BY WHITNEY SOUTH
This is the third of a four-part series on geek girl culture in Waterloo Region.
Dressed as a warrior or a wizard, an elf or an enchantress, cosplayers have created a world all their own. For Waterloo’s very own international master class cosplayer Alexandra Gerlach, costumes are more than just a hobby, they’re a labour of love.
“To me, it’s the challenge of putting something together that really shouldn’t work within our scope of gravity and physics,” she said. “I like the challenge of taking something that is animated and turning it into real life, making it possible.”
Owner of Queen of Hearts Costumes in uptown Waterloo, Gerlach was introduced to the world of cosplay at an early age.
After a friend encouraged her to check out their high school anime club, it wasn’t long before she found herself pounding curtain rods into swords and cutting crazy carpets into epaulets.
“I watched a few episodes and really liked it,” she said. “My friend told me people actually dressed up as this stuff and I thought that sounded like fun.”
When she was told there were actual conventions where fleets of people dressed up, Gerlach said that sounded even better.
Cosplay is the blending of two words, costume and play. That is to say, it’s the practice of portraying a fictional character, drawing inspiration from anime, comics, video games and everything in between. But don’t confuse cosplayers for folks craving year-round Halloween, it’s just not the same.
Despite the prominent influence of Japanese anime sometimes involved in modern cosplay, many claim Forrest J. Ackerman, an American science fiction writer, was the first to suit up in the name of fandom. While attending the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 Ackerman sported the first “futuristicostume,” paving the way for future costume players everywhere.
With cosplay attracting more and more attention over the years, the media has gone wild, sometimes helping to perpetuate stereotypes which are not always appreciated by professional cosplayers.
For a professional like Gerlach, cosplay is more about the craftsmanship and hard work than who can wear the raciest costume. Passionate about sewing from a young age, she even took on the daunting task of creating her own wedding dress.
After finding a base dress for a mere $250 at Value Village, Gerlach took apart the garment and added everything from long capped sleeves to embroidery and beading.
“I chopped it up and added a top portion to the dress with a v-neckline and sleeves in the style of Russian royalty,” she said. “I also installed a corset in it because let’s face it, everything looks better when it’s in a corset.”
Her most recent creation, a character named Sophitia, is a re-creation from the video game Soul Caliber IV.
Fellow cosplayer Jessica Clayman, who met Gerlach through a mutual friend, was already used to dressing up in amazing costumes, made by her mother, and taking home prizes for them at Halloween.
“We were always the kids who brought home the prize pumpkin,” she said. “My mother was a great seamstress and it got to a point where the teachers said even though we came in costume we couldn’t compete anymore.”
After her mother stopped making her costumes, Clayman was inspired to start creating on her own.
She said she admires Gerlach’s talent and has learned a lot from her over the years.
“Alex can do amazing things,” she said. “There was a costume she made of Bowser from Super Mario Brothers that was amazing and huge and spectacular. It was an epic piece of art.”
For Clayman, cosplay isn’t just about dressing up, but about telling a character’s story and finding something that is relatable, even if it’s not real life.
“When you’re a woman, it’s fun to play powerful women,” she said. “When you get control over that you get the opportunity to portray things that are a bit more interesting.”
Gerlach explained that one of the reasons women may be so attracted to cosplay is the opportunity to try on a different persona.
“When you’re in costume, you’re someone else,” she said. “You can try being a crazy, bouncy My Little Pony character when in real life you’re an accountant working in an office.”
Competing for the first time as a nervous 16-year-old, Gerlach won a workmanship award for best sleeve construction. Receiving a nod for a job well done her first time out was a great confidence booster and it’s that confidence that has taken her from a novice to an international master.
Far from retired, Gerlach has not competed the past few years, choosing instead to take on commissions designed to challenge herself and her skills. Hoping to help new and upcoming cosplayers, she makes time to speak at conventions and organize instructional tutorials.
“I want to inspire that same awe that I felt the first time I competed,” she said. “I want to instil knowledge nuggets upon those who want it.”
Though certain cosplayers may have the view that if it’s not going to be perfect, it shouldn’t be attempted, Gerlach said she believes that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Whether it’s making a suit of armour out of duct tape and cardboard, or trying to tailor something from scratch, Gerlach wants newcomers to know they shouldn’t be afraid to fail.
“Try things and screw up, that’s what teaches you,” she said. “If you succeed, that’s only taught you one lesson. When you fail you learn twice as much.”