You wake up in the morning, practically vibrating in excitement, with the thought in your head: Today is the day.
What day is it? Why, the day of your first convention of course!
As you approach the front of the convention center, wearing your favourite superhero's logo proudly across your chest, you suddenly are struck with a strange sense… because standing before you in the long line waiting for passes, is the living embodiment of the superhero you so love. For a moment you pause, unsure if you actually woke up that morning, so striking is this person before you. But after a swift pinch on the inside of your arm, you realize you are not dreaming and that very much is a flesh and blood rendition of your hero.
This phenomenon is called "Cosplay deja vu", a term I just coined about five seconds ago. But if you are not familiar with the sensation that has been sweeping the Western geek world for the last ten years, you are soon going to find out more than you ever thought you needed to know. Cosplay is short for costume play, and as with most ridiculous things, it originated in Japan. The name is a pretty good indication of what is consists of: basically, a person attempts to replicate a character from some form of fandom, be it comic books, anime, live action TV, etc. At first it was not very big here in America, but as anime conventions became more popular more and more cosplayers began to pop up. Now the culture of it is huge, and it is uncommon to NOT experience cosplayers at a convention.
So you go to a convention, you see some absolutely amazing embodiments of equally as incredible characters, witness the attention they're getting and see how much fun they're having… and you think that perhaps YOU would like to become involved in this new and exciting branch of the geek world.
Well, getting involved is not that hard. All you need is some patience, a passion for what you are doing, dedication, and perhaps some skill level at being crafty (although this last one can easily be skirted). There is not some sort of fancy exclusive cosplay club. You don't have to know other cosplayers to cosplay, there is not some sort of judgmental creed that everyone adheres to. The main point of cosplay is to have FUN, and if dressing up as a fictional character is fun to you, then by all means you should do it.
The number one first and foremost rule about cosplay you always need to remember is this: hard work shows. Don't pick up some shirt at a thrift store that KIND OF looks like the one your character wears; don't buy 10 dollar wigs from the costume shop in the mall. If you're going to invest time and money into a costume, why half ass it? Besides, the more work you put into your costume to make it totally accurate, the more satisfied you will be at the end of it.
Still interested? Then the first step is to choose a character to cosplay. It always helps to go with characters you are familiar with; don't choose someone just because you like their costume or their hair is the same colour as yours. If you have been reading a comic recently and feel like you really connect with a particular character, then you are probably going to really enjoy embodying that character, and that will show to other people. That being said, you cannot always take this approach. For example, if you are a naturally tall and scrawny boy you are not going to be a very convincing Superman; if you are a short and chubby lady you're not going to be able to pull off Emma Frost. You will end up looking a bit silly and it will probably not be an enjoyable experience, which will be the end of your short lived cosplay days. Try to find characters that you enjoy but also fit your body type. And if you are new to sewing or crafting things, try to attempt an easy character on your first go (unless you are willing to shell some bucks out to a seamstress).
So you've chosen who you want to cosplay, what do you do now? You need to sit down and write a list of every little thing you'll need, from the details on their jewelry to the makeup that they wear. The more thorough your costume, the more convincing and awe inspiring you will be. Also, NEVER overlook the hair. Even if you are wearing an impeccably crafted costume that fits you to a T, if your hair is the wrong colour or style your credibility is going to go through the floor. In this scenario, I am choosing to make the costume myself, as it is always much more rewarding this way. There are other options for the costumes – like shops on eBay in China that will custom make you costumes of your choice – but these generally cost a decent amount of money and take a very long time.
Head to your local craft shop and pick out the fabric and pattern you will need for your costume. I generally look through the patterns until I find something remotely similar to the costume I am constructing, and then I alter it as I need to. After you have found your pattern, you need to take a lot of time to focus on the fabric. Cheaper is definitely not always better, and if you are cosplaying you probably should not be on a budget as it is a money consuming hobby. There are several things you need to take into consideration: the type of fabric your character probably wears (for example, if you are cosplaying Supergirl, don't buy vinyl or jersey); the way it is going to feel on your skin (cheap fabric generally itches); and also the fact that you are going to be wearing this costume for a very long time so find something that can BREATHE so you do not contribute to the ever afflicting nerd funk.
Time for the hard work! Sewing is not difficult as long as you have patience and access to tutorials online. Obsessive perfectionism shows, so don't rush anything. Make sure you are beginning your cosplay with weeks and weeks to spare. I taught myself to sew entirely from tutorials on youtube and instructables (and also some help from some very patient friends), but if you are feeling intimidated you could always check out craigslist or look on cosplay.com for other cosplayers in your area. One of the great things about the cosplay community is that it is extremely receptive and kind, and they are always happy to welcome new people into their fold.
Props are also something you need to take into consideration, depending on how hardcore you want to be. However, one thing to remember: most conventions will not allow "live steel", so your weapons/props need to be pretty harmless (you'll have to "peace bind" them anyway, which means that you go to a special room and tie a ribbon around it that is basically a promise not to hit small children with your Thor's hammer). This means that 100% of props need to be made by you or someone you know, and you need to be creative and use things like styrofoam or plastic. Also make sure that you are willing to carry your props around the convention with you: again, it is all about how accurate you wish to be.
So now you have this great costume, but your hair is not the same colour or style as your character's… at all. Well, this is the most important part of cosplay in my opinion, as a wig can make or break your costume. Always go for high quality wigs: the ones in the price range of about 40 to 80 dollars are the ones you should be looking at. I buy mine off of amazon and eBay mostly, but local costume shops may have nicer wigs. The basic rule of thumb is this: if you are looking at the wig in the light and it has a fake looking sheen to it, it is a bad wig. A wig can still look like a wig, but the general goal is to make it look like at least slightly passable hair. Also make sure it is thick enough that the skull cap never shows through, because that ruins the effect entirely.
When trying on the wig, make sure it fits your head. I always buy adjustable ones because my brain is so big. Nylon wig caps are an absolute must, as it is the best way to keep the wig on your head (aside from bobby pins) and it keeps all of YOUR hair from escaping when you can't get to a mirror for awhile. For ladies with long hair: do not ponytail your hair, as it creates a giant lump at the back of the wig. Twist it up and let it be loose within the wig cap, as it creates a much more convincing line.
All of this hard work, money, and time pays off, because when you are standing in front of the mirror and looking back at you is your favourite character… well, it's a bit of a rush.
As for convention etiquette while cosplaying…
Lots of people are going to stop you and ask for your picture. Make sure to practice a few poses beforehand so they do not catch you off guard. The key is to really get INTO character. I have encountered people cosplaying the Joker who grab people's faces and laugh, and other people cosplaying Jack Sparrow who will steal people's ice cream cones. The more into it you are, the more fun you and the people around you will have.
Please, please make sure your costume is wrinkle free and clean. I ALWAYS febreeze my costumes before use, because I know that I am going to be lurking around a sea of bodies for the entire day. It makes a huge difference for other convention goers, and I cannot stress this enough.
Despite this guideline I have offered, the number one thing you need to remember is to HAVE FUN. Cosplay is an enjoyable hobby that can make you a lot of new friends, and being someone else for a day is pretty damn exhilirating.
With San Diego Comic Con approaching and convention season in full swing, I am doing a series of convention related articles leading up to this mecca of geekiness. If you have any particular things you would like me to talk about, or any interesting/weird/cool stories and/or photographs of your convention experiences, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Molly McIsaac points her camera at everything and enjoys fictional characters with green hair. You can stalk her to your heart's content on Twitter.
All photographs in this article are taken by Molly McIsaac.