Jess and Cosplay: The Journey from Fan Conventions to Academic Conferences

By: Niki Fritz

Before I sat down with Jess Tompkins to talk about her former life as a cosplayer, I had seen pictures of Jess dressed up in amazingly intricate and realistic costumes on Facebook. I had assumed she was just a Halloween enthusiast when these costumes were actually part of a larger and more complex world of media fandom.

Jess started out by explaining that cosplay is not larping; to which I had to ask what larping was.

“As you can probably guess, [cosplay] is an amalgamation of costume and play. It is different from larping (an acronym for ‘live action role playing’). Larping is about being part of a narrative, taking on the role of a character in a story and it often involves physically acting out battles or fights,” Jess explains.

When I continue to look a bit baffled she explained: “[Cosplay] involves making a costume to portray a media character.  Anyone can purchase a costume but most passionate cosplayers want to complete their own costumes, including props, with their own hands. Some cosplayers even make their own costumes with others in a group setting and the costumes are usually worn at a convention. At the fan conventions, it is perfectly acceptable to just walk around in your costume, to pose with other fans and to pose with other characters for pictures.”

We started to flip through her old Facebook photos so I could get a better sense of what these costumes looked like. As we clicked farther and farther back on Jess’s timeline, I began to get curious about how she got involved in this less-than-mainstream world of fandom. Was she drawn to the media or to all the cool convention stuff first?

“I was into the media first. My brother and I were really close when we were teens. I used to watch him play video games and eventually I started to play, too,” Jess says. “We would play a lot of cooperative games together and then I started to venture into what I liked.”

Their hobbies and interests led her and her best friend to the Animazement Convention in Raleigh, NC. It is traditionally an anime convention but has branched out to include video games and comic books as well. It was the summer of 2008 and Jess hadn’t learned to sew yet, so her best friend’s grandma helped her make her first costume for a character from Dynasty Warriors 6 – Yue Ying.

“That was the catalyst moment,” Jess says. “I had a great time [at the Animazement Convention]; I met other people that had the same passion. After that I knew I wanted to do more cosplay and I wanted to make the costumes myself.”

Later that summer, Jess’s aunt bought her a sewing machine and she spent holidays learning to sew, and each year she made progressively more challenging costumes.  At Animazement she was also introduced to another part of the cosplay world: costuming clubs. These organizations usually focus on a particular media franchise.  Members of costuming clubs get together and help each other make costumes, often swapping skills such as sewing and metalworking. Jess was particularly drawn to Star Wars costumes, a franchise she and her brother had been interested in since childhood.

Jess wore her costume to the University of South Carolina for her class on the day she lectured about fan cultures, Fall 2013.

Jess wore her costume to the University of South Carolina on the day she lectured about fan cultures, Fall 2013.

“When I was a teen I spent a lot of time online, usually searching more about Star Wars. When I was about 13 I learned that there is more than the movies. There are more stories about the characters told in video games, comics, and novels. I consumed a lot of the Star Wars ‘expanded universe’,” Jess says. “I really enjoyed those narratives because there was so much more to learn about the characters.”

One character who stood out to her was a little-know bounty hunter named Boba Fett. Although Boba’s role in the official movies is small, he has a deeper narrative in the expanded universe.

“I loved Boba Fett because he was the morally ambiguous bounty hunter,” Jess says. “Like a lot of fans I was drawn to the armor. There was an aura of mystery about him. When I read the books I discovered that there is more to him than just being a bounty hunter.”

Luckily Jess found a group of Mandalorian (the type of armor worn by Boba Fett) enthusiasts in a costume club in North Carolina known as the Mandalorian Mercs, who met once a month for costume parties. The founder, who lived just an hour from Jess, helped her complete some of the complicated metalwork on her custom set of Mandalorian armor.

After completing her costume, Jess was welcomed as an official member of the Mandalorian Mercs costume club. The club often does charity events by dressing up in costumes and requesting donations for pictures. During her undergraduate years, Jess went to about 10 conventions including one of the biggest, Dragon Con in Atlanta. However, as she geared up for grad school in 2012, she realized her life in fandom was about to change.

“The main constraint now is time and money, the two magic ingredients. That was something I realized when I started grad school that I would have to make some sacrifices. Now, instead of a fan convention I am preparing for my first academic conference in May!” Jess says. “It has been an interesting, but exciting, transition. My dream is to be invited as an academic guest-speaker at a fan convention. I look up to scholars who are able to bridge the academy and speak to the fan audiences about their research. I would love to do something similar.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.