Ever since she was a kid, Evelyn Goh, 26, has been mesmerized by the vibrance of the anime world and its wealth of diverse fictional characters, especially villainous ones. Watching their stories unfold on television, she felt herself getting attached, resonating with their backstories as if these characters were actual human beings living in the real world. Then she discovered cosplay.
While flipping through a teen magazine, she found photos of people dressed up as the characters she loved and decided she wanted to do it too. Anime has a massive fanbase in Singapore, where Evelyn is from, and at 14 years old, she found herself donning outfits worn by the female characters she saw on screen. She’d go to themed photo shoots and large events where she met other cosplayers. But what was once a casual hobby has turned into an intimate journey of self-discovery.
“It's the freedom of expression, [having] a haven and an opportunity to play with gender, with identity. To exist in a sea of people who accept who you are without judgement.”
"It's the freedom of expression, [having] a haven and an opportunity to play with gender, with identity. To exist in a sea of people who accept who you are without judgement,” Evelyn told VICE as she sat within the weather-worn walls of her modestly furnished room. With costumes neatly tucked away in zip-close bags beneath shelves, she reflected on her experiences as a cosplayer and how it has helped her explore her sexual identity.
“In that moment, cosplay replaces my body as the primary signifier of my gender, that when dressing up, my physical form mattered less than the physicality of my character. I chose to dress up as the villian, the anti-hero, complex characters that are linked symbolically to myself. Here, I am whoever and whatever I want to be."
Cosplay, or kosupure in Japanese, is a visual art. Cosplayers dress up in costumes and hold props associated with fictional characters. Within the performance, reality disappears and one’s identity is replaced by out of this world personalities. Some do it for fun, others for money, but for a select few like Evelyn, it’s deeper. To them, the true essence of cosplay is its ability to empower through freedom of expression and choice. By dressing up as fictional characters, people — regardless of societal upbringings and beliefs — can express their desires. They can be anything they choose — a grim villain, an ethereal princess, or a furry animal — and no one would judge.
“It's the way to express my choice of cross-dressing. Since [I was] young, my mother has been telling me that I was meant to be born a girl, and it stuck with me. I feel that there is another person within, and I was curious to explore that. So I turned to cosplay, which offers me a safe space where I'm able to dress up freely, away from reality, and also express my appreciations to my favorite characters,” Chris Lee, 38, told VICE.
“I turned to cosplay, which offers me a safe space where I'm able to dress up freely, away from reality, and also express my appreciations to my favorite characters.”
Such an opportunity is rare in countries like Singapore, where freedom of expression and choice is a complicated and sensitive subject. This is true across many aspects of life — hobbies, fashion, lifestyle, and sexuality. People fear rejection from their loved ones and public shaming online or in real life. In a way, to truly understand cosplay, one must embody a character too. That of the fans — to put one’s self in the shoes of another faced with such a predicament. Imagine feeling fearful and anxious. Then, have those disappear and replaced by the warmth of acceptance after stepping into character. The real world fades away and you’re in a new one.
“Cosplay is so personal and even if I quit the community, I will still be remembered as someone who cosplayed, and that's the indicator of my identity,” a 25-year-old cosplayer who goes by the stage name Yuuya said. “Within the community, I personally feel that many people are looking for acceptance because they may not look the most fantastic, but they want to be accepted at where they are. You don’t have to be good, as long as you can find people that can understand you, and that is one of the few things that keep[s] people going on.”
It’s tempting to stay in the world of fiction forever. Cosplayers warn that some people are unable to break free from the characters, acting and speaking like them in everyday life. But for the most part, choosing to take part in cosplay — in the in between world of fiction and reality — feels like living in a place where you’re free from fear and anxiety, fulfilling your truest desires and dreams, even just for a little bit. It is in these moments between the worlds of fiction and reality that you feel that you belong.