I remember it vividly: sitting in a downtown restaurant in 2005 during Star Wars Celebration III when a costumed family walked by the window: Obi Wan Kenobi, Mommy Wan Kenobi and Baby Wan Kenobi. The duds were dead on, from Pop to the infant. George Lucas himself would've been impressed.
As far as attendees in character, they weren't alone, of course, and the Star Wars gatherings certainly haven't been unique when it comes to events in the Circle City populated in part by folks in fantasy costumes.
Over the past two decades, Indy has seen dozens of conventions roll through town that have provided ample opportunity for "cosplayers" — people who enjoy dressing up as characters from comics, sci-fi films, video games or simply other eras — to strut their stuff. From Gen Con to horror fanfests to the recent Wizard World gathering, from "Steampunk Immersion" events to Indiana Comic Con, Indianapolis regularly plays host to superheroes, anime characters and citizens bedecked with Victorian-era clothes and gadgets who look as if they just stepped off the pages of a Jules Verne novel.
Cosplay — not be confused with "LARPing," although there's a bit of crossover (see our Definitions guide) — has dozens of devotees in Central Indiana. From the large groups of the 501st and Rebel Legion (Star Wars-themed players) to singles who simply like to hit up a gathering dressed like someone else, the people engaged in cosplay are as diverse as the characters they portray. The thing they have in common, though, is a deep desire to express themselves creatively by altering their appearance and becoming someone else, if only for a little while.
"I think it was my theatre background. I love to dress up. I could transform from being the nerdy fat kid," says Jeff Angel, who's now (in addition to emceeing Angel Burlesque shows) often seen in one of his two Lucasfilm-inspired getups. "I'm an Imperial Officer, one of the Death Star officers in black, and I have a Jedi costume."
Although Angel started out as a costumed Star Trek fan, "Just over the last two or three years I've really gotten into the Star Wars side of things. There's a worldwide costuming organization called the 501st — those are the bad guys of Star Wars — and then there's the Rebel Legion, the good guys. The 501st and Rebel Legion are sanctioned by Lucas and Disney as official charity fundraising organizations. "There are thousands of members worldwide, but there are about 100 members here in Indiana for the local chapter." Chapters of the two groups make appearances at events as big as the annual Rose Parade, but locally, says Angel, "We'll set up a table at conventions with a 'Blast a Trooper' game where kids can shoot at Stormtroopers with little sticky darts — we raise money for charity that way."
The members of both groups are all volunteers, and admission to join is free — with a caveat: "You don't pay anything to get in, but your costumes have to be of such quality that you have to approved by their board."
"I got approved with about $200 worth of Jedi costume initially," says Jeff. "Now I've got like six to eight hundred dollars in a new Jedi costume. You move up from fake leather belts to good leather belts. You move up to real boots from fake boots." (Angel, who goes by the Jedi name "Owan Ji," points out that the belt's a key part of the costume — every Jedi has his own unique buckle.) Costs for Stormtrooper outfits can brush past the $1,000 mark, and a full Darth Vader outfit can run three to five times that much.
Of course, resourceful cosplayers can get the look for less. A LOT less.
"I started with making an entire Stormtrooper suit out of paper plates," says Kimmi Marković, whose signature outfit is a riff on Spider-Man's sometime romantic interest Gwen Stacy. "I did that Stormtrooper for Breakfast Club at Purdue." (Breakfast Club, oh ye IU alums, is a costume-and-drinking event that starts in the morning hours at various bars prior to home football games, and , well, y'know). Photos of Kimmi in her plate-trooper costume got picked up by starwars.com, and the bug had bitten Kimmi — the visual artist had found a way to get recognition for her work. "I've always put a lot of effort into Halloween costumes. I've always been an avid reader and I have an art degree from Purdue — part of it is to push myself to see what I can make."
All of Kimmi's costumes are inexpensive, from her Spidey duds to her portrayal of Gambit from the X-Men comic series, and all include paper plates in some fashion.
"I cobble things together," says Marković. "My Gambit costume — I had a bodysuit that I bought online for $20. I bought a coat at Value World and made everything else out of paper plates. That costume without the bodysuit that I already had cost maybe $15."
For players like Jeff Angel, the rule should be "pay what you want." The choice of character tends to dictate costs, too: a Star Trek uniform shirt will obviously run a lot less than a full-on Star Wars Rebel fighter pilot complete with jumpsuit and helmet. "There are people that cosplay for 25 or 30 bucks," says Jeff. "I was talking to a girl the other day who said she spent 60 bucks on a costume and said 'I can't believe I spent this much money!' To me, that's like nothing. Most people find this stuff at Goodwill; there's a lot of repurposing of items."
But lest one thinks that every cosplayer is a master DIY craftsperson, there's a cottage industry of goods and services that's popped up globally, including suppliers and outfitters from Indiana. "Carol Shrout her and her husband in Plainfield are one of the big national suppliers of Imperial Officer belts and rank bars," notes Angel. (Rank bars are the little multicolored squares that the officers manning the Star Wars Death War wear across their chests.) "They make them out of aluminum and Plexiglas and they sell these nationally." The Shrouts even helped a local couple bring their Star Wars-themed wedding to life — complete with an officiant decked out in full Vader badassery.
Some folks buy the stuff, some folks make the stuff, but cosplayers tend to be a group that shares a lot of materials and skills. The Stormtroopers, for example, hold "armor parties." "Everybody will bring their armor and help each other work on the costumes," says Angel.
Leila Breton, who's mainly a fan of Steampunk gatherings, helps her fellow 'punkers get the right fit: "I'm making a corset for a friend since she can't find one that really fits her ... she's really tall." Breton's customers all come to her via word-of-mouth — she doesn't advertise — and the price for her work runs the gamut: "Sometimes it's in exchange for buttloads of fabric — but a custom-made corset? I'm selling [those] on the low end for $400."
How'd Leila get into it? "I fell on my head," she laughs. In all seriousness, a friend of hers persuaded Leila to join her at San Diego Comic Con, and Breton decided to go as the character Inara from Joss Whedon's cult sci-fi series Firefly. "She's got the best costumes, I think," says Breton.
After seeing what other folks were doing, Leila found herself most attracted to the Steampunk vibe. "I'm more interested in a Victorian slant rather than doing a bunch of guns and weapons and stuff. I make my corsets, the bustle, slips, undergarments , the whole deal. Sometimes I'll take on a character but usually I'll just go as me dressed up."
Leila digs the cultural mashups that Steampunk fans bring to the table. "A couple years ago I did a Steampunk Snow White — last year I went [to the Steampunk Immersion weekend] as Gladiator Snow White. It kind of had an old school Wonder Woman comic vibe to it. I have a little wig that I wear with a red bow and then I did a corset with these little puffed sleeves that attached with a skirt and my little Gladiator slippers. "
But why the big preference for 1800s-fashion-meets-throwback-sci-fi-mechanics? "The thing that I like about Steampunk is that it goes across ages," explains Leila." With anime, for example, there's a certain look, there's a certain type of person that does anime. Superheroes — there's a certain look. But with Steampunk, you get a broad range of body types, personalities, interests — not everybody goes full-blown Victorian. You get a lot of people who are into guerilla costuming; going to a secondhand store and picking up whatever. There are other people who like the stories and the books that are out there."
Ultimately, though, for Leila and lot of people like her, the important thing is community, the feeling among cosplayers that they've found their tribe. "I haven't met a group of people that hands down have been as nice as this group of people. There's just an open-heartedness and open-mindedness to people that are into Steampunk that I love."
It's the same vibe that Paper-Plate-Stormtrooper's found in her travels. "If I had my way," says Kimmi Marković, "I'd wear a costume every day."