Lara Croft’s Pants and Modesty in Cosplay

Is there a place for modesty in cosplay? G3 guest essayist Marie Sumner wondered after a friend told her there was no point in dressing up as Lara Croft for Halloween if she was going to wear pants, and not short-shorts. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wearing a revealing costume. But if “sexy” is the default for the design of so many female characters’ garments, where does that leave cosplayers who want to pay tribute to them without baring a lot of skin? Marie, a cosplayer with a serious passion for costumes, has found it to be incredibly frustrating, and she explores the issue thoughtfully in today’s guest post . — E.

I’ve run into a cosplay crisis. I’m dressing up for Halloween as Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider games, the newest incarnation. I chose this version because, at the end of October, I don’t have much interest in trotting around in short-shorts. To be honest, I don’t have much interest in trotting around in short-shorts pretty much ever. So the new Lara’s cargo pants seemed like an excellent option. Imagine my surprise when a friend of mine told me that I might as well not bother playing Lara.

“The short-shorts are the only reason anyone plays Lara at all,” he argued. He informed me that the whole point of dressing up as Lara Croft, and half the reason for playing her games, is her skimpy outfits. I was admittedly angry about the whole conversation because I’ve always seen Lara as a slick action hero, a female Indiana Jones. Of course I’ve always been aware of her status as a sex symbol, but I’ve chosen to focus on her hero creds, instead.

Could his opinion have any credence? Is Lara only worthwhile as a costume, even as a character, when she’s showing off her figure?

the-new-lara-croft-2013Sometimes I don’t notice how scantily clad characters are until I’m contemplating constructing their costume. Only then do I think how uncomfortable I would be showing that much skin. As a cosplayer, it certainly detracts from my enjoyment when I realize I can’t cosplay as my favorite characters because of modesty. And Lara is only one of hundreds of female characters famous for revealing clothing or physical attributes.

One of Lara’s contemporaries, Ivy from Soul Calibur, has turned into a running joke. Her nigh nonexistent costume is the pinnacle of unrealistic design. Meanwhile, in my beloved Halo universe, Halo 4 presented a more realistically rendered but more naked-looking Cortana. Where she used to look as though she was wearing a jumpsuit, she now appears to don blue body paint. Even Samus’s bikini-clad reveal at the end of Metroid shows more skin than I would ever be comfortable cosplaying. No, Lara is certainly not alone in being a great character with costume design woes.

Discussions have taken place for decades about why female characters continue to be designed with their looks as the first priority instead of functionality or personality. No one in his or her right mind would ever enter battle in high heels or wear a metal bikini for armor, so why do so many female characters end up wearing such outfits? My first thought is that teenage boys have been the primary audience for video games, action movies, and a large portion of anime — and sex sells. But I’m hopeful that this is changing, as shown by Lara’s redesign.

For cosplayers, it can be flattering to be complimented on how they look in costume. But I’d rather gain attention for the work I put into the quality of my clothes and props and for the common love of a character I’m portraying. It bothers me that some of the best characters in the industry are essentially off limits because I’m unwilling to bare skin. Faye from Cowboy Bebop, Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, Leeloo from The Fifth Element, Aayla Secura from Star Wars: These are uncommonly compelling characters from extraordinary fictions, but I feel I’m barred from cosplaying them because their most recognizable looks are more revealing than I’m willing to emulate. It’s incredibly frustrating.

I’ll still be dressing as the new version of Lara this month, pants and all. But it makes me sad that a great character can be dismissed because she put some extra clothes on.

Do you agree with my assessment that female characters are singled out in terms of exploitative costuming? Have you ever cosplayed a skimpily dressed character and felt uncomfortable? Please feel free to join the discussion in the comments below.

Marie Sumner is a cosplayer and writer with a serious passion for costumes. She’s been honing her craftsmanship and sewing skills since she was about 10 so she could dress as her favorite characters from video games, movies, and shows. She currently writes for Wholesale Halloween Costumes.

32 thoughts on “Lara Croft’s Pants and Modesty in Cosplay

  1. I agree, this is a major issue–while there’s been a lot of outcry lately about harassment at cons, no one seems to be protesting the dated objectification of women characters in comics themselves. I’ve wondered quite a bit if the oversexualization of women heroes in the comic book is fostering a mentality among comic readers that real women dressed as these characters can be treated so poorly.

    Thanks for bringing this to the forefront.

    • The Cons! Geez, the Cons. Overall, I’ve been so pleased to have met such wonderful people at Cons, but I’ve also witnessed some of the ugly examples of harassment that you’re talking about. For some reason, people seem to think it’s ok to be lewd if a cosplayer is showing skin in their costume. It makes me so angry that anyone should be made to feel vulnerable at such a joyous event. I think the best thing we can do is address it as it happens, however uncomfortable, so that no one makes the mistake of thinking that such behavior is acceptable.

      I agree with your ponderings about comic book heroines, as well. My feeling is that the industry is moving in a positive direction, but sometimes it seems like the women haven’t progressed all that far from being damsels in distress (especially in the big budget movie renditions of comics).

      Thanks so much for your comment, Emily! Great food for thought.

  2. Not being a cosplayer myself, I only have so much opinion to give, but it seems to me that the point of cosplay is to pay homage to your favorite characters. If someone doesnt like that your form of homage has pants on Lara Croft, or a full t-shirt on Leelo that doesn’t bare mid-rift, or your Red Sonja wears a tunic, etc, that is their problem. To say there is no point to the costume if it isnt “sexy” just proves that it is the speaker who misses the point.

    • I agree completely! Whenever I write about putting a costume together, I try to encourage people to wear what makes them comfortable while they honor their character. If that means tweaking a costume for modesty, style, or cost, do it! If you put it together with love, it’s perfect. I hate seeing people getting into fights about canon accuracy or quality. The point of cosplay, to me, is to share enthusiasm, affection, and imagination. Putting limits on creativity doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

  3. I don’t cosplay, although tomorrow (halloween), my daughter, my grand daughter, my son in law’s mother and myself are all dressing like Wonder Woman. But it’s cold out, so I’m wearing a black sweater and black leggings under my Wonder Woman costume, and so are the others. I can’t help noticing that it was a guy who criticised you for wearing cargo pants. Action heroines are still drawn for a male audience, and the only way to bring in more modest cosplaying is to go to the origins and continue to push for more decently dressed action heroines (and to continue to remind publishers, producers, etc. that guys are not the only ones who read/watch action comics, games, and films.

    • What a smart move! Altering a canon look for comfort and safety is an easy choice for me, but I saw plenty of people suffering the cold for the sake of their costume on Halloween. Wonder Woman is a great example of almost-change. She got pants for a while, but the recent “New 52″ reboot brought back the swim-suit look.
      Balancing between a character’s history and the will of the fans can’t be easy for publishers. I’m torn, myself. Her classic look is so iconic- and simple solutions like the one you guys undertook make her costume easy to recreate comfortably. Still, I was a little sad to see the pants go.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  4. I think your friend was talking bunk. Cosplay is a form of creative interpretation like any other kind of fanwork. Sometimes that means making accommodations to physical constraints like gravity, but sometimes it means, say, being Captain America by wearing a blue dress with a stripey corset over the top, as I saw at Geek Girl Con a couple of weekends ago. I argue it’d be totally valid to be Lara Croft in pants even without the official costume redesign you talk about.

    And the idea that “everyone” is interested in Lara Croft solely for her sex appeal just shows that what a narrow view your friend has of gamers, IMO.

    • Thank you so much for the comment! I completely agree with your assessment that you can dress as the original Lara in pants- to me, that’s completely legitimate. I also agree that he was talking nonsense. Luckily, since I showed him the article and your wonderful responses to it, he is decidedly shamefaced. He admitted that he wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to wear the costume- just what it would be like to see it on another person.

      I was disappointed to learn, though, that he maintains that the outfit was what made Lara successful to begin with, the reason she became a famous character. I argued that the 2013 game wouldn’t have been a smash if her outfit was the determining factor in her popularity. So we bicker on. I suspect he’s just upset I put his insensitivity on the internet.

  5. Female characters are absolutely sexually exploited more than male characters. There’s no doubt about it!

    This is a great article but I take issue with one tiny part; “my first thought is that teenage boys have been the primary audience for video games, action movies, and a large portion of anime — and sex sells.”

    I know you’re playing devil’s advocate, but it’s not fair to imply that that teenage boys are the target audience. It cuts adults men too much slack. According to the ESA, the average age of today’s gamer is 30 and 68% of gamers are 18 or older (http://www.theesa.com/facts/gameplayer.asp).

    I also think that “sex sells” is an oversimplification and allows those at fault to get off too easily. If sex sold we’d see a constant parade of naked men in advertising and media too. It’s not sex that’s selling but rather women as sexual objects.

    I don’t mean to nitpick an otherwise great article but I want to make sure we’re holding the right people accountable for the problem at hand.

    • You have some very good points! It is a bit narrow-minded to assume that teenage boys are the only target audience that want to see physics engines make bouncier boobs. There are plenty of adult men (and women, I imagine) that are pleased as punch that MMORPGs have wildly different ideas of what armor looks like for men versus women. (My female warrior in Rift had a bared stomach for, like, 15 levels. Ridiculous!)

      It’s worrying to me that the 68% of adult gamers you’re talking about grew up in this climate of female character design. I, myself, grew up understanding that women weren’t actually expected to dress skimpily in real life, so I hope that my female compatriots and male counterparts understood the same. I guess the question is- do we hold the game developers responsible for perpetuating these problems or if we focus on the people who they’re selling to?

      Thank you so much for the good thoughts, Daniel. I’ll keep this in mind next time I write about this issue!

  6. Originally I was going to chime in with some mixed thoughts. When I say originally, I mean while i was waiting for this page to load, having only read the preview in my reader.

    My thoughts then were that you’d need to do something very special to pull off a less revealing Lara Croft cosplay. Laura doesn’t exactly wear the most iconic costume, and the lack of short shorts seemed to take away one of her only defining features.

    Then I read the article and remembered that Lara gained a set of cargo pants in her last outing.

    And that was the point at which I was free to go with my gut reaction of “screw that guy.” Unfortunately many people probably still won’t recognize a ‘new-look’ Lara Croft and I have no desire to put down a friend of yours (Marie’s), but the implication that there’s no point in cosplaying this character without sex appeal is simply gross.

    I won’t deny that Lara Croft’s legacy is built on her sex appeal, but people are allowed to bring what they will to a character. This is a beloved character who has recently undergone a significant change to put emphasis back on her skills and ability. Whether in reaction to this change or reaching back to her genesis, we should respect the appreciation that fans have for the character.

    I honestly have no relationship with the Tomb Raider franchise, but to imply that there is no valid reason to care for a character other than sex appeal, especially as it was worded in this article, just reeks of uncomfortable assumptions.

    Cosplayers, even those playing scantily clad characters, aren’t there for your amusement. They can be flirtatious, or even looking for sexual attention, but there is no default towards it.

    On the major issue of the article, I stand by what I’ve said. Some characters are so connected to their sex appeal that removing it can drastically alter who they are. Ivy, for instance, might not work if you tried to modify her costume. All the same, I think that most can be made more modest with enough dedication and attention to detail.

    As for your assessment, I don’t think I can add much more than an emphatic yes.

    And in regards to your final question, I can give a half answer. I haven’t cosplayed very much, but I actually have gone as a skimpily-dressed character of sorts. I’ve cosplayed Nightwing.

    Honestly, I’ve done my best to ignore my discomfort in wearing the Nightwing costume and each time it’s grown a little less anxiety producing. It’s the sort of thing that gets easier and easier as you feel more at home in the nerd community.

    That said, there is one thing that does linger with me, which is fear that I’ll make others uncomfortable. It’s a strange corollary to what you’ve described and one that reminds of the need for more balanced costumes for female characters; after all, I have other options if I so choose.

    • I think you’re exactly right in that there are certain characters that aren’t as recognizable without their blatant sex appeal (Ivy, for sure). Lara, I hope, isn’t one of them the way my friend claimed. His reaction seems to reflect the general feeling towards Lara’s redesign. There were complaints that the redesign made her physical proportions more HUMAN (mind you, she’s still 34D in the bust). I just don’t know what to say to the people who complain of women looking like humans. o_o

      For many characters, if they’re main attributes are their boobs, I’m not likely to want to dress as them, anyway. It’s the characters like Faye Valentine and Cortana that trouble me because they’re interesting in their own right but wrapped in a sexified package. Modifying costumes can get tricky sometimes. I by no means intend to make anyone feel marginalized for wearing exactly what skimpily-dressed characters wears (power to you!), but it just isn’t for me.

      By the by, I think it’s wonderful that you’re being circumspective and conscious of how your costume affects other people. I hope it doesn’t change how you approach your cosplay overall (because you should do what makes you happy), but I think it’s healthy and considerate to be mindful of your impact on others. I’m also glad you’re feeling more comfortable in your undoubtedly awesome Nightwing costume. It’s nice to be able to put any stress aside and really settle into a character or event- something I’m working on for certain costumes, as well.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and for your awesome thoughts! It’s so great to get to talk some of these things out!

      PS Put my friend down as much as you want for spouting such ridiculous nonsense! In this instance, he deserves what he gets!

      • I think that the redesign was partly an admission that Lara had come to depend on her sex appeal too much and that she needed something more to compete in a world where its all 1s and 0s.

        As for the Cortanas out there, I hardily encourage anyone who feels comfortable to cosplay them, but I really wish that those with decision making power would find better priorities. I mean, I know Lara was sex symbol, but I sincerely hope that most people find reboot Lara more attractive than the original. Imagine if Tomonobu Itagaki had devoted the same time and energy to facial modeling as jiggle physics.

        As for my adventures as Nightwing, it’s been a very delicate balance at times. Especially early on when I worried that it would be embarrassing to wear, I also had to worry that it would make me seem threatening, when that’s kind of the opposite of what the character embodies to me. I think the second time I wore it was to a nerd-themed dance i had been invited to at a women-only college. I wonder if there’s a female equivalent of that experience or if its fairly unique to male privilege. Either way, each event I’ve attended has made me feel more confident that mutual respect is enough to avoid awkward moments.

        I’m happy that this has been a fruitful conversation for you, in regards to myself and the other commenters. Please keep writing, it’s great when people raise these kinds of points, especially when they’re so constructive and honest.

        • You’re right that the developers almost certainly redesigned Lara to be taken more seriously by reducing some of her cartoonish sex appeal (and, like you say, making her more attractive in a realistic way). Of course, it frustrates me that they also replaced her collected badassery with whimpering and vulnerability. Hopefully the next game won’t have that anymore since she’ll be growing into the hero she’ll become. Cortana, as well, kind of went from wise-cracking guide to fearful mess. I understand why it somewhat made sense in the plot, but it was heartbreaking for me to see. Blech.

          See, I really appreciate how you look at your experiences as Nightwing. Your respect for the character you’re cosplaying as is exactly the kind of thing I relate to most with other cosplayers! The approach of mutual respect is undoubtedly the best way to address any discomfort and I think Nightwing would approve. Digital high five!

          Thank you so much for commenting again- I’ll definitely hope to write another article that people would be as passionate about! This has been a great experience.

          And yes, I think if Tomonobu Itagaki used his powers of attention to detail towards something other than boobs, we could see a serious revolution in graphics. We can dream. ^_^

  7. Here’s a logical question: If cosplayers are allowed to make anything “steampunk” or “zombie,” why the heck can’t a Lara costume have pants? That makes no sense. If you name it as a trend, does that make it okay? Pants Punk, perhaps?

    Anyway, I do want to pose a question to the other comments and the OP: Would you be more comfortable with a costume that shows a lot of leg if you were wearing nude stockings or leggings instead of going bare? I ask because as a man, I have no experience in that sort of thing, as the only times I wore short shorts was when running Cross Country! My wife told me once that she always assumed that Wonder Woman had on nude stockings in her costume is what makes me think of it.

    • Pants Punk! I like it! Especially when it gets colder, it just seems to make so much more sense to make a costume warmer, even if you don’t have as obvious of a choice like Hoth Leia instead of Slave Leia.

      It’s an interesting question that you’ve raised here- one I actually just mentioned minutes ago responding to another comment (David Schmitt’s). Would I feel better about the leotard and high-stockings look of SAC Major Kusanagi if I wore leggings or even tights? Hmmm. Well, I’ve never been much of one for dresses, honestly, but when I do wear them, I tend to wear stockings and that makes me feel more confident. So for some costumes, I imagine that I would feel better.

      For Major Kusanagi, though? Maybe it’s because she shows upper thigh and above her hips, but I don’t think that nude stockings would help. Part of it is because, from a distance, the nude stockings would still look like I was bearing that much skin- I’d still attract the kind of attention I don’t want. Darker stockings or leggings, though, might be better. I’ll have to investigate!

      Thanks so much for commenting, Luke!

  8. Taking creative license with a costume seems to be rather subjective. The same folks who will down you for putting pants on Lara Croft are the same ones who give a standing-O to the gender-bent Darth Vader in a black skin tight one-piece with cleavage spooging out over the Vader chest-box-lightey-thingey….you get what I mean. As long as your creative license means “clothing optional”, it’s fine with them. I guess I was more accepting of the minimalist costumes in comics, movies, cosplay, etc… before I had daughters. Not so cool now that one of my little ones seems to be obsessed with cosplay. I keep a Louisville Slugger and a shovel in my trunk guys. Just saying.

    • Haha I applaud your diligence! It would be very unnerving to have a daughter as interested in cosplay as I am- I’d have to get a bat of my own!

      It’s a dreadfully unfair double standard, I agree. While I don’t generally take issue with the “sexy” versions of costumes, it’s really frustrating that they’re acceptable, but more modest versions are not. I think a fully-covered Sailor Moon or Conan the Barbarian can be just as fantastic as a body-painted Liara T’Soni, but you’re right when you say that people at large (especially at Cons) don’t tend to agree. While being aware of how you affect others is

      • Wups! Sorry! Darn.

        While being aware of how you affect others in kind, you should do and wear what makes you comfortable and happy. Haters gonna hate no matter what.

        Thank you so much for reading and for commenting!

  9. Yes, you ladies have it tough when it comes to the cosplay. These recent harassment scenarios really bother me in that it took decades for us to “attract” female readership and participation and then we seem to revert to immature goons when they appear and represent. The other problem is that cosplay does seem to be more female intrinsic and most men/boys do not understand that particular form of praise. All I can ask is please do not lump us all on in that category. I see no problem with Laura in cargo pants. I really only know her through the comics and I remember a lot of different outfits. She is like Bruce, she can afford the correct apparel at any location or event.

    • It is really interesting to compare the male and female cosplay experience, isn’t it? In my personal experience, I’ve generally seen equal amounts of and behavior towards both male and female cosplayers. Of course, there have been those incidents that have really ruined a day and shaken my faith (not all of them perpetrated by males, mind you!), but they’ve been thankfully pretty rare for me to see in person. I’m optimistic that we can eradicate all of that nonsense, though, so that no one is made to feel harassed- especially if folks like all of us speak our minds.

      Nightwing17 and I have been chatting a bit in the comments above. His experiences cosplaying as Nightwing sound similar in nature to my own, but from a male perspective. This is more what I’ve found in the wild, as well, leading me to think/hope that it’s mostly a few really bad apples that give guys at Cons a bad rep. I would never lump fine gents like yourselves in with that rabble, though!

      Thank you so much for commenting, Ray! I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by!

  10. Pingback: Lara Croft’s Pants and Modesty in Cosplay | Book Wyrm Blogger

  11. I love the idea of pulling off a zatanna cosplay, but I am uncomfortable with the amount of skin shown. Do you know anyone who has a design for a modest version of the costume?

    • The New 52 version of her is pretty well-covered and a bit more casual. As someone who’s worn fishnets and boots for hours on end, a costume with pants sounds like a breeze.

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