The Amateur Cosplayer
Bonus challenge: match the photos to their intended character.
My mother told me that for my very first Halloween, she threw herself into making a Snow White costume from scratch. The holiday wasn’t celebrated where she grew up, but she wanted to make sure her daughter didn’t feel left out from the rest of the kids. With only a borrowed VHS tape of the movie as reference, she freehanded patterns as best she could and spent night after night hunched over a sewing machine to painstakingly cobble together a costume in time for the event. It took the entire night before to carefully add the costume’s finishing touches, but my mother was able to drop me off at school on Halloween day in an adorable rendition of the princess’s gown. Shortly after, she went shopping for house supplies and was shocked to find several Halloween costumes for kids available for immediate purchase…including one of Snow White. Exasperated and sleep deprived, my mother decided then and there to abandon the sewing machine and opt for store convenience in the future.
You can imagine her surprise when she learned that this frantic costume-making process was something her daughter would regularly and willingly put herself through as an adult.
Cosplay is the perfect hobby for a stress-addicted jack of all creative trades like myself. Clothing design, makeup, wig styling, prop making—not many other hobbies can run the gamut of handicraft quite like cosplay can. It’s a craft that tests your intuition, endurance, and problem-solving skills all at once. Many cosplayers also work under a deadline on top of all this, either as a personal goal or for a public appearance at a convention. It’s understandably not a hobby for everyone: most people seek calmer pastimes as a way to balance the frenetic pace that work often demands. But for me, there is a tranquility in those long nights working on a project that I cannot find anywhere else. The ambient hum of an oven baking clay decorations or the crisp sound of scissors snipping through fabric, all cutting through the otherwise still backdrop of a city that’s gone to sleep…despite the self-imposed circumstances, little else can put my restless mind at ease quite like working on a cosplay project.
Of course, cosplay’s main objective is to pay tribute to a fictional character beloved by fans. But to me, cosplay’s biggest appeal is that it presents an opportunity to explore and test the limits of what is possible with visual expression. I mean this in two respects.
The first and most obvious aspect is that of the physical. Many people enjoy animated shows or video games because these mediums can host environments that are not bound to the rules of the world we live in. The traits a character can possess, whether they be otherworldly appearances or superhuman abilities, are solely limited by the artist’s imagination. It goes without saying that bringing these characters from these limitless settings to our own reality, which is confined to the laws of physics and existing biology, is an ambitious task. Even for shows taking place on an unaltered planet Earth, it can prove challenging to preserve an illustrator’s vision in details like hair silhouette and facial expression style. One of my favorite questions that cosplay presents is, “How can I make this impossible appearance possible?” Devoting myself to this prompt is a huge part of the fun.
The second and arguably less exciting aspect is financial. There are those who are fortunate enough for cosplay to be a sponsored livelihood, or have considerable funds at their disposal to invest in the highest-quality materials to add an aesthetic cleanliness to their projects. Sadly, I am not one of those people, and I am often limited to working with what I already have. And as someone who is still in the scrappy working individual stage of life, I don’t necessarily have much: a lot of the clothing components of my cosplays tend to look rough hewn because I haven’t been able to justify buying a sewing machine quite yet, and everything I’ve made so far has been sewn by hand. While it can be difficult not to feel some frustration when looking at more cleanly executed projects, I’ve found that a lot of realistic effects and illusions can still be achieved without spending much money. My mission, should I choose to accept it, has always been to effectively breathe life into my projects while sticking to a realistic budget. And you better believe that I always accept.
When I play video games or watch TV shows, the cosplay mindset is always at the ready. As I connect and grow attached to characters, I’m already creating mental checklists of which fabrics I need to replicate an outfit or taking inventory of my existing craft supplies to create identifying accessories. My phone and my game consoles are filled with reference screenshots of characters taken from different angles so that I may examine them more closely when I start the actual planning process. I don’t necessarily act on all of these whims, but thinking through each hypothetical project gives me a chance to foresee general technical challenges and prepare a solution ahead of time.
On that note, cosplay’s incredibly helpful and insightful community helps make those solutions easier to find. Even a cursory bit of online research for any character or technique will unearth a treasure trove of valuable information. Many cosplayers have already documented their process with photos and detailed commentary, talking about what did and didn’t work during the costume’s creation and final presentation. Still, part of cosplay’s beauty is that one person’s successful portrayal of a character does not negate other attempts: different things will work for different people, and there are always opportunities to build on existing templates or add more personalized touches. What else could I add to this look? What would I have done differently? What products are out there that can achieve this look more effectively? Questions like these are constantly buzzing in my mind as I look through various sources of inspiration.
From there, the actual process of making the cosplay is not unlike any other creative endeavor. You can only do so much planning before you have to sit down with the craft supplies and start, after all. But with so many moving parts to the creation process, I find that it’s pivotal to have an organized idea of the timeline needed for complete assembly. Experience helps with this, as you’ll have a better understanding of your personal pacing with certain parts of the process, as well as learn from inevitable mistakes and issues. For example, it’s probably common sense to save final makeup application for last, but I know to save a block of time much earlier on for personal practice and experimentation. I know that clay modeling and baking tend to come easy to me, while wig styling is not really my strong suit. And I’ve learned that if sewing last-minute was difficult for my mother armed with a machine, then sewing a cloak by hand at the last minute certainly wasn’t going to be any easier for me.
It’s probably easy to write off cosplay as yet another brand of over-the-top fanaticism if you’re outside its intended circles. Even some self-identifying nerds consider creating and wearing a cosplay as going too far above and beyond, both in terms of effort and passion for the subject. But while the idea of being “too passionate” is often meant to be a damning pejorative, I can only take it for what it is: a simple statement of what’s required to succeed. Regardless of field, anyone with a passion knows that it transmutes into motivation and perseverance—and you need a considerable amount of both to tackle the cosplay creation process and all its accompanying challenges.
Besides, any stigmas or weird feelings from others hardly matter compared to the rewarding sense of accomplishment that comes with completing the project. The moments of finally cleaning up the crafting zone—when you pick up all those loose fabric scraps and wig wefts, wash all the makeup brushes, and stow away the needles and thread until the next project—can feel like the beginning of a new dawn (and in many cases for me, it quite literally is). My cosplays are seen most frequently on Halloween with the occasional convention appearance thrown in there, and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when I see someone’s eyes light up in recognition of who I’m supposed to be. Perhaps even better is the moment when you see someone dressed as another character from the same universe, and the tacit acknowledgement between you two of each other’s hard work.
And to me, that’s really what cosplay is in the end: an especially humbling tribute to hard work, both in the artistic creation of stories we’ve come to love and the many creative disciplines that are involved with this craft.
It’s not necessarily high on my to-do list, but perhaps one day I’ll create my own Snow White costume. I feel that my mother’s efforts from all those years ago deserve that recognition, at least.