Okay, so you’ve decided that you want to cosplay, but you have no idea where to start in terms of picking what cosplay to do! Hopefully this will help you figure out which cosplay you want to tackle.
Note: If you are looking for tips and tricks for organizing several potential cosplays, I’ll be posting something soon on how to sort, schedule, and prioritize future cosplays.
Step 1: Identify several characters that interest you
There are predominantly two schools of thought:
- Cosplaying because of a love of the character or series
- Cosplaying because of an appreciation of the character’s design
Please note that some cosplayers may criticize you for picking a character that you don’t know much about. I believe this stems from die-hard fans feeling that it’s hypocritical for “an outsider” to parading as their favorite characters.
While it can be more fun if you cosplay a character that you like, you don’t necessarily need to be a fan. For example, you might see an exquisite outfit or an intricate prop and have a deep appreciation for the design of the character, without knowing their personality and history. There is no shame in wanting to bring wonderful clothing to life and then have fun wearing it.
That being said, you may want to do a bit of background research before marching out the door. When you are in a cosplay, you will be associated with your character and you may want to be prepared for the consequences. If you picked an unpopular (i.e. hated) character, you will probably receive some snarky commentary from fans of the series. Similarly, if your outfit belongs to a heroic protagonist or a back-stabbing villain, the polar opposites of your character may come up to you and expect you to react accordingly.
Hopefully this hasn’t deterred you and you’re able to pick a few characters or designs that you like t form your starting pool of characters. Huzzah!
Step 2: What are your goals?
Depending on what you want to get out of your cosplay experience, you might need to eliminate choices that aren’t appropriate or align with your goals.
How much of your costume do you want to make? How much do you want to buy?
Before anything else, you need to figure out how much you want to make of your costume. Most cosplays fall somewhere on the spectrum of ‘creating everything from scratch’ to ‘purchasing all the components’. Many people make a lot of the costume from scratch, but might purchase items like a wig (styled or not) or shoes. Some purchase all the items and then assemble the costume together. Others buy the entire costume made by someone else.
If you want to make your costume, you may want consider that making a costume demands time and effort, more so if you are planning a costume that contains elements that you’ve never worked with or on before (e.g. a pleated skirt, a prop, resin, stretchy fabric). You will probably need to do research. You may need to scrap work that you’ve done to do it over (if you’re a perfectionist). That being said, there are millions of tutorials on the internet for pretty much anything, so carpe diem!
As always, larger or more elaborate costumes will require more time, money, and effort. If you’re short on any of those, you may want to buy the costume or look at simpler costumes.
If you want to purchase the costume, the only word of caution I have is to be weary of websites that sell the entire costume already made. I have never purchased a costume from one of those sites myself, but from what I hear, the costumes can be less than satisfactory. This can be attributed to the fact that they need to make the costumes in standard sizes and they need to mass produce the outfits.
Standard sizes means that it probably won’t fit you completely, which you either live with or you make alterations so it does fit you.
Mass producing the outfits means that they can cut corners, which may not be obvious from product photos. For example, Tsunande from Naruto has a shirt that is green and a dark belt around her waist (2 pieces). I have seen pictures of pre-made versions of this costume that make the top only 1 piece, where the belt was interpreted as a different color on the same shirt. This may not be an issue for you, but it is important to be aware of this.
There are also many cosplayers out there who will make partial or entire costumes for commission. If you are worried about buying the costume from a store, you can look for a commissioner who will work with you on a more individual level to make your costume. This will probably be more expensive than buying the ready-to-wear made by the store or making the costume yourself.
Is this cosplay for a particular event (e.g. con, photo shoot, competition)?
There are variety of cons available in the United States (multiple per weekend); some are centralized around a particular fandom, such as anime, video games, live gaming, or comic books, while others touch on multiple fan cultures (e.g. San Diego Comic Con). Generally there are no rules about what sort of costumes you can wear at a particular con: there is nothing to stop a Storm Trooper from going to anime con or a My Little Pony from going to a Doctor Who con. However, you may run into funny looks, or worse, fans that give you a hard time. So you may want to take the theme of your convention into consideration.
Photo shoots / private events
Sometimes a person or a group of people might organize a gathering or a photo shoot that is based on a series or a type of character. You will want to pick a costume that fits within the requirements of the gathering. A Naruto photo shoot is intended for taking pictures of characters from Naruto. A steampunk tea party will probably require that you follow a steampunk dress code.
The rules for competitions vary drastically, but all competitions will list what type of costumes they allow. Check with your competition’s rules to see what is acceptable. Similarly, you can always ask the organizers of the competition if you are uncertain about whether an outfit is qualified.
One other consideration for competitions is that many require you to make most, if not all, of your costume. Make sure you know what your competition requires in terms of craftsmanship. If you are planning on entering a competition that requires your costume to be home made, you will need to factor in the time it will take to make the costume.
How much time do you have to put together the cosplay?
If you only have a short amount of time, you may want to consider doing found cosplay or closet cosplay. That is cosplay that is comprised of items that you already own (e.g. that are in your closet) or items that can readily purchased in stores.
Many characters are featured in ‘every clothes’ in promotional art or chapter/magazine covers. These are easy alternatives to creating some of the more involved outfits. For example, Ichigo from BLEACH has a school uniform and is often shown in casual clothing. If you don’t have time to buy or make the full shinigami outfit, one of his alternate outfits might be easier and faster to pull together.
Larger or more complex cosplays require more time (a couple months), so if you don’t have that time available, you may want to select a simpler outfit.
If you have tons of time, the sky is the limit!
What is the range for your budget?
Cosplay can bring out your thrifty side, but you may not want to compromise quality just to cosplay the character. Yes, you might stay in your budget by making that ball gown out of cheap fabric, but your costume will reflect that.
If you don’t have a lot of money, smaller or more simpler costumes will be less expensive.
STOP! What is a simpler costume?
I make frequent mention to ‘simpler’ costumes in contrast to ‘more elaborate’ or ‘larger’ costumes. But what do I mean by that?
A simpler costume is comprised of fewer pieces, does not require significant fitting, or can be made from found items. Here are a few examples:
- School uniforms – generally a shirt, vest/coat/sweater, a necktie/ribbon, skirt/pants, socks, shoes, and then however the hair is styledExample: Kagome from InuyashaMany of these parts can be purchased in stores for not a lot of money. If making this from scratch, it is fairly easy to find sewing patterns or tutorials for all these components and they generally don’t require a lot of fabric.
- Martial Arts / Ninja / Fighter outfits – characterized by loose-fitting or draped outfits that are typically not overly elaborate or contain a lot of details.These are easy to make because the loose fit doesn’t require a lot of sewing skill. There are sewing patterns available, and if there aren’t patterns, it’s fairly easy to convert items like t-shirts or athletic pants (or to figure out how to make the patterns from geometrical shapes).
What are some examples or larger or more elaborate costumes?
- Ball gowns (think Disney Princesses) – lots of fabric, lots and lots of fabric
- Mech/Gundam or other robot-inspired outfits – large, can require more difficult materials like plastic
- Mascot (Pokemon, Digimon) – require fur, foam, and large
- Full body armor
By this point, you might have been able to narrow down the choices. If not – no fear, there’s more to consider!
Step 3: Taking Design into Consideration
When picking a cosplay, you definitely want to look at the physical characteristics of the character and the costume itself before making a decision.
Let me preface this by saying that I have no issue when a cosplayer doesn’t match the body type or ethnicity of the character. It’s just not logical; no one looks like an anime character naturally. We’re too short/tall, our skin tone isn’t right, our eyes are too small, and no one I knows was born with blue hair.
Why make a fuss? If you look good in the cosplay and you have fun doing it, then good for you!
Unusual skin color or other body art
Some characters has random skin colors like silver, pure white, or blue. They might also have large or ornate tattoos/seals/scars. If you’ve picked a character that fits this description, there is going to be some makeup involved.
Body paint is messy, but unfortunately a necessary evil if you want to change your skin tone. There are ways to workaround having to apply a ton of make-up (like buying tights the same color and wearing those on your arms and legs), but you’ll still need to apply a bunch of messy makeup. If this isn’t what you’re looking for, you may want to consider another costume or just going in your skin.
Tattoos/seals/scars can also be tricky and messy because they need to be re-applied for each time you wear the costume. If you don’t really want to deal with this sort of thing, look for alternate costumes of the character that don’t show these details, or just forgo them entirely.
Here is my spin on revealing costumes:
If you are wearing a costume that reveals an excess of your breasts, butt, mid-drift, or legs, you will get attention. Your experiences will vary between flattering when someone genuinely compliments your outfit to downright insulting when someone tries to snap photos of your butt without your permission. In an ideal world, you’d only get the positive end of that spectrum, but this is the real world. You should be prepared for that sort of attention, or avoid revealing costumes until you feel that you are ready to take that leap.
Keep in mind that most conventions have a minimal dress code. Make sure that your costume is within the regulations for your convention. This also applies to any public location or public transit where you might be seen in your costume.
You can also choose to change the design – maybe lower the hem of the skirt a couple of inches, maybe add a little more coverage to the chest area etc.
Summary and Decision
Hopefully the information above has given you some things to think about when picking a cosplay, but here’s the breakdown of what I think about when I choose a cosplay:
- Do I want to make a costume? Or, am I required to make a costume, in the case of competition?
- If I am making a costume, is it of a size and difficulty that I feel I can complete it to my satisfaction before the deadline without depleting my finances?
- If I am making a costume, am I prepared to put in the time and effort to learn how to do things that I may not have done before?
- Does this costume contain items that I do not want to make? Will I have time and money to acquire these items? (e.g. shoes, wigs)
- Is this costume for a particular event?
- Does this costume need to be from a particular series or fit within a specific theme?
- Does this costume involve messy or unusual body paint or makeup? Do I want to deal with that?
- If I don’t want to handle messy makeup, am I willing to still cosplay the character without the correct skin tone/markings? Is there a way that I could cover up where the color/markings is shown?
- Is this costume revealing? Am I comfortable with wearing the outfit, knowing that I may get unwanted attention?
- If I still love this character, am I willing to make changes to the design to make it fit me and my comfort level, even if it won’t be 100% accurate?