Essay: Cosplay Tips and Tricks
Diana DeRiggs
Photographs courtesy of MaceVindaloo, Ed, taken at Dragon*Con 2005

Sure, you can just toss on a costume you can get an any Halloween outlet or discount store and feel like you belong with the group of people who are just goofing around in clothes that let them live a little fantasy. But "cosplay" is more than just a representational knock-off piece(s) of clothing, whether generic or specific, or of a thing or person or character. It seems to have evolved to mean "how clever can you be to as accurately as possible reproduce the look from a movie, or adapt from a cartoon, etc." And the more cleverness and work you put into your costume, the more respect you will garner from other cosplayers.

Cosplay is the Japanese-esque contraction for "Costume Play" and can include performance, behavior, etc. It's become a full-time hobby for some Hutties, and for others we have met, it's become a full-time career, whether they are actors or creators of costumes. When talking to these folks and checking out various websites, we saw cosplay was much more than just putting on the Darth Vader facemask with the elastic band in the back and a black sheet for a cape!

In our journey to become cosplayers (and because some of us are type-A personalities and simply want to be the best at whatever we do, or at least garner enough respect to be acceptable to any "club"), we discovered some things about constructing a costume and wearing it that we thought would be good to share amongst ourselves. Then being the show-offs that we are, we figured we'd put them up on the Hut so the universe can see how dumb we were about some stuff. It's all fun, eh?

Choosing a costume seems to be an easy thing. You pick what looks or seems cool and make the thing and wear it, right? Keep in mind that most movie/TV costumes are not designed for constant and continued wear. Even Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz had something like a dozen gingham dresses because they simply got damaged. Also, many costumes are not designed for comfort; the actors in them are being paid to endure it, so your mobility, body temp, etc. might be seriously compromised by your choice.

And if you choose an anime character, you have the additional potential problem of a completely unrealistic set of clothing or garb. Okay, let's say you want to cosplay Major Kusanagi from the first season of Stand Alone Complex. She wears a corset-teddy thing that includes a thong (thus no underpants to be worn under this ...), thigh high woolen hose that fold on top, combat boots, a leather jacket that pushes up on the sleeves, shin guards. But have you ever considered how that costume might stay ON her body? Double-sided tape and hot-glue only go so far, and stapleguns are very limiting. And then there is the almost hacked-up looking but sexy blue hairdo and the purple eyes, the gun ...

And if you choose a character from a comic book or graphic novel or video game or RPG, be aware that different artists may depict that character's clothing and weapons differently. Heck, we've even noticed the SAME artist changing things in the same story! And some things look very cool when the character is standing still, but if you think carefully, there is no way that they could raise their arms or kick out the way they are illustrated if the armor or cape really looked like that ... It's called "artistic license" and you will need to make some decisions on what YOUR look will be and how you want to move or not move.

And even if you choose a character depicted by a real and human actor, you still have to decide which version of a costume you are going to cosplay. For instance, Frodo Baggins changes look and clothing through the three Lord of the Rings movies (more worn, loses the protective shirt, etc.), but Samwise Gamgee only changes at the end when all the hobbits become really, really grimy (makeup consideration!) and he dumps his pots and stuff. Even in Firefly, though Mal Reynolds wears the same Browncoats uniform throughout, in one episode he was completely naked except for a tattoo on his right hip. ;) Willie Wonka — the Gene Wilder, or the Johnny Depp version? Perhaps you could do both? Some cosplayers bring multiple costumes for one event!

If there are a variety of versions, choose which version you are depicting. Do sketches, acquire action figures, watch movies over and over, do screenshots, etc. Figure out whether a flap is over or under another. Figure out if the lightsabre is made of metal or some sort of organic material. Can you afford the time and the costume? Doing the work in advance will save you many mistakes and headaches. And yes, that means depicting both front AND back of the costume!

The largest freedom is afforded by choosing a character with no real visual or graphic depiction, or scant and non-canon drawings. Feel free to cobble together something great! Corran Horn of the Star Wars universe was like that for a while. However, if you want to join a group like the Rebel Alliance, they may not accept a costume which does not depict a specific, previously graphically depicted character. We know, it sounds draconian, but it's their club and they have their rules. Whatever — if it's important to you, then figure out the rules.

Also, you don't want to spend tons of effort and dough on the costume just to have people ask you, "Who are you supposed to be and what is that?" If recognition is a big deal for you, choose a character which is easily recognizable.

There is also body type and shape to consider. It's honestly not a big deal if you are tubby and short but you want to cosplay tall, slim Vash the Stampede, though be prepared for insensitive or drunk folk to poke fun at you. As long as the spirit of the character comes through, and the costume is done well, you'll get respect. Everyone remembers the tall tubby guy who came as a Sailor Moon, right? It was fun and the costume was great! But if you have a choice, you might want to go with something that is more the physical "you." And it's okay to work out and diet to get that body, but be realistic when you size the costume.

If you do choose something different from your real body shape (and let's face it, since when have anime bodies even approached anything near real life?), the details and iconic props and poses will matter more. Colors should be stronger, lines of the costume should be cleaner. So be sure you can carry them off — be confident!

The same goes if your skin color or condition (freckles), or mobility range, or disability category (glasses, sprains, missing limbs, etc.) are different from the original model's. Pull it off, have a good time! Nothing should limit you in cosplay other than your ability and willingness to get that costume together.

Also when choosing a costume, look into the props and "extras" that the character carries. It really finishes off a costume if you're carrying the right weapons, toys, stuffed versions of sidekicks, etc. Sure, there might be "weapons checks" at some places, so don't carry actual weapons. That's not expected — you carry "cosplay" versions that have been made for the purpose, and buying things ready-made actually does not garner you the respect you might crave.

A "warrior" character is as much about his or her weaponry as the costume. For instance, Merrill the "insurance girl" from Trigun was nicknamed "Derringer Merrill" for the 50 2-shot pistols she hid in her cape. Though you may not want to create 50 little guns and a way to hold them under the cape (without looking like you are), you have to invest in at least one to draw or carry (maybe the rest are just painted inside the cape?). If you don't know how to sew or make guns, then enlist help in the form of Internet research and communities (or start dating for some "interesting" reasons).

Likewise, the Pokémon trainers are nothing without their pocket monsters, so think toward making the stuffed animal versions of these, or ask for them for Christmas. Also consider hats, jewelry, belts, boots, gloves, shoes (and shoe soles!) ... it's a costume. It's not meant to be for regular wear. And if you're not an accessorizing type, choose a costume that doesn't require the extra work.

There are competitions — like the Dragon*Con "Dawn" look-alike contest with a $1000 first prize — which grants prizes for authenticity. Props will make or break you! And if you are cosplaying Darth Maul, you'd best be figuring out how to not only get a double-handled lightsabre, but how to hold and handle it.

And in the case of Jayne Cobb, you didn't need anything else but that knitted orange and yellow hat with earflaps for people to know who you are cosplaying (at least at the 2005 Dragon*Con)!

Once your costume is chosen and designed, you want to consider how to show it off. When people ask you to take your photograph, imagine that they want you to BE that character. So Darth Maul doesn't scratch his back with his lightsabre, or stand awkwardly looking at his toes. And he sure as heck doesn't have his badge in front of his robes or wear a backpack! Be prepared to put your bag down (but not where you can't see it at all times) or have a friend carry your stuff for you.

Also, if there is an iconic pose, remember that your costume design may not allow you to hold it. For instance, if the pose requires you to raise your arms up over your head, you will not be able to do it easily with immobile shoulder armor or delicate but huge wings or headgear in the way. Change your pose or change your armor (re-design it so you CAN hold that pose).

And if the iconic pose requires a prop, be sure you have the prop as part of your costume. Zoe from Firefly sticks a shotgun over her shoulder so the butt is by her ear and she holds it by the trigger hilt, up by her neck. Without the gun (or at least the butt of the gun), this confident pose is not possible. And if the gun is too heavy, it's not possible either.

Take a tip from stage makeup and consider lining your eyes and putting on foundation. The latter will even out your skin tone, whether you are male or female, and the former will make your eyes appear bigger and less likely to be "washed out" by your costume. That's the minimum — makeup is a cheap and easy way to enhance a look. If you need to, get the nice woman or man at the cosmetic counter of big department stores to help you. They do it for free so that you'll buy their cosmetics. But at least one or two things (like the foundation — hard to determine your foundation color / texture on your own), then get the rest at the drugstore for cheaper, if you must. (Foundation will keep you from looking too "red" or "yellow" when you walk around in your bright costume!)

If you opt to wear any sort of prosthetics (fake nose, eyebrows, wigs, etc.) then be sure you know how to put it on, and that you have enough of the adhesive for the costume. Some adhesives, like spirit gum, which is commonly used for sticking wigs and bald pates in place, can stain clothing, so plan to put that on before you put on your costume, or cover your costume with a smock or sheet / towel to avoid staining accidents. Also be sure to have "remover" products so you can get the makeup off your body (soap and warm water is often fine, but be SURE!), or cleaned off of stuff that it rubbed onto by accident.

Greasepaint, sold in many theatre and hobby shops, is good for large-area coverage (tattoos, woad-ish facepaint, etc.) and is sold in "pots" or as sticks. If you want to do some "detailing" work, try to get it in stick / pencil form, and get enough cheap makeup brushes, one for each color you need for the pots or if you need to get close to delicate areas like your eyes. Or be sure to pack extra Q-Tips or other brand of cotton swab, though you won't get as fine a line. These are also good if you want a variety of colors that are not normally represented in the makeup aisle.

A word of advice — makeup does expire, and things like mascara tend to harbor bacteria after a while. Store your makeup properly (most tends to melt if above a certain temperature) and toss it out and buy new every so often. Ask the nice people where you buy your stuff, or read any warnings on the labels. Some people do have skin allergies, and this can range from annoying (itchy) to ugly (bumps and rashes) to dangerous (argh!). Again, try stuff out to be sure in advance of debuting your costume!

You can also look into sports stores for lampblack, that stuff male athletes seem to love putting under their eyes. Maybe it's to emphasize their cheekbones?

If you choose to wear paint in lieu or a costume or skinsuit, be sure you understand that it might flake off if you use the wrong kind of paint. You might want to cover some body parts, then paint over that. It will avoid some embarrassment ... for instance, nipple pasties or a codpiece. Or just get the bodysuit or skinsuit. If you can afford it, fabrics like Lycra are good, as they 'breath' and won't make you stew in your own sweat. It also means you can decorate the suit and not have to repaint yourself every time you want to put on the costume.

As for transporting this stuff, get some Ziploc baggies or disposable plastic containers. You do NOT wanting this stuff accidentally opening and spilling all over your costume or luggage or whatever else you packed them with! For wigs and helmets, consider getting a wigstand, which is a styrofoam bald head. You can pin the wig to it, keeping the fake (or real) hair from squishing and providing some form-fitting support. Remember, if it stays in a shape for an extended period of time, it will freeze like that!

Remember that these are costumes, even when they are on the actors playing the parts. Therefore, they will tend to be made from materials cheaper and lighter than you expect. Film is about illusion, after all. And if you have 2000 special effects scenes coming up, you don't want to blow the budget wad on "authentic" armor.

The chain maille in the Lord of the Rings is woven like traditional European style maille, but it's not made of metal. They needed to make hundreds of these for extras who would be standing outside in whatever weather for hours on end. Acting, by the way, is about standing around and waiting for your shot to be prepared. Then doing it over and over and looking as enthused and fresh the 20th time as the first. So the practicality and the miniscule budget dictated how the authentic-looking costume pieces were made and constructed.

The "close camera" actors got maille made from sliced and painted PVC tube rings. The "far camera" extras were simply knitted coarse yarn which was painted black and silver. Main characters got changes of armor, etc., but Gimli's armor was designed with a more "oriental" style of maille, called (Japanese) gusari 4-in-1, and resulted in a more "flat sheet" of armor rather than the "knit row look" of European armor. Amazing what you learn, this stuff is educational, eh?

There are people and places who do make more authentic things; they'll have the rings smithed, take pointy pliers and link them together in a tedious fashion. It all depends on your level of satisfaction. If you prefer heavy, real metal stuff and you have the time, strength, budget, and skills, then go for it!

But for some of us, part of the thrill is the "cheat" and the "modification" that makes something appear to be what it's not. For that, there are many, many craft products available. Among them is Sculpyclay, which is a bake-able material, or Paperclay, which is an air-dry material made of ground papier maché and white clay and it sticks to anything that's wet-able. There is also Celluclay, which is basically ground up papier maché. You should use reinforcing for larger pieces, and we recommend stuff like burlap or wire mesh, in a variety of fineness. This will not only allow your piece to hold its shape, but if it gets knocked around or cracks, it won't fall apart or shatter to pieces.

There are also other materials with names like Fun Foam which comes in sheets and are dandy for creating tooled leather. You need to find out how to do this stuff, how to buff and polish it, etc. It helps to be involved in a costuming community and to do research. Doing an internship at a theatre might be a good start.

Every guy who chose something with a helmet and armor in our group automatically jumped on "we can cut and hammer sheet metal!" Yeah, where, do you have the equipment or skills, do you want to actually not die when you wear 100 lbs of metal, etc.? Try to keep your ego and machismo out of it; easiest way to do that is to talk these things over with people you admire. Or take a class in the required skills so you can more realistically assess if you can do what you think you want to do!

There are always alternative materials, no need to "be" authentic for most things. For instance, if you want to wear a schoolgirl skirt and top, you don't have to hound schools to find out what that stuff is made of. Anyway, if you're a grownup, you are likely the wrong size, and that stuff is made to be worn every day and be washed weekly or more often. You can get more comfy materials. And if you can't sew and want to use those magical iron-on hemming tapes, etc., then do so. The Catholic nuns are not checking your seams.

If you want the costumes to last, you should, however, look into using materials and techniques that are meant to be durable. A paper and duct tape project might do for one event, but what if you get wet (someone spills a drink on you) or a stiff breeze rips things? Oh, and if you are using papier maché of any sort, be sure to seal it both front and back (or top and bottom) to prevent it from dissolving or decomposing if you get wet or sweat a lot. And if you do sweat, make sure the costume is washable, and anything attached to it can be detached for cleaning.

Many cosplayers like to go through Goodwill and second-hand stores from time to time. Apparently, people will discard amazingly unfashionable clothing and stuff, but that will be fabric and prop gold for the cosplayer! At the very least, you can cut things apart and rebuild, and the material cost will then be close to zero.

Also, stuff you never expected to use can often be the best solution for your costume, like the aforementioned PVC tubing for chain maille. Vinyl tableclothes look rather leatheresque and sew up better; round up papier maché applied with not enough water can look like stone, cast iron, or concrete; spraypaint that looks like stone makes a great texture (to be painted over); dyed cheesecloth is wispy and cheaper than "gossamer"; are you getting the idea?

If you honestly cannot or won't make some parts for a variety of reasons (one of use refuses to work with any form of plastic or plastic solvents, for example; or you are running short on time), then look to buy strategically. Good sources include and other auction sites, and toy stores; the auction sites are also good for more primary materials too, like fabric or cheap clothing lots to cut down or re-purpose. Goodwill and thrift shops can sometimes turn up toy swords (or things which can be used as swords or staffs, etc.) which you can "re-vamp" to suit your needs better. If you can't find exactly what you want, be creative and keep your eyes open and brain working.

Here's a useful tip on "boots" — don't go and spend lots of money on real boots, or have them specially made for you. Most movie boots are cheap whatevers with things glued or sewn onto them. Or like in the case of Legolas or Gimli, they were basically leg coverings or "spats" over a shoe or short boot. Most Sci-Fi and Fantasy films suffer from an abbreviated costuming and props budget, so don't be spending more than they did!

Hot-glue is the best friend of every cosplayer, even if you get burned every so often. It's also paintable and formable to some extent, and fills in cracks nicely. Try to get the cordless type ones so you aren't tethered to the wall when you are fussing with the gluegun, or at least get an appropriate length extension cord. Also get the long gluesticks, so you aren't constantly and frequently reloading mid-seam. And try to have another pair of hands around for big gluing projects, or a bracing system so you aren't mis-gluing.

There is a fabric version of the hot glue that is designed for cloth -- a way to get around sewing some things. It also tends to not seep through the fabric onto your skin if you are gluing things while you are wearing them. That actually is practical if you are trying to figure out where things should "sit" on your body ... so, no, it's not as stupid as it sounds!

Duct tape is not as universal as you might think for costumes. Masking tape, also, has a tendency to fall off once it gets dusty, fluffy, or "particle filled." Consider them only for temporary holds or repairs.

There is a substance which will glue fabrics so they don't fray, and it goes by names like Fraycheck or Frayblock. The type that comes out of a tube tends to discolor dark fabrics, so make sure you test it out before you glop it onto somewhere it might show. These are good in that they will go through the washer and dryer without damaging anything (the fabric or the machines). But they have quick-drying solvents in them, so make sure you apply this stuff in a well-ventilated area.

Superglues come in a variety of brands and types, and make for excellent repairs, as well as for making permanent seals on many materials. Buy the variety pack if you have a "mixed media" costume and to travel with, and use the glues for what they are designed to be used with (ceramics for ceramics, wood for wood, etc.).

Whether you use a machine or do it by hand, sewing is important. If you are a novice, take a class or workshop in sewing, or how to run a sewing machine. Or, if you can convince a boyfriend or a girlfriend to help, be sure you trade in kind!

And for those of you who feel they need the look of leather, there are many, many much more easily handled fabrics which simulate leather. Not only are they easier to handle, they are usually much cheaper, too: like sueded cotton, vinyl or oilskin tanned leatherette, toweling that looks like rawhide. These often can be sewn with a machine or by hand if you have the right needles and thread.

Be sure you buy thread of an appropriate quality and color — it looks awful to have lime green elf shirt paired with red or black thread, unless you intend for it to look like that.

If you cheap out on needles, expect them to break, etc. Also, buy a decent thimble to push and pull the needle through multiple layers, and to prevent stabbing yourself! I've personally been pierced by the BACK end (the eye-side) of a needle while struggling with thick fabrics and dull points. The wound is MUCH worse than with the sharp end of a new needle, lemme tell ya.

To some extent, you can use staples and safety pins to hold things together. If you do, be sure to consider that the silvery things do show up really well in flash photos — paint or hide them!

Once you've made the costume, you will want to make sure it gets to your destination intact so you can cosplay with aplomb. How you pack it depends on what it's actually made of, and how you're traveling. But in general, you will want a container that is specifically for your costume(s), whether it is a suit bag or a coffin-like hard-sided box that can have stuff piled onto it and not damage the contents.

If your costume is clothing-based (no wings, helmets, armor, etc.) then have a suit or dress bag, one for each costume or piece of a costume, as appropriate. Use the see-thru ones so you can see what you've packed. Several cosplayers have said that it's helpful to write a list of items that are supposed to be in the bag, so you don't forget or lose anything as you leave home or the hotel / cosplay venue. As for shoes, if they are sculpted, consider bubblewrap and oversized shoe boxes, taped or strapped down. At the very least, cover them so the shoes don't mess up everything they come in contact with.

If you have pieces that have been sculpted and might become damaged, you will need to consider how to pack and pad the things so they don't get damaged. If you are going with a large box or suitcase, remember that though YOU may put the heavier stuff on the bottom, luggage handlers and machines will just dump things in whatever configuration they come across them. We've had success with a box that had a definite "top" that was somewhat rounded and had handles molded into the sides of the box, so there was really one one way to pick it up or put it down. Still, you're taking your chances!

Packing materials can be as fancy as form-fitting extruded foam, or styrofoam peanuts, blankets, towels, other clothing, shredded paper, pillows, etc. Do remember that painted things can rub off onto other materials, and things like styrofoam packing peanuts can electrostatically cling to everything. We suggest wrapping each piece in a big garbage bag (the see-through recycling bags are best!) before laying it down for wrapping. This will prevent snags and clings.

Your hotel might have an iron they can loan you, but it's been helpful to do that repairs, washing, and ironing before you travel. Many steps less to have to deal with on-site and if you are traveling in a group, someone else has inevitably decided they need your help with one thing or another!

As for makeup and things that have the potential to "leak" or "rub" onto your hard work, put them in Ziploc baggies (yes, this was mentioned before, but this is important!) or some other waterproof and leakproof container. You don't want "carmine red" all over the butt-end of your skin suit!

And when you are ready to go home, we know you're tired and all. But resist the urge to dump everything back into the box when you pack it ... you spent a zillion hours on your stuff, make sure you can use it again and pack it with as much care as when you arrived!

Be sure you bring along the "emergency bag" and put into it:
  • sewing supplies (including correct color threads and scissors!)
  • many safety pins
  • aspirin-type pain killers (sore feet! headaches! etc.!)
  • bandaids of varying size (unfamiliar shoes! blisters! papercuts! sword fights!)
  • Neosporin or some other antibiotic first-aid cream (infections! blisters!)
Throughout, we've mentioned that you should get help or take classes. But not only will a cosplaying-sympathetic friend help you get where you're going with your costume project, they can help you dress and undress. This is important if you need to be laced in, sewn in, or your eyesight will be inhibited in any way. This person can carry your wallet, keep you hydrated, keep you from passing out. He or she will be your page; you can repay them in kind at the next cosplay event. If possible, you can costume the helper to be compatible, so its not so obvious you have to have a sitter with you.

Doing these things as a group really is helpful, whether you find a group online, or you have something like a costume bee at your place every so often.

You might want to wear your costume more than once, and you'll have to figure out how to store it. Whatever you do, be sure you clean and repair your costume BEFORE you put it away. Aside from being less nasty, a clean costume is less likely to attract vermin or rot or "freeze up" in a manner that's undesirable or unrepairable.

If you can afford it, a mannequin is a nice idea to display your costume in your home or place of work, but remember if left alone it will get dusty. Put clothing in plastic or drycleaning bags or Ziplocs for temporary storage. We also like the 'under the bed box' storage options one sees for storing blankets and such.

Keeping the costume in good repair will add to your cosplay experience. You don't want to break it out and find you have a couple of hours of sewing, recoloring, and hot glueing to look forward to before you can put it on.

Also, some people simply don't have the time or resources or talent to make their own costume. If you don't want your costume anymore, you might consider letting such folks know your creation is for sale. The better its stores, the more likely your customer will be pleased!

Can't say it enough — be sure you try the full costume on your body at least once before you debut it and look at it in front of a full-length mirror. Or have a friend videotape or photograph you as you do a slow turn, you pose, get a flash photo taken of you, etc. This way you can:
  • Check to make sure you didn't forget anything;
  • Test the comfort and do the "walk test" ... and make notes about the limitations (like, will you trip over your dress / cloak, are there dangling threads / staples, you really DO need those earrings and shoes ...);
  • See if additional "under support" might be needed, or if fabric is "too sheer";
  • Practice your pose, and modify as necessary;
  • Practice putting the thing on and taking it off, and decide if you will need help;
  • Figure out how hot / cold you will be and make decisions on how long you can be in the costume before problems might arise;
  • Figure out where to clip or hang your pass or ID card ... you don't want it in the front to mar your costume's look!
  • If (godforbid) there is an emergency, will the costume need to be cut off??? Whew! It does seem like a lot to think about! Feel free to ignore these at your peril, of course. And undoubtedly, there are things we'd forgotten ... if we remember, more will come!

    There is a certain pride when creating a costume, a bit like being a kid again, but with more resources! And meeting others who appreciate what you did and want to record or efforts on film or file, that's a great rush! Honestly, this stuff is good fun.

    Good luck with your costume, and please remember to send us a pic and description of your costume and/or experience and/or tips and tricks!

    Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are the author's own, and no profit or lucre is expected, solicited, advocated or paid. This is all just for fun. Any comments, please e-mail the author or WOOKIEEhut directly. Flames will be ignored. Characters and situations are the property of LucasFilms Ltd., Bantam Publishing, Random House, and their respective original owners and developers. This essay / editorial may not be posted anywhere without the author's knowledge, consent, and permission.