Cosplayers often interact to create a subculture, and a broader use of the term "cosplay" applies to any costumed role-playing in venues apart from the stage. Any entity that lends itself to dramatic interpretation may be taken up as a subject and it is not unusual to see genders switched. Favorite sources include manga and anime, comic books and cartoons, video games, and live-action films and television series.
The rapid growth in the number of people cosplaying as a hobby since 1990s has made the phenomenon a significant aspect of popular culture in Japan and some other parts of Asia and in the Western world. Cosplay events are common features of fan conventions and there are also dedicated conventions and local and international competitions, as well as social networks, websites and other forms of media centered on cosplay activities.
The term "cosplay" was coined in Japan in 1984. It was inspired by and grew out of the practice then-known as fan costuming at science fiction conventions, beginning with the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in New York City in 1939.
The term "cosplay" is a Japanese portmanteau of the English terms costume and play. The term was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi of Studio Hard while attending the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Los Angeles. He was impressed by the hall and the costumed fans and reported on both in Japanese magazine My Anime. Takahashi chose to coin a new word rather than use the existing translation of the English term "masquerade" because that translates into Japanese as "an aristocratic costume", which did not match his experience of the WorldCon. The coinage reflects a common Japanese method of abbreviation in which the first two moras of a pair of words are used to form an independent compound: 'costume' becomes kosu (コス) and 'play' becomes pure (プレ).
In 1984, Nobuyuki Takahashi, founder of Studio Hard, attended the 42nd Worldcon in Los Angeles. He was impressed with the masquerade and reported on it in My Anime, coining the term kosupure (from which cosplay is derived) in the process. His report also encouraged Japanese fans to include more costuming in their own conventions. The initial report also used the terms "costume play" (コスチュームプレイ kosuchuumu purei) and the English "Hero Costume Operation" but kosupure was the term that caught on.
As stated above, costuming had been a fan activity in Japan from the 1970s, and it became much more popular in the wake of Takahashi's report. The new term did not catch on immediately, however. It was a year or two after the article was published before it was in common use among fans at conventions. It was in the 1990s, after exposure on television and in magazines, that the term and practice of cosplaying became common knowledge in Japan.
The first cosplay cafés appeared in the Akihabara area of Tokyo in the late 1990s. A temporary maid café was set up at the Tokyo Character Collection event in August 1998 to promote the video game Welcome to Pia Carrot 2 (1997). An occasional Pia Carrot Restaurant was held at the shop Gamers in Akihabara in the years up to 2000. Being linked to specific intellectual properties limited the lifespan of these cafés, which was solved by using generic maids, leading to the first permanent establishment, Cure Maid Café, which opened in March 2001.
The first World Cosplay Summit was held on October 12, 2003 at the Rose Court Hotel in Nagoya, Japan, with five cosplayers invited from Germany, France and Italy. There was no contest until 2005, when the World Cosplay Championship began. The first winners were the Italian team of Giorgia Vecchini, Francesca Dani and Emilia Fata Livia.
Worldcon masquerade attendance peaked in the 1980s and started to fall thereafter. This trend was reversed when the concept of cosplay was re-imported from Japan.
Cosplay costumes vary greatly and can range from simple themed clothing to highly detailed costumes. It is generally considered different from Halloween and Mardi Gras costume wear, as the intention is to replicate a specific character, rather than to reflect the culture and symbolism of a holiday event. As such, when in costume, some cosplayers often seek to adopt the affect, mannerisms, and body language of the characters they portray (with "out of character" breaks). The characters chosen to be cosplayed may be sourced from any movie, TV series, book, comic book, video game, or music band anime and manga characters. Some cosplayers even choose to cosplay an original character of their own design or a fusion of different genres (e.g., a steampunk version of a character).
Cosplay may be presented in a number of ways and places. A subset of cosplay culture is centered on sex appeal, with cosplayers specifically choosing characters known for their attractiveness or revealing costumes. However, wearing a revealing costume can be a sensitive issue while appearing in public. People appearing naked at American science fiction fandom conventions during the 1970s were so common, a "no costume is no costume" rule was introduced. Some conventions throughout the United States, such as Phoenix Comicon and Penny Arcade Expo, have also issued rules upon which they reserve the right to ask attendees to leave or change their costumes if deemed to be inappropriate to a family-friendly environment or something of a similar nature.