The Art of (Cos)Play

Greater Peoria is home to a thriving cosplay community that draws inspiration from the diverse annals of pop culture.

by Chip Joyce
Members of the Cosplay Builders Guild of Central Illinois appeared as Star Wars characters
Members of the Cosplay Builders Guild of Central Illinois appeared at the Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Music of John Williams, January 19, 2020. Photo by Jeffery Noble

By day, they are our lawyers, our servers, our baristas, our mechanics, and much, much more. By night (and on weekends), they are Batman, Boba Fett, Anna, Elsa, Daenerys Targaryen, and much, much more. Do they have superpowers? Maybe not, but they can sure look the part. I am speaking about cosplayers, the artists who dabble in the art of cosplay—a hobby (nay, a lifestyle) that has been around for decades but is now ever-increasing in its popularity. 

In its early days, cosplay was found mostly among the fringe parts of society. “Trekkies” at Star Trek conventions and midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show were some of the original haunts where fans would dress as their favorite characters for thrills, for fun, and for photo ops. Thanks in no small part to the internet and the widespread embrace of fan and convention culture, cosplay has grown and integrated itself much more into the mainstream over time. It is now a hobby that attracts all ages—and even seems somewhat “normal” now. How many pint-sized princesses did you see wandering around the last time you visited a Disney theme park? Probably more than you could count. 

Cosplayers (a word derived from costume and play) draw their inspiration from the most popular and esoteric annals of pop culture. Characters from movies, television, comic books, video games and anime are common inspiration, but cosplayers are limited only by their imaginations and how deeply the knowledge of pop-culture minutiae flows through their veins. 

A cosplayer dressed up as Darth Maul from Star WarsCosplaying in Peoria
The Peoria area is home to a thriving cosplay community, and numerous groups exist based around their particular cosplay interests. Groups like Heroes, Inc. focus on having Batman, Spider-Man and other popular heroes appear at children’s hospitals and local events. There’s also the Midwest Garrison, led by Charlotte and Brad Hartsock locally and statewide, which is the Illinois chapter of the much larger “501st Legion”—the world’s premier Star Wars cosplay organization. 

According to their Facebook page, the 501st Legion is an all-volunteer global organization of 10,000-plus members, formed for the express purpose of bringing together costume enthusiasts under a collective identity. They promote interest in Star Wars and contribute to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work. They do not charge for their services, but happily collect donations for appearances and photos. Have you ever seen Stormtroopers, Wookiees and Jedi marching around local events such as Ignite Peoria? Well, they were members of the Midwest Garrison. The 501st are so authentic, that one chapter of the organization was tapped to appear as extras in an episode of The Mandalorian, the popular series on Disney Plus. 

From the pack of the Peoria area’s many cosplayers and cosplay groups, several leaders have emerged to unite their efforts as one with the Cosplay Builders Guild of Central Illinois. The local guild describes themselves as “a group of local cosplayers working to help and encourage other cosplayers in the area and occasionally participating in local community activities,” and the Guild certainly lives up to their mission. There are not many local public events now where cosplayers don’t have a presence. The Guild recently made appearances at the Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s family matinee and the River City Pride Festival, and marched in the annual Santa Claus Parade, just to name a few. 

By day, Laura Roberts works as a marketing media producer for an online retailer. The rest of the time you can catch them as one of the leaders of the local Cosplay Guild. Roberts has been cosplaying since 2016, and specializes in LGBTQ+ characters and strong women. That includes (of course) Wonder Woman, of whom Roberts has seven different looks, ranging from traditional to a burlesque style—and even a 15th century look for everyone’s favorite Amazon. Roberts is even working on two additional Wonder Woman looks. 

It is not uncommon for cosplayers to put new spins on old favorites—that is what drew Amber Masters to the art of cosplay. By day, Masters works a desk job at Rogers Benefit Group, a general insurance agency in Peoria. Her love of cosplay began about six years ago when she attended the popular Gen Con in Indianapolis for the first time. She has cosplayed numerous superheroes, villains, steampunk and movie characters, even giving some of them a “Renaissance twist” suitable for the Ren Faires she enjoys attending. 

Ultimate Alliance Cosplayers dressed as Avengers characters
Ultimate Alliance Cosplayers dressed up for Avengers: Endgame. Photo by Laura Roberts

Creative Character Creation
There are many ways these heroes and villains acquire their super suits. Roberts believes that cosplay is “most successful when it is a skill share,” and credits the creation of the Cosplay Guild as a valuable means to network and grow in the creation of their costumes and accessories. The group meets and works at River City Labs, a makerspace in Peoria, where members share their skills including sewing, wig styling, 3D printing and more. 

The Cosplay Builders Guild of Central Illinois have recently made appearances at the River City Pride Festival and the Santa Claus Parade.
Cosplay Builders Guild of Central Illinois

But cosplayers aren’t just creating costumes; their looks also involve props, weapons and other accessories. Many pieces are built from scratch, some are created from modified pieces, and others are discovered via clever thrifting or shopping from other fabricators and online resources. Sometimes it’s as simple as pulling things you already have from your closet, but usually cosplayers go much bigger with their creations. 

Masters, for example, purchases items like body suits, corsets and shoes for her costumes, but will rely on Jo-Ann Fabrics or Amazon for materials to construct her skirts and capes. Roberts likes to use EVA foam for building accessories—a skill they picked up about four years ago—and is quick to mention that if you don’t have the time or skills to build your own looks, there is nothing wrong with pre-made cosplays. While the creative challenge and process can be a rewarding part of cosplay, for many the fun comes in simply dressing up. And both are okay! “Far too often, people forget the play in cos-play,” Roberts explains. “You are still a good cosplayer simply by wearing a costume, being kind to everyone around you, and having fun.” 

While there is a competitive streak that runs through the community, cosplayers in general are supportive and enthusiastic about each other’s efforts. You might walk into a convention and be just one of 50 Harley Quinns walking the floor, but that’s all part of the fun. Cosplay, it seems, is one of the few outlets these days uniting people through what they like—instead of dividing them over what they don’t like. 

The next time you visit a convention, movie premiere, parade or festival, you might catch some members of the Cosplay Guild doing their thing. Make sure you say hi, pose for a picture and have a chat. Even the villains are nice! And you may get recruited for their next mission. PM

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