Dressed in a sparkling black cocktail dress, faux mink white coat, perfectly-coiffed black-and-white wig and long false lashes, green eye shadow and dark red lipstick, Tristian Ramirez makes his rounds on the convention center floor staking out his next target.
Embracing his role as iconic Disney villain Cruella De Vil, Ramirez slowly makes his way over to a group of unsuspecting people for an impromptu performance. Behind all the makeup, his boyish features quickly turn into something more sinister.
“Have you seen any Dalmatians around here?” Ramirez, 20, asks with a mischievous grin across his face. “If you find them, can you bring them to me?”
Sitting at the intersection of drag and costume play, Ramirez is kind of a rarity as a so-called “crossplayer,” a portmanteau of cosplaying and crossdressing, just one of many points along the broad and diverse spectrum of cosplay. For the past two years, Ramirez has decided that he not only wants to dress up as some of his favorite fictional female characters, he wants to immerse himself into the roles.
“I like the whole convergence of drag and cosplay,” Ramirez said. “It’s all about going out, dressing up and getting into character. I’d rather be a villain than a princess because I feel I can have more attitude as the bad girl.”
Attendees at the 9th annual San Japan this weekend won’t have to search too hard for cosplayers and other cultural fashionistas who have decided to explore a different side of themselves at the anime convention. From cosplayers and crossplayers to furries, Lolitas and more, San Japan is an event where the clothes one wears are much more than just a fashion statement or pop-culture shout out. There’s a deeper and more complex meaning ingrained into the imagination on display.
“Anime cons like San Japan have really established themselves as safe spaces for anyone who wants to participate,” said David Ramirez, San Japan director of community relations. “We want to be known as a place where people can play with gender identity and roles.”
That’s exactly what crossplayer Ramirez, who goes by the name Tris De Vil, wants when he attends the three-day San Japan convention this year as the 101 Dalmatians antagonist and the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. While Ramirez, a student at the UT Health Science Center studying Chinese medicine and acupuncture, enjoys the creativity and freedom of crossplay, he also sees it as a way to subvert gender norms. Your gender shouldn’t define what costume you get to rock, he says.
“No one should ever be ashamed of cosplay,” he told us. “It’s a fun sport for everyone, regardless of gender.”
St. Philip’s College student Melanie Reyna, 19, told us she’s not really into “girly stuff” and would rather dress as male anime characters than the scantily clad female characters that dominate the genre. Sure, Reyna would love to attend San Japan as one of her favorite characters — Sinon from the Japanese light novel series Sword Art Online — but Reyna really doesn’t feel like wearing Sinon’s short shorts and a skimpy corset.
“A lot of the [female] outfits are very risqué in my opinion,” Reyna said. “It gives me confidence to walk around as a strong male character without having to exploit myself like most strong female characters in anime.”
Although passing on cosplaying as Sinon, Reyna says she will stick to the world of Sword Art Online and attend San Japan this year dressed as the franchise’s male hero Kirito, who wears a black trench coat with white trim and other black clothing. It’s actually a costume Reyna’s mother didn’t approve of her buying at first.
“She was against me cosplaying as a boy,” Reyna said. “I bought it anyway. You don’t have to wear what society wants you to wear.”
Reyna’s mother finally came around after seeing her in the outfit. She even helped Reyna tailor it for a better fit.
“She didn’t have a problem with it after she saw me in it, so she helped me fix it,” Reyna said. “It was her way of saying that she thought it was really cool. She saw how much fun I had with it.”
Like Reyna, Marina Arriola, 21, doesn’t really like to flaunt her femininity. When she attends conventions like San Japan, however, she makes an exception by showing off Lolita fashion. A subculture originating in Japan in the 1970s and based on Victorian- and Edwardian-era attire, Lolita became more recognized in the 1990s when Japanese rock/pop bands began to model the clothing, which includes whimsical skirts, blouses, stockings, knee-high socks and other sub-styles. While Arriola doesn’t consider what she does as cosplay per se, she acknowledges there is a similarity because, like those individuals who cosplay, Lolita fashion gives her an outlet to explore another side of her personality.
“I’m a tomboy when I’m not wearing Lolita,” said Arriola, who is an employee at local Japanese pop-culture shop Nine Tails and an independent retailer of handmade stuffed animals. “I love how ultra-feminine it is and how detailed the dresses are. I love the full spectrum of the ways you can express yourself. It’s endless.”
While most authentic, custom-made Lolita dresses from name brand stores in Japan run about $300 each, Arriola purchases most of hers second-hand from online auctions. She specifically wears Lolita when she attends conventions across Texas. Her collection includes many pieces featuring patterns adorned with teddy bears, crowns, hearts, balloons and desserts, and a handful of accessories like oversized bows and other extravagant headwear.
“Lolita is definitely a special-occasion kind of thing for me,” Arriola said. “I typical wear it once or twice a month. It’s a time where I can be super pretty and hang out with my friends and get a lot of compliments.” (Arriola and others bristle at what they call the incorrect belief that Lolita fashion has anything to do with Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita, or Stanley Kurbrick’s 1962 film adaptation, about a middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with a teenage girl.)
Jordan Anascavage, 35, a member of the furry community, transforms into his character by wearing a mascot-like outfit known as a fursuit. In Anascavage’s case, that means he puts on his suit and morphs into a tri-colored wolf named Alvin Von Devious.
“At first, I thought I would just try it out to see what it was like, but then I kind of got addicted,” said Anascavage, who works as a valet supervisor at a downtown hotel. “Not all of us can be actors in a movie, but we can all cosplay and be a character at a convention.”
While some fursuiters cover themselves head to toe in a costume or only wear ears and a tail, Anascavage falls somewhere in the middle. His wolf suit includes paws and a head, which he modified by adding a computerized fan on the inside to keep cool. Since he created Alvin to be a member of the mafia, based on movies he grew up watching like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino, he also wears a flashy pinstriped suit and dress shoes. Anascavage likens what he and his fellow furries and fursuiters do on the convention floor to late Looney Tunes animators like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones.
“We come up with our little furry characters and entertain people,” Anascavage said. “It’s what I enjoy doing. People usually just work a mundane nine-to-five job and get bored. [As a furry], you just take the character and run with it.”
Lori McCarthy also knows what it’s like to have a furry animal in her corner. She is part of a growing cosplay community that incorporates service animals into their costume play.
McCarthy, who is hearing impaired, is always accompanied by Yoko, her 14-year-old, full-blooded English pointer, which she received as a gift from her late mother. Although Yoko spent a decade as a regular pet, McCarthy decided to train her to become a service dog when she noticed Yoko alerting her to things she could not hear on her own.
“It was really hard for me to go to conventions on my own,” McCarthy said. “I never really understood how much my disability made me uncomfortable, but Yoko really helped me accept it. My life got better with her in it.”
This year, McCarthy plans to cosplay as Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Yoko, of course, will join her as the Beast and wear the elegant blue suit the shaggy character sports in the ballroom dance scene of the 1991 animated film. Yoko’s fallback outfit is her Nyan Cat costume, based on a popular internet video meme that hit online in 2011 featuring an 8-bit cartoon cat with a Pop Tart body that flies through space leaving behind a rainbow contrail.
However she decides to dress Yoko for San Japan, McCarthy knows she’ll have plenty of four-legged friends to keep her company. The number of service animals participating with their handlers has been increasing, especially over the last two years. Part of the reason, McCarthy said, that people with service dogs usually don’t go to big events is because a majority of other attendees don’t know there is an etiquette that should always be followed with service animals. During San Japan this year, McCarthy will make a presentation on the topic during a special panel.
“It makes people with disabilities uncomfortable if people start talking to their dog or petting their dog or making baby faces at their dog,” McCarthy said. “A service animal is different than a regular dog, therapy dog and emotional support animal.”
With a little more education, McCarthy hopes people understand that while dogs are usually magnets for attention from strangers — especially when they’re dressed up as a Pop Tart cat — a service dog’s main role in public spaces is to do their job for their handler.
“Yoko makes my life a lot easier by taking away all my stress,” McCarthy said. “Before she became a service dog, I was never relaxed and couldn’t truly enjoy San Japan on my own. Not only does she help me with my disability, she also helps me socially. In a sense, she is part of me.”9th Annual San Japan $27.25-$62.25, Sept. 2-4, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, 900 E. Market St., (210) 207-8500, san-japan.org