So, I have a bit of a confession to make. I was a *bit* of a cosplay snob, meaning – not that I was an elitist cosplay – but that I turned my nose up at “those weird ass cosplayers”.

For the uninitiated, cosplaying (literally “costume playing”) is, as defined by the Oxford dictionary:

“the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and anime.”

In a nutshell: Cosplaying is adults (or quasi adults) dressing up in Halloween costumes. Except it isn’t Halloween.

cosplay1Now, you would think I’d be on board with this; me, Mr. Halloween himself! If I could have Hallows 365 days a year I would, happily; Jack Skellington had the right idea (I’m looking at you, Sandy Claws!)

So what was my beef? Honestly, I couldn’t have told you. I was skeeved by them; I mean, dressing for Halloween, or special events is one thing…but dressing as anime (japanese animation/cartoon) characters? What the hell, man?

It was just recently – and by recently, I mean the past few months – that I had a stunning realization: I, too, was a cosplayer! Holy mother of hell, when did that happen? Could it be?

See: I’d always, on a subconscious level, lumped cosplayers in with the way I felt about fanfiction in general.  I’m not a fan, if you haven’t figured that out.  I have…certain strange moral issues with the idea of someone taking one person’s idea, the world(s) and characters they took the time to create and nurture…and having random people, fans, take possession of those characters as if they owned them and creating their own stories.  It bothers me; I’d even go so far as to say it vexes me, or tasks me, and I shall have him! I’ll chase him round the moons of Nebia…

*ahem*

Anyway. To my point, I can’t help but think of fanfiction as KIRF (“keeping it real fake”) knockoffs and while on a higher level I do “get” it…at a base level it does disturb me.  Or did. And cosplaying has always seemed just an extension of that same mentality.

I don’t know what changed my mind; it was, figuratively speaking, a bolt of lightning out of the blue.  But I realized that in my Halloween costuming, in my Renaissance Faire costuming…I’m costuming.  And costuming is cosplaying, even if – unlike the true cosplayers – I’m not recreating someone else’s characters, but manifesting my own artistic vision.

And that is a big difference. Whether I want to admit it or not, there is a much larger Costuming community that are all parts of the same whole.  LARPers (Live Action Role Players), Rennies, Historical Rein-actors, Cosplayers – we all like to dress up in costumes representing specific things, we all take great care and pride in our outfits/weapons/accessories of choice.  We’re kissing cousins, brothers from another mother.  We just don’t like to admit it.  When we speak about cosplaying we automatically think of comic book conventions, but we’re a much wider group with many varied interests.

Which brings us to the color aspect. Being Black, whether I want it to or not, makes me different.  There is no one to stop me from putting on a Superman costume, but there will be plenty within the cosplaying community who will criticize me for wearing it at a con. “But Superman isn’t Black!”, and you may laugh but you know deep down there will be those, perhaps even yourself, who will think it – however briefly and unintentionally.

timthumb

It would be no different were my blond, blue-eyed friend choose to dress as the vampire hunter Blade; he’d be looked at with scorn and derision, rather than admiration for his costume.  Most of the cosplaying community, at least those who succeed at it at conventions, tend to be either Caucasian or Asian; we Blacks/Browns don’t *really* fit, because no matter how detailed our costume/outfit is unless we’re cosplayer a Black character we’re still…out of sorts. Some aspect of our outfit is *off*, and the part that is, is something that frankly we just can’t change.

renclothingWhat brings this to the fore is that, here in the American Northeast, we are in the midst of the Renaissance Faire season.  I’ve been a semi-regular to the New York Renaissance Faire just a bit north in Tuxedo, New York; there was once a time I’d have gone three-four times a season, and had stopped for many years before re-discovering my love of the Faire over the last couple.  Each year I’d wear simple garb, very typical for the period – off-white shirt or tunic, dark colored breeches, leather boots and perhaps a vest or doublet.  Very European, and fitting.

Or perhaps – ill-fitting, because it never felt completely “right”.  As a Black man, and perhaps (very likely) I just take my costuming too seriously, dressing in medieval European peasant or layman garb felt…not wrong, but not really right either. I felt out of place, out of time, disconnected between what I was wearing and the period(s) I’m supposed to exist in, in a Faire.  It’s the same way I’d feel when watching some SyFy Network medieval or fantasy epic telemovie, and seeing People of Color living among the populace as if it were perfectly natural.  Wanting to be racially sensitive overrides the need to be historically accurate in entertainment, and I absolutely understand and accept that.

It still feels wrong and awkward to me.

Sometime earlier this year, I found myself thinking about this season’s outfit and thought: why DO I have to dress as I always do? Oh sure, I’d always add my own flourish so I’d come across more as a pirate/visitor than someone who “lived” there; it was my way of justifying the outfit to myself.  I didn’t live in this medieval, European hamlet; I was an outsider, a visitor, so I’d work with my color difference and BE the outsider.  Arrgh, mateys, avast.  But could I do more?

Absolutely!

My revelation was simple in theory; there were, in fact, Black/Arab Africans who lived in Europe during the medieval periods but they didn’t necessarily DRESS European.  They kept aspects of their culture in their style of dress, and they were distinctive for it.  Who were they?

The Moors.

moorsThe Moors were the medieval Muslim inhabitants of Morocco, western Algeria, Western Sahara, Mauritania, the Iberian Peninsula, Septimania, Sicily and Malta. Medieval and early modern Europeans applied the name to the Berbers, North African Arabs, Muslim Iberians and West Africans from Mali and Niger who had been absorbed into the Almoravid dynasty. Scholars observed in 1911 that “The term ‘Moors’ has no real ethnological value.”

othello

Shakespeare’s “Othello” is probably the most famous of these peoples (think: Laurence Fishburn, to Kenneth Brannaugh’s Iago), although I believe his “Merchant of Venice” featured Moors as well.  Hollywood does have a few, albeit only a few, notable examples of Moors to reference: “El Cid“, “13th Warrior” (Antonio Banderas), “Robin Hood-Prince of Thieves” (Morgan Freeman), “Kingdom of Heaven” (pick a Saracen, any Saracen)…

People of color, set within the time period, dressed in the clothing of their culture.  How could I *not* be drawn to it? It was research time!

ericrenfaireUnsurprisingly, there is little info to be found in general – and nearly nothing in terms of period clothing stores that would properly reference Moorish outfits.  I’d have to figure this out on my own, and I did…I’d like to think somewhat successfully, if the reactions at the New York and Pennsylvania Faires this year have been indicators (I’ve had to accept that my name is now “Azeem” at the Faires. Or if they’re a little drunk, Morgan Freeman.  Or if they’re really drunk, Dave Chappelle (from Men In Tights)).

By pulling together pieces from various places over the course of the year, I finished with this look (that is me in the white turban on the left).  I’ve since added additional flourishes – pieces of jewelry, played with different colored cloth; the basic look remains the same, and I’ve been rewarded by compliments on my “accuracy”, for what that’s worth.

But in the course of this exercise, I think that is when I realized that the level of detail and need for perfection that I sought to achieve is not dissimilar to that of the stereotypical cosplayer.  So to them I offer my sincerest apologies; we may not be brothers in arms, we may not even exist on the same creative planets…but we are undeniably kin.