Not Technically My First Cosplay Experience, But…

Reading Time: 5 minutes
the author as the queen of hearts in a parade - first cosplay
Greeting my subjects on the parade route. Image via Frank Sarris Public Library.

…I guess there’s a difference between wearing a costume for a library program or a play, and wearing one out in public, not on Halloween. It turns out there is something particularly thrilling about being a costumed character in a crowd of ordinary-dressed people.

“Cosplay” has always struck me as a pointless word when “costume” would suffice. I love costumes. I love making costumes and wearing them. But “cosplay” is this thing people do when they go to conventions—those crowded, expensive places that tempt you with their famous people and geeky companionship, then turn you off with their long lines and money drains. Seems most people make costumes for cons, but I just want to make the costumes and stay home. I could, theoretically, make costumes for other people, but I settle for imperfections and hacks in my work for myself that I don’t think would slide for others. I make them to my personal standards, for my personal use. You know, for those occasional times I have an opportunity to wear a costume.

My library director knew I could make costumes, but she mostly just wanted any excuse to get her staff out there representing the library in our town’s huge Independence Day parade. In the past, the Friends of the Library, or the board, or even volunteers, might walk or drive through with a sign, but what did that mean to the public? Library visitors don’t know the board or the Friends, they know us. “Maybe you could dress up like some kind of storybook character. You could be Alice in Wonderland, or whatever,” she suggested to me.

My son would be marching with the Cub Scouts and my husband just doesn’t do parades, so my 8-year-old would have been left companionless the morning of the 4th, so I asked if she could accompany us, and (assuming she could handle the march), she could. But if a little blonde girl was marching, she would have to be Alice, not me. I thought about it for a minute or two, then decided to go as the Queen of Hearts.

I started on the costumes as soon as I could. Alice I made almost entirely with supplies I already had: the dress from an old blue bedsheet, the pinafore from a large bolt of linen I’ve had for ages, and the pattern adapted from an incredibly ruffly little girls’ dress pattern my grandmother-in-law had used on her granddaughters in the 1980s. I removed some of the ruffles. I thought for sure there’d be more than a few designated Queen of Hearts sewing patterns out there, but I had to settle for a generic royal dress with hearts and well-chosen materials added by me. Oh, and also a massive hoop skirt (also homemade, using the method here at the Make It & Love It blog). You cannot ride in a car with a massive hoop skirt, by the way. But walking in one is fun, and good for air circulation on a sunny summer day.

On July 3rd, the kids expressed their feelings about the next morning. “I’m nervous about all those people watching me,” my son admitted.

“Well, you see,” I said, trying to phrase it to both ease his fears and not seem pointless, either, “when you’re marching in a parade with the Cub Scouts, or in a band like I used to do, people aren’t really seeing you. They’re seeing The Cub Scouts, or The Marching Band. You’re part of a group, and unless you’re acting up, no one’s going to point and say, ‘Well look at all the nice Cub Scouts except that one, he’s stupid.’ On the other hand,” I said, turning to my daughter, “you and I are going to stand out. But that’s okay, too. Because they’re not going to see you, they’re going to see Alice.”

Mother-Daughter Alice/Queen of Hearts public cosplay - first cosplay
This picture taken by a McDonalds employee (on my phone) who rushed out with a few coworkers to also take their own pictures WITH us.

I hadn’t really thought of it that way before I said it. I think I imagined us being just additional color in the general party atmosphere, not standing out, let alone a highlight perfect strangers would want to take pictures of. It started while we were waiting for the rest of the library contingent in the McDonalds parking lot at the start of the route, when several employees took a quick break from serving pre-parade snacks to dozens of marchers just because they’d spotted us through the window and wanted their pictures taken with us.

And immediately I thought about fellow GeekMom Dakster. She’s written a lot about her experiences with cosplay and chronic anxiety and how the former actually helps with the latter. “It is an acceptable thing to become the character you dress as,” she wrote this past spring. “So when you dress up as a character, people see the character.” That’s what I’d told my kids, but it didn’t come alive for me until that moment. I GET it, Daks, I thought. Now I want to join the 501st Legion, too!

Girl in Alice in Wonderland costume reads in the back of a truck and watches another marcher in a duck costume - first cosplay
Alice pre-read the books we were handing out, and watched other parade cosplayers (at least she wasn’t wearing a duck suit). Images via me.

But to be honest, it was more than just being a character—it was also handing out books. We had several boxes of paperback easy readers to hand out to the crowd. This made it even less about me, and more about representing literacy. I was now linking the slightly magical experience of meeting a storybook queen with the gift of a book. Even the little pageant queens, who’d been crowned once themselves and were now the envy of countless princess-loving children in the crowds as they rode through the parade, were themselves starstruck by my book-bearing persona. “Thanks for the books!” they shouted at me from their float an hour or so later, jumping and waving, as I watched the rest of the parade pass when we’d finished.

My Alice got her fair share of attention, too. Even her friends in the parade were impressed.

girl in Alice costume attracts attention of elementary school cheerleaders - first cosplay
All the young cheerleaders want to pose with Alice. Image via me.

It’s one thing to impress people you know with your costume, but something else to have strangers stop you in excitement and ask for a picture. You’re not just anybody anymore: you’re an experience they’ll remember.  And that is pretty cool.

Author in Queen of Hearts costume in the middle of a parade route with two boys from the audience - first cosplay
Posing with some library regulars. Image courtesy Kay Bouajram Ritchie.