Textile Technoculture Creations and the Early Days of Women's Cosplay
Wearing a green satin jumper cinched at the waist and a lengthy cape, Myrtle Douglas appeared in a futuristic costume of her own creation at the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention. Referred to as “Morojo” in the fan community, Douglas was one of the earliest progenitors of cosplay, ushering in a tradition of fans crafting their own speculative futures. Morojo was an expert fanzine printer and a key member of The Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, whose members included luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman, and Leslie Perri. Yet, during her lifetime she rarely received full recognition for the design and construction of her “futuristic-costume.” Early cosplay creations like Morojo’s informed the large fan community at conventions about the narratives that women read and deeply loved. These textile technoculture creations not only reflected the female fan’s reading practices but they also lent greater visibility to the scientific narratives and speculative futures that women in the fan community embodied.
Cosplay, the colloquial term for “costume” and “play,” was coined in Japan in 1984, and over the last decade, its long history has garnered the attention of fans, academics, and “aca-fans” in science fiction and fantasy communities. Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols, a fandom scholar at Drury University and a cosplayer herself, says, “[a]n integral part of the practice of cosplay is the way a costume allows a participant to broadcast their love and appreciation for a show or media genre, and immediately be accepted, recognized and embraced within a community of other fans.” Nichols argues that the visibility of fan’s readings of text is a major inspirational force in the construction and performance of cosplay.
When Morojo made her own reading of science fiction and fan-based texts visible through cosplay at the World Science Fiction Convention, she became a catalyst that inspired other cosplay designers to express futurity and creativity through their craft. After her inventive costume creation in 1939, fans took to fanzines to express their interest in these costume exhibitions at conventions. Later enactors of cosplay, such as fanzine editor Lee Hoffman, used this form of fashion-based visual communication to announce their supreme fan status and to make a point about the place of women in science fiction fandom. Hoffman was one of the youngest female fanzine editors in the mid-20th century, as she was only 18 when she began editing, printing, and publishing her work in the popular fanzine Quandry. Because of her gender-neutral name, fans in the community assumed she was a man. In an essay from 1982 her memoir “The Bluffer’s Guide to Making a Fanzine,” Hoffman wrote about the sexist attitudes towards women within this wave of fandom, recalling that “[i]n typical, male chauvinistic manner, most concluded that the editor of a successful fanzine must be a male. Ah ha!”
Hoffman chose to announce that she, a woman, was the editor of Quandry through her textile-craft at the 1952 World Con Convention in Chicago, appearing in a dress inspired by her editorial work at Quandry. Hoffman tells the story best in her memoir:
The WorldCon, in Chicago, was to have a masquerade, so I mimeographed myself a costume. Quandry appeared on paper in various pastel colors so I located some plain cotton fabric in similar colors, cut out pieces the size of pages and ran them through the mimeo, then stitched them together into a tunic that I wore over slacks. I accessorized it with a belt of paper clips and a mimeo stylus with a pin back glued on.
Within the space of the convention, Hoffman literally embodied the work of her zine by integrating the material object into a costume for the masquerade. Within the male-dominated field of science fiction conventions, Hoffman made a fashion statement declaring her expertise in editing, printing, and sewing in her cosplay of a fanzine dress.
For fans that engage in cosplay, understanding our history enables us to continue this cultural heritage practice. Long-overlooked, Morojo’s early work in cosplay has recently been recovered through fan-based articles and new research on “fanzines.” Sites such as Racked and SYFY have identified Morojo as the woman who initiated the practice of cosplay, and fan-based scholarship on cosplay is beginning to circulate more widely on major fan platforms in an attempt to acknowledge the participatory labor of these early science fiction communities. Historical evidence of early cosplay performances, like Morojo’s, comes from fanzines created by science fiction fans, independent publications intended as a source of both information and entertainment. Communities were created around these publications, and the narratives within these documents included reports about what was transpiring in the world of science fiction and fantasy. It wasn’t until after her death in 1964 that Morojo’s work was more broadly acknowledged within the fan community.
“From the inception of cosplay, women have merged textile craft, a set of historically feminized skills, with speculative visions of science to go beyond a “passive” reading of beloved texts to an often defiant performance of fandom.”
Morojo’s role as one of the first cosplayers was first documented by long-term fan-partner, Forrest Ackerman, in 1965. In a short essay identifying the work and passion of Morojo in the eulogy fanzine, Myrtle Rebecca Douglas: An Appreciation, Ackerman speaks to her expertise in mimeographing fanzines through her precision in typing, creating stencils, and proofreading: “She designed & executed my famous “futuristi-costume”—and her own—worn at the First World Science Fiction Convention, the Nycon of 1939.” Ackerman also illustrated how Morojo collaborated with Ray Harryhausen, who later went on to become an influential filmmaker and stop-model animation pioneer, to create masks at a later science fiction convention. Documents like Ackerman’s eulogy have preserved a history of cosplay that fan scholars are only beginning to uncover.
From the inception of cosplay, women have merged textile craft, a set of historically feminized skills, with speculative visions of science to go beyond a “passive” reading of beloved texts to an often defiant performance of fandom. The women that cosplay do so courageously, as many women cosplayers have spoken out against sexual harassment and mistreatment at conventions. The Mary Sue have aggregated convention anti-harassment policies and have used digital platforms to speak out against mistreatment within the cons. Even though science fiction organizations have played a key role in envisioning, shaping, and embodying fandom, fan communities and cosplayers should still honor the women whose reading practices merged with craft skills to create a cultural legacy that continues to this day.
Justine Larbalestier, The battle of the sexes in science fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2002).
Lisa, Yaszek, Patrick B. Sharp, and Kathleen Ann Goonan, Sisters of tomorrow: the first women of science fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2016).
Alexis Lothian, Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility (NYU Press, 2018).
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified The Mary Sue as a fan-run organization. Even though it publishes various fandom and geek culture content, they aren’t exclusively a fan-run organization.
Image credit: Harajuku denizens, 2016 (Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0)