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Tales of an Elder Millenial - Otakon 2002-2004

Conventions and Cosplay (a popularized term for the combination of Costume and Play) has been around for quite sometime. It's seen a rise in popularity recently mostly due in part to the rise of social media, the use of social media during Covid circa 2020 and the ease and accessibility of streaming anime. But cosplay and conventions weren't always quite like they are now so grab a seat, a glass of water and strap in as I take you back to conventions and cosplay as it was circa 2002-2004.

Otakon, which was founded in 1994, is an annual convention center around Asian pop culture (anime, manga, video games, music, movies, etc.) currently held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. It started as a 300-something college convention held at State College, Pennsylvania and from 1999-2016 it was held in the Baltimore Convention Center.

According to Otakon's official website, admission to Otakon ranged from $35-50 from 2002-2003 and bumped up to $40-$55 from 2004 -2005. Admission continued to increase steadily to what it currently is which is $40 (for day passes) up to $100 for the entire weekend. As ticket prices continue to increase and venues continue to expand so does the number of Otaku who attend these cons. The number of attendees in 2002 capped at 30,000 and as of last year, 2023, the attendance was totaled at 157,000. This year they will be celebrating their 30th anniversary and have been sharing stories, memories and mementos from years passed leading up to the convention which will be held August 1-4, 2024.

So what was Otakon like in the 'dark ages' of cosplay, you might ask? Well, lucky for you, I happen to have been there to be able to tell the tale so here we go!

What was cosplay like?

Since the popularity of cosplay and access to mass produce costumes for anime and video games has only been around for a handful of years now, we had to get a little creative. If you were lucky enough to have a sewing background then you had a wonderful starting point but barely any patterns to go off of. If you had a family member who knew how to sew you were subjected to a line of questioning but at least you had assistance. If you had neither then you really only had two options: commission a costume designer and pay an unknown price, or thrift and alter to the best of your ability based on limited reference material (pausing the series and scrounging for art books and manga). When it came to wigs, your options were basically Party City or some cheap plastic costume shop option or you made the ultimate sacrifice - dying your own hair to match the character as best as possible. This mean that if you had very strict parents then you did this in the comfort of the hotel bathroom the night before the convention. There were other options such as colored gel or spray in color both of which would not only dye the back of neck and ears but the collar, shoulders and whatever part of your costume it would rub against. Since we lacked the ability to 3-D print anything most props were made out of foam, cardboard or whatever you could get your hands on. When going to conventions, you didn't really see too many props but when you did, boy was it impressive! It was very common to see cosplayers with plushies that would compliment their cosplay in leu of props.

What did you do for food?

The food scene was very similar to what we do for food at conventions today. The main difference is that less people were accustomed to seeing costumed people walking around the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. Your options ranged from bars and restaurants around the area to fast food chains within walking distance (and thankfully most things were within walking distance). If you kept to a tight budget then you perfected the art of making instant Ramen in the coffee pot. Yes, you heard that right - Ramen in a coffee pot. Most hotels had single serve coffee makers so you would put the dry noodles in the pot and brew hot water on top. Once the brewer was finished, you'd add your packet of choice and chow down before heading back to the convention. We learned from our passed mistakes - ALWAYS check the brewer basket before brewing because some hotels don't check and you could end up with coffee-flavored Ramen. Nowadays people bring electric kettles but we weren't that fancy at 13-14 years old. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were also very popular because you could buy a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly and you were set for the weekend.

What did you do at the convention?

otakon 2003 program
Otaku Work by Alyce Wilson (circa 2003 Otakon Program Guide, pg. 21)

Most people during this time weren't really focusing on their social media presence or scheduling photoshoots with professional photographers (although some were). Most attendees spent time attending panels, perusing the dealers room and artist's alley, experiencing workshops (such as Cel painting, Model Building, Digital Animation Demonstrations and Costuming), or watching anime and anime music videos (AMVs for short). If you wanted to set up photoshoots or simply have your photo taken, Otakon had a little area called the "Costumer Lobby" which included rally times to encourage crowd density which were the same Friday and Saturday with one time frame set aside on Sunday. This allowed cosplayers to get photographed and photographers to snag photos in a staging area to avoid busy hall traffic. The Masquerade contest was held Saturday and the Costume contest allowed for day of registration/check-in both Friday and Saturday and had to attend the fashion show at the end of the Masquerade - This was a BIG deal. If you didn't want to sleep you could attend the Otakurave which was held Friday and Saturday nights. Panels ranged from fan hosted panels (which weren't many) to industry hosted panels and guest hosted panels. Since anime wasn't as popular as it is nowadays attending these panels were a great way to learn about the Japanese culture, to learn about the animation Studios (such as MadHouse) and to learn about the creative process of making anime and manga. It was imperative to snag a program book when getting your badge because it contained everything that you needed to know - from the Dealer's room listing and map to an "Otaku's guide to food in and around Baltimore". And if you paid close attention they even snuck in an Otaku workout to show that you weren't just having fun at the convention but still staying healthy too!

Otakon 2002 Ballot
A look at an AMV ballot circa 2002 (I circled the ones that I liked).

And don't miss out on the mini-comic that was hidden at the end of the program guide as well as all the great articles. In addition to the Otakurave your badge also granted you admission to the concerts that the convention held. In 2002, Yoko Ishida (Ah! My Goddess) was featured. In 2004, L'Arc en Ciel (Fullmetal Alchemist) headlined the concert which was HUGE seeing as how the manga started in 2001 and the anime began in 2003). This was absolutely mind-blowing because this was the only real chance any anime fan had at seeing Japanese artists live. The Video Game room always saw an influx of visitors due to the popularity of DanceDanceRevolution. Friday and Saturday had a specific timeframe for the Video Game tournament which was popular to both watch as well as participate. If you planned on attending one of the AMV showings then you were given a ballot and that ballot had to be turned in by 4 P.M. Saturday to count for the awards. Sunday you could attend the final AMV showing where the winners would be shown in each category.

Who attended the con?

Fullmetal Alchemist cosplayers circa 2004
Fullmetal Alchemist cosplayers circa 2004 (L'Arc en Ciel was in concert)

Honestly? Anyone with a love of anime, LARPing, costume making, animation and a curiosity about the industry. A majority of the guests were industry professionals such as Hiroyuki Morioka (Crest of the Stars), Yasuhiro Nightow (Trigun) and only a handful of voice actors (maybe 3-4 voice actors). Other guests included authors, translators and animators. Most cosplayers wore costumes that fit with either the guests attending the con or the series that was most popular at the time. Seeing as it was difficult to watch anything that wasn't being shown on Toonami, most attendees were introduced to new series at the conventions.

Vash cosplayer circa 2002 (Nightow was guesting)
Vash cosplayer circa 2002 (Nightow was guesting)


Photography and videographer weren't near as popular as they are today. There were few professional photographers pulling cosplayers aside that weren't staffed by the con itself (and most of these photos were used in the next year's program guide). Most photos that were taken at the cons were by the attendees themselves and it was usually on a disposable camera unless you were lucky enough to have a fancy digital camera. Most video footage from the masquerades and costume contests are from the convention itself because if you attended the Friday judging you were recorded to play during the competition Saturday. In 2002- 2006 Facebook wasn't even really a thing yet (let alone available to the general public) so even if you took digital photos you didn't really have any place to share them. In addition to that, most of the photography taken was between friends and fans of the series. If you saw someone cosplaying a character you liked, you'd simply go up and ask to take a photograph of them or with them.

And that's pretty much it! While the bones of convention life have pretty much stayed the same, the intensity and popularity have skyrocketed. Sometimes it's nice to remember the how far we've come from the humbled beginnings of the costumers and con-goers. These cosplayers and convention hosts walked so that the conventions and cosplays we see today can run.


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