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…
Welcome to the second in this series of cosplay articles. Last time, we talked a little bit about the background of cosplay, where it came from, what it entails and why people do it, but I think it’s time we touched on how to get involved. It’s a massive, amazing, entertaining hobby that definitely won’t take over your life and drain all your money. (OK, maybe it will take over your life just a little…) It’s somewhere you can meet amazing people and learn a whole host of new skills.
But as a new cosplayer, I know that it can all be very daunting, as much as it’s exciting. Who should I cosplay? Where to buy costumes? Do I need to make it myself? How on Earth do you learn to sew? Well, I’m going to answer all of those questions and more so that hopefully you feel ready to throw yourself into cosplay, or if not, at least gain a little more understanding of how much love, skill and effort goes into the costumes you see littering the convention floor.
Picking a Character
Let’s start with the most important part of any cosplay, picking a character. After all. you can’t cosplay if you don’t have something to dress up as.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a good idea to choose a character that you love. You’ll probably have them in your head already, a character that you really connect with and understand; you may have many. When it comes to cosplay the character is everything, if you’re going to be them all day don’t you want to be someone you love? I think that when you start out that’s definitely what you want. If you keep on down the line you may want to make a costume because it’s a challenge but at the heart of all cosplay is the love for the characters, it’s love letter to all the characters we’ve fallen in love other the years.
Creating the Costume
OK, so I want you to keep that character in your head, think about their costume. How you could put it together? Is it fabric based? Does that mean you need to sew? Or maybe there’s more armour? Do they need to have a wig? These are all really important things to consider so that you can get your project underway. You may want to jump right in at the deep end, learning all these crazy things as you go. It’s a great way to learn, but some of you, however, may feel a little bit nervous doing this so you can try doing it a different way.
Keep that list of characters in your head and then, depending on your skill set, and let’s assume you are a complete beginner, you may want to choose something not too complex, especially if you are going to completely scratch build your costume. If you do feel confident and want to try some more advance stuff then that’s cool, but please don’t feel pressure to make something crazy straight away. It’s journey and learning is part of the fun.
A lot of people give up the moment things go wrong or feel very disheartened if they aren’t creating at the same level as the people they admire – but all of us begin somewhere and all of us are still looking at someone else thinking how amazing they are.
So, don’t panic, people all learn and progress in their own way. And the thing is, you can keep that list in your head (or actually write it down) and when you feel like you are confident you can go and pick one of those characters off the list.
I’ll let you into a little secret. Loads of cosplayers have the “one day” list, so you’ll be in good company.
OK, you have your character, and it’s all very exciting but before you can do anything even close to making a costume you need to do your research. Even if you aren’t going to make your costume you want to make sure that what you’re buying actually looks like the character. I always try and get as many reference images as possible, all the angles, close ups, etc, because for me the devil is definitely in the detail. The better you know a costume, the easier it is to work out how to make it.
I often do sketches of the character as part of my research. I am not an artist at all, but drawing out the garments, the shapes of the pieces, looking closely at how they layer up and how they are worn really helps crystallise the costume for you.
Everyone has their own methods; I know some people stick up pictures on the walls of the character so they can look at them while they work, others do 3-D models, everyone finds their own way.
I would also suggest you look into how other people have made that costume in the past, it’s really helpful to see what other people have done and with more popular characters you are likely to find tutorials on how to make pieces of the costume.
Buy, not make?
I am going to focus more on building costumes rather than buying them. I would always encourage people to at least try to make something themselves, purely because there is no harm in trying and you might end up finding something you love doing, but I know that’s not for everyone, so here’s a little advice on where to buy costumes.
When buying costumes, you’re going to be looking upwards of £50 for a good quality one if you are “buying off the rack” as it were. There are loads of online stores that you can buy from at a range of prices but as with anything, the cheaper you go the more likely it is to be a poor quality product. If you want to get a good costume for your money without breaking the bank then I would recommend Cosplay Sky, Cosdaddy Angel Secret, Etsy and Xcoser. Of course, these stores will be doing more standard sizing but you can always go to a tailor or dressmaker to have a costume refitted, probably for around £30-£50.
It’s an easy way to get a great looking costume that fits you well and you can actually afford those convention tickets as well. You can also look on ebay, as there are plenty of shops on there selling cosplay, but make sure you read the reviews before you buy, you don’t want to get caught out.
If you have more cash to splash, you can always get a costume commissioned. Most cosplayers or costume makers who offer commissions will say so on their Etsy, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages and they will let people know if commissions are open or closed. Most will be happy to chat with you and give you a quote for a piece but be aware that this is their business, so don’t try and haggle or mess them around if you can’t afford their prices, they are skilled individuals running a business.
Of course, if they offer a quote you can’t afford they will be fine if you just tell them up front and thank them for their time, and they will understand if you need to think about it before getting back to them, so don’t feel worried about that. Respect goes a long way and will mean that in the future you can go back to them.
Again, as with the stores offering “off the peg”, check the reviews first.
Back to Making!
Let’s move away from the relative safety of bought costumes and delve into crafting.
A lot of people get turned off by the sheer, overwhelming amount of work that can be involved in starting a costume, but it doesn’t need to be scary if you have all your resources and materials handy. If you’re like me when I first started out and have no prior knowledge of sewing or props work or crafting of any sort, then I suggest you invest some time, and maybe a little money, in researching and learning some of those skills.
So, where to start looking for advice?
For wigs: Arda Wigs older videos are good for beginners and there are tonnes of wig and hair tutorials by professionals on Youtube so it’s worth searching.
As for websites to check out, the replica props forum and cosplay.com are great forums for everyone from beginners to veterans, and actually most google searches on how to make stuff will bring up some good tutorials on blogs, Deviantart and Pinterest so you can start learning straight away.
As much as all of these online resources are great (and free) I would also recommend investing in some books like The Sewing Book by Alison Smith and The Complete Guide to Sewing for basic sewing techniques or Kamui Cosplay’s armour books for basic worbla work, as I think it helps to have a range of sources that you can easily get hold of.
I’d also recommend joining a forum or a Facebook group that is skills based to ask for help and advice, although make sure you know what you’re asking for – otherwise you may end up with lots of unhelpful advice.
My biggest recommendation though, especially if you want to learn to sew, is to look for classes in your area. It’s likely that there will be some beginners’ sewing/ embroidery/ tailoring/ whatever courses that you could attend as learning from a professional with them there to help is likely to help you get better and not mess up along the way.
Obviously, you can’t do much with all this know how if you haven’t got materials to make your costume from, and again, there’s a huge amount of choice of where to buy, so it’s worth shopping around but always check your retailers, no one wants to get ripped off.
Buying fabrics online is an easy option, stores like Fabric UK, or Tia Knight (although only for lycra and stretch fabric) are great, plus eBay has a lot of surprisingly good sellers, are a good place to go but please get a sample before you buy two or three metres of fabric and find out it’s not right!
Personally, I prefer seeing the fabric I’m buying and going on a trip the fabric shop is always fun and often a good excuse to get your friends to come and look at nice fabric with you. Being based around London, I’m a sucker for Goldhawk Road, but pretty much every town will have a fabric shop you can get to even if it’s the next town over. If you do have a local fabric/ craft shop it’s good to get your face known there, it’s likely you’ll be able to ask for things to be put aside or even if you’re lucky get discounts but don’t push your luck.
If you are looking at making armour then Coscraft and Polyprops are the best places online for buying Worbla and other thermoplastics, though if you are doing a bigger build you are more likely to need lots of foam and it’s cheaper to go buy in bulk. Again, eBay is a great place for this but you can also use yoga mats or foam matting for cars, so head n down to your local sports shop or Halfords.
When buying foam, it’s always best to ask around on groups and forums what thickness other people have used, or check on the tutorial you’re following, so you buy the right thing.
Hobby stores can also be good for paints, brushes, foam and the like, you may even try DIY shops and car/ bike repair shops for spray paint, think outside of the box. The thing with cosplay is that a lot of the time you are going to find something where you least expect it, it’s worth hunting around all over the place. And if you can’t find it, ask online. I’ve said it over and over: forums and groups are the best place to get information and everyone is willing to help out because they’ve been helped in the past.
One final piece of advice for buying your materials is about wigs. You don’t always need a wig for a costume. I don’t use them often myself. But they do make a costume a lot of the time. I mean, it’s not easy to do Super Saiyan hair in real life.
Lushwigs, Wig is Fashion UK and US-based Arda Wigs are generally going to be your best bet. Not too expensive and really good quality. If you want to spend less and are willing to take a risk, you can get some amazing quality wigs on eBay, but it’s often hard to tell so check the reviews and see if other cosplayers have bought from them in the past. Lace front wigs are normally more expensive but they do look more natural, so it’s worth spending that little bit more on them if that’s the look you want.
But Holly, you ask – what if you aren’t doing a complete build? Well, I made my first costume by modifying stuff I already had and a few pieces I made with a friend who took textiles at school. It was easier for me, because I didn’t have any idea what I was doing and had very little money. Modification is a great way of getting started, sort of the best of both worlds. You can dip your toe in the water of crafting while having a little bit of safety in buying pieces from Primark or the charity shop. It’s cheap and fun and often can yield some amazing results.
OK, you’re here, you made it, this is the point where all of your research and practise is going to come into its own, The Build. I’m not going to sugar coat it: it’s likely that you will get something wrong. Even now I still make mistakes, but mistakes are the best way to learn.
You sewed that sleeve on inside out? Well. you’ll remember to check all your pinning next time. You hot glued a piece of leather to your armour and it ripped? You’ll look for a new way of doing and make the piece stronger.
Yes, it is going to be a bit stressful at times, you will end up sewing a costume the night before the con at least once, you may even end up sewing in the hotel room – the greatest shame of cosplayers, sewing in the hotel room. Just remember that it’s all important, every step of it and at the end you’ll be a better craftsperson than you were at the beginning, each seam, each piece of armour will be better than the one before. Before you know it, you’ll have a wardrobe/ garage/ spare room/ whole house full of costumes.
Now you have a costume, what do you do? Shockingly, the best thing to do is to wear it to a convention, but going on your own can be a bit daunting, so next time I’m going to talk all about going to a convention in costume, how to make friends, joining groups and all the other exciting things you can do now you’re a cosplayer!
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.
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