Cosplay is a contraction of "costume play" and simply means playing in costume or character. Participants are referred to as "cosplayers" and the costume can be a simple homage to their favorite character or performance art where the cosplayer attempts to acts out or become the character as closely as possible.
Cosplayers draw inspiration from their favorite manga, anime, comic books, video games, and films. Any entity from the real or virtual world that can be dramatically interpreted may become a subject for cosplay. It is not unusual to see genders switched - for women playing male roles and men crossdressing as women.
Like Halloween costumes, cosplay costumes can be elaborate or simple, tame or extremely sexy or revealing. Generally cosplayers will try to authentically recreate their character in both looks and action striving to get attitude, body language, and favorite phrases or voices as close as possible to the character they are recreating. Some cosplayers take authenticity very, very seriously and can ridicule others who fail to meet their high standards though most are appreciative of the effort, no matter how successful the attempt.
Cosplaying started at events such as science fiction, fantasy and anime conventions where they would compete in costume contests to win fame or prizes often performing skits in their very elaborate costumes to further identify with their characters. It has continued to grow and become more mainstream over the years particularly in Asia where cosplay influences Japanese street fashion.
While cosplayers may also get into character during Halloween or Mardi Gras, cosplay is generally considered different from these fancy dress holidays as the intention is to replicate a specific character rather than just look like them or reflect the culture or popular costume trends of the time. The characters are often chosen from TV series and movies (Star Trek, Star Wars, Disney characters and The Lord of the Rings being very popular choices), books, comic books (The X-Men and Avengers for instance), video games such as Assassin's Creed or World of Warcraft, anime and manga like Sailor Moon, or may be an original design or fusion of different genres (such as a steampunk version of a Captain Kirk).
Once cosplay costumes had to be hand made with quality varying greatly depending on the skill of the cosplayer (or their friends and mothers). As a greater variety of commercially made Halloween costumes became available, cosplayers would often use these costumes as a starting point mixing and matching or modifying pieces to more accurately fit their character. Now costume manufacturers are creating more and more cosplay costumes (with varying degrees of authenticity and quality) though cosplayers often add details such as wigs or hair extensions, body paint, shoes, jewelry, tempoary tattoos, colored or special effect contact lenses, and prop weapons to complete the look. There are also services and individuals that specialize in creating cosplay costumes and accessories worldwide, again with varying degrees of quality and often at very high prices.
Unlike with a Halloween costume where the effort usually stops at the costume, a cosplayer will often spend weeks or even months perfecting their characters speech pattern, mannerisms, and other characteristics that make that character unique. Their goal is to be instantly recognized by other fans as the characters they portray. Science fiction and anime conventions give them a wonderful outlet for cosplaying as they are surrounded by fans of many genres. Or they may take advantage of Halloween and take that night for cosplaying or just wearing their cosplay costume for a Halloween party.
Getting started into cosplay is pretty easy - pick a character from something you love and start collecting pieces of costumes that fit that character or is perhaps something they would wear if they had it. Or choose a persona you want to portray such as a goth, punk rocker, steampunk pirate or whatever and get shopping.
How far you want to take cosplaying is totally up to you, but above all, have fun!