Matt Denny (second from right) likes to participate in historical reenactments as a Revolutionary War British redcoat. Loni Cuatt

Cosplay in the Santa Clarita Valley: Caring, community and commerce

Michael Gomes enjoys the convenience of modern society, but sometimes feels like he wants to rebel against the kind of uniformity his homeowners association demands, letting his imagination and creativity run free.

Feeling penned up by suburban constraint, every once in a while he enjoys the freedom and self-expression of transporting back to a long-past era with like-minded individuals.

Like how sports fans often want to go beyond watching the games and try playing themselves, Gomes sees cosplay as a way for pop culture fans to take their passion further. Assuming a different persona or contextual reality can be a transformative experience.

For fans who participate in cosplay, whether it’s a convention, a Renaissance fair or a re-enactment, social media feeds demonstrate the fun in the time-honored tradition of dressing up, suspending reality and letting one’s creativity and imagination run wild.

Whether it’s the most famous cosplay event there is, the annual ComicCon convention in San Diego, or a local “ren fair,” fans seem to understand the hesitation, but they also say it’s something that’s easy to love if you’re willing to give it a try.

“I first went to a Renaissance fair in 1975 and as a tiny kid, it blew my mind that there were thousands of adults playing, actually playing with me, which is something that adults didn’t typically do,” Gomes said. “Years later, I took my wife to a fair; and at first, she thought it was a nerd thing — but after she saw the shops and the dresses, she was quite hooked. Renaissance fairs and re-enactments are cosplay for old people like me.”

Gomes, who specializes in pirate and cowboy cosplay, credits playing “Dungeons and Dragons,” reading fantasy novels like “The Lord of the Rings” and attending 35 Renaissance fairs for instilling in him the imagination and love for escapism that inspired him to start putting on the costumes. Much

Welcoming community

With his wife on board, Gomes decided to finally give cosplay a try and “jumped fully into the deep end,” and purchased high-quality pirate captain’s outfit complete with a fitted coat, replica weapons and captain’s hat.

He and his wife became so committed to the activity they decided their wedding would be pirate- themed, and everyone from the guests to the photographers came in costume.

Though his Renaissance fair cosplay community is limited to a few friends in Santa Clarita, he feels that having friends to go with and seeing other people in costume at the fairs is essential. Mainstream society is still just becoming accustomed to seeing adults dress up in costume outside of Halloween. Gomes said that in his experience inclusion, tolerance and respect are core values held by a vast majority of cosplayers he has met.

“A lot of us are misfits and nerds, but they’re all very chill, welcoming people and we will fly across the country to find that acceptance,” he said. “Safety and camaraderie are commodities that we needed even before we put on the costumes. As someone who grew up using the ‘Ren fairs’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as an escape from a world that could be very rough at times, cosplay was just the next logical step.”

Living history

It wasn’t enough for accountant Matt Denny to passively study history. He wanted to become part of the action.

Denny participates in living history, also known as historical re-enactment. He dresses up as a Revolutionary War redcoat and a World War I Bavarian infantryman and, along with other re-enactors, will participate in mock battles a way to educate the public and also for fun.

He first discovered reenactment seven years ago after he attended a Renaissance fair with his daughter and discovered that some of the people he knew were there dressed as British redcoats.

As a Revolutionary War re-enactor, Denny helps put together a military camp and stages mock battles with a predetermined winning and losing side.

While reenactment may share similarities between cosplays and live-action role play (LARP), Denny said that the issue of historical accuracy is a big difference between the activities. While cosplayers seek to emulate fictional characters by wearing costumes, reenactors will whenever possible recreate their military attire using the period-accurate processes and materials.

“If you want to upset a reenactor, call what they’re wearing a costume,” Denny said. “It’s an ‘impression,’ and what we do in reenacting is come as close as possible to what these people wore and what they did.”

Over the years, Denny has been devoted hundreds of hours to making and tweaking his own tricorn hat, forage cap, marine coat, waistcoat and breeches. He has also collected authentic war relics like his 1913 rifle and fork and spoon set that was actually used by a German soldier in WWI.

The best part of reenactment for Denny is the opportunity to teach the public more about these periods of history and learning more from the other actors. He said that it is especially rewarding when he is able to spark enough interest in someone to join in the activity.

“When we do the drills or explain how a musket works to a kid, that’s really cool to me,” Denny said. “You can’t get that at a school.”

A hometown staple

Since 1983, A Chorus Line has been a go-to for Santa Claritans searching for costumes for dance recitals, school plays or parties. But according to manager Jana Einaudi, in recent years, the cosplay community has turned to the store to help with their craft.

“There’s nothing normal or typical about a costume so we get some really off-the-wall requests, and a lot of cosplay customers will have a really specific idea about the look they’re trying  to create,” Einaudi said. “I think I noticed the cosplayers start coming in around 2010, and it has just grown from there. We used to have our best stock only during Halloween, but now that there’s a demand, we try to keep it all year-round.”

Though Halloween is typically the busiest time of year for costuming, in recent years the store has seen an increase in business during the spring and summer months, which coincides with big conventions like WonderCon, San Diego Comic Con and Anime Expo.

“We have so many options that it’s become normal to us, but the only thing that’s difficult is when kids will come in and try to do a costume from the ‘Fortnite’ video game,” said store employee Calliope Weisman. “But the question is, can you even call that cosplay, because that’s just kids for Halloween?”

A not-so-evil empire

“Star Wars” is one of the most recognizable and beloved franchises of all pop culture, and for many people like Shant Melkonian, Michelle Waxman, Mike Miller, Enrique Baez, Roger David and Kevin Loo, the allure of donning the iconic bucket helmets of the Imperial Stormtroopers proved an impossible temptation to resist.

But just because they like to dress up as the bad guys, it doesn’t make them bad guys — quite the opposite.

Melkonian and his friends are members of the Southern California Garrison branch of the 501st Legion, an international charity group of cosplayers formed in 1998 by Alden Johnson as a way to give back to hospitals by visiting children in costume. In fact, the 501st’s motto is “bad guys doing good.” Members of the 501st can be found at almost any large parade, and it’s the only charity organization sanctioned by Lucasfilm.

With such a high honor comes a lot of responsibility. All costumes worn by members of the 501st Legion and the corresponding Rebel Legion of heroic characters must be film accurate, according to specific guides and regulations or made a select few companies.

The guide includes details about the types of acceptable materials, all the way to the number of pleats or threads a Kylo Ren costume requires.The completed costumes must then be approved by a quality judge within the organization.

The 15 active Santa Clarita members of the Legion, who have dubbed their friend group “Order 661,” make frequent appearances at local events like Relay for Life, Free Comic Book Day celebrations, and Make A Wish visits. On any given weekend, between two and twenty events may request appearances and many members of Order 661 will attend events almost every week, gladly paying for their travel out of pocket to share their passion.

“It’s all about the love of ‘Star Wars,’ the looks on kids’ faces and high-fives,” Melkonian said. “This group has probably given over a million high fives in the past year.”

A sheep in fox’s clothing

Madi Summers is a fox. At least that’s what her cosplay stage name Miss Madra Rua means in Gaelic, a nod to her Irish and Scottish heritage.

Summers, who is also a professional pinup and international corset model, began to cosplay as a natural expansion from her theater background and a way to dress up as her favorite pop culture characters like Elizabeth from “Bioshock,” Isabelle from “Animal Crossing,” Marvel’s Gwenpool and Deku from “My Hero Academia.”

For Summers and many others, it’s also a way to earn some income.

Patreon is a popular platform for cosplayers to sell unpublished photo set or to take requests for costumes or themed shoots, a common practice in the industry for making money and increasing visibility. Summers loves the platform because it lets her directly engage with fans and creates a marketplace for her work.

“It kind of freaks me out to say that my entire livelihood (around modeling and cosplay) is just on a website that can go away at any time,” she said. “Since I want to build a career around being noticed, it would be hard to do without social media, but it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of cosplay and I would go to events in costume anyway,”

Of love and superheroes

Dakotah Luster and Saya Yohn pose with some costume items Luster has made including his original Batman cowl, his in-progress Batman Beyond helmet and Rey’s staff from “Star Wars.” Matt Fernandez/ The Signal

While cosplayers describe themselves as an open, friendly community, the passion on display can lead to more serious relationships, evidenced by the recent marriage of Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

Saya Yohn and Dakotah Luster met as actors at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Saya said she was at one point the only person in the world approved by DC Comics to portray Wonder Woman; Dakotah was Batman, and the second of the first five people approved by DC to portray Aquaman in the United States.

As approved character actors, Yohn and Luster were trained how to think and behave as their characters, and even learned how to sign their official signatures. They enjoyed it so much that when the two eventually left Six Flags in 2013, they still wanted to continue exploring the world of cosplay.

After leaving Six Flags, Luster began crafting his own costumes beginning with a polyurethane Batman cowl. According to Luster, the costumes used at the theme park are plastic and not up to par with what he wanted to wear as an actor. Though he never intended to sell the things he made, Luster did a test sale and was surprised when one of his cowls sold for $250 on eBay. From there he founded his own company Luster’s Workshop which creates cosplay accessories from materials like brass while also keeping his products affordable in order to deter people from making lower quality knockoff of his work.

After the business became more profitable Luster was able to invest on a 3D printer, which they say made the production process much faster and easier.

While her husband geared his cosplay focus towards the crafting side, for the past year and a half Yohn shifted her energies to sewing and working with cloth and becoming a professional cosplay model.

“I started modeling everything Dakotah made and it’s funny because I had never done anything but Wonder Woman until then, and that’s what really launched me professionally and what got me a lot more (social media) followers,” she said.”As a professional cosplayer you have to either be the first to do something or have a unique flair, and I think a big part of my brand is the acting experience I’m able to bring to it.”

To learn about the 501st Legion, visit southerncaliforniagarrison.com. To learn more about A Chorus Line achorusline.net or Luster’s Workshop visit lustersworkshop.com. Summers’, Luster’s and Yohn’s work can be viewed on their Instagram pages at @miss_madra_rua, @dakotahluster and @sayayohn respectively.

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