Cosplay 101: The Basics of Cosplay by Holly Rose Swinyard

Cosplay by Kamui
Image: Kamui

Wearing costumes for fun is far from new and costume parades were an integral part of early comic and other media conventions. But cosplay as a concept, in many ways a whole separate world to comic and other media fandom, has only become truly recognised in its own right very recently. Cosplayers the world over pour their heart and soul into the creations, many going to great lengths to come up with something unique and eye catching, and here at downthetubes we wanted to find out more about their craft. Holly Rose Swinyard, a cosplayer for over a decade, has obliged with a series of articles…

Cosplay. What exactly is it?

Honestly, that’s a question I’ve been asking myself for the last ten years, since I started cosplaying back in 2007. I think most people involved in nerdom have seen a lot of cosplay over the years; even more so in recent time as it becomes more and more popular, but there seems to be a lack of understanding what it actually is. The most well-known cosplayers, such as Jessica Nigri and Yaya Han, do give an insight to the world of cosplay, but this is only a small window onto what cosplay is, and what it means to cosplayers.

In 1910, a young woman in Tacoma, Washington created a MrSkygack costume to wear to a masquerade ball (where she won first prize). A male friend, Otto James, later borrowed the outfit to advertise a skating rink. As he paraded up and down a main street of the city, the Tacoma police arrested him for violating an ordinance prohibiting masquerading on public streets. He was released on $10 bail. (Via I09)
In 1910, a young woman in Tacoma, Washington created a MrSkygack costume to wear to a masquerade ball (where she won first prize). A male friend, Otto James, later borrowed the outfit to advertise a skating rink. As he paraded up and down a main street of the city, the Tacoma police arrested him for violating an ordinance prohibiting masquerading on public streets. He was released on $10 bail. (Via I09)

Trying to define a word that covers so many different ideas, skills and experiences is tricky, as everyone you ask will have a different idea. Some people will simply see it as dressing up, getting to run around as your favourite superhero for a weekend. But for others, it becomes so much more than that. I’m not going to say “it’s a life style” because even that isn’t completely right, but hopefully by the end of this article, in fact this series of articles, I will have not only been able to explain cosplay to you, but also to myself.

A lot of people seem to think that cosplay comes from Japan, and the word itself does seem to (Takahashi Nobuyuki, a Japanese reporter who went to WorldCon in 1984, helped create it), but the earliest record of someone dressing up as a character from a piece of media for an event that was not theatrical in the West is in 1908, when a Mr. and Mrs. William Fell attended a masquerade at a skating rink in Cincinnati, Ohio wearing costumes from the newspaper strips Mr Skygack from Mars and Miss Dillpickles, both published in the Chicago Day Book.

Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas in their Things to Come-inspired
Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas in their Things to Come-inspired “futuristicostumes” at the first Worldcon in New York in 1939

In 1939, Myrtle R. Douglas, aka Morojo, attended the first Worldcon SF Convention in New York in costume with husband and fellow fan Forrest J Ackerman wearing “futuristicostumes” straight out of the 1936 H.G. Wells movie Things to Come. They continued to promote what we now call cosplay in the many SF ‘zines that she wrote for and edited over the next 20 years. It caught on quickly and by the second Worldcon, many more people had started “fan costuming” and the rest is, well, history.

But I’ve got ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. What does cosplay mean?

Basically, it’s an amalgam of costume and play. And there is no more succinct way of explaining it; cosplay is wearing a costume and playing the part. So it’s a bit like acting but not, though some people really get into character (see Deadpools). With cosplay, there it’s more like being able to find something of yourself in that character and inhabit them for a bit.

If you’re like me, then this often means being able to play up a certain aspect of your personality, rather than being “this person is exactly like me!” After all, I’d be pretty worried if I was actually like General Hux…

As for the costume aspect, that’s pretty self-explanatory, or at least you’d think so, right? You just put on a costume, right? RIGHT?

Well, sort of. You can just put on a costume. Lots of people buy their costumes, it’s fun and simple, especially since you can buy pretty good costumes online nowadays for not too much, or commission them if you have more to spend. It’s a good way to get involved in cosplay without having to panic that you can’t sew. It’s like taking a first step into the pool without having to jump in the deep end with the power tools and thermoplastics. And actually, plenty of people enjoy doing that. It’s more of the “play” element, getting your costume on and going down to the con with your friends, having a nice time and taking pictures.

Some people though, well they take it a bit further, making these elaborate creations themselves. Cosplayers can spend years learning how to sew, make dresses, tailor suits, use foams and plastics to make armour, cast gems, props, weapons, buy 3-D printers, embroidery machines… oh the list goes on!

There are so many ways to build costumes, a myriad of methods, hundreds, if not thousands, of materials to choose from and so many characters you could keep going forever.

I understand that with all the different types of cosplay that it can be confusing; how do you know if an armour build has the same amount of work involved as a fabric one – or if both original design costumes and screen accurate movie costumes both count as cosplay? So let’s start with a really basic breakdown of skills involved in cosplay and go from there.

Sewing

Image: Chanta
Image: Chanta

I think a lot of people see sewing as one thing, it’s putting pieces of fabric together and stitching it, but there is so much more to it than that. You can do dress making or tailoring – and yes they are different.

I once had someone describe it as the difference between cooking and baking, there are similar skills involved but they are very different things in their own right. You also have more detail oriented skills like embroidery, quilting, bead work, dying, silk printing… gosh so many different techniques there’s no way I could list them all, and of course you could learn to make your own patterns to make the garments from!

It’s a whole wealth of skills that people learn to put together, what to the layperson, might look like a simple item. Plus, learning to work with different fabrics and how they move, cut, sew and just generally react to how you use them is a process that I don’t think will ever end.

Armour

Cosplay - Ebony Warrior
Image: Ebony Warrior Studios

Much like sewn costumes, armour builds have hundreds of different approaches. After all, you would look at making a prop axe in a completely different way to how you’ve created a Stormtrooper helmet. Especially with the changing technology, thermoplastics (plastics that are mouldable when heated), 3D printers, vacuum forming and even full on casting are all becoming much more accessible and easier and cheaper to use. You could use foam, such as yoga matting, and Worbla, to build a massive Warhammer costume and then a 3-D printer to make moulds for you to cast gems in.

It takes incredible skill to use all these materials and tools and know what is best for what purpose, a skill I am yet to master. Much more of a tailor, personally.

Wigs

Image: Bakka Cosplay
Image: Bakka Cosplay

If you think wig work is cutting and vaguely gelling a wig you got off eBay, then you are in for a shock. There so many types of wigs to choose from, depending how you want it to look, some people even make theirs from scratch, hand knotting them and putting amazing things like LEDs and even miniature smoke machines into them!

Because there is no one skill in cosplay, loads of people are working out their own way to make and style wigs, so we’re seeing foam wigs with hair glued onto the outside to created amazing anime styles, lace fronted ones for really natural hair lines and styles (you often can’t even tell it’s a wig!) cel-shaded wigs, sewing wigs together or adding more wefts (these are like hair extensions) to make wigs fuller, longer and generally more insane, people are even styling wigs into objects. It’s beautiful to watch.

SFX and Make-up

Image: Alison Tabbitha
Image: Alison Tabbitha

This can be anything from contouring to full on prosthetic head and body pieces. Pretty much all cosplayers will do makeup for their costumes, trying to make themselves look as much like a character as possible, possibly adding scars, cuts and bruises, beards or even doing face and body paint, but some take it to a whole new level.

Cosplayers like Alyson Tabbitha do literal transformations, pushing themselves to use make-up to completely change their appearance. Others will make amazing SFX prosthetics to make themselves into aliens like Madame Vastra or mutants like Beast from X-Men, sculpting, casting, painting and moulding the pieces to their faces and bodies.

Body paint cosplays are also popular, both online and at cons. Characters like Mystique are brought to life by a clever mix of costume, make-up and prosthetics, or “body suit” style costumes are painted onto the body so that it appears the person is wearing a fitted costume (though these are obviously less appropriate for family friendly events).

Image: Sosenka
Image: Sosenka

So why do people cosplay?

I’m going to be honest, there is a large element of escapism involved, but that’s the case with any hobby really. Putting on a costume and pretending to be Batman for a day is really no different to pulling on a sports jersey and going to support your team or playing football in your local park, it’s the same thing. But for a lot of cosplayers the escapism becomes the secondary love to the joy of making and building the costumes.

All the stuff I’ve talked about here is the reason I love cosplay. Yeah, I choose characters I like but I know that a lot of the time a character’s costume will jump out at me first and then hopefully I’ll like them too; for example this is why I cosplay Hux and not Krennic. I love both costumes, but Hux is a capable, terrifying individual and Krennic is, well, Krennic.

This being said I know that some people really do pick a costume purely because of what it looks like and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone has their own reasons for doing things. There is also a large community element, being able to connect and hang out with like-minded people, exchange ideas and techniques as well as talking about fandom with each other. You can learn so much more from chatting about how someone made something than you often can in a tutorial.

Holly Rose SwinyardRight! I think we’ve covered the basics, or at least the very basics. Cosplay is huge subject and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how to get involved, what goes on behind the scenes and what you do once you’ve become a cosplayer, so if you think you might be interested in cosplaying yourself, watch this space as I continue to take you on a journey through this wonderful, nerdy, creative world…

Holly Rose Swinyard was once described as a 21st Century Marlene Dietrich…. But if that film icon was British and a cosplay geek. A self-proclaimed fashion experimentalist and long-time cosplayer, Holly writes about their experiences working their through these two very eccentric worlds, and how they have found themselves through creating, crafting and cravats.

• Follow Holly on Twitter @lilistprince | Instagram – @lilprincecostumes | Facebook | Blog | Patreon

Web Links

Racked: Meet the Woman Who Invented Cosplay

Myrtle R. Douglas, otherwise known as Morojo, rarely gets the credit she deserves for the worldwide phenomenon

Stuff Mom Never Told You – The First Lady of Cosplay

Kotaku: Where The Word “Cosplay” Actually Comes From

“Cosplay did not suddenly appear,”  says Nobuyuki Takahashi. He should know: Takahashi helped invent the word itself.

Cosplay World by Brian Ashcroft and Luke Plunkett is an in-depth look at the world of cosplay includes interviews with the stars, photographers and props builders, offers insights into cosplay’s history, current landscape and explains its creative processes, like how to build the perfect costume

The origins of Mr Skygack, From Mars

Mr Skygack, From Mars - and Old Lady and her Cat

More about the newspaper strip Mr Skygack, From Mars on I09

Mr. Skygack, from Mars was a comic strip by cartoonist A.D. Condo. It first appeared in the Chicago Day Book, a Chicago working-class newspaper, from 1907 to 1917 in about 400 comic strips and single panels. The strip was syndicated to other newspapers.

Mr Skygack Impersonator Arrested
The perils of early cosplay…
downthetubes Guests

downthetubes Guests

One of many guest posts for downthetubes.

One thought on “Cosplay 101: The Basics of Cosplay by Holly Rose Swinyard

  • January 19, 2018 at 2:12 pm
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    Really nice article, I learned stuff from it and I’ve been cosplaying as long as you have XD Thanks, have shared!

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