Meet the Mother of Cosplay
Cosplay is huge, it’s international! Whether it’s bringing fun-loving citizens together for nights and weekends running around in spandex and leather, influencing everyday fashion or helping get you backstage at a Rihanna concert, cosplay is a widely-celebrated convention phenomenon that’s on it’s way to the mainstream. Considering its status as a female-dominated hobby that thrives in traditionally "male" fan spaces and with its focus on creative detail, fashion and craftsmanship, cosplay provides a path into fandom for young women unlike any other.
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.
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.
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”.
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.) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As you gear up for your next con, be it Anime Expo, San Diego Comic Con, or wherever you come together to celebrate fandom, remember Morojo, the woman whose loving act of epic fashion helped to widen the world for women.