How casual cosplay style is blowing up online

From Sailor Moon to The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, a growing community of cosplayers are flying under the radar with subtle references to their fave fictional characters

Characterised by the bold costumes, colourful wigs, and extravagant props they use to emulate their favourite fictional characters, the cosplay community encompasses a huge number of devotees all around the world. Paying homage to everything from Sailor Moon and Superman, through to The Little Mermaid, if you’ve ever found yourself in close proximity to a Comic-Con event, you’ll likely have witnessed the fervent energy that surrounds that surrounds the scene first hand. 

In recent years, though, the art of cosplay has surpassed its own definition and evolved into something else entirely. Today, a more casual iteration of the practice has been adopted by many, given that turning up to school or your 9-5 in a full Sailor Moon ensemble is likely to be frowned upon – at least for those who find themselves working in more corporate offices. ‘Casual cosplay’, it seems, is a developing community.

“Has anyone ever tried to build their outfits off of casual outfits from anime characters?” one Reddit user recently asked. “I think it would be cool to casually cosplay all the time without people thinking you’re filthy weeb trash.” The response was widely unanimous: yes. Offering an alternative to their usual literal interpretations, die-hard devotees are getting creative with their day-to-day looks, incorporating elements of their faves’ costumes into their wardrobes. 

The idea appears to be taking off right now. From casual cosplay challenges on Reddit, to the 140k posts tagged #casualcosplay across Instagram, and 11.4 million views of the same hashtag on TikTok, the burgeoning scene is cultivating what could be set to become a widespread, extremely online subculture. 

So how does it work? Casual cosplayers pick out elements of their favourite characters and interpret that essence into everyday looks, wryly winking to those in the know by sliding under the radar. Tina, a cosplayer from Virginia, works full-time in corporate marketing by day and runs numerous local clubs and groups for nerds, gamers, and readers by night. Having been a cosplayer for over five years, her growing fascination with casual cosplay has allowed her to incorporate her passion into her everyday life – even when she’s at work.

“Casual cosplay has two categories: ‘obvious casual’ and ‘super casual’,” she explains. “‘Obvious casual’ is where you clearly aren’t Superman, but you’re wearing a nice outfit with the buttons open to show a Superman shirt underneath, with Clark Kent glasses on. What you’re doing is pretty clear.” 

‘Super casual’, meanwhile, is a little harder to decipher, and the definition changes depending on who you speak with. “For me, it’s about colour palettes that match the character’s theme. For instance, my casual Loki (the Marvel comics character) is just black leather leggings; short, flowing dresses with a gold high-waisted belt; earrings; heels; and boots with matching gold buckles – sometimes with a super elegant gold hairband in my hair. It’s very Loki but I’m not walking around with his horns,” Tina confirms. 

For others, casual cosplay is more about mimicking characters’ more realistic looks. “If you identify with a character or just really like their fashion sense, it's great to take some inspiration from that and use it in your own style,” Monika, a Los Angeles-based YouTuber, says. Last month, she uploaded a video titled ‘Sailor Moon Inspired Casual Outfits’ to her account, in which she mimicked the iconic characters’ everyday looks rather than their distinctive uniforms. From billowing gingham skirts to denim jackets, Monika’s looks are romantic representations of the characters’ on-screen ensembles. “I'm not the most stylish person,” she admits, “but I’ve definitely found my own sense of style through my favourite anime and TV shows.”

It’s Monika’s Sailor Jupiter outfit that best captures the essence of casual cosplay, though. Donning a powdery green turtleneck underneath a lightly washed denim pinafore, Monica’s IRL outfit has its fictional counterpart down to a tee. “I've always loved how they dress on the show,” she admits. “I don't actually cosplay per se, but I love taking inspiration from anime.” While Monika wouldn’t call herself a cosplayer, casual cosplay in and of itself toes the line between fashion and nerd culture, ushering in a new dawn of costumery. 

Tempered by the thrill of being in disguise in plain sight is just one part of it; for many, it’s also about money – namely, that cosplaying can be expensive. One TikTok video opens on a young woman with fiery red hair holding up an orange post-it note that reads “wanting to cosplay”. The girl is Jordyn, a young gymnast who is lip-syncing to Kreayshawn’s “Go Hard (La.La.La)”. “I'd really like to do that but I don't have any fucking money. Like, I don't have any fucking money,” she mouths. 

“One reason as to why I casual cosplay is because it's cheaper,” Ree, 18, explains to Dazed. Hailing from Birmingham in the West Midlands, Ree likes to code and is currently learning to speak Japanese. “There were times in my early days of cosplaying where I’d find myself disheartened because the costume, wigs, or props I’d need for a character would be too expensive,” she confesses. “I started using eBay, (shopping at) thrift stores, and would just use clothes from my wardrobe to substitute – and most of the time I pulled it off.”

A recent post on Ree’s Instagram sees her posing languidly in the sun, wearing a glittery emerald skirt and an aubergine crop top. The deep red wig is a dead giveaway, but it’s also spliced with an image of the character she’s roleplaying – The Little Mermaid’s Ariel. “MY ARIEL,” one commenter writes. Rather than poring over the internet in search of a seashell bra, Ree opts for a cost-effective, functional interpretation, and her followers love it. “Casual cosplay is more accessible to anyone who wants to partake or express themselves through cosplay without time or money being an issue.”

Unlike traditional cosplay, which rests on mimicking every minute detail of a character’s look, casual cosplay allows space for people to play with styles, textures, and items of clothing. “If cosplaying is stepping out of myself and becoming this character, casual cosplay is being myself inspired by a character,” Beautiful-Summer says. An avid reader and movie connoisseur, the 24-year-old, Atlanta, Georgia-based cosplayer is new to the game, but has found enjoyment in rekindling a childhood enthusiasm for dressing up. “When we’re young it’s socially accepted to wear full-on costumes wherever you want,” she reasons. “Now I casual cosplay because this style allows me to wear my own type of costume in public.” 

Tina, meanwhile, points out the ways subtle cosplay offers her a unique feeling of empowerment – allowing her to navigate corporate America while staying true to themselves. In a world where cosplayers are judged, driven underground, and even tormented, going stealth in broad daylight is a way of sticking two fingers up at mainstream attitudes: “(Casual cosplay) is almost how I would imagine a superhero would (feel) when they’re out of their super suit. When you grow up mega nerdy and deal with bullying, it’s incredibly empowering to find something that gives you confidence, strength, and power in yourself.”

Seemingly casual cosplay has seemingly started to appeal to a series of celebrities – whether they realise it or not. Earlier this year, when actress and model Zendaya tweeted a photo of her slick pastel green suit captioned  ‘Work Attire’, fans of iconic anime Jojo's Bizarre Adventure were floored. Her buckled suit and long trench coat drew comparisons to the character Jotaro Kujo. “I seriously thought it was cosplay when I saw it on her insta,” one Reddit user wrote.   

Kim Kardashian West has also proved she’s keen to get in on the act. Just take her anime-influenced spring 2018 wardrobe, which saw her wear a series of oversized puffer jackets, shiny cycling shorts, and faded neon wigs – as accessorised with a stuck-out tongue and peace signs – during a tour of Japan. Not known as a huge anime fan, West posted the unlikely inspiration for her pastel hair to her Instagram: a piece of fan-made art of Zero Two from Studio Trigger’s Darling in the Franxx. 

While the Accidental Cosplay subreddit is filled with posts of unsuspecting older folk, goofy dads, and sad people on public transport, one thing it doesn’t account for is fashion’s ongoing flirtation with costumery, which continues to show up in the most surprising of places: including, more recently, the runway. 

Evolving beyond cheap pastel wigs and nylon costumes, cosplay and Couture collided at Versace’s AW19 RTW show, which boomed with bright clashing colours and textures, as part of a collection that teetered on the edge of being cartoonish. There was one look that really stood out though. As Klara Sjöberg Tweeted: “This model looks like she’s cosplaying every Scooby-Doo character at once.”