Cosplay: What is it, and how do I jump in?

By: Ashley Rivas

What the heck is cosplay?

Perhaps you’ve been walking around the downtown area of some city and, suddenly, seen someone dressed in what you’d immediately call a costume.  These people aren’t just your garden-variety eccentric fashionistas, they’re actual costumes; they’re vibrant, usually with a wig, maybe even a giant and elaborate weapon and some strange uniform that’s clearly out of place in the usual hustle and bustle.  But it’s not Halloween, you think.  If there’s a convention in town, it’s likely that you’ve just run into a cosplay.

Cosplay, meaning “costume play”, is a little different than just dressing up for Halloween.  Cosplay is modeling yourself after a particular character, both in terms of appearance and attitude, and it’s generally done at conventions or other similar events.  It’s usually taken to a more elaborate and detailed extent than Halloween costumes, and they’re frequently homemade and can’t be bought at a store (or at least, shouldn’t be, for the sake of quality. Because ewww.

Cosplay also trickles into the realm of role play, depending on how involved you get.  It’s completely up to the individual, but sometimes conventions have events that rely on how well you can embody the character; Cosplay Chess involves cosplayers behaving as chess pieces, for instance, and when they make a move or die, they have to be in character.  This may not be your scene, and that’s fine.  Role playing at conventions isn’t mandatory, but some other events, like LARPing or Renaissance Faires tend to require it.

Cosplay is expensive, time consuming, tedious, and often heartbreaking.  You will sweat, cry, hate yourself, and question why you’ve even bothered.  Money will bleed from your wallet, and disillusion will seep into your mind. 

So why is this worth it?

Adoring fans
I adored these adoring fans.

That’s why.

Getting to see the result of your hard work is an incredible feeling.  Seeing others take genuine joy from it is even better.  For the three or four glorious days of that convention, months of soul crushing work are worth it.  You will have so much fun throwing quotes out, posing, and meeting others who just freaking love your weird Business Fish head.  I’ve been doing it for almost a decade now, and it’s worth it every time.



Ok, you’ve convinced me. Let’s do this. Where do I start?

This is going to be the hardest and most time-consuming part of your cosplay journey.  Here’s the very basic overview of what you’re going to do:

  1. Pick a character
  2. Find good pictures of them
  3. Decide what you need to buy

It hurts me to even break this down like that, because it’s not that simple.  You’re going to find this process to be the most challenging, and you’ll question yourself more here than anywhere else.

Take your time picking your cosplay.  Think about characters you like, or characters that really seem fun to act as.  Maybe it’s a character you hate, but you love the outfit.  Perhaps it’s a character for a game that’s not out yet, or a show that’s been out for a long time.  Whatever your criteria, pick a handful of characters you’d like, and think about what you like and don’t like about them.  Start to narrow your list this way first, because picking a character you care about is what’s going to get you through the rest of the process.

Cosplayin'
Both my husband and I went obscure this year. Totally worth it.

Once you have a couple you like, think about the practicality of the outfits with your current abilities.  Here’s an example of my cosplay selection process for 2014:

I liked Tali and Miranda from Mass Effect, Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite, and the Super Smash Bros. Brawl version of Princess Peach.  These were the four I liked and wanted, so I broke down their outfits into the following complexity rating, from most complex to least complex:

Princess Peach (Brawl Version) > Tali > Miranda > Elizabeth

At this point I hadn’t made multiple cosplay for a weekend yet, so I knew I’d settle with one.  I ultimately went with Elizabeth, since I’d have to pay for custom printed fabric for both Tali and Miranda and I didn’t know who to trust with that yet. 

My process for 2016 was much simpler.  I watched The Force Awakens and was immediately sold.  I had been debating on being Brawl Peach that year, but seeing Rey changed all the plans.  Be open to this too!  Sometimes you might drop everything for a new character, and that’s fine.


I’ve got my character picked. What next?

Once you’ve got your character, find LOTS of reference photos.  If it’s a character from a video game, decide whether you like in game, cutscene, or reference pictures.  These can be different!  Ignis from Final Fantasy XV looks different in the Square Enix provided photos than he does in game, so I had to decide which one I liked better.  Art books and concept art can be great for details.  Looking at other cosplayers is a great way to get ideas, but don’t rely on these if you want to maintain accuracy.

Now that you’ve got pictures, break down the costume into components.  Business Fish is a head, a suit, and gloves.  Ignis is a suit jacket, a shirt, pants, shoes, a wig, gloves, and glasses.  Start with the big pieces, then break them down into the details that will make up that component (Ignis has a suit jacket that required extra snake skin and buttons, for instance).

I must make a big disclaimer here, because I’m an anal psycho who takes cosplay very seriously.  Work to the level of detail that you are comfortable with.  I take things to an extreme, and spend a lot of money and time making sure everything is perfect.  If you’d rather buy your cosplay, that’s totally fine!  Prepare yourself for a sacrifice in quality, but maybe you don’t like sewing or maybe you want to support another artist.  You decide how invested you are in this, and every level is completely fine and loved by other cosplayers.

Mirror, mirror
All of us were the same character, and none of us looked the same. That’s perfection.


Buying the goods

You’ve got your list, so here’s a table of good places to look for specific items!

Purchase chart

These are not hard and fast rules.  This is what I do to save on costs and maximize my trips.  Here are a couple of quick rules to keep in mind:

  1. Use coupons and take advantage of sales! December, Labor Day, and President’s Day have great sales to buy fabric.  It gets expensive with lots of yards, so coupons are a must.
  2. Shop around! Some stores may have the more expensive items for a slightly cheaper price.  It’s worth it to get the best bargain, because this crap adds up.
  3. Return what you don’t need. Sometimes it may be useful to keep, like glue sticks or tape, but if it’s foam balls you bought just for eyes, return them and get your money back. 

Shopping start
Shopping will start small.

Shopping end
Shopping will end weird and frantic.


If we build it, nerds will come.

This is the end of the introductory course, and next time we’re going to get into the meat of making this cosplay.  We’ll cover making your prototypes to refining your work and designs, and adding finishing touches. 

It’s going to get intense, and there will be lots more pictures, so buckle up for a heck of a Business Fish ride.  Our cosplay won’t go belly up, though.  It certainly won’t swim with the fishes.  Because I’m on the hook for this.

I’m not going to stop these puns.  This business is fishy business indeed.

Fish heads, fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads.

About The Author

I'm a big ol' nerd, and I want to effuse that nerdiness for the rest of my life. I spend as much time as I can drawing and playing video games, and I've taken that to the career level now since I'm back in school to be a game designer. I'm the mom to three puppies and a fat kitty, and the wife to a fellow nerd.

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