Things have changed since I discovered cosplay, and along the way I've made many amazing friends through this craft who've helped me learn and grow. But for someone new to the community, cosplay can be very intimidating and attending a convention feels a little too reminiscent of Frodo's journey through Mordor. So how do you become a cosplayer? Where do you start? How do you choose a character? What even are conventions, really?
(There are many different opinions on this topic, so these tips might not suit you personally, but these are the questions I hear the most and the advice that's helped me, so even if this helps just one person find what works for them I'll be happy. I also have a giant list of specific topics I'd like to cover individually at a later date, so some things will be skimmed over here.)
Who can cosplay?
First things first, let's cover the most important question: who can cosplay? The answer is ANYONE. Yes, it's true, it doesn't matter who you are, where you live, what you look like, what you do for a living, if you want to cosplay you can cosplay.
Cosplay is a wonderful artform that challenges you continually to learn new skills and expand on developing as a craftsperson. If you're an arty type, that can be extremely rewarding. One of my personal favourite things about cosplay is how it brings people together. Many of my friends are other cosplayers, and I meet new people every event. So don't be afraid if you don't know many – if any – other people in the scene yet. Conventions are really good for socialising and finding other people with mutual interests. It's also a wonderful way to be a real life superhero with children's charities and other charitable causes that you can benefit and support.
That said, it's also worth remembering the things that cosplay isn't about, or isn't useful towards as a goal. This includes things like money, since cosplay is an expensive hobby, with many newcomers unaware of the cost of supplies and equipment. My Babydoll alone was ~$700. If you're hoping to become rich from cosplaying, you will very likely be sorely disappointed, as it's really the wrong hobby to make money from. Even those who make costumes and props on commission sometimes struggle to make back the bare costs of their hard work.
Fame is also a controversial topic for cosplay. Electing to become a cosplayer in pursuit of fame specifically does have strong stigmas attached to it, primarily that those people "don't really care about the artform or the community", which are highly valued backbones of cosplay and the cosplay scene. These situations often lead to people feeling used, usually as networking tools and "stepping stones", and a level of resentment arises from this sense of being devalued. This also relates to other topical issues such as "share for share" (i.e., asking others to advertise you by your request) and "billboarding" (i.e., spamming or using the social media accounts of more recognised members of the community to promote ones own links as advertising).
Professional cosplayers, for the most part, don't really exist. "Professional cosplay models" are generally professional models who just also happen to cosplay, and most "professional costumer cosplayers" are actually professional costumers who happen to also cosplay. They are skilled in their respective fields and accomplished professionals in their own right. In the last year I met a couple of people who wanted to use cosplay to launch careers in acting, but I feel if you want to pursue a career as an actor, you may be better off pursuing acting as a hobby specifically. As much as I hate to say it, being a cosplayer can affect employability, as it is often misinterpreted as childish and amateur, and employers want confidence in your dedication as worker - putting your career ahead of personal projects, and the assurance that you won't be disappearing to go to conventions when they need you. After all, they're paying you to be there for them.
Choosing a Cosplay
I find it helpful to keep a list of costumes I'd like to make as I think of them, but how do you even think of them in the first place? One of the most helpful ways I found new costumes at the start was actually through the ideas of others, specifically the phrase "you remind me of..." There's a sense of security that comes with cosplaying a character that's similar to yourself.
Another way to choose characters is keep a list for every time you're watching/reading something and think to yourself "they'd be fun to cosplay". I usually have the most fun cosplaying characters I love, and it also motivates me to do them justice when I work on the costume, but you can also choose designs you love, especially if you want a challenge or to use them as project for learning a new skill.
Choosing a Convention
If you're not already a con attendee, this can be daunting. Location is usually a big decider for what conventions are feasible for you, and keep your costs in mind for tickets, transport, accommodation, and food. Convention tickets can range from $US15/day to >$US700/day, depending on the convention and the ticket category, but they seem to lurk around the $US20-60/day mark for the most part. Some cons are only one day, while others run for several days, and even their opening hours vary, so these costs can add up to very different numbers between different cons.
In general I find larger cons can easily become overwhelming, while smaller cons are easier to socialise at. Going with friends is a lot of fun, and there are often groups online where you can chat to other attendees.
Beyond that, there are also different types of conventions (pop culture, anime, comics, gaming, sci fi, fantasy, etc), and some cons are series/genre-specific (Star Trek, Disney, etc). Some of them may be more interesting to you than others, and you may make a costume specifically for one of those themes. Check that your costume complies with the con rules, the venue policy, and the local law.
Making the Costume
Above all else your costume should be safe, not just for you but for other attendees, and should comply with the law and convention rules. These usually include things such as coverage of the body, skates, weapons, metal props, size of props (often <1m total), flames and other fire hazards, glitter and other slipping hazards, chemicals, and wings, among others. Comfortable shoes are a blessing, and having painful, blistered feet can be a big mood breaker.
I find it really helpful to break the character's appearance down, so I know what supplies I need, and what work is involved. I look up reference images of that character, from as many angles as possible, and make a list of every little piece of that costume from top the bottom – from the wig to the shoelace colour and buttons.
Two of the greatest challenges are deadlines (e.g., convention dates), and cosplaying within a budget. Keeping itemised lists and tallying your anticipated and actual costs can be very helpful. Rewearing costumes and making costumes that can use the same articles of clothing, wigs, etc., are also ways to keep costs down. Don't feel obligated to have more than one costume for the day/week/year.
There's often debate about bought vs made costumes, but ultimately this is only an issue for competitions (where entrants are expected to make as much as possible from scratch, and even document their process), or when someone takes credit for work that isn't their own (e.g., saying they made a helmet that was made by another cosplayer). Bought costumes and closet cosplay can be a great way to start cosplaying at your own pace, without being overwhelmed. We all started somewhere, and I found breaking costumes down was really helpful for learning how they were put together. You don't have to be the world's greatest cosplayer on day one, we all learn new skills over time, that's what being an artist and craftsperson is, and none of us are perfect. Even Yaya Han is still learning new techniques! When it comes to developing those skills, online tutorials can be helpful, but sometimes they aren't done safely. Many sewing stores offer workshops for all skill levels, and short community classes for things such as sculpting and painting can also be helpful – sometimes these are free.
There are many ways to really bring a character to life, such as different material choices, wigs, contact lenses, e.t.c., which will be in their own separate articles.
So let's put this into practise
Step 1: Decide on a cosplay
Step 2: Research
Step 3: Cry
Step 4: Procrastinate until 1 week before the con
Step 5: (night before the con) have an emotional breakdown while hot gluing everything you haven't finished
Step 6: Pose for photos while hoping your costume doesn't fall apart before the end of the day.
First things first, you need to choose your character, and if you're wearing it to a specific event you'll need to plan for that deadline. We've all done the terrible procrastination thing where we finish it in the early hours of that morning, but for the sake of example let's do this by the book. In my experience this is the schedule that seems to be pretty "stock standard" as an ideal lead-up to the convention: About 1-2 months (minimum) before the con you should be buying and ordering everything you need. This works on an optimistic two weeks for supplies to be delivered, and two weeks working time for those supplies. Sometimes things get lost in the mail, sometimes there are mail delays, sometimes sellers post the wrong material entirely, and this leeway is extra important when ordering from overseas, as international post can be very unpredictable and often slower than domestic mail. Once you have your supplies, the time it takes to make a costume varies drastically depending your skill level and the amount of work needed.
Referring to your costume breakdown and marking things off the list really helps with making sure your costume is complete. Be sure to try it on as it you work on it, to make sure it all fits together. Apart from actual fit, sometimes this is where you realise that you've accidentally got a fastening sewn in the wrong place, or two pieces overlapping that make it impossible to put on / take off. Try it on before you pack for the con, using your list again to tick off each piece as you take it off and pack the costume. This way you know you have everything you need.
Other important con supplies include things like:
- your make-up (making a list helps for this, too) and make-up remover;
- wig and hair supplies, such as pins and a wide tooth comb;
- emegency sewing kit with safety pins (not all cons have cosplay medics);
- gaffer tape, scotch tape, hollywood tape..;
- snacks (I usually carry Tic-Tacs);
- adhesives and/or hot glue (sometimes you cannot take this for safety reasons).
Personally I find competitions very stressful, but for many they are an amazing way to go under the gun and do their best, pressuring them to excel at their craft and make costumes that showcase their skills as an artist. Entering with others can be a lot of fun, a good confidence boost knowing you're not alone on stage, and a good bonding experience to work together, but this isn't always the case and some people feel anxious about letting their group down, so this can be a very polarising experience and don't be afraid to be on either side of that spectrum. It's normal!
Dealing With Social Media, Cosplay Bullying, Creepers, and Sexual Harassment
"You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be somebody who hates peaches." ― Dita Von Teese.
This is a topic I could write about for hours. You could make a truly mind-blowingly accurate cosplay, and there will always be people who'll criticise you rudely online for it, or make unsavoury jokes about you. Sometimes the criticisms aren't even about the costume or the character, but rather about things such as racism, sexism, slut-shaming, fatshaming, shaming cosplayers in wheelchairs, shaming cosplayers with visible physical indicators, and other forms of discrimination. In many parts of the world these kinds of abusive behaviours are illegal as forms of harassment and/or verbal assault. Threats of violence, rape threats, death threats, and so forth also sometimes happen. Blocking, banning, and reporting are useful tools, so never be afraid to use them - follower counts are meaningless, and particularly scary if those numbers are made up of people who're hurting you and making you miserable, it's far better to just remove the venomous people and have a smaller following. Some cosplayers also screencap and post the public comments they receive, signalboosting that individual to other cosplayers who're being hurt by the same person. It's easy to say "sticks and stones" and that we shouldn't care about the opinions of people like that, but it can be very upsetting and many cosplayers have stopped cosplaying over the years because of it.
Unfortunately abusive people don't live in a bubble, isolated to the internet, and harassment also exists at conventions, with physical assault, sexual harassment, and bullying becoming topics of concern for many attendees. Thankfully many conventions pride themselves on being safe spaces, with strict guidelines in place, and security on-site to assist with situations. If someone ever says or does something that makes you uncomfortable, tell them, even if they're wearing a media or staff badge, or a celebrity guest, tell them. Sometimes it's a genuine accidental overstepping of a line and they will apologise genuinely for doing something wrong... sometimes they won't, but being called out on it reinforces that what they've done is wrong and won't be silently accepted. These situations can be paralysing, and you might be too stunned to respond, so equally if you're at a con and you see someone else being harassed or bullied, call it out. If you're scared that the abuser will turn on you, rather that confronting them directly, either yell "SECURITY" to alert security to the situation, or address the other people around you (e.g., "did that guy in the green t-shirt just grope that girl?", "did that Gwen cosplayer just say that Mary Jane was 'too black' to be MJ?"). This can comforting for the person who was just attacked, knowing they're not alone and that other people are looking out for their safety.
These are prevalent social issues, and not easily fixed, but no cosplayer is asking to be targeted and put down, regardless of who they are or what they're wearing, and we should all be able to feel safe at events.
You and you alone have the right to decide what you should cosplay for yourself.
Cosplay is a hobby that's all about wearing our hearts on our sleeves and sharing the series we love with each other. It's an artform built on creativity and inclusivity, with the characters and community as diverse as each other. We're all in this together. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to let me know and I'll do my best to answer them. Until next time, sew say we all!
Credits and thanks go to: Jarod: Nwbzpwnr , WingedMammal.com, Princess Mentality Cosplay (Chaka Cumberbatch), Khal Drené Cosplay, Gigawatts cosplay, Kenneth Pfeifer, Alexa Pilato, EgerPixels, cimmerianwillow, and DreamHack Masters Bucharest 2014.