Newbie’s Guide to Cosplaying

Cosplay is a super popular hobby nowadays, even becoming somewhat mainstream! But so many people decide they want to start cosplaying but aren’t sure how to begin. Here’s a little guide to help with that first step.

Part 1: Choosing a cosplay

The first step in cosplaying is of course deciding what costume to do! For some of us that’s easy (I know I am not alone in my friends circle having a planned cosplay list at least 15-20 costumes deep!)  For others its hard. But don’t let anyone dictate to you who you should or should not cosplay.

General rule of thumb: pick a character you are passionate about. Doesn’t matter if the gender/size/hair color/age/species is the same as you. Do you like the character? Do you love their personality and want to be them for a day? Then you should totally cosplay them! I hate threads where people go “who should I cosplay?” – because then if someone else chooses the costume you’re not going to be invested in it. The word “cosplay” means “costume play” – never ever forget the “play” part or you are going to resent cosplaying. Nothing wrong with asking if you look like a character…but if someone says you look like the villain you despise, don’t feel like you have to cosplay that villain just because you look like them.

I also am of the school of thought that you should at least have *some* passing familiarity with the character. Don’t pick a Persona 5 character just because everyone says you should cosplay them and have no idea what the game is even about. Again, it’s not fun if you don’t know the character! Better to choose a character you know something about, so you can enjoy the act of stepping into their shoes.

Step 2: Research!

This is actually one of my favorite parts. I love the act of gathering reference material for a costume! I tend to do a lot of screencapping myself – I use a program called VLC (which is free and available for Windows, Mac, and Linux) to watch videos on my laptop & iPad, and it has a great built in screencap feature. VLC is great because it can handle just about any video format out there (and you can watch DVDs through it as well). I will rewatch episodes featuring the costume I’m researching with my fingers on the shortcut buttons for taking a screencap. Sometimes if there’s action I’ll rapid-fire screenshots and then narrow it down to the shots that aren’t blurry.

Google Images is also a good resource, sometimes. Be careful with images from there – if it’s for your own personal reference file, that’s fine. But be careful about re-sharing images pulled from Google unless you verify the source.  It does help though, especially to find publicity photos which are sometimes closer (and show more detail) than what you’ll see in a screencap. You sometimes will find photos of other cosplayers too, which I find helps especially for anime costumes, because you can see what the costume looks like in real life.  Tumblr is another good source to find publicity photos and cosplayers photos. If the costume/character is from Kamen Rider or Super Sentai, and Premium Bandai sells the costume pieces, their own website will have some of the best reference images. They often will have photos of front, back, sides, and show the garment flat and on a person.

Try to get all angles of the costume if you can. The back is often the hardest part but try to get screencaps showing it. Don’t forget all the other parts of the costume too – hair, shoes, gloves, props, etc.  I have so many screencaps of some character’s hair because I was struggling to style the wig!

As you gather the material try to break down the costume into its component pieces. There’s an app called CosPlanner (available on iOS and Android, free with ads or a small charge to remove ads), which lets you make a list of each piece of a costume, and make notes, keep track of money spent, and more. Start from the head and work your way down – include everything! Is the costume a one piece dress, two piece pantsuit, multiple layers of cloaks?

CosPlanner is also a good place to keep your reference images – you can drop them right into the app under the character. I’ll put some highlight images in there for easy reference. My main file, though, is on Dropbox. It’s a huge chunk of the space on my Dropbox account in fact – there’s a folder for each character or series, with tons of images (like seriously hundreds in a couple of the ones I’m more passionate about). I can easily throw the photos in the folder from my computer, and access them on my iPad, phone, or in a pinch any computer connected to the internet.

Once you know what pieces there are to the costume, start breaking down each piece. Some pieces are easy, there’s a simple easily-available pattern to make it or it’s a very easy to find shirt style. Others are a little harder – you might need to get creative, alter an existing garment or tweak a pattern. You don’t have to make final decisions now, but it’s good to start figuring out what you need to do. CosPlanner lets you mark if an item is to be purchased or made, and this is the stage where you start making a shopping list. In my experience, what seems like the simplest shirt may take forever to find, so identify what you need/want to shop for now so you can keep your eyes open while out shopping for other stuff.

Step 3: Making the costume!

Now is the time on Sprockets where we dance….er, make! Time to take that list of items you figured out last step, keep those reference photos handy, and start buying or making everything.

I’m sure some of you are saying, I don’t know how to sew! Which is fine – for you, there’s shopping for people who will sew for you. But it’s great that you have your reference – they love that! Another reason I use Dropbox – I can give someone I’m commissioning a link to my full folder of reference images. I’ve gotten so many compliments on the thoroughness of my file. The more reference the better. Sometimes, for a super popular character, there will be lots of options of where to get the costume.

Costume pieces/the main costume

There are some websites out there where you can buy ready-made costumes or costume pieces. There’s also options for ordering costume pieces made to your measurements. A lot of these are overseas – and nothing wrong with that, but there is a need for caution. Read over website and seller rules, be very careful with measurements. Get a friend to help you with measuring yourself (it’s hard to do accurately on yourself), and always make note of your measurements in inches and in centimeters! I have a file in Notes on my iPhone that has all my measurements in both inches and centimeters to refer to. A lot of these overseas sellers only know centimeters. However, a US-based costume creator is more likely to deal in inches.

AliExpress – this is a site based in Asia and has a LOT of cosplay on offer, both ready-made and made-to-order. It’s set up kind of like eBay, with individual sellers and AliExpress is just the platform. Be sure to look over the seller’s info very carefully before ordering – some sellers are great, some are not. I’ve had both – I had a pair of boots made that were just a little too tight initially (at the top, the feet were perfect) and the seller was fantastic about remaking them for just the cost of shipping the new pair. I had another seller that made a custom piece, which came and was unwearable it was so tight, and they refused to do anything unless I paid full price and then some for a second piece.

CosplaySky – I have not ordered from this website personally yet, but I have friends who have and they seem to be happy. They definitely have decent prices and a good selection. Their about us page has a US address but they are pretty much a China-based company (like many cosplay manufacturers)

Amazon – Amazon has been adding a lot of costume stuff lately. It’s also a good source of regular clothing pieces for costumes – like I’ve bought jeans and sweaters for different costumes on there.

Wigs

Unless you happen to have the exact same hairstyle as a character or are willing and able to cut/dye your hair to match, you’ll likely need a wig. Here’s where those reference images come in handy again – not just for finding a wig but for styling it. It’s very rare you’ll be able to just pull a wig out of the packaging and put it on and be perfect. Usually you’ll need to at the very least comb out tangles and frizzing. Some characters will need more drastic styling – anime characters often have gravity-defying hair that is difficult to achieve without a wig and lots of glue.

Arda wigs – Arda is a very popular wig shop. Based in Chicago, not only do they have some of the best quality wigs, but they also offer other necessities for your costume, like makeup and foam for armor-building. Their wigs are heat resistant, which means you can use stuff like hair dryers or curling irons for styling without worrying about melting the wig. Seriously – my friend had an Arda wig that was at ground zero of a house fire and the next day we could still see the individual fibers (the plastic bag was more melted than the wig!)

Purple Plum – Another wig shop, based in the Chicago area, Purple Plum has a smaller selection of wigs but their wigs are really nice. Some of my favorite wigs are from them! Their prices are super great too. They sell at a lot of cons, in connection with AnimeStuffStore, and are also available at AnimeStuffStore’s Plainfield, IL physical store. Their social media pages feature cosplayers wearing their wigs so you can see what they look like in action.

Epic Cosplay – Epic has really nice wigs, the fibers are so super silky and soft. Based in California, they have some of the fastest shipping I’ve experienced (I’m in Chicago and I once placed an order at dinner Saturday evening and had it in hand by Tuesday afternoon). They also have a booth at different cons, which is a great way to see their wigs in person. Their prices are really good too. They also have a line of fashion wigs that are a bit pricier but also higher quality from what I understand (I haven’t gotten one…yet!)

Amazon – Yeah, them again. If you’re looking for super cheap, this is where you may find it. Be aware that super cheap sometimes also means low quality. I have an Amazon wig that started shedding fibers the moment I pulled it out of the package. But sometimes you can get lucky.

AliExpress – You can find lots of wigs on this site too – both styled and unstyled. There’s even character specific wigs to be found!

CosplaySky – They also have wigs – most are geared for a specific character, but don’t let that limit you. The Gamora wig might very well work for a different character with a little restyling.

Step 4: Wearing the costume!

Your costume is done! It looks amazing! Now what? Well, it’s time to show it off. When I first started cosplaying I picked out my first costume and then said where can I go? Back then I only had Cosplay.com to refer to to find a convention, but now there’s lots more information available.

Conventions

Most cosplayers tend to show off their work at fan conventions. I have a more thorough guide to finding a convention to go to (and how to plan your weekend) elsewhere on my website. My two main go-to sites for finding out what conventions are coming up are PopCultHQ and FanCons.

One of the best parts about conventions, especially certain cons, is there tends to be gatherings of cosplayers for different fandoms/shows. So if you choose to cosplay from, say, Kingdom Hearts but don’t know other people who are into that fandom, this is a great way to make new friends and also get photos of different characters interacting.

Charity groups

Some cosplayers choose to give back with their costuming and participate in groups that do cosplay for charity. The main one I belong to is Costumers With a Cause. There’s also groups like the Rebel Legion and 501st that are specifically Star Wars costumes (and do charity work).

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