's been my inspiration and probably the thing I've connected to most in my life. [He's] the one character I've just thought, 'This is it. This is me in superhero form, in a way.' [...] I had a suit when I was, like, seven, but it was too small. [...] I wore it like three times. And then, I just kind of thought, 'You know what? Why not? I've got a little bit of money. [...] I'm a grown-up. I can spend my money on what I want. Why not just get yourself a Spider-Man costume?'"
Hodgson ended up getting a suit from Spider-Man: Far From Home, which eventually led him to purchase his next costume — the so-called "Stark suit" from 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming. He recalled he was so excited when the suit was finally delivered that, even though he was about to leave for work, he stayed home a little longer to try it on.
As for actually starting his Instagram page and becoming a full-fledged Spider-Man cosplayer, it happened after he was encouraged to open it by a close friend who felt his Spidey pictures had potential.
The Mentality Behind Cosplaying
Cosplaying is an interesting venture. People aren't acting for film or television, but they still need to confidently (and, to an extent, realistically) embody whomever they're dressing up as. It's a challenge, and it's one that Hodgson and Daniel tackle in different ways.
As someone who's not a fan of acting, Daniel doesn't feel it necessary to fully inhabit the character she's cosplaying as. There is a caveat, though, as she believes there is a slight level of performance involved when posing and photographing herself:
"I don't think you [have] to 100% embody a character in order to feel confident in the cosplay, or in order to cosplay, period. [But] I guess, an element of it is, when you're taking pictures and you're posing, you do kinda have to get into character in that way."
Having said that, she doesn't believe one needs to have to be in a specific mindset to properly portray a character. The right approach usually comes to her, especially when she's at conventions:
"[I] don't like to be the center of attention. So, when my picture's being taken, [...] that's intimidating. [...] But if you're on the convention floor, usually, it just comes kind of naturally. [...] I never think of how I should act or how I should pose. You kind of just let loose [...] and do what comes naturally. But it doesn't have to be perfect; it doesn't have to be a full embodiment of the character."
Of course, embodying such larger-than-life personalities also comes with its benefits. For Daniel, one specific perk comes in the form of a confidence boost:
"[Cosplaying] makes you feel more confident. [When] you put on a suit or a cosplay — whether you made it or bought it — [especially] when you go to conventions, it's this whole other world. You immediately get a boost of confidence, just because you have people wanting to take your picture or just everybody else is dressed like you."
Things are somewhat different for Hodgson. He doesn't need to get into a mindset when cosplaying, so that's not an issue for him. An obstacle he does face at times is his shyness, which he stated plays a significant role in where and how he takes his pictures whenever shooting outdoors:
"I [take my pictures] at home, on my own. The time I did take the photos outside, my friend and I went to the cinema, [...] and from [there], we drove like five minutes down the road. [...] I got changed in the back of my car, where there [were] no other cars around, [...] and my mate took the photos, so there wasn't anyone to see me. [I] am self-conscious and I am a little shy, so I try to think, 'Right, let's be in the costume for as little time as possible outside, and let's just get it done with and disappear.'"
Dressing up is not the only thing Hodgson puts into his cosplaying endeavors, though. Each one of his Instagram posts is coupled with a fun caption, often written in-character as Spider-Man. His captions have different origins — sometimes, he actively thinks about what to say, while others, he goes off-the-cuff (which is perfectly on-brand for the famously quippy Wall-Crawler):
"[For captions, sometimes] I'm thinking, 'What would be the right caption for this?' 'What would Spider-Man be saying or doing in this situation?' But sometimes, it's just, I'm really bored, I can't be arsed to think of a caption, so I just write something that's vaguely relevant to [the picture]. [...] There isn't really a huge thing, but there are some times where I've got an idea in my head of what I want it to say, what I want it to look like."
The captions he's used include, "When you're Spider-man, brooding is a personality trait," "P.O.V.: You're Doc Ock and about to get some web in your eye" and, "Glad I got rid of that black costume — it was cool, though."
The Physicality of It All
It should go without saying, but most superheroes are in great shape, and many cosplayers try their best to attain those same impressive physiques to properly embody them. Our cosplayer friends, however, don't feel the need to keep with the often headache-inducing regimens that give heroes like Wonder Woman and Batman their killer muscles. Still, some self-image challenges arise every now and then.
Daniel is relatively relaxed when it comes to her cosplay physique, but there are times in which her appearance has influenced her willingness to dress up:
"[Being fit] doesn't really cross my mind. But, again, it's also a confidence thing. So, if I am not feeling like myself in terms of how I look physically, sometimes, I won't want to put on a cosplay, or take new cosplay pictures to post because I'm like, 'Ugh, I'm not feeling like myself. I feel like I'm not embodying this character accurately.' [...] But then, I think it's just a personal thing, because when I look at other cosplayers, that's not something I think of. [...] [Physical appearance is] not something I personally look at for myself. [...] If the suit fits, I'll just wear it. But if I start gaining weight and it doesn't fit anymore, then I'm like, 'Well, time to get a new suit.'"
Hodgson is in a similar position: He's in good shape (he practices karate), but he doesn't make a conscious effort to have a physique that emulates Spider-Man's:
"I've got a decent level of fitness. And I think karate keeps me fit. But I don't [think], 'Oh, I've got to eat all this, and I've got [to go to] the gym.' I just wear what I wear, I do what I do and eat what I want. So, there's no routine."
Still, Hodgson clarified that being in shape does give him a bigger level of confidence when wearing Peter Parker's famous skintight suits.
Commitment to the Craft
With the many costumes, convention appearances and social-media engagement involved with it, cosplaying can be, for a lot of people, a full-time job. That's not the case for everyone, though, and Hodgson takes things lightly and sees cosplaying and posting pictures on social media as a fun activity rather than a responsibility:
"It's all for fun, really. I don't have a goal. If someone wants to pay me for it, then great. But at the moment, it's a bit of fun. It kills ten minutes. [...] I suppose I feel like, I've got the [Instagram] account, I want to post stuff on it. I don't just want it to stagnate. And I just [feel] like, 'Yeah, I'll do that,' but I'm not overly fussed about, 'Oh, I've got to have a posting day;' 'I've got to have three [Instagram] stories,' or whatever. [...] At the minute, I don't find there is a responsibility. There [have been] a couple of times where I've been like, 'Ooh, I should probably put something on today,' or, 'What should I do?' And I just can't think of anything, so I'm not stressing myself out about it."
In comparison, Daniel sees cosplaying as a potential pathway to different opportunities, and as such, approaches it as almost a second profession:
"I have always treated it, I guess, kind of as a job, but I never look at it that way. In the past five years, it's been a huge part of my life, just because I made it into a website [cosplayandcoffee.com], and actually, what I do now is, I own my own digital marketing company, and the reason I even learned [about] social-media marketing [...] is because of Cosplay and Coffee. [...] And it's been such a huge learning experience for me that is kind of molded into my everyday life. And I love cosplay, and I feel like there's [so much] room for opportunities in it."
In general, though, Daniel tries to keep her cosplaying endeavors fun and not expect anything in particular from them other than the enjoyment she gets from sharing her projects on social media and the fan interactions that come with them.
Budgeting and Costuming
Dressing up as pop culture's best and brightest superheroes may sound expensive, but for our two cosplayers, finding the right costume is a matter of looking in the right places, not of cost. Alex Hodgson, for example, has bought some of his Spidey costumes from AliExpress for a surprisingly cheap amount of money, which has allowed him to have a relatively frugal cosplay experience.
Still, even with the low-price tags, he thinks deeply about new cosplaying purchases before going ahead with them:
"[The costume purchases aren't] spontaneous, because I'll mull [them] over for ages, and ages and ages. You can get really good stuff [that's] in the hundreds of pounds or whatever, but I'm really tight with money. I barely spend anything on myself, [...] so I look for stuff and I think, 'Yeah, that's probably a reasonable price.' And I don't think any one of them I've spent on was more than £40, £45. It's just been a case of, 'Well, I don't want to spend too much money on it.' I'm not out to go and spend £300 on something that I'm going to wear occasionally."
Such a frugal approach has paid off for him. He has an extensive collection of Spider-Man outfits in his closet, including Homecoming's "Stark suit," Far From Home's "Upgraded Suit," The Amazing Spider-Man 2's costume, Insomniac's Spider-Man's "Advanced Suit," and lastly, one based on Spidey's classic comic-book look.
As for Tiffani Daniel, the amount she spends on her cosplays varies depending on whether she's making the costumes (which itself is dependent on how much material she buys) or outright purchasing them:
"[The cost] depends on the cosplay, like, if I'm going to make it versus buy it. Usually, if I'm going to make it, I'm assuming it's gonna cost more because [of] all the supplies, and then, buying more supplies in case you mess up, or not buying enough in the first place. I've been fortunate enough to collaborate with a couple of the cosplay companies that sell costumes. [...] So, my Supergirl cosplay was gifted by a company called Cosplay Sky. I have an Anti-Gwenom cosplay that was gifted by The RPC Studio. [...] But those can run like $100 to $300 [...] if you want a high-quality one. [...] My Captain Marvel cosplay came from AliExpress, and it was $35. [...] So, it depends. If it's something simple like a suit, I know it'll probably be under $100. But if I'm going to make it... I made an [Iron Woman cosplay] — it didn't come out the way I hoped it would, and I easily spent a couple hundred bucks on that. It can be anywhere between, I would say, $50 to, honestly, thousands of dollars. [It] just depends on how often you want to make a new cosplay or present a new cosplay."
Given the potentially high cost involved with being a dedicated cosplay-maker, Daniel avoids buying costumes every month, and usually only makes around four new cosplays every year. (She estimated each new cosplay project costs her between $100 to $200.)
She does, however, tend to buy a specific superhero suit when their related movies are coming out (such as Captain Marvel). As for the materials needed to make her cosplays, she reuses supplies as much as possible. According to her, most cosplayers are hoarders, given that they usually keep everything they don't use to create other costumes in the future.
Connecting With Fans
Often, cosplaying is not only for the enjoyment of the person wearing the costumes. It also has an impact on the people around them — especially for the little ones. Hodgson had a touching experience with a fan in need of a birthday greeting from everyone's favorite Friendly Neighborhood, even before he opened his Spider-Man-centric Instagram account:
"During lockdown [in 2020], I randomly got a message on Twitter. [...] This was before I even started the [Instagram] account. Someone [was] asking on Twitter, 'Does anyone have a Spider-Man, Captain America or Iron Man costume [who can] record a message for my son? It's his third birthday.' And someone who doesn't follow me tweeted and said, '[Alex is] your guy.' [...] And I was like, 'Well, I have a Spider-Man costume, and I have a camera that can do it.' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm game for that.'"
Hodgson then shot an elaborate Spider-Man stunt video in his house: He jumped into frame and wished the boy a happy birthday before using props to cause a thud off-camera. This gave him an opportunity to excuse himself, stating he was in the middle of a fight with Doctor Octopus. Excited, the boy's father sent Hodgson a video of his son thanking Spider-Man for his well-wishes:
"His son was just [in awe]. He was blown away. That made me feel really good about [cosplaying]."
Following that experience, Hodgson went on to make a few more videos as Spider-Man for children. The third one earned him a particularly touching reply from a little boy:
"I [had] a video response from the [third video] I did. Bless him, it was adorable. The kid was like, 'Thank you, Spider-Man, for my Happy Birthday. Thank you for taking time. Very kind of you. Bye-bye.'"
There you have it. A window into the cosplaying world. We thank our two interviewees for taking the time to talk to us and explain what their lives as cosplayers are like.
To keep up with their work, follow Tiffani Daniel on Instagram at @cosplayandcoffee. She also has a YouTube channel featuring cosplaying tutorials and her blog, CosplayAndCoffee.com. As for Alex Hodgson, you can follow his Spider-Man journey on Instagram at @spidey_alex_, and tune in to his podcast (co-hosted by Lee Reed), "spideypals," here.