Cosplay 101: The Competitive Life of Cosplay by Holly Rose Swinyard

Cosplay trophies made by Sorzeno Props. Photo: Alasdair Watson Photography

Cosplay trophies made by Sorzeno Props. Photo: Alasdair Watson Photography

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…

Almost every convention you will go to will have a cosplay masquerade or competition. It’s almost always the biggest pull of the show, with many attendees wanting to see the astonishing creations that have been put together.

It’s a wonderful way to show off all the hard work that you have put into your costumes and, for some, to push themselves to new heights with more and more outlandish creations.

Now before we dive into this, I want to make sure that people know that everyone has their own way of enjoying cosplay.

There are many strings to the bow that is cosplay, with numerous varied and interesting paths to take on how you enjoy yourself within the hobby. For some, it may be simply the putting on of a costume and escaping from the real world for a bit. For others, it can be about the social input and creative buzz they get from meets or conventions and for some, it is the push to learn and improve possibly with the aim of competing at the end of that process. All of these are equally valid.

I have said it in almost every one of these articles, there is no wrong way to cosplay. There are myriad of different reasons and ways to be part of the hobby, even if you don’t include the ones I’ve stated, and each is as worthy and valid (yes I am going to keep saying that) as the last.

The reason I want to write about competitive cosplay is because it is bright, exciting part of cosplay that everyone should be given the option of trying or investigating. Sadly, competitive cosplayers habitually get a bad rap for being “elitist”.

Going on stage, wearing the costume that you are so very proud of, and getting to pose or do a rehearsed skit is the most amazing (if a little nerve racking) thing to do. Every single cosplayer stood back there is cheering the others on, helping calm nerves, admiring each other’s work and willing for everyone to do their very best. There’s no elitist BS or bad feeling there, no matter who wins or loses.

Sometimes it’s hard to lose, I’m not going to say it’s not, but most cosplayers will take it in their stride and move on (possibly after a little cry. It’s a highly charged, emotional situation, and if they don’t vent, then that’s their problem – not a problem with competitive cosplay.

Cos-Con's Host Des O'Gorman, Judges Kitty Lappin, Mighty Cushion Cosplay and Lionheart Cosplay, Entrants Evilblu, Milkystar Cosplay, Katelyn and her partner. Photo: Alasdair Watson Photography

Cos-Con’s Host Des O’Gorman, Judges Kitty Lappin, Mighty Cushion Cosplay and Lionheart Cosplay, Entrants Evilblu, Milkystar Cosplay, Katelyn and her partner. Photo: Alasdair Watson Photography

Since we now many conventions are running competitive and non-competitive masquerades so that people can have a go at going on stage and showing off their cosplay of without the pressure of the competitive side, I see no reason why people shouldn’t give this highly entertaining side of cosplay a go.

I have competed myself on and off over the years and personally, I like the push that a competition gives me when it comes to my builds and my self-belief. My big thing is that I get really nervous going to stage, whereas I have friends who are daunted by starting the build itself. But I am very much of the school of thinking that doing something that scares us every so often really helps us grow as people.

I would definitely encourage people to have a go, even if they are scared, because it will help them in other ways – I mean, if you can stand up in front of a group of people dressed like a Transformer, you can totally do that presentation at work, or put your hand up in class to answer a question.

Of course, it is not mandatory that you do this, do not feel bad in any way if it is not for you. But if you have even a spark of curiosity, give it go! Honestly, that’s what I would say about any element of cosplay and it holds true for all of it. No harm in trying something new.  After all, competition has helped me, and many of my friends, overcome challenges we’ve hit with cosplay, such as neater seams and overall sewing quality, finding new ways to build armour or put LEDs into costumes. Or just generally expanding their skill set (I just started doing more wigs and leather working for example), as well as gain more confidence in ourselves as people – definitely a bonus.

Well enough of that, let’s get into the meat of this shall we?

What Are Cosplay Competitions and Why Do People Compete?

Well, they are pretty much what they say on the tin, a competition for cosplay. They are places for people to showcase their hard learned skills and their best costumes, and for people to be inspired by the amazing things that have been made by the competitors.

Amazonian Cosplay as Wonder Woman. Photo: Manga Girl Photography

Amazonian Cosplay as Wonder Woman. Photo: Manga Girl Photography

Kizuki Cosplay as Dia Talma. Photo: Alex Naylor Photography

Kizuki Cosplay as Dia Talma. Photo: Alex Naylor Photography

I know that seeing my first competition, at MCM London back in 2007, was like having my eyes opened to what I could become. I wanted to have those skills, I wanted to be those cosplayers up on the stage. It’s taken me a decade to get to somewhere near that, but we must always continue learning. And as with any competitive venture, there are different levels and types.

I guess the best way to describe it, if you have no idea what I’m trying to say, is to picture something like baking. There are people who just like to bake for friends and family, it’s not serious. They just really enjoy doing it. Then there are the people who put things into local fete cake competitions and then there’s the ones who go on The Great British Bake Off (and even then you have professionals working at the top of their game in The Great British Bake Off: The Professionals on top of that, much like those cosplayers who go on to work in theatre and film).

If you apply this ridiculously drawn out analogue to cosplay, you might have a bit more of an idea what I mean!

When it comes to competitions, there is everything out there from local, small town convention masquerades that you enter on the day and are simply a walk on a pose that may not even be competitive. (I know many have catwalk masquerades that are simply for cosplayers to have a chance to go up on stage). Then you go all the way to international competition, with big cash prizes, where they have multiple heats and hyper knowledgeable judges who will go over every inch of your costume and progress. You have to book in for prejudging, after which you will then have to do performances with lighting, music, sounds, set pieces and more and each new heat you have to make something completely new. And, of course, there is everything in between.

Amazonian Cosplay (name change since the watermark was placed) as Brienne of Tarth. Photo: Tasha Dearing Arts

Amazonian Cosplay (name change since the watermark was placed) . Photo: Tasha Dearing Arts

Often you will get multiple types of competition and multiple categories at conventions, especially the larger ones. Having categories means that everyone gets a chance to shine. Having judged myself, I know that it is almost impossible to compare a handmade suit of armour to a beautifully sewn ball gown. In fact, it’s completely impossible – different builds require different skills, and no one skill is better than any other. Which is why having categories makes life much easier.

You’ll almost always have “Best in Show”, too, which will be awarded to the cosplayer who for whatever reason stands out from the crowd. This may be for having the most skill across the board, or for using a particularly difficult or unusual skill to the very highest standard (leather working or prosthetics spring to mind here for me, personally) but it will be down to the choice and knowledge of the judges of each competition how they choose to decide this most difficult of things.

Sometimes you will even have a competition and a non-competitive masquerade being run together. This means that the judges get time to decide on the winner of the competitive side, while the audience can enjoy more amazing creations. Win/win really.

Lights, sounds, ACTION!

I’ve talked about performing skits a few times in this article, but you may not know what that means. A skit is small performance that a cosplayer creates, basically the “play” aspect of cosplay when they are competing. It’s about being able to embody your character in more than just appearance is also important.

Skits can be anything from a sequence of poses choreographed together, set to music (often seen at smaller competitions), to full on acted pieces with lights, pre-recorded lines, maybe video/animation on screens and even sets! It really can become a full production!

Katelyn Lawson as Silent Hill nurse. Photo: Alasdair Watson Photography

Katelyn Lawson as Silent Hill nurse. Photo: Alasdair Watson Photography

The skills involved in writing and then performing a skit are just as hard, if not harder, to master than any of part of cosplay, so many competitions (not the higher level ones) will have performance as a separate category so that cosplayers can still strut their stuff with just a walk on a pose. Again I say this so to make sure that people are not scared of having a go!

I did my first proper skit last year. After several failed attempts at convincing myself that I could perform I finally bit the bullet and edited together General Hux’s speech from The Force Awakens with The First Order’s march from Disneyland (that was a hard track to find, let me tell you!). It made a great minute long skit, perfect for small comps. And, actually, I really surprised myself. I surprised myself that I could make the skit audio, that I could learn to the perfect lip-sync, that I could nail the timings, and most of all that, I could get up on stage a do it. I was more proud of myself of doing that than making the whole costume because it scared me so much more.

But now I know I can do it and I am hungry to have another go!

Everything with cosplay is about learning, exploring and creating; competitive cosplay is no different to that in fact it encourages growth across the board.

Woodsmoke and Words as Yennefer (The Witcher). Photo: J.Po Cosplay

Woodsmoke and Words as Yennefer (The Witcher). Photo: J.Po Cosplay

How to get involved

So, hopefully I have convinced you that competitions aren’t some scary, elitist demon that needs to be slain, rather a fun, exciting challenge to have a go at and you want to give one a try.

Well, I feel I have given you some idea of how to get involved but here it is in the most succinct manner: look up the convention’s rules for the comp, check if it’s online, sign up or on the day, then see what you need to take with you along with your costume (skits, workbooks or photos for prejudging) and then, well, then you just have fun.

Just one more little bit of advice: dip your toe in first if you aren’t entirely sure about the whole thing. Do a smaller comp, maybe at your local convention, to get a feel for being on stage. After that, it’s good to try some comps that have prejudging (some smaller comps do this, so look at out for them) so that you can ask for feedback from the judges and find out what they are looking for in a costume, what skills you can improve on, and maybe where to find some good tips and tricks for said improvements. Building yourself up to a big competition is really helpful, no matter how long you have been part of the cosplay scene for.

Or you could just throw yourself in feet first! Up to you.

If you’ve been competing for a while and want to maybe try something like the World Cosplay Summit or the European Cosplay Gathering, plenty of cosplayers will test run a costume for one of these bigger comps at a smaller one a few months before, so that can see what works and what doesn’t. You don’t want to find on the day that something needs fixing or changing in anyway, you don’t want to find your sword suddenly snaps in half (I’ve seen it happen, and it’s so upsetting!). And considering you will have a skit, you need to see if it all works, there is only so much rehearsing you can do in your living room before hand. This is why theatres do tech and dress rehearsals on the set after all!

But please, don’t feel bad about making something for one comp and entering another for practice or just because you want to. You’ve put your heart into that costume and there is no harm in showing it off!

Woodsmoke and Words, Maker and Muse as Yennefer and Triss (The Witcher). Photo: J.Po Cosplay

Woodsmoke and Words, Maker and Muse as Yennefer and Triss (The Witcher). Photo: J.Po Cosplay

It’s possible that I’m a bit biased, but I honestly love cosplay competitions. They are how cosplayers really get encompass the whole medium of cosplay, bringing all of these amazing skills to the forefront in such an amazing way, in a way that I feel just walking the convention floor doesn’t do.

It’s a showcase, a masterclass, an extravaganza celebrating the artistry of cosplay. And it celebrates everyone! Everyone who entered, everyone who supported, everyone who is inspired, and I think that really shows the community of cosplay.

Holly Rose SwinyardHolly 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

• Holly is also the Editor of The Cosplay Journal, a new coffee table magazine which focuses on the diversity and craftspersonship of the UK cosplay community. You can check it out at

Cosplayers Featured: Web Links

• Kizuki Cosplay as Tia Dalma (Calypso)

Photographed by Alex Naylor Photography –

• Amazonian Cosplay as Wonder Woman and Brianne of Tarth

Wonder Woman photographed by Manga Girl Photography

Brianne photographed by Tascha Dear

Woodsmoke and Words Cosplay as Yennefer (from The Witcher)

Maker and Muse Cosplay as Triss (from The Witcher)

Photographed by J.Po.cosplay

All the other photos are from Cos-Con – taken by Alasdair Watson Photography

Some Cosplay Skits to Finish…

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