When cosplayers dress up as their favorite character, or even their interpretation of a favorite character, they're not just expressing their fandom. They're also carrying on a tradition that began with ... well, the first iterations of fan conventions.
The first recorded cosplay took place at one of the world's first science fiction conventions, Worldcon I, in 1939. Prior to this, there had been only four other gatherings of science fiction fans. The first Worldcon was a massive gathering … of 200 people.
It was there that Myrtle ("Morojo") Douglas dressed herself and her then-boyfriend Forrest ("Forry") J. Ackerman in fantastical costumes inspired by the pulpy covers of magazines such as Science Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories of Super-Science.
John. L. Coker III, a science fiction historian, edited the nonfiction book Tales of the Time Travelers: The Adventures of Forrest J. Ackerman and Julius Schwartz, which collected stories about early fandom. There Ackerman discussed his first cosplay, or rather, the first cosplay: (Excerpts and photos used with permission of Coker.)
"It was sort of like Clark Kent when he steps into the telephone booth and comes out with a Superman suit," Ackerman wrote. "When I got into that costume, I walked the streets of New York with little children crying out that it was Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers."
Douglas and Ackerman inspired other fans, who festooned themselves as their favorite characters at future conventions. This includes author E.E. "Doc" Smith (author of the Lensman series), who dressed as Northwest Smith, a character from C.L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore's short stories, at the second Worldcon in 1940.
It was there, as Ackerman told Coker, "I got kind of a quixotic notion around eight o'clock that night, after the masquerade. I asked the 25 people in costume to come with me five blocks to the major newspaper of Chicago. They didn't know what I was up to, but we went through the streets and I went into the office of the night editor.
"With a very straight face — as the editor looked up at these spacemen and vampires, wondering what all of this was about — I explained to him that we were time travelers. I said, 'You see, tomorrow we picked up your newspaper, and saw that there was a photograph of us and an interview, so naturally we had to get in our time machines and come back here to be with you tonight.'"
Coker, who is also the president of First Fandom — a society dedicated to preserving the writings and photos of fans before January 1, 1938 — noted that the third Worldcon, which took place in 1941, contained a piece known as "The $1,000 Cosplay."
The picture, above, Coker writes, "depicts Walter J. Daugherty in costume. I believe that the reason that it is described as the $1,000 costume is that it features metal supports, which were made from aluminum. During that time period, the process for refining aluminum was extremely expensive, and aluminum was more valuable than gold. It wasn't until decades later that an inexpensive method was developed which made aluminum affordable and able to be widely used."
As $1,000 in 1941 is the equivalent of $17,484 today, it's safe to say that Daugherty's spaceman costume was the most expensive cosplay for decades. (Currently, the most expensive cosplay stands at $30,000.)
Coker interviewed other First Fans for Tales of the Time Travelers. Author and fan Len J. Moffatt discussed yet another "first" … the first recorded cosplay fail, which took place at the fourth Worldcon, in 1946:
"[Fan] Dale Hart [pictured above] was an excellent Gray Lensman in a silver-gray form-fitting costume like the Astounding cover by Rogers. The problem was that it was so tight that he could not sit down or dare to bend over."
Moffatt may also have created another "first" at Pacificon I, the first cosplay routine:
"While at Slan Shack on Bixel Street earlier, I had borrowed some of Myrtle’s green make-up, combed my hair over my ears and turned up my jacket collar to become a comical vampire. I made a better impression earlier when friends carried me into a meeting hall and deposited my rigid body on some lined-up folding chairs. I lay there a long time with eyes closed and hands folded on my chest listening to the wondering remarks of passers-by.”
Standing around a convention in character, in costumes that cost a hefty sum and may be too tight to sit in? When it comes to cosplay, it seems that after 79 years, everything that's old is new again.