Over 4,000 people around the world are part of the 501st Legion, a group of costumed stormtroopers who attend conventions and charity events en masse. What inspires them to do it?
In 1997, two Star Wars fans, Albin Johnson and Tom Crews, donned their new sets of white stormtrooper armor and set off for the opening of Star Wars: A New Hope. Their trip to the movie theater became the origin of the 501st Legion, a group that would come to over four thousand members (including myself) over a decade later. In the years since the group's inception, the 501st has become a mainstay at major conventions around the globe, a common sight at charity events, and a group of people who simply share a common interest in having movie-quality costumes.
501st members have been tapped by Lucasfilm and its founder, George Lucas, for high profile events, such as the Rose Bowl Parade, Spike Television specials, and numerous commercials. Members keep busy, logging thousands of events last year alone, and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable organizations such as the Jimmy Fund, American Cancer Society and Walk Now For Autism.
Looking at the public face of the Legion, it is can be somewhat difficult to classify exactly what it is. At conventions, they are sometimes looked at as merely "that Stormtrooper group," a bunch of geeks and nerds who dress up in plastic - a classification that doesn't always sit well with members of the Legion. The 501st can unarguably be identified as a cosplay, or costume play, group. But, given the group's activities, it is undoubtedly more than just cosplay. Within the group, a healthy amount of debate exists over whether their costumes are just play - some proudly claim the label cosplayer, and others reject it.
According to Reference.com:
Cosplay, short for "costume play", is a type of performance art whose participants outfit themselves, with often-elaborate costumes and accessories, as a specific character.
The tradition of dressing up for conventions is something that goes much further back than the term cosplay, however. According to fan lore, it can be traced to science fiction's first fan, Forrest J. Ackerman, who dressed in a "futuristicostume" (pictured) for the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in 1939. The tradition took off from there, traveling to Japan, where it became extremely popular. These days, the term "cosplay" is almost entirely associated with with Japanese anime and manga characters.
Within the 501st Legion, opinions vary on whether cosplayers and Stormtroopers are related species or divergent branches on the scifi evolutionary tree. Ed Jara, from the Costa Rica Outpost of the 501st, said in the Legion's message forums:
Charity work doesn't set a difference between Costumer and Cosplay (since those are the same) but it gives a GOOD IMAGE which helps regular people understand this is HOBBY, (which in some ways is a good [hobby] that keeps kids out of problems such as drugs). [Charity work also stops regular people from] calling them (and some cases us): "weirdos", "freaks", "nerds", whatever negative term you [prefer]....
Another member offered a different perspective:
I read somewhere that cosplayers (anime ones) can be particularly nasty... that is SO true. From EACH 10 i know 2 or 3 are nice and "normal" social behaving people. The rest are quite weird and nasty....just plain weird and nasty! And between themselves and other anime groups they live in a constant fight for supremacy of the cosplaying scene in the country... going as far as to boycott other groups, gatherings, or cons... it really is a sad and embarrassing situation.
Said another member of the 501st:
Personally I've always associated 'cosplay' with low quality soft-goods costumes from anime. If I see something that clearly took lots of effort, research, and time, and it looks like it just walked off a set, then I think of it as a screen-quality costume.
The quality issue is one that is central to the Legion and its members. Some have even called the Legion elitist. In order to join, members are required to own a movie-quality costume, which they generally construct themselves. This idea of "movie quality" is a central focus of attention for members. Armor designers and casters look to the original movie costumes for reference, from photographs of props to actual measurements taken with laser pointers through museum casings. For a member of the Legion, the highest form of praise is hearing that they look like they could have walked off the movie sets and into the streets. Members scrutinize the smallest of details, from the differing helmet frowns on Stormtrooper helmets to the paint schemes of the Clone Troopers from the current Clone Wars television series.
Despite the quality of the costumes, at the end of the day, members of the Legion are still costumers. In a very broad sense, this is exactly what cosplaying is: to portray a character, by replicating the appearance, vocals and mannerisms of the people that viewers will see on the big screen. When in costume, I often act out the classic Trooper gesture to "Move along, move along." Members say that it is the fact that the characters are brought to life, especially for younger generations, which makes all the time and effort on movie-quality costumes worthwhile.
But while the Legion fits the definition of cosplay, some members don't feel that they are cosplayers - at least not all the time. Some feel that the group's involvement with charity events sets the group apart from the "weird and nasty" cosplayer community. While the charity activities of the 501st certainly make the Legion a unique entity in fandom, and while the legion's size and reach is large (4,000 members and growing), this does not change the central focus of the Legion - high quality Imperial bad guy costuming.
As the group's charter states:
The Legion is a volunteer club formed for the express purpose of bringing together costume enthusiasts and giving them a collective identity within which to operate. The Legion's aims are to celebrate the Star Wars movies through the wearing of costumes, to promote the quality and improvement of costumes and props, and most importantly to contribute to the local community through charity and volunteer work...
This is cosplay - no matter what you think about fans of numerous other genres or franchises. Of course, you might want to be careful of how you phrase it when faced with a squad of Imperial Stormtroopers.
Get more information about the 501st.
Cosplayer image via Crunchyroll. Forrest J. Ackerman image via FANAC. All other images by the author.