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Bryan Sansivero

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Meet the Woman Who Invented Cosplay

Myrtle R. Douglas, otherwise known as Morojo, rarely gets the credit she deserves for the worldwide phenomenon

Cosplay: it’s huge. It’s international! It’s been covered breathlessly by the New York Times and Time Magazine, it’s become the subject of academic studies, it’s a celebrated phenomenon at fan conventions, it influences everyday fannish fashion trends, it’s front-row at Rihanna concerts; hell, these days it’s basically mainstream! Clad in self-created costumes to declare devotion to favorite fictions and characters, cosplayers are sort of like superheroes minus the vigilantism — seemingly unassuming citizens who spend their evenings and weekends running around in spandex and leather.

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The amazing trajectory of this admittedly bizarre pastime is all the more remarkable when you consider its status as a female-dominated hobby that thrives in traditionally "male" fan spaces, attracting 10 more teenage girls to its ranks every time an old crusty dork dude writes an internet rant deriding "cosplay chicks." With its focus on fashion and creative craftsmanship, cosplay provides a path into fandom for young women, and once they’re inside? It makes them highly visible. Wearing their fannish devotion quite literally on their bodies, contemporary female cosplayers pay a lovely tribute to the woman who invented their hobby — though they probably don’t realize it, as her massive contribution to pop culture has largely been forgotten by history.

Image: Bryan Sansivero

Myrtle Rebecca "Mō-rō ‘yō" Douglas Smith Gray Nolan was a Gemini, born in June 1904. She was an atheist, an active member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, and a proponent of the 19th-century constructed auxiliary language Esperanto, meant to foster communication and understanding between people of all cultures. (Obviously, she was a big nerd.)

Between the years of 1938 and 1958, she edited three separate long-running sci-fi fanzines ("editing" including all of the typing, mimeo, and physical work required to manufacture the zines, naturally) and wrote editorials for several major early sci-fi "pro"-mags in the early ‘40s. Basically she was the mid-20th century equivalent of a prolific, influential blogger. She married three times, had one son, and shared a decade-long romantic and creative relationship with fellow fan Forrest J Ackerman, with whose help she sparked off a phenomenon that would develop into costume-loving fan culture we know today. In the decades following her death, her memory has largely been resigned to footnotes designating her a mere "girlfriend," and that’s a damn shame, because both with and without Ackerman Morojo was a badass.

Image: Bryan Sansivero

Fandom first emerged in 1926 after a guy named Hugo Gernsback founded the first English-language "scientifiction" magazine. He discussed reader response to the magazine’s stories in editorials for each issue, referring to the people who wrote to the magazine as "fans." By the time he started publishing a "Letters" column in 1929 the fans had co-opted the term for themselves. Fans wrote to each other and hosted meetups in between carrying on months-long flame wars with rivals in the what was effectively the comments section of their favorite sci-fi magazine. Basically it was exactly like fandom on the internet now, just a lot slower, and like a lot of fandoms on the internet now, it wasn’t particularly friendly to women.

In fact, immediate enthusiastic response from women readers surprised the hell out of Hugo Gernsback, and their letters show that a lot of ladies thought they were isolated anomalies in the fandom. Sometimes women wrote in just to squee with excitement over seeing another female fan’s letter published in the previous issue. Women writers weren’t frequently published at the time, but neither were women characters, except as love interests! The new science fiction fandom, it was clear, wasn’t intended "for" women.

But Morojo didn’t give a fuck! Morojo did what Morojo wanted, and in 1933, Morojo wanted a cute dude she met in Esperanto class. Forrest J Ackerman was a tall, handsome, big ol’ dork who shared her overwhelming interest in sci-fi, and the two joined forces to become a scientifiction-loving super-couple.

Though they never married, Morojo and "Forrie" spent over a decade together. Active in the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, the couple collaborated on the production of an eight-year, 50-issue run of the club’s official zine Voice of the Imagi-Nation as well as their own fanzine Novacious. Morojo’s affection for Ackerman was so great that she paid him tribute in her nickname, which combined the Esperanto-translated first two initials of her own name with a "J" in reference to Ackerman’s middle initial. Morojo and "4E" (get it? 4E = Forrie = Forrest, yeah? He also sometimes went by Foĵak. These people would have loved Tumblr) sometimes even used a joint Esperanto name on projects they created together, like some sort of pre-digital proto-blogger couple with a shared social media account. (Today, it would be @MirtaForsto.)

Rare photo of Morojo and Forrie at the 1939 Worldcon. Image: Unknown

For more than 10 years Morojo and Ackerman were an inseparable, intellectually compatible dream duo, and 1939 was an especially big year for the pair: they started their first major zine together, jointly financed the publication of teenage Ray Bradbury’s first sci-fi zine, and attended the first-ever World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) wearing "futuristicostumes" straight out of the 1936 H.G. Wells movie Things to Come — the FIRST FAN COSTUMES EVER WORN IN RECORDED HISTORY.

Handsome Forrie cut a dashing figure in his giant shoulder pads and breeches, tiny Morojo’s ball gown converted into a ROMPER with a CAPE, and every other attendee who wasn’t busy hatin’ on ‘em for out-fanning the rest of the world started planning their own costumes for next year.

Morojo and Ackerman shook the newly developing geek culture to its core with those costumes, laying the foundation for a hobby that would become a majorly significant expression of fandom before the 20th century was out. But here’s the thing: while towering Ackerman made a great model for his costume, he had nothing whatsoever to do with its construction. Both of the costumes were envisioned, designed, and laboriously hand-made by Morojo! Forrie deserves partial credit for the invention of cosplay, sure: he was a grown man who boldly wore a shiny space cape through the streets of New York in 1939. And what the hell, we’ll presume that they thought up the idea of wearing costumes to the con together — it would be ungenerous to suppose otherwise. But Morojo!! Morojo was the person who single-handedly brought fantasy into real physical space when she created and wore her own costume. Given modern cosplay’s intense focus on individual creativity and craft, it’s bizarre that Ackerman is the one most often credited as being the O.G. cosplayer in fan literature. Morojo, who made the futuristicostumes, deserves the bulk of the credit.

To crush the next few decades of history into a single sentence: the idea of dressing up like your favorite fictional characters caught on and gained traction. After 1939, costume contests became an annual tradition at Worldcon, drawing more and more participants with each passing year. Morojo herself wore at least two more costumes to subsequent cons: in 1941, an A. Merritt-inspired frog face mask designed and created by the then young and unknown visual effects master Ray Harryhausen, and in 1946 another Merritt-inspired "Snake Mother" ensemble, which reportedly "created a sensation." But time passed quickly. New fans enthusiastically embraced the costume custom without really wondering about its origins. Nobody in the tight-knit sci-fi fan community bothered to explain its provenance to outsiders, and by the time people were wrecking cons by rolling around wearing gallons of peanut butter in the ‘70s, they all had other things to worry about. When Japanese writer Nobuyuki Takahashi visited Worldcon Los Angeles in 1984 and coined the term "cosplay" to describe the experience to readers back home, Morojo had long been forgotten.

Image: Bryan Sansivero

The fan costume hobby she had initiated exploded, though, becoming wildly popular in Japan. The brand-new baby internet increased ease of cross-cultural communication and the fire coming out of Japan spurred costume-wearing Western fans to step up their craft. Cosplay blazed through the geek fandoms that had sprung up in the wake of sci-fi, staking territory in fan groups devoted to fantasy, anime, comics, and gaming. It was unstoppable, and no amount of craven comment section misogyny or inappropriate leering at cons could turn the tide.

If anything, misogynist anti-cosplay efforts have consistently inspired measures to create safer spaces for women in fandom. The increased visibility the hobby has afforded prominent female cosplayers provides a platform from which they can actionably condemn unacceptable behaviors within the community. Crusades such as #CosplayIsNotConsent, which went viral in 2013, have made an immeasurable impact toward ensuring the safety and dignity of women in geek spaces, inspiring many conventions to adopt and enforce clear codes of conduct regarding sexual harassment and misogyny. Morojo had faded from memory, but the path she hacked into early sci-fi circles lead thousands of girly geeks into fandom.

The ending of Morojo’s own personal tale is less unambiguously cheerful. Superfans aren’t always fated for eternal love, and Morojo and Forrie broke up in the mid-’40s ("some stupid thing about her not giving up cigarettes when he asked her to," according to mutual friend Elmer Perdue). Morojo didn’t split from sci-fi fandom when she parted ways with Ackerman, however; she remained active in the L.A. sci-fi scene throughout the 1940s, publishing her own Esperanto-focused fanzine Guteto from 1941 until 1958.

Image: Bryan Sansivero

Later, in an unbelievably fabulous late-life narrative twist, the Mother of Cosplay decided to spend the last decade of her time on Planet Earth indulging "a love of the nudist movement." She lived out this costumeless dream with her third and final husband in the high desert of Southern California.

Following her death in 1964 at the age of 60, Morojo found herself in an unenviable posthumous predicament: the most detailed and accessible record of her life and work exists in the form of eulogies written by two of her ex-boyfriends. (Hold up, just take a second here: can you freakin’ IMAGINE what a hell that could be???) Amazingly, her old flames Elmer Perdue and, of course, Forrie, seem to have done pretty damn right by her memory, publishing (of course!) a fanzine in her honor.

Ackerman comes across as — frankly — a self-absorbed ass in his brief essay "I Remember Morojo," openly acknowledging his surprise at being asked to contribute. He had barely spoken to the woman since he "got mad at her about half my life ago," as he puts it. But in spite of the teeth-grindingly irritating paragraph he spends speculating about her position in his own imaginary hierarchy of female sci-fi fandom and the insulting description of 17 years of dedicated work on Guteto as "her own little" zine, Forrie gives Morojo what he surely perceived as the ultimate in (awkward nerd) respect, meticulously listing all of the fannish achievements he could recall to ascribe to her. It is through Ackerman’s remembrance that we know that Morojo was responsible for the world’s first fan costumes, which he specifically notes that she "designed and executed."

Image: Bryan Sansivero

Perdue, a mostly-platonic friend who admits he "took her out to dinner a few times" following her breakup with Ackerman, remained close to Morojo until the time of her death and provides a more intimate portrait of her character in his memorial essay. If she had any fault at all, he writes, it was "over-believing in the innate goodness of man." But perhaps this "fault" was, in actuality, a superpower — an irrepressible optimism which allowed her to embrace a culture that didn’t welcome her easily, an indomitable enthusiasm that shielded her as she forged her own space in a fandom built for boys. "The world is richer for having had Myrtle pass through it," Perdue concludes. "Can any of you bassads [sic] (self included) say the same?"

Morojo, who so loved a language created in attempt to linguistically unite the entire world, would have probably loved the internet. And Morojo, "a vociferous opponent of the Exclusion act," sexism, and racism in early fandom, would have loved to know that the "futuristicostumes" she made in 1939 would ultimately lead to the development of a more diverse, welcoming fan community than she might ever have imagined in her own time. The next time you cosplay, remember Morojo, the first woman who ever donned a costume to march into a con. With a single epic act of fashion, she made the world a little wider for women.


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