Cosplay: A Beginner’s Guide

It’s the end of the day and the heavily, layered fabrics weigh you down. Your prop slides through sweat-slicked hands in fading sunlight, while make-up once perfect leaves streaks on your face. The convention is over, your first cosplay is a success and you’ve tallied up the amount of times you were asked for a picture. Score for being recognized!

To best explain cosplay to the uninitiated, it is perhaps easiest — though often misleading — to mention Trekkers or Trekkies, those Star Trek fans who are well known for donning the costumes of various Federation personnel and their enemies. Essentially, cosplay is the act of dressing up as favorite characters from a favorite series, whether they be from anime, manga, novels, video games, television shows or movies.

Cosplaying can be as fun as it can be stressful. It involves much time management, learning new skill sets and the ability to adapt to unknown (and often baffling) situations.

My first attempt at creating a costume came some years back. The subject was Harry Potter. Two and a half weeks after school began, my friends and I realized Halloween was fast approaching. Every day for the weeks leading up to that spiritual, ghost-filled night, I could be found bunkered in my friend’s basement. I told my parents I was studying.

Which, of course, I was. Right.

Long flowing black fabrics, colorful ribbons, painful needles stuck in fingers and sanding of wands. There were several magical… realizations that came right off the bat. Mathematics really is a necessity in real life.

I know, boo, but true.

Finding the circumference of the bottom of a cloak, for example, required a certain lovely formula (c = π ∗ d), as did the amount of fabric required to invert towards the shoulders and the dimensions of the hood. Who knew making clothes was so difficult?

Entering this world, I learned the basics of sewing and how to use a machine, the necessity of keeping said machine oiled and greased and ready for use, how to create pleats and cloaks and ties, brushing up my 1+1 skills and that not everything has to be done from scratch. This light bulb moment came to my friends and I after completing the wands – after having sanded four of varying lengths and thickness for hours on end. Once the wands were deemed “almost done”, a friend who happened to play the drums commented that as drumsticks are already tapered at the end, it would have been much easier to buy the sticks, rather than the dowels. Insert face plant.

We did learn after that and reused old white blouses, bought knee length socks and fought dust-infested closets for old clogs. We also borrowed old ties from our Daddy Dearests. When our costumes were completed, we not only ended up winning our school costume contest (and given props for them being hand-made), but they are still frequently used for each Harry Potter premiere. Oddly, none of us ended up wearing the Gryffindor colors.

In that same year, not too long after that first successful cosplay outing, I ventured into my first anime cosplay. It would be the second time attending Anime North, Canada’s premiere anime convention, and we were absolutely psyched. A group of friends and I had fallen in love with the anime series Naruto, the year before it hit international television and the mass appeal had yet to make its way towards young teenage boys wanting to be ninjas and teen girls infatuated with emo characters.

Our group had many of the main characters: Naruto, Sasuke, Neji, Tenten, Hinata, Shino, Ino and so forth. We were young, enthusiastic and creative; all invaluable assets when beginning the journey of cosplay. After our awe-struck drooling from the year prior, the idea to cosplay lingered indefinitely in our minds. It was at this time we learned about the limitless possibilities of cosplay and a certain set of life skills that is usually hard to come by otherwise.

According the accepted conventions of ranking, a cosplayer begins as a novice, and depending on how talented you are with your fingers, a sewing needle or machine and glue, you rise to the rank of journeyman. From there your choices of anime, manga, video games or movies become more intricate; more difficult. You take another leap to become an artisan. Years pass by, bloodied fingers are a thing of norm and before you know it, the rank of master is labeled.

A master is not made by the length of time they’ve cosplayed, but by the minute details and striking features of the costume they’ve made. At least, that’s my definition. I have seen the work of masters whose costumes should be labeled as a journeyman at best.

If you’ve never cosplayed before, I recommend it. For all its challenges, it is a really fun activity to share with your friends. However, I do have some words to the wise for anyone considering starting out…

– When you’re a novice, don’t pick an anime, manga, or video game that is overwhelmingly detailed. You’ll only end up strangling yourself with the expensive (and completely unnecessary) fabrics you’ve decided to buy. Choose something that is feasible. Naruto, despite all its latest drama and confusion, was once upon a time a wonderfully exciting manga to read. The costumes are simple, yet completely unique to each character. Done properly, the cast is easily put together.

– Despite the appearance of simplicity — such as in the case of the black and white uniforms from manga series D. Grey-man — monotone colors usually indicate surprising elements of difficulty and several lurking issues. I have seen many costumes from this manga that have failed due to the lack of attention (and skill –but that’s another matter).

– Pick a character that you will have fun embodying. If you and your friends decide to cosplay as a group, as my friends and I frequently do, keep in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each person. If someone is talented at sewing and another prefers to create props, assign roles. There is always time to pick up other skills at other points in the journey of learning to cosplay.

– Now, the harsh truth. Your body and the character’s body are not the same. Do not create the costume for the character, but for yourself. Many of us are average sized, some taller, some shorter, some bigger, some stick thin. It you’re a girl, take into account your bust size. You want to accentuate yourself through the angles and cuts of the costume by altering the design. Keep the dimensions realistic and not to the character’s unrealistic body. You need to be comfortable in the costume. Not in the sense of be constricted by the collar or squeezed at the waist, but in yourself and what you’ve created.

Some more helpful tips that every beginning cosplayer should know:

– Don’t be afraid to pick up a “how to” book or surf the ever-trusty internet for forums on what to do.

– Learn the basic stitches, front and back. If stitching doesn’t work, fabric glue and fray check are your best friends when working with trim or layered fabrics.

– Don’t waste your money on expensive fabrics that you will end up damaging in your steps to learning. I’m not saying you will, but it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution.

– Old clothes in your closet can be used as templates for future creations. They are also great for cosplaying itself, depending on the cosplay. Old Halloween costumes are fun to fix up — after all: reduce, reuse, recycle. Along with using clothes as templates, fabric paint is very useful in stenciling the intricate details. Sometimes fabrics can only be cut in certain ways.

– Especially in anime, manga and video game cosplay, you really have to use your imagination. This need is prompted by the mangaka — the writers — themselves. When they create their characters, they invent gravity-defying clothing and weaponry for them, hoping for the character to be recreated in life.

– Real hair can be a pain. Wigs are capable of being styled and flared, dyed and cut in ways that your own hair cannot. Also, it’s usually worth it to pay a bit more for a better quality wig.

– Once you’ve learned more, go ahead and add your own flair to the cosplay; if a costume doesn’t have something you think it should have, it’s okay to elaborate on it. If there are various versions of the anime, manga, game or various sequels, keep the majority of obvious signature items, but feel free to crossover various elements into your own costume.

– Always remember why you started to cosplay in the beginning and never forget that the simplest costumes can be the hardest to pull off.

– Most importantly, have fun! There will always be moments of stress, where you want to pull your hair out, or scream and hit something. Take a break. Even if it’s down to the wire, with only an hour left on the clock, take a walk. Sometimes the best approach to completing your costume is to remain objective and keeping a level head.


There is a certain sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with finishing your first costume by yourself. The straight, precise stitches done by your mother’s hand are missing, but nevertheless, those bloodied stitches are your own. Over time, you begin to feel a sense of entitlement, you develop an almost elitist attitude towards cosplaying. You can tell who put effort into their costumes, who is just beginning and who has been around for a while. And it’s okay to hold others to a high standard, but remember: you started from scratch too.

Cosplaying is fun and is a great way to pay homage to your favorite fandoms, but it is so much more than just dressing up. It can also help in revealing your own identity; it shows you who you are. It teaches you what you are comfortable doing, and being, in public, and how driven you are, how much patience you have, how much determination and ambition. It teaches you kindness, attention to detail, and life-skills that can rarely be picked up anywhere outside of Project Runway. . It also helps refresh your high school math.

But more than all of this, through cosplay you will you find new friends each year who will accept you for being the über-geek you are.

And help you dress like it.

MY COSPLAY TO DATE: Naruto, Bleach, Fruits Basket, Shaman King, .hack
franchise, Pokemon, Soulcalibur IV

FUTURE COSPLAYS: Tales, CLAMP, Dynasty Warriors

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