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the hidden language

The Hidden Language of Cosplayers

From "base" to "mod" to "crossplay."

Allie Eibeler. Photo by Alex Valderana

In our Hidden Language column, Nat Towsen interviews an insider of a particular subculture in order to examine the terms and phrases created by that subculture to serve its own needs. This is language innate to an insider and incomprehensible, if not invisible, to an outsider.

Allie Eibeler speaks with a well-practiced sweetness, even when describing hand-sewing as "death" and "hell," or when yelling at a particularly difficult piece of spandex. Eibeler began cosplaying in high school eight years ago as a casual hobbyist, but it became an obsession during college. Since then, she's found in cosplay both a profession and a group of her closest friends.


"They're passionate, they're helpful, they're kind, they're stubborn as hell," Eibeler says of her fellow cosplayers. "But they're definitely the most caring and nurturing group of people I've ever met. Everyone has a very heightened sense of empathy. I think that's what makes us want to make costumes for so many of these characters, because we feel for them so much."

The point of cosplay, she explains, is to have fun "and look great while doing it."

But it's also a space for experimentation and empowerment. "You don't have [to] conform to what society would have you wear. Cosplay lets you go outside your comfort zone."

In the increasingly mainstream world of "geek culture," cosplayers remain outliers, even to other geeks. "We get a bad rep," Eibeler elucidates, "but we're normal people. There's a lot of diversity in the community. There's straight people, gay people. There's male, female, transgender, genderqueer. There's accountants, lawyers, businessmen, and every kind of artist under the sun."

"That's what sets a lot of cosplayers apart: They're unapologetically who they are."

Allie Eibeler. Photo by Alex Valderana


Brackets denote paraphrasing by the author. All other text is directly quoted from Ms. Eibeler.

Cosplay: n. A form of performance art where a person creates a costume to represent a specific character in media
v. Putting on a costume to represent a specific character in media
Etymology: A portmanteau of "costume play" or "costumed play"


Screen-accurate: adj. Same brand, same item that they wore on the show.
Alt: n. Not the exact piece, but a really great second choice.

Mod: v. To take whatever piece you have—a jacket or a dress or whatever—and rework it, making it more accurate to the costume you're trying to do.

Base: n. Something that you buy and heavily mod., e.g. a pre-made anime costume.

Screen-Worn: adj. Literally the exact article of clothing the actor wore on scene.

Civvies: n.
1. Civilian clothes (non-cosplay clothing)
2. When a character wears civilian clothes
e.g. Steve [Rogers] is wearing civvies. He's not in his Captain America costume.

Masquerade: n. [A competition wherein] you go up in costume and do a skit related to what you are wearing. You get judged on your costumes and skit. You don't have to go into craftsmanship judgment. They're just judging based on your performance and how you look.

Cosplay Contest: n. [A competition wherein] the idea is to get up there and show off what you're wearing. You enter as either novice, journeyman, master, or professional—there's a league. You get paid a lot of money if you win.

The Four Levels: n. [Divisions] in a cosplay contest: novice, journeyman, master, or professional.

Novice: [Entry level]

Journeyman: If you won in novice for a bigger con, you would compete in Journeyman.

Master: Once you win journeyman, you go to Master.

Professional: If you're a professional costume designer or makeup artist or FX person, you have to compete in Professional.


Cosplay Famous: adj. Famous in [the world of] cosplay.

Roleplay: v. To stay in character, e.g. If I'm in costume as Amy Pond [from Doctor Who], I'll run up to a Doctor and be like "Doctor, I found you!" And usually they'll play along. It's fun.

Gender-bend: v. Make a character that identifies as male or female the opposite gender, e.g. [A female] making Bucky Barnes, who identifies as a male in the comics, a female.

Crossplay: v. Make yourself look like a [the opposite gender], e.g. A lot of men will do male Elsas [from Frozen].

Gender-bend and Crossplay: v. When both your gender and the character's gender are swapped, e.g. A woman dressing as a male Elsa.

Allie Eibeler. Photo by Morgan Campbell


A base could refer to a cheap or unremarkable piece of clothing that can nonetheless be a solid foundation for an outfit. Ever seen a coworker on the street and barely recognize them due to their attire? They're in civvies.


Eibeler recommends In the Name of the Moon, a documentary about the anime series Sailor Moon that heavily features cosplay. Readers might also be interested in the comic book Cosplayers by Dash Shaw.

See more of Allie Eibeler's cosplay on Facebook and Instagram.

Follow Nat Towsen on Twitter.