Skilled cosplayers are one of the essential parts of fandom. The spirits of fictional characters become real in a good cosplayer’s capable blend of knowledge, imagination, skill, and craft. This is inspiring for other fans because good cosplay lifts the curtain between imagination and reality. When one is in the company of cosplayers, we can imagine ourselves walking among scenes of a favorite story. One of the best and most artistic cosplayers I’ve encountered is Reina Valentine.
Her ingenuity in inhabiting the persona of favorite characters while expressing her own interpretive style is engaging and fun. It is inspiring to see her imagination and artistic ingenuity at work.
Targaryen loyalists in the fandom of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) know of Reina Valentine’s excellent cosplay of Daenerys of the House Targaryen (the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons).
In HBO’s adaptation of ASOIAF – A Game of Thrones, Daenerys was played by Emilia Clarke and Daenerys’s costumes were designed by Michele Clapton. Reina’s excellent sewing skills are evident in her reconstruction of Daenerys’s black dress, accessorized with red trim, a red scarf and a silver chain, worn during her arrival at her ancestral home: Dragonstone.
In addition to Reina’s exquisite costume design, she also designs jewelry and other accessories such as this gorgeous Targaryen broach.
Another of Reina’s impressive designs and personas is that of Angelica Schuyler Church of the musical Hamilton. As fans of Hamilton know, Angelica was attracted to Alexander Hamilton, but her sister Eliza married him. The emotional journey of Angelica and her sister are a poignant and engaging part of the Hamilton story.
While the story of Angelica and Eliza is poignant, Reina still brought fun and inspiration to her cosplay with her participation in a video titled Pass The Quill (HAMILTON REMIX).
Origins of Cosplay
The origins of cosplay are in dispute. Some believe the term was coined in 1984 by Nobuyuki Takahashi of Studio Hard. Perhaps, but many say that fandom cosplay has been around since the Star Trek conventions of 1970s. Media historians note that cosplay was evident in 1939 during one of the world’s first science fiction conventions: Worldcon I. the photo below if from Worldcon III in 1941, where a costume was named the “The $1,000 Cosplay.”
Henry Jenkins, a noted scholar of fandoms since the early 1990s, first coined the phrase participatory culture to describe the imaginative, participatory responses of fans of popular television shows and films such as Star Trek and other shows. Jenkins especially mentions the links between fanfiction and cosplay when speaking of transmedia productions, which tell a story across platforms such as streaming services, video games, marketing, and social media. He explains the controlled aspect of these mediums.
Most discussions of transmedia place a high emphasis on continuity — assuming that transmedia requires a high level of coordination and creative control and that all of the pieces have to cohere into a consistent narrative or world. This is a practice which is hard enough to achieve across the multiple divisions of the same production team and it becomes hard for fans to contribute directly to the development of a narrative which places high emphasis on continuityhttp://henryjenkins.org/blog/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html
However, he also says,
But we might also think about various forms of fan performance — from fan fiction to cosplay — which are more participatory and open-ended and less dependent on the design choices of the transmedia producers.http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html
Jenkins also has explored the concept of race-bending in cosplay, where fans, usually persons of color, take on personas of white characters.
Early cosplayers valued the authenticity of trying to perfectly reproduce the original character as seen on screen, while more recently, fans have adopted a more expansive conception of these characters through practices like gender-bending and race-bending, which allows fans to reimagine the originals to better reflect their own lived experiences as women or people of color. Here, again, fandom represents a public sphere of the imagination, as racial issues are more overtly surfaced and negotiated, sometimes heatedly contested, within the shared space of these fan networks.http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html
Interview With Reina Valentine
In February of this year, Reina Valentine was interviewed by Tales From the Fandom podcast. Her commitment to her craft was evident as she explained how she developed her knowledge of her characters by reading their stories. Her cosplay of The Witcher’s Yennefer and of Daenerys from HBO’s Game of Thrones are based on the literary descriptions of the characters as well as of the film adaptations.
But it is always interesting to understand the origins of a skilled craftsperson’s work. In the following interview for this article, Reina Valentine explains more about her personal connection to her craft.
How did you begin your career as a cosplayer? Was there a particular character or story that inspired you?
No specific character, really, but rather it was the craft and the community itself that inspired me.
I first even heard about cosplay in 2009. I was looking up some of my favorite series online and saw a picture of a person, who I now know is super famous cosplayer Yaya Han, dressed as one of my favorite characters ever, Faye Valentine from the Cowboy Bebop anime. Initially, I thought she was an actress or that they’d turned the show into a stage play. Then, once I delved a little deeper, I found out that what she was doing was called cosplaying and that a lot of people were into it!
As I was learning more about this, a friend of mine suggested that we go to a nearby fan convention. I was in college at this point. No money and no sewing skills. But, I was really excited to go. So, we went to the store, bought some bed sheets, and spent all night using bed sheets to make our costumes (mine was kimono, of sorts). When we got to the con that next day, I was surrounded by all of this stuff pertaining to my geeky interests and all of these people who were just as excited about them as me.
Flash forward to now, with the help of my friend, Sailor Geek Cosplay, who initially taught me the basics of sewing and crafting, I’ve made dozens of cosplays, often by hand and machine. I’m a regular at fan conventions. I have made countless friends. I cannot tell you the amount of new skills I’ve learned through this hobby, and I’m still learning more with every new costume!
What are your favorite genres and/or for cosplay and why? (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Real History and or Historical Fiction, etc..)
My favorite genres change so much that I’m almost not certain that I ever had a favorite. I started off cosplaying mostly anime– some sci-fi, some fantasy, modern, etc. In that same time, I would also make costumes for American animation, too, like Chel from The Road to El Dorado.
Then, when Hamilton first came out, I made my first truly historical-based costume with Angelica Schuyler. From there, I skewed into the live-action medieval-esque fantasy cosplays with Daenerys from Game of Thrones, whom I’ve made four different costumes for, and most recently Yennefer from The Witcher (Netflix). Now, I’m circling back to Broadway musical cosplays with Katherine Howard from SIX The Musical. I’m nearly all over the board with genres.
I tend to think much less about the genres as much as I cosplay based on my connection to the characters. I like to say that I put more importance on the “play” side of cosplay than the “cos/costume” side. There are very, very few cosplays I’ve made for characters whom I don’t have a super strong connection with. And with the amount of work that goes into making them, you really have to love the character to make the effort worth it!
There seem to be different variations of cosplay. People sometimes masquerade while at social gatherings. They might wear a mask or dress in a style that reflects their favorite story or genre. Cosplay seems more like a performance. If it is, is it similar to theater performances? In what way is cosplay different from masquerade or theatre?
Totally! Going back to the “play vs. cos” idea, a huge part of cosplaying a character is embodying them in photos and such. Really finding poses, sayings, makeup that makes you feel like the character. And, that’s something that is the same with the acting and theater world. That’s why cosplay tends to attract a lot of people who were or are actors, like myself, or just really creative types in general. The idea of embodying a character who isn’t you, finding something you connect with in them and coming up with ways to get their personalities across is a cornerstone of acting and performing. And a con or a photoshoot is your stage, your performance.
Do you help others with their goals for cosplay? (or crafting roles this part of your career)
I like to help friends with cosplays where I can, but since I’m still learning proper crafting techniques, I’m not too much help on that front. In fact, I tend to learn a lot more from my friends than anything. What I do try to do is keep encouraging and supporting them.
Cosplay, as fun as it is, can be super stressful sometimes and you often think you want to throw in the towel. So, I encourage them to listen to themselves. If they want to keep working on a project that’s giving them problems, I cheer them on to keep going. If the project is too much for them to handle at that time, I urge them to step back, put it aside and take care of themselves instead. Cosplay should always be fun for you, whether you do it professionally or as a hobby.
Do companies, conventions, and others commission cosplayers for their events? What are some ways cosplayers connect in the community?
They definitely do. A lot of times, most of the cons I’ve been to actually, convention organizers will invite cosplayers, who are influential or have a really interesting story or perspective, to be guests at their con. Usually, that’ll mean hosting and/or participating in a panel event or interview and autograph signings. Depending on the con size, special cosplay guests can have really large turnouts of fans and followers, looking to meet them in-person.
Costume and geek brand-related companies also tend to reach out to cosplayers with partnership offers. They’ll gift them wigs, costume eye contacts, full cosplays, shirts, accessories, etc, with the agreement that the cosplayer will promote them on the platforms. And not alway just cosplayers either. Crafters, like artists and smiths, will also be invited to cons and offered partnerships with brands specific to their craft needs.
For professionals, the best ways to connect that I know of are usually through websites and social media channels, like Instagram. Anywhere where you can display your photographic portfolio of work. In terms of hobbyist cosplayers and crafters, social media, organized cosplay events and conventions (when they’re able to safely come back) are the best ways to connect with others like you!
What are some of the hardest parts of cosplaying?
Certainly one of the hardest parts of cosplaying is the sheer time and effort that making a cosplay can take. There is so much that goes into it like planning, budgeting, crafting, trial and error. A lot of times that even means learning about a whole new artform in order to achieve the look and function you want your costume to have. If you’re purchasing or commissioning your cosplay, you have the stress of finding reputable sellers and artists, again budgeting, the communication with the seller, making sure it’s completed and in your hands in time for when you need it.
And, of course, that’s all before you put the costume itself on. A lot of cosplays are uncomfortable for one reason or another. I know I tend to cosplay way too many which I end up sweating through because they’re not warm-weather friendly. Some cosplayers have armor, moving or electrical pieces, huge props and accessories, difficult wigs, aggravating eye contacts. And, worst of all, painful shoes. Transporting and maneuvering in those at a con with tons of people and no space for movement, all while sometimes getting stopped for photos, can be its own awful brand stress. My rule of thumb is that, if I can’t rig a costume to get on and off easily enough to use the bathroom in, I’m not cosplaying it!
That’s why I always fall back on how you have to love the character you’re cosplaying, because the amount of nonsense that comes with making or purchasing a cosplay doesn’t always feel worth it if you don’t. I’m not going to drag myself around an overheated con in painful shoes, a wig that won’t stop getting messed up, a costume that’s sweat-drenched and sometimes tough to move in, carrying around annoying props and posing for pics when I’d rather go to sleep for a character I don’t care for or about. For Daenerys Targaryen, though, that’s a different story.
I’ve noticed that in fandom discussions you mention racial and cultural interpretations of characters. Can you expand more on these themes? In what way are these interpretations necessary for parts or all of the fandom community?
Being a POC, a black woman cosplaying is so important to me. It’s something I bring up any time I’m asked about cosplaying. A lot of people, growing up, don’t see themselves represented or feel like they’re ridiculed for their interests. That feeling goes tenfold for BIPOC people in the geek community. Far too often, we’re ostracized even within these geek and cosplay communities. We are the subject of racist comments, usually undermining and disrespecting our costume work or series knowledge. We aren’t offered as many professional opportunities and partnerships as others, especially the case for black creators, who can be treated as nearly invisible by the biggest brands and companies. We’re told we can’t cosplay certain characters or don’t look enough like the characters, only occasionally said outright but usually implied that it’s due to our skin color. This is an unfortunately prevalent issue in the community, and it can be really disheartening to see for aspiring cosplayers.
So, I’m so vocal about being seen as not just a cosplayer but as a black cosplayer, because I want to use what little voice or influence I may have to show people who look like me that you can cosplay, too! To not be discouraged by lack of visibility or representation. To not feel like you need to be pigeonholed into only cosplaying characters who look like you. You see a fair-skinned, blue-eyed blonde character you connect with the most, go for it. Cosplay them!
One important note here, too, is that cosplaying should always be done respectfully. I’m obviously not in the crowd of those who believe you can only cosplay your own race. But, you have to do so in a way that respects real life people. I have non-black friends who cosplay Princess Tiana from the Princess and The Frog, and do so beautifully and without disrespecting the looks of black people (i.e. painting your skin, wearing an afro wig for no reason). I’ve seen non-Asian friends cosplay characters who wear plays on various traditional garbs and do so with respect to the culture they belong to. We hear the term, “my culture isn’t a costume” a lot, but it’s true. When you cosplay, you have to think about the real life implications of your costume. If you’re feeling uneasy about cosplaying a certain character due to their racial and cultural connections, reach out to someone in those respective communities for guidance. And, if you really feel like you could cause some problems and be disrespectful in how you plan to cosplay someone, it’s probably a good idea to just skip cosplaying that character altogether.
Do you create your own characters or is this something you might do in the future?
I wish I had the creativity to come up with completely original character designs, but alas I’m not there in my skill yet. I am good at putting a different spin on an existing character’s costume. For example, I have an original design for Daenerys that I’m working on.
But, like with any original design I have, I have to pull from aspects of the actual character to make them rather than springing an idea from thin air. Hopefully, one of these days, I’ll be able to! Because my head is always swimming with original character ideas, and it’d be nice to imagine them wearing something other than jeans and a t-shirt.
How can others become involved in developing and participating in cosplay?
It sounds so cheesy, but honestly, just do it! I got my start Googling around and pinning bed sheets together. It’s all a matter of asking yourself “Do I want to do this?” I’d never so much as touched a sewing machine when I started off. Didn’t even know what half of the crafting terms were. Really, I still don’t know that. But, I just knew that cosplaying looked like fun and I was willing to put in the effort to make something, whether big or small, good or not-so-great looking. You just have to have fun with it. No matter your budget or skill set or access to the best quality whatever. Professionally or not, cosplay is play! Anyone can play! And, if it’s not fun for you, it’s not worth it!
Reina Valentine is an impressive cosplayer who applies knowledge, imagination, skill, and a lot of hard work to develop her craft. She is an artist of great ability who applies her heart and spirit to bring her fellow fans moments of inspiration and engagement with unlimited boundaries. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
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