BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The whirring of her sewing machine breaks the monotony of the room as Faeza Md Idrus puts needle to fabric, working on her latest creation.

But the 33-year-old is no fashion designer, she’s a self-taught costume maker, in large part due to her passion for costume play or popularly known as cosplay.

The pre-school teacher spends a chunk of her life being someone she’s not, having been on the scene for more than 10 years.

Cosplay (a portmanteau of the words costume play) is the art of dressing up as characters from a film, book or video game and it is starting to gain traction in Brunei as comic book and geek culture edges its way out of a niche and into mainstream pop culture.

Lights. Camera. Makeup. Costume creation!

Chuckling as she recounts her first time in costume, Faeza says she was just five when she first put together her first costume, dressing up as Jessica Rabbit — one of the most well-known characters in the world of animation.

“I used an apron [for the dress] and used socks as… enhancements. I remember showing it to my mom and she just laughed… that feeling stuck with me, I remembered how happy dressing up made me feel,” she says.

Faeza Md Idrus cosplaying as a character from a Japanese role-playing game. Photo: Courtesy of N.E Project

Although the cosplay scene in Brunei is still in its infancy, it has been around for more than 10 years, with cosplayers citing a gathering back in 2009 called ‘Dev Meet’ — short for Deviant Art Meet — as one of the first cosplay events ever organised in the country.

“It was generally a gathering for hobbyists who are into things like anime and comic books, but for that year in particular, the meet was focused on cosplay. For me, that was my first experience of doing cosplay in public, I was dressed as Lady Loki,” says Faeza.

Md Khairi Waddin Hj Duming, a bank clerk who has hung up his cosplay cape in favor of cosplay photography, agreed that the 2009 meet was one which cemented the start of cosplay culture in Brunei.

“The first cosplay meet could be traced back to 2007 actually, but of course the number of cosplayers who got involved were very few, and they would meet in public spaces, which of course, received some negative opinions just because cosplay was so new back then,” says the 38-year-old.

Cosplay, a misunderstood art

For Anarozana Hamdani and majority of other cosplayers, being accused of immaturity and seeking attention is sadly par for the course.

Living in a close-knit community such as Brunei, the aspiring graphic artist says that cosplayers are often perceived negatively by the public, especially by individuals who are unfamiliar with anime and comic book culture, however the biggest critics are often the ones at home.

“There is this thing where people often consider us mascots.”

Ahmy Kristomo photographed as a character from the action-adventure game, Assassin’s Creed Unity. Photo: Courtesy of N.E Project.

Anarozana says cosplay is a labour of love and a hobby which requires a lot of skill.

People often don’t take into account the amount of work and passion that we pour into our cosplay. The crafting skills that are necessary to build something like a suit of armour, it takes weeks and months of labour.

Anarozana, who has been cosplaying for 10 years, crafts most of her costumes herself. To date, she has put together more than 50 characters, mostly derived from Japanese anime or manga.

She typically sets a budget of $150 per character, and works with numerous materials including different types of fabric, EVA foam and spray paint.

Some of the costumes that Anarozana Hamdani crafted and cosplayed as. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

“I can’t foresee myself stopping anytime soon, even though there are a lot of cosplayers who have grown out of the hobby, I don’t think I can. I’ve always loved to make things with my own hands and making costumes often feels like an escape for me, it helps me avoid the stress of life.”

Faeza says people assume cosplaying is a form of attention seeking, but she has noticed a shift in that perception.

“I can see that perception towards cosplay is changing. Instead of seeing us as mascots or clowns, now [the public] sees cosplaying as a craft… It’s actually pretty cool to think how people are accepting right now.”

Citing her parents-in-law, Faeza shares that despite their conservative nature, they are slowly accepting her hobby, appreciating how it has brought out the creativity within their granddaughter, Faeza’s four-year-old daughter Maya.

“During the earlier years, I had to hide my cosplay, but eventually as Maya took interest, I started to include her in my cosplay… Now my in-laws see the creativity and hard work behind the costumes. It is a hobby like any other and that it is harmless.” 

Finding strength in other characters

For most cosplayers, performing cosplay is not just an outlet to express their creativity. Donning on a costume allows them to take strength from the characters they become.

“[Cosplayers] are usually just a bunch of socially awkward people [in real life],” flight attendant Maresa Liew shares.

The 25-year-old admits that cosplaying as fictional characters such as Wonder Woman and Black Widow has given her confidence.

“For most of us, going into costume actually feels like an escape, it allows us to become these characters that we are inspired by, that we look up to, and to take in their qualities that we wished we would have in real life.”

This is a statement which rings true for Muhd Zulhazmi Zainal Abidin, who says that cosplay has not only helped him break out of his shell, but also allowed him to belong to a community accepting of his shortcomings.

For a lot of us, cosplay helps us deal with our personal issues. I grew up often feeling depressed being raised in a military family but not possessing the ability to be in the military.

Ironically, the 34-year-old has found strength to deal with his predicament by embodying characters with military backgrounds such as Hawkeye from The Avengers.

“I love military cosplay… they are the exact opposite of me, it breaks you out of your comfort zone. It helps you grow”.

Maresa Liew cosplaying as Wonder Woman, a character from DC Comics. Photo: Courtesy of N.E Project.

Cosplaying for a cause

There are many reasons why cosplayers put on the masks they wear. One thing Bruneian cosplayers share is the joy they feel when they are able to bring a smile to the faces of the people they meet.

Ahmy Kristomo, a member of local cosplay group Allegiance, says that putting on costumes for movie premieres and conventions is just one fact of cosplaying. They also use their costumes to bring joy to children who are suffering from terminal illness.

Children light up at the sight of them in costume, he says.

“[Remember that feeling] when we see our favourite characters on TV come to life? We want to give children who spend most of their time in hospital that feeling of joy and hope,” the 37-year-old says.

Despite how the public perceives them, for Ahmy and his Allegiance friends, they are happy with what they are doing because ultimately, like the superheroes and characters they emulate, these cosplayers want to use their “powers” for good.

For these dedicated cosplayers, this alone is enough reason to keep the art alive.