(Real Wardrobes is a photo essay series exploring personal sartorial styles.)
On a sunny morning in Brooklyn, New York, the Cherry Esplanade at the Botanic Gardens was packed with warriors, sailors, princesses and monsters, all picnicking under a canopy of pale pink blossoms. Taiko drums sounded, kimono-clad women sashayed across a stage synchronizing fans and cherry bloom sprays. It was the first day of the 35th annual Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, a rite of spring for which Brooklynites and visitors lined up around the block. Inspired by “Hanami” parties to appreciate the blossom in Japan, this weekend celebrates traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The art of cosplay--in particular, dressing up as a character from Japanese history, anime or manga--has become one of the most popular aspects of the festival. On this bright Saturday, festival-goers in pastel kimonos twirled parasols in line for beer. Samurais swaggered, scabbards on hip, for the awed benefit of toddlers clinging to their mothers. Villains posed for selfies amidst the new lilacs.
This is Senbonzakura Miku, basically a cherry blossom version of a normal character. She’s a vocaloid, meaning she’s an animated singer. This brings out more of an outgoing side of me--in normal clothes, I’d be a bit more sheltered, I guess.
I bought the wig on Amazon.com, but the clothes I mainly altered off pieces I already owned or things I bought from thrift stores or fabric stores. I feel like, for costumes, it’s not really worth wearing unless I made it; personally I enjoy making things myself.
When this costume started, it was based on an actual Samurai armor; Tokugawa Ieyasu’s armor; I got a little creative with it. I’m just fascinated with Japanese culture and I love Samurai and I love the color gold too, so his armor naturally drew me. I like to make things so I decided to give it a shot.
As much as I could, I did it very traditional: hand-lacing, hand-drilling, hand-sewing, everything by hand. I’m not a warrior, but when I put this on, I can take on anything.
There’s a certain place for a certain costume. The best place to wear this one is Matsuri, everything fits together well; people will recognize this as part of the culture. The fashion accessory I would take to a desert island? A sword.
This is a character of my own design: a mix from an American-made anime called Rwby. She’s one of my favorite villains. Villains get a bad rap! But they always look so fashionable to the point that you feel a little jealous of them. Like the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn. So I have to represent sometimes the villain, even though I’m always for the good guys.
I put this together myself from the clothes I had and this wig that I’ve had forever. I bought this hat at the last Sakura festival. I didn’t have all the fittings but this was as close as I could get.
My mom is not an anime fan, but when I got out of my room after preparing for this, even she’s like, “not bad.” This is a new thing for her, but now when I show her pictures from Sakura festivals, she knows. And now that it’s really integrating, it’s really good to see people paying homage to Japanese culture. The best fashion advice I’ve ever gotten is to always match, but not match too much. Sometimes you have to mix patterns to stand out from the crowd. Keep your posture up and that sells the dress. Even if it’s a cheap dress, you can make it look good if you have confidence.
I chose Shaymin from Pokémon, because I thought it was really cool that Pokémon could transform. The idea of transformation in general makes you feel kind of different and more powerful. But I really love cosplay because it makes me feel more like myself. I’m always wearing different outfits and my hair is always different. So it makes me feel free; I can express myself. I chose a Pokémon that I already knew would be gender-queer because it fits me a little more. Something that is a little feminine and a little masculine. My Pokémon is a grass-type, I thought: cherry blossoms, grass, wings, I thought it would be perfect for the sunlight and the weather here, and the theme of the Japanese garden. I was supposed to have a parasol and staff but I didn’t finish it in time. The wings took so long to make! I took foam board and traced them together. The funny thing is, we had a power outage so I did it all in the dark.
This is from a visual novel-esque, fashion-esque rhythm game called Love Live! The [related] costume line is called Seven Lucky Gods, which takes Chinese regal style and mixes it with fantasy. We thought that the wood accents and the bamboo walls, the stalks, the trees here would be the perfect backdrop for this costume. Going out in costume, it’s very hard to be “in scene.” This is almost ideal for us. Sakura Matsuri is so beautiful; I love how it joins so many tourists together to celebrate Japanese culture, from how to draw a manga, to how to correctly wear a kimono, to traditional tea ceremonies. I think in our society, we need ways to make our people more culturally diverse because everyone wants to stay in their same box.
I’ve been researching cosplay since I was 14, I would go and look up pictures of my favorite comic book and anime characters. I would see people doing cosplay and I’m like – people do this and they don’t have to wait until Halloween? I realized there was this whole subculture around it, encouraging other people to get out there, be creative, intuitive and improvisational. I thought it was the perfect place for me as an artist.
Apart from making costumes, I also make armor that’s also an extension of my costumes. But I’m also a graphic designer and an illustrator. I like the challenge of becoming other characters, but at the same time, I pick characters that have some characteristics similar to mine, so I don’t have to completely betray my personality. I’ve always liked acting. In a way, it’s live action role-playing, or traveling theatre. You are a new character that you are not.
It’s my first time wearing this costume, but I’ve worn others. Right now I’m waiting on a cheongsam in the same style, it’s a bit shorter, very cutesy, pink with lots of petticoats underneath. You can do more playful poses in it. Rather than this, in which you walk slow, like a princess, basically. Best fashion advice? You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to fall down. It’s all a matter of picking yourself back up, brushing yourself off and taking pride in everything that you do. Whether you’re walking a catwalk, going to a photoshoot, going to an event, find something that you know is going to help you end with a smile on your face. At the end of the day, it’s just about having fun.
This character is Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon. A lot of people in cosplay do like to dress up and pretend they’re that character; it’s real fun.
I pieced together this outfit; my brother helped me. Some of it we found it in the attic. I ordered the eyepiece from a store.
I’ve never gotten any fashion advice yet, but advice I’d give someone? Be comfortable. Especially now, I wish I were more comfortable. I’ll remember for next year.
As told to Roohi Choudhry, with photography by Shiva Muthiah