Ahead of this weekend's Armageddon Expo in Auckland, Ethan Sills takes a look at the rise and rise of cosplay.

Five times a year, the Armageddon Expo takes place around New Zealand. A celebration of all things pop culture, the recurring conventions are perhaps best known for one thing: the costumes.

Cosplay, short for 'costume play', is a hobby that sees people dress up in highly realistic costumes based on their favourite fictional characters. With the rise of the internet and social media, cosplay is becoming more mainstream.

Every Armageddon Expo, there are always hundreds of people milling about casually in costumes that look like they were stolen from movie sets, easily disguising the fact these are, for the most part, made by amateur designers.

To the uninitiated and the dismissive, it is something that is forever linked with fan conventions - an occasional hobby for 'weird' people with too much time on their hands.

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However, for people like Jess Woodward, cosplay is not simply a hobby. In many ways, it is her life.

Woodward first cosplayed in 2007 when she was just 14. She and her younger brother went to the Armageddon expo in Auckland, thinking it would just be a bit of fun.

Eight years on, she is now one of the administrators of the Cosplay New Zealand Facebook group, a group that boasts more than 3700 members, adding at least five new ones every 24 hours.

Woodward has come a long way from initially just planning to enter a contest with her brother.

She says that the New Zealand cosplay community she discovered online is one of the main reasons why she has stuck with the practice.

"None of my high school friends were into geeky stuff like I was, so I was drawn online to find other people into the same stuff as I was. It wasn't until I discovered the 'other countries' section of the cosplay.com forums that I met other [New Zealanders] into this stuff.

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"Several [of the] people I met online before that first Armageddon I went to are still among my best friends now."

After going to 2014's Melbourne Armageddon, Woodward appreciates her community even more after finding herself alone for the first time.

"[I] was wandering around in costume by myself for most of the first day and it felt pretty isolated not knowing anyone in the community there."

Another local cosplayer, Katie Seto, went to her first Armageddon in costume in 2009. She was there to have fun with her friends, but since then Seto has turned into a serious cosplayer.

A member of Cosplay New Zealand, she attends various conventions around the country in costume, sometimes spending up to six months at a time working on one outfit.

Like Woodward, the community aspect helped draw her into the hobby.

"Once you start looking for a community for the hobby, a whole lot of things start opening up and you realise how serious it can be."

Cosplay has allowed her to make friends throughout the country, giving her a network of cosplay-connections around New Zealand.

"There's something really unique about meeting someone at a convention; there'll be that moment where you see each other and realise you like the same series. And then you find out that they aren't from that city or you're from out of town, so that's just a really simple way for fans of the same series to be brought together.

The feelings of community are a strong part of cosplay's success, according to Dr Lorna Piatti-Farnell, director of the Popular Culture Research Centre at AUT University. Through research, she found there are different layers regarding the people who take part.

"Not all fans are cosplayers. There is an abyss between 'I like that' and 'I want to dress up'.

"[There are] people who like to dress up and doing it once a year, twice a year at a convention as part of their fandom practices. And then there are cosplays which are the more traditional cosplays, where people make their own costumes from scratch and it becomes much more part of their every day practices rather than the occasional ritual."

Dr Piatti-Farnell says that for people who actively cosplay on a regular basis, they have found "a sense of identification" with the hobby and develop a "cultural circle" that allows their hobby to flourish.

"It's not about how much they like an idiom or a character but about what kind of cultural relevance it has for them."

Despite cosplay becoming more mainstream, there are still a number of misconceptions about what it is. Dr Piatti-Farnell has found that the public can have inaccurate views about who cosplayers are and why they dress up.

"Sexualisation is one of the issues around cosplaying but not necessarily part of the community," she says.

"Those who look upon cosplay they interpret the practice as a 'sexy practice', because a lot of the characters, particularly the female ones, that come from anime, or comic books, tend to be sexualised themselves."

Seto agrees, saying she has at times felt uncomfortable walking around in more exposed outfits.

"Female cosplayers especially feel a kind of pressure around that no matter what kind of costume they wear."

Cosplayers should be aware that they can face harassment, she says.

Both she and Woodward lament the fact people at conventions seem to view them as being there to entertain them.

"It bothers me that some people do seem to think they have some sort of entitlement to us because we're in costume," Woodward says.

People will take photos without asking, and act upset if she turns them down.

In spite of these difficulties, the future looks bright for cosplay. Due to the rise in popularity of 'geek' culture, more people are taking part than ever before.

"Shows like Game of Thrones have really helped bring cosplay into the mainstream," says Seto.

"It's opened a lot of people's eyes to the hobby; a lot more people know it exists now, and a lot more people take part."

Cosplay is being taking seriously by the companies inspiring the costumes. Last October, Marvel Comics featured cosplayers on the front pages of their comics instead of their superheroes, an acknowledgement and celebration of the fan practice.

The company will also be launching a new series, The Unbelieveable Gwenpool in April, in response to the character's positive reception by the cosplay community. Gwenpool had only appeared on one variant cover before fans started copying her distinctive white and pink outfit, and the response was enough to get Marvel's attention.

New technology has also helped expand the world of the serious cosplayer. There has been a rise of cosplay photography, which lets people like Ms' Seto and Woodward showcase their work.

Peter James has moved from cosplaying into photographing his friends and colleagues. He says that he does it for fun and to celebrate people's work, not for money.

"There's nothing financial to really profit from in the cosplay community. Being a cosplayer myself I know what goes into them and they go through the same amount of time and financial stress perfecting their arts."

With the accessibly of technology and its prominence in popular culture, Dr Piatti Farnell says cosplay is here to stay.

"It's not just something that exists outside of the everyday. It is part of our 21st century lives and not just something that occasionally pops up."

Both Woodward and Seto are excited for what the future may bring. It seems that neither of these cosplayers will be hanging up their costumes any time soon.

What: Manukau Armageddon
Where and when: March 5-6, Vodafone Events Centre, Manukau.
More information: Click here

- nzherald.co.nz