Non-Fiction Spotlight: Cosplay: A History by Andrew Liptak

After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.

For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.

Today’s featured non-fiction book is the definitive history of a phenomenon born out of SFF fandom. Therefore, I am happy to welcome Andrew Liptak, author of Cosplay: A History, to my blog today.

Cosplay: A History by Andrew LiptakTell us about your book.

The book is a big overview of how and when cosplay came about! Cosplay as we understand it today has undergone some considerable changes over the decades, and as a historian and cosplay, I was interested in how and why we ended up dressing up at cons.

There’s the conventional history: that Forest Ackerman dressed up for the 1939 World Science Fiction convention, but there’s precedence to that: there were people dressing up well before he and his then-partner, Myrtle Douglas (who made his costume, along with one for herself) suited up in New York: Jules Verne had a costume party where guests showed up as his characters, there was an early convention at the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate a popular science fiction novel, Vril, and some other scattered examples throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

But you can also go back a bit further, and I wanted to also explore the broad story of how costumes became a tool for storytellers and how their use evolved with time.

In many ways, this is one of the core stories in the book: how we use costuming to relate to stories, and when you look at it through that lense, you see other, similar examples: people using costumes for political purposes, like protests (all the way up to the modern day), or education (living history and reenacting), and for one’s own personal journey to understand their identity, their fandom, or just for their own entertainment.

The other core part of the book is that it’s a story of fandom and community: it’s about how fans come together to share in their common interest, whether it’s to show off their work at a convention or to help one another build their costumes. I’ve been a member of the 501st Legion, a Star Wars costuming group for nearly 20 years, and that group takes a bit of the forefront of the book, because it’s a big part of my upbringing and identity, but also because I felt that it serves as a solid, representative microcosm for the growth and mainstream profile that the activity has experienced in the last couple of decades.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a historian and journalist who’s written pretty extensively about science fiction and fandom for a long time. I fell in love with Star Wars when the special editions hit theaters, and after burning my way through the various tie-in books in high school, I jumped over to everything else I could get my hands on, from Redwall to Lord of the Rings to Foundation to Dune, and quite a bit more.

I studied history and then military history (BA and then MA), and found myself writing for a bunch of places like SF Signal, io9, and Kirkus Reviews about SF/F stuff. One of those projects was a history of SF/F at Kirkus, which gave me a broad understanding of how the genre evolved over time, and introduced me to some of that earlier history.

From there, I jumped over to The Verge, a tech / culture site run by Vox Media, and wrote extensively about SF/F stuff. But more importantly, I worked with two editors, Bryan Bishop and Laura Hudson, who really transformed how I thought about storytelling and how we relate it it: how does fan culture impact the things we consume, and what do those various books, comics, TV shows, games, and movies shape our view of the world? And of course, there’s the technology stuff, like how social media and the internet helps those things.

Above all, I’m also a cosplayer. I was a Star Wars fan from ‘97, and acquired my own set of stormtrooper armor in 2003: I’ve been with the group ever since in various roles, from regular trooper to holding leadership roles in my local garrison, and I’ve branched out to various other costumes over the years.

What prompted you to write/edit this book?

Saga Press’s Joe Monti did! He met some members of the 501st Legion at San Diego Comic Con back in 2015 or 2016, and reached out to me to see if there was a story there. The project went through a bunch of iterations until 2019 when we sold it. It went from a bit of a more specific history of the 501st to a much wider focus of cosplay in general, which I’m pretty thrilled at: the more I developed the project, the more I recognized how much bigger this story was.

Joe ended up setting me up with fellow Saga / Gallery editor Amara Hoshijo, who picked up the project and really helped me hammer it into shape from a manuscript into an actual book.

But I’ve always been interested in history, and how the past connects to the present that we currently exist in, and learning about the past helps to bring about some understanding as to why the institutions and traditions that surround us are here.

Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?

In short, it’s a history of fandom as a community — not just the capital F literary traditions/community, but of the wider history of fandom and how it’s evolved and changed over the decades.

This was a particularly fascinating thing to watch as I interviewed folks or pored over documents from Fanac.org: how did the act of costuming become an institution within the worldcon scene, and how did it grow out and fracture as fandom expanded and Balkanized as science fiction and fantasy entertainment began to take over movie theaters, television sets, and video game consoles? It’s a really fascinating evolution, and one that I think is well worth paying attention to, culturally.

It’s a high-level overview of the larger fan world, one that touches on a bunch of these various tribes. I wanted to make sure that it was approachable to folks who have been fans for decades, long-time costumers/cosplayers/makers, and to folks who were just casual fans or who wanted to learn a little more. Hopefully, it’s a good entry point to understand the larger cosplay — and fan — world.

Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?

Hm. There were some things that I just didn’t have time or space to include: I wanted to write a chapter about furries, but just ran out of time to really do the topic justice. I also came across some interesting tidbits about the impact of laws designed to curb KKK members from masking up around the US and how that’s impacted costuming in various places. (Didn’t quite fit with the topic of the book, but it’s something I’d like to delve into a bit more.)

Those are things that I’m hoping to do a bit more research into in the coming months for what I’m thinking of as “lost chapters”, which I’m thinking I’ll release in the newsletter I write.

But with any history, there are things you learn after the fact that you just didn’t come across during the initial research. Arthur Conan Doyle dressed up as his character Professor Challenger, and apparently there was a Roman Emperor, Commodus, who apparently dressed up as the hero Hercules. And, literally while writing this, someone just told me about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, who apparently commissioned a Jannissary uniform for a costume ball he attended. There’s undoubtedly plenty of other examples of this that I’ll be reading / researching!

SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?

I think the awards are an excellent way to highlight the scholarship that takes place about science fiction and fantasy. As a historian (I might be a bit biased here), I think it’s important to research and understand the past, because the fans, authors, editors, the works they produced and the events they participated in help to form the foundation of the community that we’re part of now. Those actions and works have a profound, lasting effect on everything that follows: look at how we’re still grappling with issues of equality and equity with fan circles. So, understanding and deconstructing the road that brought us here helps us conceptualize the environment we’re in today.

There’s been a lot of good work towards this end, and I think that an award nomination is useful to encourage people to seek out these works and these histories.

That said, I don’t think that something like “Best Related Work” necessarily needs to be limited to just book-length projects, but I do think that there’s value in specifically promoting long-form scholarship, because of the work that goes into it, and what such works yield for the reader and community at whole. I think it’s worth pointing out that the works that have ended up on the Hugo ballot have largely been well worth the inclusion on those lists.

The primary issue that I see is that “Best Related Work” is something of a catch-all, and I think that if we want to make sure that we’re putting attention to these things, and if we really value this as a category Hugo members need to draw up some more specific boundaries for that (maybe even something as simple as BRW Long / Short form). But then again, the Hugo ceremony is already pretty long and mission creep is a thing.

Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?

There are a couple of books that I’ve picked up in recent weeks/months. The first is Ben Rigg’s Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons, which is a voice-y nerd history but which essentially boils down to an interesting business book about TSR and a bunch of the product, business and organizational mistakes they made over the course of theri run. Riggs is essentially asking a question: why did Wizards of the Coast buy TSR in the 1990s, and lays out the case for that. It’s less about the making of D&D (there are lots of histories of this), which I found intriguing.

The other is Phasers On Stun! How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World by Ryan Britt, which I’m reading now, and which is proving to be an interesting history of that particular franchise.

Where can people buy your book?

It’s published by Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press, so anywhere you buy books! If you’re interested in a signed copy, some of the stores near me, like Bear Pond Books, Yankee Bookshop, and Phoenix Books should have some that they can mail to you if you’re not in the area.

Where can people find you?

My main home online is a newsletter I write, Transfer Orbit, which I write on a somewhat regular (weeklyish) basis. You can also find me on my website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thank you, Andrew, for stopping by and answering my questions. Do check out Cosplay: A History, if you’re at all interested in the history of fandom and cosplay.

About Cosplay: A History:

A history of the colorful and complex kingdom of cosplay and fandom fashion by Andrew Liptak, journalist, historian, and member of the legendary fan-based Star Wars organization the 501st Legion.

In recent years, cosplay—the practice of dressing up in costume as a character—has exploded, becoming a mainstream cultural phenomenon. But what are the circumstances that made its rise possible?

Andrew Liptak—a member of the legendary 501st Legion, an international fan-based organization dedicated to the dark side of Star Wars—delves into the origins and culture of cosplay to answer this question. Cosplay: A History looks at the practice’s ever-growing fandom and conventions, its roots in 15th-century costuming, the relationship between franchises and the cosplayers they inspire, and the technology that brings even the most intricate details in these costumes to life.

Cosplay veterans and newcomers alike will find much to relish in this rich and comprehensive history.

About Andrew Liptak:

Andrew Liptak is a writer and historian based in Vermont. He graduated from Norwich University with a master’s degree in military history and writes about history, technology, and science fiction in his newsletter Transfer Orbit. His work has appeared in Armchair General MagazineClarkesworld Magazine, Gizmodo, io9, Slate, The Verge, and other publications. He coedited the anthology War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, and his short fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine and Curious Fictions.

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Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

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