When 15-year-old London Ortega walked into her welding class that first day in January, she was met with full beards and eyes that seemed to question if she had accidentally stepped into the wrong room.
She took a seat and waited for her name to be called.
Her teacher, the only other female presence in the room, called her name. She stayed.
“I’ll be honest, I do things that nobody expects sometimes — OK, a lot of times,” London said with a chuckle.
But for the most part, the Jefferson City High School sophomore is too busy to worry about all of that. Learning to work with metals is just a step along the way for the young crafter.
It’s been about a decade since a little London wore shiny, coiled buns nearly half the size of her head and sported an all-white outfit in the style of Princess Leia. In an old photo, she confidently holds a plastic white gun and stares dead into the camera. She’s been crazy about costumes, and making them, since she and her mother can remember.
It started small — if her family was going to the movies, she was always ready.
“I would come out of my room, and I would have taped something around my shoulders,” London said. “I started off with just finding stuff around the house, and I would try to make stuff out of it.”
She’d always been drawn to characters like Iron Man and the Muppets. The first time she heard the word “cosplay” (a mix between the words “costume” and “play”) was through “Heroes of Cosplay,” a reality TV series. And then her mother, an artist herself, introduced her to “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge,” a TV show where designers compete against one another to create puppets and animatronics found all throughout science fiction.
It’s partially where the idea for her latest creation came from, a furry red mask with piercing blue-green eyes and ears nearly as tall as the mask itself. Seeing the completed project, you’d never guess it started off as a cheap, store-bought dinosaur mask. It’s easily three times the original size and has transformed from a lifeless chunk of plastic into a living, breathing creature — well, almost.
The mask was first spray painted red and, once it dried, the original eye mask was removed, and the mesh cover over the eyes and marble eyes were added, held in place by the epoxy clay sculpted around them. It’s what created the pointed beak, too. Additionally, London traced meticulous details in the clay by hand with a sculpting scalpel.
Despite the detail, London didn’t spend nearly as much time on the clay as she did with the foam
ears and white fox fur that came afterward. She found herself — as many artists do — getting lost in the project.
“Sometimes though, you just need to kind of like take a break, and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve done enough.’ And even as tempting as it may be, I’m like ‘Rest. Just rest,’” she said.
“And then I lay for the next four minutes thinking about what I could be doing,” she added with a laugh.
Her mother, Melissa Ortega, said it’s been a journey watching her daughter do the things she felt she could never do. London had an unusual grasp of spatial awareness and an understanding of mechanics from a young age — it’s rare to see in a young woman, Melissa Ortega said.
“I really felt kind of alone growing up, and to just see her working in skill sets that people don’t expect from her is pretty exciting,” she said.
Although she’s just 15, London has already decided she’d like to pursue costume designing as a career.
“This is honestly kind of like my kind of my dream to do. … You’re designing a character, and you’re seeing your character come to life. There’s just a magic about that,” she said. “I just like making other people smile.”
It helps that crafting and, in particular, sewing associated with women have gained legitimacy in a way they didn’t have before, said crafter Jennifer Baraboo. It’s been easy for people to view paintings as emotional, complex works of art, she said. Sewing crafts have historically not had the same reaction.
“But you have the complexity that you can do with cosplay … it really just makes people take the hardships more seriously, that crafts aren’t just a thing that you do in your spare time. It is a real career, and it is absolutely worth respect,” Baraboo said. “And I think that we wouldn’t be where we are without cosplay.”
Baraboo has been creating cosplays for more than a decade as well. Her home studio is covered in project sketches, pieces from previous costumes and heads of wigs.
And like London, it was her mother who was one of her first and biggest supporters, inspiring her — and working alongside her — to create her first cosplay, Hikaru from the anime series “Angelic Layer.”
Crafting cosplays for so long has allowed Baraboo to test and bend the rules, figuring out what works for each individual piece. She too honed her craft mainly through trial and error, and unconventional methods. She’s won awards for most creative use of materials — vinyl for a bodysuit, Kool-Aid to dye hair and piecing together her own wigs with handfuls of wefts, which are sewn in hair extensions often done by a professional. The list goes on. A trip down memory lane surprised even herself.
“Starting out cosplay can be really daunting,” she said. “I was definitely glad to have my mom there.”
“And you know, you have to be willing to fail over and over until you get it right,” she added. “It can be very expensive, and it can be very stressful, but it is always rewarding.”
One of the most rewarding aspects about crafting costumes is simply sharing the final product, Baraboo said. And being part of a community that can often be misunderstood or overlooked, there’s a creative freedom in sharing.
“That’s something I really appreciate about cosplayers — it doesn’t really matter why you do it, you know?” Baraboo said. “You’re doing it because you want to. There aren’t any rules.”
Does she feel she’s walking in the footsteps on the path created by women before her?
“I do,” Baraboo said. “I definitely didn’t start out thinking that I would be doing this as much as I do. And I actually, I felt sort of the social pressure to feel that way.”
If she wasn’t planning on working in fashion weeks across the world, then what was she doing with herself?
“But because cosplay has exploded so much,” she said, “it really does have a base of fans that care about it enough to invest in its future.”