Halloween is upon us, but for some of Indy’s creative souls their passion for costumes and make-up isn’t limited to late October.
Cosplay (short for “costume play”) is a phenomenon that’s become a subculture unto itself, wherein fans will dress up as a fictional character from pop culture. For members of its passionate subculture, it’s become a year-round creative outlet for those looking to escape into a different world.
“I’ve spent a whole lot of my life trying to be somebody else—I’m just some boring girl from the suburbs,” said Julie Powers, a professional make-up artist who also teaches at an aesthetician school in Indianapolis.
Powers is a former cabaret and musical theater performer with a Bachelor of Arts degree in musical theater from Butler University. She says theater has always captivated her imagination, especially the possibility it creates for the “magic of transformation,” as she described. Powers learned costuming, hair and make-up while pursuing her Master of Fine Arts degree in acting from Minnesota State University-Mankato, and she’s hoped to share those talents with others ever since—starting with her daughter.
“She always had really epic [Halloween] costumes, whether she wanted to or not,” Powers said with a laugh.
Powers’ daughter, now a student at Ball State, is a fan of Japanese animation who makes videos about her fandom on TikTok. Powers assists with the attendant costumes. With her daughter and in her own life, she’s seen the impact cosplay can have on individuals via the communities they form through the medium.
“It’s all theater,” Powers said. “You’re taking on a character, you’re becoming somebody different, and you’re telling a story.”
Miles Williams, a 21-year-old Central Indianapolis resident, can relate. His story begins as a tale of sibling rivalry, when he and his twin brother Lance were attending North Central High School in 2017. Lance dressed as the version of Spider-Man from the recent film “Into the Spider-Verse” for Indy Pop Con, while Williams tagged along wearing a Batman t-shirt.
“He was getting stopped, left and right,” Williams explained. “Now as a twin, there’s always the complex of being outshined by the other, so I was thinking ‘That looks like fun, I want to do that.’”
So: he decided to suit up as the Batman-adjacent DC Comics character Nightwing, decking out a store-bought costume with spray-painted dowel rods. Since then, Williams’ social media following has grown, with his TikTok account reaching 151,000 followers. He says he’s especially proud of being a young black man who can serve as a role model for younger kids of color.
“It’s big,” said Williams. “Being a black person in the nerd community, you don’t see on TV a whole lot of black superheroes. A lot of the cartoons and comics I grew up with were Superman, and Batman, and not really many people of color.”
Amy Smith, a Pennsylvania native, graduated from Notre Dame and lived in South Bend before moving with her husband to Indianapolis. She’s now a member of two local Star Wars costume groups—the Bloodfin Garrison, which portrays the “bad guys” of the Star Wars universe, and Mos Espa Base, whose members dress up as their virtuous fictional counterparts. Both groups make appearances to benefit local charities, community and civic events, as well as the Make-A-Wish Endowment Fund.
Smith was introduced to the groups in April 2019, when she cosplayed for the first time with two of her girlfriends at a large event in Chicago. She threw together a costume as Rey, the protagonist of the past decade’s Star Wars sequel trilogy, combining pieces she bought online and ones she made herself. She said her experience in Chicago, and seeing the lengths that so many cosplayers and fans went to for their costumes, inspired her to “up her game,” and that the charity aspect didn’t hurt, either.
“I’ve always liked to do charity work,” said Smith. “It’s something I’ve done since I was in high school, and now, OK, cool—I can do costuming and charity and Star Wars together? This is perfect for me.”
Smith, a self-described perfectionist, broke out her mother’s old sewing machine and taught herself leatherworking with the goal of meeting the stringent standards of the official groups that make public appearances on behalf of “Star Wars” production company Lucasfilm. Two months after the most recent annual fan gathering, Celebration, she submitted an updated and enhanced Rey costume. She was approved by the Mos Espa Base.
Smith said she stays involved not only for her own enjoyment, but because she hopes her two sons, age 5 and 7, might consider her the “cool mom” someday. And much like Williams, her social media accounts have been a way to keep in touch with the cosplay community as COVID-19 impacts gatherings like Gen Con, the massive tabletop gaming convention and cosplay hub held annually in Indianapolis before temporarily moving online this year.
“Now that I’m a part of the community and I have an Instagram account, I’ve actually found some of these people and I know who they are now, and I’ve connected with them,” Smith said.
Williams agrees that the pastime hasn’t just inflated his social media profile, but enriched his personal life.
“I’m an advocate for finding something that makes you happy,” said Williams. “Don’t let other people’s perceptions define who you are. And that’s a huge thing because that’s what my parents taught me to believe. It’s special telling a little kid, ‘You can be anything you want to be’ while dressed as a superhero.”