People cosplay for a host of different reasons. For some, it’s about the craftsmanship and the satisfaction of making an exact replica of a favorite character’s costume. Some love to show off their creations to the crowds at conventions; they can’t get enough of getting their picture taken and talking to others about cosplay. More often, it’s a combination of those two motivations. For others though, it’s about more. Members of organizations across the country put on costumes for charity.
Imagine you’re a sick kid stuck in the hospital. You’re scared, and you aren’t able to leave the confines of the ward much if at all. But Star Wars helps you to forget about these problems for a little while. You’ve seen the movies as many times as your parents let you, you have piles of the toys, and you like to pretend you’re a Jedi. Now imagine characters from your beloved saga show up in your hospital wing. Jedi, Stormtroopers, Yoda, and even Darth Vader are suddenly real and in front of your eyes.
Yeah, that would be a big freaking deal.
Many costuming groups exist not only to celebrate the love of a franchise and pay respect to it by creating top notch costumes, they’re out in the world to do charitable work. They volunteer their time and sweat to give back to communities. Sure, they may also volunteer to make appearances at local comic book stores, geek events, as extras in The Guild, conventions, and the like—but they put their money and time into a costume so of course they’d wear it at every opportunity. Additionally, they don’t charge for appearances but will instead welcome donations to a charitable organization.
I’m consistently amazed at the people I run into who are in the geek world, love Star Wars, and have no idea that the horde of Stormtroopers they see everywhere are members of a group called the 501st Legion (for the most part, some folks just have armor). All the Jedi and good guys you see at their side? They probably belong to the Rebel Legion. The two costuming organizations exist to bring together costume enthusiasts, share Star Wars with others, and spread cheer at costumed charity events.
These two non-profit organizations have exacting requirements for costumes; each one must be approved and must be screen accurate. They literally have checklists for what one Padmé Amidala’s million outfits must have in order to be considered. You have to be dedicated to join, and in my opinion, showing that you are willing to spend hours upon hours on a costume means you’re probably dedicated enough to go out into the community and wear it for a good cause.
Members of these international groups volunteer to do activities like visiting sick children in hospitals, hold fundraisers, or participate in events like Relay for Life. And again, they donate so much time and energy to their cause. I’ve seen a fully dressed Chewbacca, TIE Fighter Pilots (the costume’s all black), Stormtroopers and more outside posing for pictures with excited fans on days when the temperature was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember the Stormtrooper who walked across Australia and raised more than $98,000 for a children’s foundation? He’s a member of the 501st.
I asked a member of the Canadian 501st once why he liked being involved. He said, “Dressing up is a lot of fun, however it’s more fun to see people’s reactions. It’s great to see how the kids light up and how adults are turned back into kids. The fact that we do everything with the intent of giving back to the community is the cherry on top.”
Though the Star Wars organizations may be the biggest, they aren’t the only franchises with costumed real-life heroes working for charitable causes. There are several groups focusing on comic book superheroes. The Heroes Alliance, based in Tampa, FL, includes villains like Catwoman and heroes like Spider-Man. They’re a little more flexible in the costume requirement area, and their activities involve the same sort of events as the Rebel Legion and 501st. Charity walks, auctions, and hospital visits. The organization has even spread to the UK.
Mixed genres can come together for the greater good, too. Free Comic Book Day is approaching, and many comic book stores arrange to have costumed people of all sorts on hand. Sometimes it’s just to get attention of passersby, but in more than a few cases, the cosplayers might exchange volunteer time for comics to give to their favorite charity or for a direct donation to their chosen charity. They could even take money for photos to give directly to charities (check with the staff of the comic book shop to verify such claims). The point is, a lot of people want to give back and find ways for their amazing costumes to help them do that.
However, you certainly don’t have to be a member of a group to show up at a hospital in your costume. Route 29 Batman acts alone in using his money to make terminally ill children smile. I wouldn’t recommend just appearing without advance notice dressed like Superman or something; that will probably get you tossed out by security. Call ahead, work through the receptionist to get to the right department, and schedule a visit to brighten days. Ultimately though, it’s probably easier to work within a group who’s already figured out permissions and can just send you out on missions.
Do me a favor. Next time you see what looks like a recruiting table for costuming organizations at your next convention, go talk to them. The 501st and Rebel Legions at least almost always have a presence. Ask them about some of their latest projects or just stop by to tell them thanks – because costumes can be about so much more than dressing up.