Wearing a cosplay costume and dressing up for Halloween are two very similar activities. For both of these, you will purchase or create a costume that you will then show off to other people. While the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are very different types of activities.
The difference between a Halloween costume and cosplay comes down to perception and dedication. Typically costumes created for cosplay will be higher quality and detail-oriented. Cosplay is also a year-round hobby that is fully immersed in the larger cultural identity of geek and pop culture events.
Someone who is purchasing a costume to play dress-up for one night is unlikely to self-identify as a cosplayer. It’s a fun activity to do once a year, but nothing to dedicate a lot of time and money to. On the other hand, cosplay is a hobby that is all about recreating characters to express the love of the series, game, or movie. The whole experience of cosplay feels very different than putting on a Halloween costume.
Is cosplay different from Halloween costumes?
In reality, there are no rules for cosplaying or dressing up for Halloween that officially make them separate activities. If someone dresses up for Halloween and calls it cosplay, they are technically not wrong. However, most of the time people who only wear costumes around Halloween will not self-identify as cosplayers because the public perception of these two activities is very different.
Cosplay is generally seen as an aspect of geek or nerd culture. Whereas, Halloween costumes are simply a way to celebrate an annual holiday. Cosplay is a year-round hobby, with cosplayers constantly thinking about the next costume on their list. Halloween costumes are a once-a-year activity with most people coming up with a costume in the week before the holiday. Even though the act of putting on a costume is the same, the way people think about these two activities is very different.
Is there anything wrong with cosplaying on Halloween?
Even though cosplay is generally thought of as separate from Halloween, there is no reason you can’t wear your best cosplay to your friend’s Halloween party. The two activities are not mutually exclusive. Cosplay is great because it means you already have a whole arsenal of costumes ready to pull out and don’t need to come up with anything at the last minute.
Typically for Halloween, I will choose a costume that is more recognizable for my friends who are not as interested in anime as I am. I might choose a character from western media, like Avatar the Last Airbender, or I’ll adjust a costume to make it look more generic. For example, one year I used a frilly, black dress from one of my costumes, made a quick tail and ears, drew whiskers on my face, and went as a cat. This way I’m not dressed as an obscure character that no one will recognize.
The differences between cosplay from Halloween costumes
Even though the two activities are very similar, there actually are some subtle differences between cosplay and Halloween costumes. However, most of these differences are just generalizations. For example, cosplayers usually spend a lot more time creating high-quality, accurate costumes, but there are also people who put a lot of work into their Halloween costumes and cosplayers who prefer to purchase them. So, while each of these points can separate cosplay from Halloween, they are not hard and fast rules and can easily be broken.
Cosplay is character-oriented
For Halloween, it’s accepted that many people will dress up as a ghost, princess, butterfly, or other things that are not specific characters. While you can dress up as your favorite character or historical figure, it’s not necessary.
Cosplay, on the other hand, is all about recreating the look of specific characters, typically from pop culture, anime, comic books, or games. You’re not going to find people cosplaying as a generic rabbit or witch. Even if someone chooses to cosplay an original character, there is still that aspect of role-playing.
Higher quality and attention to detail
As a general rule, costumes that are made for cosplay will be of higher quality than those that are made for Halloween. This is because Halloween costumes are only made to be worn once for a couple of hours at a party. Cosplay costumes need to be durable enough to wear walking around a convention for a weekend. Even if you’re not making the costume from scratch, it will usually be of higher quality if you buy it from a cosplay store instead of a Halloween store. This goes for other accessories too, such as wigs and makeup.
Cosplayers also tend to value accuracy when creating their costumes. They’ll scour the internet for reference images to get all the details right when creating their costume. While certainly not always the case, this is an aspect that’s typically overlooked when creating Halloween costumes.
Cosplay costs more time and money
While there are certainly ways to reduce the cost of cosplay, it’s actually a pretty expensive hobby. It’s pretty standard for a serious cosplayer to spend $200-$500 per costume. This is true whether you are making your own costumes or purchasing the costume, wig, and accessories. Halloween costumes can easily be found for under $50, or they can be put together very cheaply at the last minute.
Cosplay also tends to cost a lot more in time. It’s an immersive hobby where you have to learn many skills from sewing to prop construction, wig styling, and makeup. All of these take time to learn and execute effectively on a costume. Even if you are creating a low-budget closet cosplay, you will still spend a lot of time researching on the internet to find the best clothing items that will work for the costume to make it recognizable.
While there are definitely people who put a lot of time into their Halloween costumes, they are not in the majority. Most of the time quality and accuracy are not major considerations.
Cosplay is a part of a larger geek culture movement
In general, cosplay is associated with geek culture. You’ll see it mentioned alongside comic or anime conventions around the topics of superheroes, anime, or gaming characters. If you see people dressed up for any other type of function, it’s generally not associated with the term ‘cosplay.’
For example, historical costuming and reenactments are not put into the same bucket. While they may be putting a lot of effort into their costumes and role-playing as specific people or characters, the separation from geek culture makes people perceive it as a completely different activity from cosplay.
The same goes for Halloween. Since it’s a holiday that exists separate from geek culture, there is also a dissociation from the idea of cosplay. The costume aspect is more closely associated with witches and ghosts, and not necessarily with any type of pop culture.
Cosplaying is a year-long hobby
A pretty obvious difference between cosplay and Halloween costumes is the time of year. Halloween always happens on October 31st. Generally, people will only start to think about costumes within the month of October. It’s a very specific annual occurrence that requires very little planning ahead.
Cosplay as a hobby, on the other hand, never stops. Not only are you planning out your time to make sure your costume is complete by the convention, but you’re also thinking about the next costume you want to make for the next event. Most conventions happen over the summer, between April and September, but many happen outside of ‘con-season.’ For example, my favorite event, Katsucon, happens in February. There are no restrictions on the time of year for cosplay.
Photography is an important aspect of cosplay
One aspect of cosplay is the importance of photography. Many people outside the hobby might not realize the value placed on getting good photos of cosplay costumes. In fact, looking good in photos is one of the major things to think about when deciding on what fabrics to use, how to paint props, and the types of makeup to apply.
Many cosplayers will work with professional photographers to get the best photos of their creations and spend time practicing poses to look good and in-character in photos. This is something that isn’t given any kind of consideration for Halloween costumes. While you might want to snap a cute picture with your friends, you’re not going to try to set up a full photoshoot for your costume.
Cosplay is about the preparation and creation process
Cosplay is also about more than just wearing a costume. The process of learning new skills in costume construction is just as important in the hobby. Wearing a costume is fun, but creating something from scratch to bring a character to life is an incredibly rewarding experience. That’s why many cosplayers get so involved in the hobby and continue for many years.
While it’s true that many people will put a lot of work into creating unique Halloween costumes, it’s not that common. Halloween is much more about the actual costume than the process of making the costume or putting it together.