When I was a young man, it was quite rare to see someone dressed in a costume from a film or television show, outside of America.
Often those who dared to dress as their favourite characters from film or television became subject to ridicule and bore the full brunt of what can only really be described as nerd hate! “You dress as who?”
Those who did manage to dress as their heroes, outside of say kindergarten would often be shunned, even by fellow fans of the shows and movies they loved so much.
This began to change during the late 70s and early 80s with the advent of the first really big conventions, and there it lay, almost dormant until a few years ago.
Sure you could go to a con and see a dozen folks dressed as Doctor Who, even the odd Vulcan; but more or less it was not popular. Then in the mid-90s a new surge of interest in dressing as comic book and movie characters began to sweep across Japan like a brush fire and soon was dubbed Cosplaying and within the space of twenty years became a world wide phenomenon.
Of course that’s the really short version and people have been cosplaying in one form or another for many decades, but that is a story for another time.
So this article is prompted by a Facebook conversation recently and hopefully can be of some help for those who have never cosplayed before and are hesitant about getting their feet wet.
All stories have a beginning and mine goes back to the late 80s and dressing in ‘fancy dress’ as Batman for the first Comic Relief fundraiser here in the UK. As part of the Student Union I joined with fellow students and dressed up to raise money for a worthy cause.
This led to other times dressing up and for my 30th birthday my wife and mother in law bought me a Star Trek Next Generation Command uniform, as I was on the committee of one of the largest Star Trek fan clubs in the UK at the time. The uniform was screen accurate and looked really smart.
Years passed and I grew older, the uniform no longer fitted and I no longer living in England had no real reason for dressing up anymore. Sure I still went to conventions here in the UK but it wasn’t till I went over to America in 2008 for the first time and to a really big convention that I saw just how big this was becoming and hit on the idea of writing a book about cosplay and how and why people get into it.
Of course to do this I really needed to get my own feet wet and would need to make my own costume or die trying.
I decided to go for something that I thought would be more or less easy to pull together as I already had some of the parts needed such as a karate gi top and a pair of boots.
There are many ways to go about putting together your first cosplay (some of which will be discussed further) but one of the best is to cosplay as something you know, at least that way you have some grounding with the character.
So it was a trip to the fabric shop with my wife Laura and out with the sewing machine. Granted I have no idea how to operate a sewing machine, but Laura does, so after a short while my outfit was starting to come together.
At the time I was working as a bar manager in a pokey wee bar here in Edinburgh and the one highlight of each week was the Karaoke run by cosplayer Mark Burwell. I took all of my outfit into work but had not told anyone that I was planning on wearing an outfit , just in case I bottled out and decided not to go through with it.
As the evening went on the pub became jam packed with people wearing their costumes, all looking amazing and having a great time. We had a competition for best costumes running (which naturally I wasn’t going to enter) and it was going to be a pretty hard decision to see who would win. Mark was dressed as Darth Maul from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and around 930pm as the pub was getting packed I came out to sing with him on the karaoke The Saga Begins by Weird Al Yankovic.
I had got changed in the small office at the back of the bar, and even though I have spoken in front of thousands of people on stage before, I was really nervous. I was met by applause and cheers when I went out and that was when I became a cosplayer!
In total my costume had cost around £20, most of which had gone on the lightsaber kit from a dealer on eBay, and the rest on material for the cloak.
Was it perfect? No
Was it screen accurate? Hell No!
Did I have fun! Oh man did I ever!
So that was my first real attempt to cosplay, I would go on to do other characters over the following years, and improve on ones I liked, ditching ones I didn’t . The Jedi stayed around for a few shows and was improved with a store bought cloak and better fitting gi, and other characters came along and went too.
So that is my story so far. It isn’t finished as no story in real life ever is completely written, but I told it so you can see where the real part of this article is coming from. So here goes
Here are a few of my cosplays
Store bought Costumes are cheating. Right?
Do you go out and buy a ready to wear costume, from a vender online or a store? is it really cosplaying if you haven’t made it yourself?
There is a lot to be said about the cosplay companies that have sprung up over the past ten years. some of it positive, some neutral and some very negative. If you get your costume online you are basically buying it blindly, not knowing if it will fit you or even in some cases turn up at all (more on which in a moment). While the person dressed as Deadpool or Wonder Woman in the image on the site may look amazing when the product arrives don’t expect to get the exact same results with a little work.
Many of the images on sites are constructed in a way to not sure you the fact that the back of the shirt may be too big, or the blouse doesn’t sit right. It is amazing what you can do with some pins and tape during a photo shoot that the public may never even guess at.
Often these costumes will use cheap materials that can tear very easily and even the more expensive ones you should expect that you may need to replace parts of the outfit such as belts or boots as the pleather that they often use is very low quality and will rip or tear with use and wear over time.
Buying online is often cheaper than going to bricks and mortar store, but you do take several risks. That said if you use a reputable site such as Cosplay Sky and don’t find the outfit fit for your needs you can often return it, though return postage is often very expensive.
If you do decide to buy online, it is really important that you shop around before you hit purchase on your cart. Many vendors on eBay, Etsy, and sites such as Aliexpress and T-Mart will offer the same outfit, but the prices can vary from a few bucks extra, or huge savings in the long run.
Some of the larger sites or vendors will even offer a tailoring option that will make the outfit to your size. This is a great option and worth spending the extra cash on if your budget will allow it. Make sure that you get someone to help you with your measurements so that they are correct. Also speaking of measurements bear in mind that sizes on Asian sites are not the same as US/UK/Euro sites and even though there may be a size conversion table, not all sizes will fit as well.
The big advantage of buying off the peg is that you ‘re getting something that is more or less ready to wear from opening the package. This can save many hours of sewing and gluing, and you may not have the skill set to do that, so store bought is a good way forward. As I mentioned above, a lot of the store bought products tend to be cheap material but can look good and you can, of course, add to or alter anything you wish too.
It is a very good idea that if possible when you buy a store bought costume that you make sure that everything is okay with it as soon as you get it, and try it on to make sure it fits and if needed get any adjustments made where necessary. Do this as soon as you can as leaving it till the last moment can mean things don’t work out right and could leave you wishing you had never bothered in the first place.
This also goes for shoes, boots and most of all wigs which will need to be styled before you wear them.
Retail highstreet stores such as Escape sell a wide range of costumes nowadays and quite often larger supermarket chains or stores such as Disney will stock costumes for some of their more popular characters all year round, shop around and see what you can afford.
Another way to go about getting a costume is to have it commissioned for you by a costumer. There are lots of advantages to having a commissioned costume and a few disadvantages that are worth mentioning. One of the first big disadvantages is if this is your first ever time at cosplaying and you are wanting a custom made costume, where do you go? There are literally thousands of people who make costumes and props for other people, dotted all over the world, but if you are totally new to the hobby, and lets face it for many people it is a hobby; then where do you look for these people to make costumes for you?
Social media such as Facebook is often a cosplayers best friend and worst enemy rolled into one neat little bundle. Here you can quite easily find people who make whatever costume you desire as there are hundreds if not thousands of groups dedicated to cosplaying, and almost as many dedicated to conventions, often with their own splinter groups for cosplaying, photography and more.
Facebook groups can be a real god send if you are new to the hobby and will allow you to track down someone who can help with a commission. Word of mouth has always been the best way to sell something to someone, and many costumers will get work on the recommendations of people who they have done work for in the past, its that simple.
So you have found your perfect costume and someone to make it for you who is highly skilled and has a great talent for turning things into costumes. Here is what to expect!
- Price: Don’t expect a costume from a commission to be cheaper than something you can buy off the shelf in a store or on eBay. This is a hand made item that is made specifically for you and is bespoke.
- Time: Don’t expect to put an order in on Friday and have the commission in your hands on Monday. Any costumer worth their salt will give you a realistic time frame in which they can get your commission finished, often in weeks, though for larger and more detailed costumes it could be months.
- You get what you ask for: As this is a bespoke item, it will most likely be one of a kind, so be very specific when you explain what you want. It is no use just saying that I want a Judge Dredd helmet and when you get it, the helmet is not based on the artist you wanted it too so please be as specific as you can. Nearly all of the good costumers will have a set of very specific questions that they will ask you and will often have a consultation with you and point out any problems that they may encounter which your costume or prop.
- Expect to pay a deposit: Naturally, you will have to expect to make a downpayment on your costume, which normally will be around half of the total cost up front. The materials for the outfit will need to be purchased and in some cases even ordered before work can begin. The deposit will secure you in a contract with the vendor, showing that you are both committed to it, them to make the product and you to pay for it. This may sound like common sense but you would be surprised at how many people don’t understand how this works.
- Expect to wait: As mentioned above, doing a custom commission is not something that can be rushed and while the vendor may only have your commission to work on, they are just a regular person like yourself. Many vendors have regular day jobs and can only work on commissions during the evenings or weekends.
Commissioned work can be truly astounding and as it is always bespoke, it will be unique to you. There are some amazingly talented folks out there who can turn what is more or less a few bits of scraps, into a fully functional costume. As I mentioned, use the Facebook groups to find good crafters who can help you.
You can only Cosplay as someone famous right?
For every convention or event you attend, you will see dozens of cosplayers, and if it is one of the larger events, it could well number into the thousands. On the whole, most cosplayers tend to dress as someone they really admire from a show, book, comic or cartoon that they love. Of course, not everyone loves the same thing and for every 10th Doctor or Harley Quinn you see at a con, you will see someone who is dressed as someone you have no idea who they are meant to be. In fact, some very talented and respected cosplayers will go out of their way to cosplay as a little known character from a movie or comic book, and if you manage to get the character right, it means that to them they have done a good job!
Not everyone wants to dress up as Batman or Deadpool, and many are just happy cosplaying as something they like that is totally obscure to all the diehard of fans, while others create their own unique persona and craft around that!
Cosplaying is just for geeks!
Let’s get one thing clear, cosplaying is dressing up, pure and simple. Sure its let’s pretend and often costs more than regular clothing, but it is still dressing up. Most people associate cosplaying with geeks and geek culture and while to some degree this holds some truth, as many of the geek brigade have taken cosplay in under their collective wings, in others it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many cosplayers are family people, with children and partners and it is very common to see an entire family who cosplay, with the parents not being at all interested in the geek nature or aspect, but more having fun with their children. These family units often will cosplay as members of a fictional family for added effect and always manage to at least raise a smile if not turn a head or two when they pass.
It’s only in recent years that it’s been seen as an acceptable norm, but now it is a very welcome sight to see a family cosplaying together.
Family asides, more and more people are taking up cosplay as a form of fun, including some well known celebrities who often attend the largest cons incognito, mingling with the crowds who are unaware of their presence. Some celebrities such as Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame make it a goal each year to design a cosplay and go as long as they can without being recognised by one of their fans, and to his credit, Adam is pretty good at that!
Who do I cosplay as?
This is a question that gets brought up more often than you would imagine, and recently there has a been a trending meme asking who should I cosplay as? The short answer is whoever you wish to cosplay as then go for it, there is no right or wrong answer to the question, just a matter of personal choice.
I have seen many people cosplaying over years, with hundreds of female Doctor Who cosplayers (normally 10th and 11th Doctor), guys dressed as Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and loads of cross cosplay such as lady Deadpool. The one thing that all these had in common was the people doing the cosplay were all having a great amount of fun, and sometimes it is good to turn a stereotype on its head and gender bend a cosplay.
There are though a few things to take note of, all of which are common sense really, but worth mentioning.
- Try to cosplay as something you like or are at least familiar with. Cosplaying as a character from the Hunger Games when you know nothing about the movies, books or games could leave you feeling out of place when fans approach you or make conversation.
- If you cosplay as something obscure or that may not be really popular, don’t get worked up or upset if nobody has a clue who you are. I dressed as an Observer from Fringe at a con one year and only one person knew who I was, but thats part of the challenge and fun. Don’t let it put you off that people don’t know who you are cosplaying as!
- Have fun. If you are not having fun cosplaying, then simply don’t do it, or at least take a break. Like any hobby, if it stops being fun there is something fundamentally wrong somewhere and you need to take stock and reevaluate
But I am too tall/short/fat/thin?
Nope just nope!
Its not about dressing as and looking identical to a character, its about owning it yourself and having fun. Size and height should have no bearing on the cosplay scene, likewise colour or race which are just another way that cosplaying can cross boundaries. Sexual orientation or gender is again nothing to stand in your way, and if you are a straight guy who wants to cosplay as a bisexual woman, then why the hell not and go for it!
People will laugh
Yes! Yes they will laugh and you will find yourself at times wondering why you ever did this in the first place. But rest assured most of those who laugh at you will not be at a convention or event! Making your way to an event in costume is a little like skinny dipping, its a very nerve-wracking thing as you will feel exposed and vulnerable but the water is soon warmed up by the number of other fellow cosplayers in their costumes and you will relax. It is not without its flaws going to a convention in your costume, and those that do laugh or ridicule you will tend to be the kind of people that you would not want to associate with anyway and mostly they are jealous that they don’t have the guts to do something fun like cosplaying. That said it doesn’t happen all the time, and personally speaking in the years I have been cosplaying I have only had to suffer this treatment once. Naturally, I am old enough and wise (sic) enough to know that the idiots who do bait or ridicule are just that, but sometimes words can be very hurtful and if you are a young person or vulnerable it can be very off putting.
Best advice is just ignore them, or if you do feel worried keep your cosplay in a bag till you arrive at the venue.
Your First Con!
Okay so you have taken the plunge and have bought, commissioned or made your own costume and are all ready for your first event. What to do next?
On the whole the majority of conventions will have some form of booking system that will allow you to purchase tickets online in advance of the day. Buying a ticket beforehand is a very essential part of the con experience and there is nothing worse than turning up for an event and discovering you can’t get in as they have reached capacity. Most of the larger cons will offer a deal that will allow you to save money if you buy a pass for more than one day, not much but its a saving you can put towards your days out!
Early bird tickets which allow entry to the con long before the rest of the public are something that I would strongly urge you go for, especially if you have children with you or have to travel a long distance. Having gone from Edinburgh to London for a convention and met up with friends who didn’t have early entry tickets and found that they couldn’t get in even after a five hour wait was a total kick in the teeth. Early bird bookings will often give you a great saving, especially for the much larger conventions and events. That said even with early access you may be expected to wait till you get in, due mostly down to crowd control and fire safety but don’t be surprised if you do have to wait a while!
Conventions do sell out! Some of the large ones put their tickets up for sale many months before the event, and as mentioned above always try to buy in advance as you may not always be able to pay on the door.
Okay you are going to your first con. You have sorted out your costume, you have bought your tickets (lets say its close to home so you don’t need to think about overnight accommodation in this example) and are counting down the days till the event rolls along. Whats next?
These days almost every convention you can think of (and there are hundreds each year now) will have its own support on social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. Many have groups where people can meet up with like-minded cosplayers and discuss everything from details about the con and what to expect, to what characters they love or don’t like and of course memes, memes everywhere!
The groups are an excellent way to meet other cosplayers and make new friends and also find out what is going on at the event. A lot of cosplayers or photographers will organise photoshoots for cosplayers of a particular genre or group and set a time and location within the venue for these to take place. Most groups will use this as a sounding board and its an ideal way to meet up with some of the people you may have met in the group. Meet ups tend to be either very small with just a few folks who are into the same cosplay themes, or huge with dozens of cosplayers and photographers and can often look like organised chaos, but they are great fun. To date I think the biggest single meet up we have done was about 90 Marvel cosplayers and 15 photographers at Edinburgh Comic Con, though the Marvel vs DC shoots at MCM Scotland are not something to be sniffed at either!
Join the groups and get stuck right in. Don’t be afraid of being new as nearly all the groups will offer help and advice and more.
Okay I can’t mention social media without toxicity. This by no means is just something that can be labelled towards the cosplay community itself, but is more down to what happens when you get any bunch of people together in a social setting, some people will feel affronted by others, while some will go out of their way to make people feel uncomfortable. Under no circumstances allow anyone to do this to you and report them to the group admin as toxicity in cosplay is not something we want to promote, but come down hard on. The admins in most of the groups are very good at dealing with people who wish to go out of their way to cause trouble for others. And most likely you will be able to pick up on vibes yourself, but it is worth mentioning.
The Big Day
Okay so you have joined the groups and made plans, even arranged to meet up with some fellow cosplayers for a shoot. You have everything in hand, costume is ready and you arrive at the venue and are let in for the first time. Here is exactly what to expect!
Doors open, you rush in and look around, meet up with people and have fun. You walk around and see more and more people and have fun. Con finishes you go home and plan your next one
Doors finally open and you are swept inside with a rush of human bodies that carry you like a leaf on a river into the building. You find your senses are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people close by and that their are so many stalls you could’t possibly see them all. Then you walk around, meet up with folks, walk some more, maybe do a shoot, walk some more and before you know it the con finishes and you head home exhausted!
Okay this is very basically put, but in essence its very true. Most of the time at conventions will see you walking around from stall to stall or area to area throughout the day. Some of the larger or better organised conventions have other things on offer such as areas to play games, quizzes, cosplay talent shows/masquerades, talks from guests and much more. Smaller cons may only have a few dealers and not much else to offer and can be a bit underwhelming if you are expecting to see the likes of San Diego Comic Con in a church hall in Barnsley!
Most cons will have areas dedicated for cosplayers to relax and change and many of the larger cons have cosplay first aid stations where you can fix broken costumes, its sad but it does happen to every cosplayer at least once.
Photos and Consent
Okay most of this article has been pretty light-hearted and more or less to the point. Cosplaying is fun and a great way to pass the time with like minded people. One of the biggest things about the current cosplay scene and the spate of conventions and events that have popped up over the recent years, is that of taking photos with cosplayers and those in costume. Sure people do want to have their photos taken, after all they may have spent many weeks working on a costume or paid a lot of money to have it made for them, but one thing that they all should have in common is that you should ask them if its possible to take their photograph before you just go ahead and whip out the camera or smart phone.
It is a pretty touchy subject as you do want to capture as much of the day for yourself as possible and one of the great things we can use with memories these days is the humble smart phone. But always ask first.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred a cosplayer is most likely going to smile and let you take their photo, even though they have perhaps only just posed for a couple of dozen images a few moments ago. It is not unusual for some of the talented cosplayers to be photographed hundreds of times during a convention, and on the whole, they will remain polite . A couple of simple rules are below
- Ask can you take a photo. If the person says no, please respect that.
- Please don’t ask for a photo when a cosplayer is eating, they are human (though some have the stamina to make them seem otherwise) and do need to eat and in peace.
- When you do take photos please be respectful of the cosplayers. No low unflattering camera shots or sneaky down the blouse cleavage shots, be tasteful and polite as nobody wants to be hit on or perved over during a con.
- As with rule number 3, don’t attempt to adjust any part of the cosplayers costume and try to keep hands free from them at all times.
- Always thank the person you have taken the photos of and were possible compliment them. Also not such a rule but an observation, if you have a blog or plan on posting the photos on a group or social media, let the cosplayer know where they can see the images, business cards are exchanged hands at cons so often I am surprised the nobody has caught on to the idea to sell them!
These are pretty simple rules but over the years there have been a large number of instances where photographers have crossed the line and many cons now rightly adopt the ‘Cosplay is not Consent’ policy! A large number of cosplayers are under the age of twenty years old, many of those have social issues that make them vulnerable to others preying on them, so we look out for each other. If you feel yourself getting uncomfortable around a photographer just tell them you have had enough and walk away, or if they do break any of the simple rules above grab someone from the convention and make them aware. It could be that they are just excited and have forgotten themselves, or sadly it could be something darker. This is not a common thing but it does happen.
Meeting your public
Okay a final thought here but one worth noting for all new cosplayers to the hobby and those just setting out on this grand adventure.
It is more or less inevitable that you will get stopped at some point while in costume and asked for a photo, either a selfie or to pose so someone can take the image. Often it is by people dressed in the same genre as yourself, Harry Potter fans and Overwatch fans tend to keep to themselves, Disney Princesses seem to gravitate towards each other and Marvel cosplayers just mingle around.
The first time someone asks you for your picture it can be really strange. You may have spent weeks working on the outfit and poured a lot of time and patience into it, and some complete stranger now wants to take a photo of you in it.
Naturally, you may feel shy or awkward, but if you are up for it, try to relax and enjoy it. You don’t have to go the full hog of adopting a pose for the character, just do what feels comfortable.
And of course, have fun! That is the whole point when it all comes down to it.
So there you have it a very quick look at cosplaying! Of course this is not an exhaustive list by any means, but if it is of help to someone, well it was worth writing up.