How to level up your cosplay

Many otaku enjoy dressing up as their favourite character, but some costumes are more impressive than others. Here are a few tips on how to maximize your accuracy, fit and fun when cosplaying:

  1. First of all, find some good reference pictures!    It happens to every costumer: you'll make something from memory, sure that you remember the details correctly, only to find out that you got it wrong. Get lots of reference, more than you think you'll need. Often details are different from picture to picture, and colors can also vary widely. Make sure you're not working from just one piece of reference; it really sucks to find out after you've made the costume that the dress that looked gray in your reference pic is really supposed to be purple!

  2. Give yourself enough time to do a good job.    If it was thrown together at the last minute, it'll show.

    Corollary: I know there are lots of people who don't really care how durable or well-put-together their costume is and just want to dress up, and if that's what they want then fine, but in my opinion you should consider things like durability and quality. Hot-glue is quick and easy, but it can melt in the heat and can fall off at the most inappropriate times (like right before the masquerade). Unless you're in a huge rush (which you can avoid with good planning), I'd advise against doing such questionable things as hot-glueing hems or ribbons onto dresses. A well-made costume will last you for con after con and can be sold intact (and with a clear conscience) on eBay when you're tired of it.

    Corollary #2: Seams and hems are VERY important! One thing that I constantly see cosplayers forgetting to do is press their seams. It's so simple and it improves the look of a costume 100%. Once you've sewn a seam or a hem, just press it (with steam or without, depending on your fabric) so that it lies smoothly without puffing, puckering or bunching. Good hemming is also vital--never leave ragged or raw edges on a costume; it ravels and looks shoddy. Get in the habit of properly finishing seams and hems and your costumes will not only look better, they'll also last longer.

  3. Choose fabric that suits the costume.   For example, don't use flimsy or stretchy fabric if the costume is supposed to be a tailored jacket and pants. Getting the right colour of fabric isn't enough; it also needs to be an appropriate weight and texture in order to get the effect you want. If you're making a pleated skirt, make sure that the fabric is the kind that will take a pleat before you buy it. If the costume's supposed to be skin-tight, do yourself a favour and get stretchy material. Look at what actual garments of that type are made with - a suit jacket isn't just a shirt with a lapel, it has understructure, built-in-shoulderpads, etc.
  4. I've seen far too many cosplayers use shiny fabric--be warned that this is a bad idea unless you REALLY know what you're doing. The problem with shiny fabric is that it shows every single wrinkle and fold, so if you haven't done a perfect job of fitting your costume it will be glaringly obvious. Satin is also very hard to hem and often ends up puckering horribly. If you're a relative newbie, do yourself a favour and choose a fabric that won't show every little mistake.

    Another thing about satin is that not all costumes are suited to shiny fabrics. It doesn't make any sense to have a school uniform made out of satin...while a ballgown works great in satin if it's sewn well. Don't use satin just because it's pretty and shiny -- always think about whether or not it's right for the costume. If it's clear from your reference pictures that the character is wearing plain matte fabric, then it's pretty silly to make your costume out of satin. Personally, I tend to prefer matte fabric such as twill for most anime costumes; it looks more accurate to me, as most anime cels are painted with flat colours and few highlights. Matte fabrics are also far more forgiving to those of us that don't have perfect figures.

    And if you're using shiny fabric, bring a travel-sized steam-iron to the convention or make sure the hotel has an iron. Few things look worse in photos than wrinkly satin.

    Corollary: Lining fabric is just that: lining. It is not intended to be used as the outside or visible part of a garment. It wrinkles and is flimsy, as well as ravelling terribly. Unless you have no choice, do NOT use lining fabric as a cheap subsitute for proper fabric--it won't fool anybody and while it may cost less, it looks like crap.

  5. Choose a costume that matches your skill level.   It's good to challenge yourself, but when choosing a costume you should evaluate whether or not you have the skills necessary to make it. If you're a complete newbie, don't choose a costume that requires lots of tailoring and details--you'll probably end up really frustrated and disappointed at the results. Start simple and work your way up to the more complex costumes. If you're not willing or able to make all the extras, choose a simpler costume--you'll be much happier with the results. I have far more respect for somebody who does a simple costume really well than somebody who does a complex costume badly. And despite what many people may say, Sailor Moon costumes are not easy to do. Not easy to do well, that is.

  6. Make adjustments to suit your body.   Look in the mirror and honestly judge how you can make your chosen design work on you. Since 2-D characters usually have impossible proportions, some costumes may need design modification to look good on a normal human. If you're bigger than average, you will probably need a bit of extra support and/or coverage. This means boned bodices, hidden bras, slightly longer skirts, and such like. It may be necessary to sacrifice a bit of accuracy in order to make your costume look good on you, but 99% of the time people will notice how good your costume looks rather than the tiny inaccuracies. If your costume doesn't fit and/or is unflattering, that's the first (and usually only) thing people will notice, no matter how accurate it is.

  7. If you're going to dress up as a geisha/maiko, PLEASE do some actual research into what geisha really look like.    And no, watching Memoirs of a Geisha doesn't count, as the costumes, hairstyles and makeup are totally inaccurate. Maiko and geisha have very elaborate and specific costumes. A satin bathrobe and whiteface just don't cut it. Immortal Geisha is a good resource to start with.

  8. Most ballgown-type costumes need big poofy petticoats/crinoline/hoopskirt to look right.   And I'm not talking just a couple of petticoats here--in the case of many characters out there, to be truly accurate you should be having trouble getting through doors. Otherwise, your costume just ends up looking limp and depressed. And if you do wear a hoopskirt, you need a fluffy petticoat ON TOP OF the hoopskirt to hide the hoops. We shouldn't be able to see the hoops through your dress.

  9. Supportive undergarments can save your cosplay.   Let's face it, most of us do not have perfect anime figures. Control-top pantyhose, girdles, even corsets can immensely help the look of some costumes (yes, even for guys!). Sure, you do sacrifice a bit of comfort (especially if the weather's hot), but it can be worth it if you really want to look good.

    On pantyhose: if you're wearing a slit skirt or something that shows your thighs and you want to wear pantyhose, PLEASE get yourself a pair of 'invisible' pantyhose or dancers' tights that don't have the line across the thighs.

  10. Don't forget your hair!   Few things can ruin a good costume faster than hair that doesn't fit the look. Dyeing your hair can be a long-term commitment, so fortunately there are plenty of places online to get fairly inexpensive wigs. And if you do wear a wig, don't forget to put your hair up so it doesn't show underneath. Wig caps are available from wig shops or you can make your own from an old pair of pantyhose.

    I'd strongly advise against any kind of spray-on colour as a hair-colouring method. It just ends up looking messy and cheap. Go with a wig; it costs more but looks MUCH better. And expect to pay at least $30 for a decent wig; the bigger/longer the wig, the more you'll pay. A good knee-length wig could cost as much as $70-100. If you think you're getting a great deal, it's probably a crappy wig that will tangle, shed hair and generally look awful. You get what you pay for.

    You can transport your carefully styled wig by pinning it onto a styrofoam wig head (available cheap from wig stores) and putting it into a wig or hat box. For extra protection, pack the whole thing with those styrofoam 'peanut' thingies that come in mail-order boxes.

  11. Ankle-length hair only looks good in anime.    Take it from me, super-long hair is more trouble than it's worth if you're going to be running around a convention all day. I've had knee-length hair for years, and if I want it to look nice and smooth for photos at a con I have to be constantly finger-combing it to keep tangles at bay. Long hair tangles just from walking around and rubbing against your clothes (and itself). After a few hours at a con, a knee-length wig will look like a disaster unless you are stopping to smooth and detangle it every few minutes. Most people are not used to the maintenance required for long hair, and frankly it can be a hassle. Even the most high-quality knee-length wig will tangle so badly over the course of a day that it may be irreparably damaged.

    As a result, I strongly recommend that you sacrifice a bit of accuracy in favour of saving your sanity (and your wallet, as good quality super-long wigs cost a LOT). In my opinion waist or hip-length is plenty long enough for most purposes, and even that length will require careful maintenance throughout the day to keep the wig looking good. Yes, your character may have improbably long hair, but she also has a 15-inch waist and legs that take up 3/4 of her height, so what's one more deviation in the name of reality? If you absolutely MUST have the ultra-long wigs, save them for photoshoots where they can be carefully arranged to look their best in photos and then put away when you're done.
  12. All long wigs require special care; use wig conditioner and/or silicone spray beforehand, and bring a wide-toothed comb (never a brush!) with you to the con. Gently work out any tangles every hour or so, starting from the bottom and working your way up; this prevents really bad snarling that may ruin your wig permanently.

  13. Makeup can make a good costume great.   I've seen so many pictures of cosplayers with gorgeous costumes...only their faces are tired-looking and washed-out. Flashes on most cameras are not very face-friendly, so good makeup is very important, especially if you're planning on posing for lots of pictures or going on stage. Even if the character you're playing doesn't wear makeup, you should use foundation and concealer to even out your skin tone, and some kind of eyeshadow and/or liner to bring out your eyes. This applies to both girls and guys! What looks fine and normal in the mirror often ends up washed-out and sick-looking in photos, as I've learned to my chagrin...but this doesn't mean you have to go crazy with it. Models wear lots of makeup, yet when well applied it's only barely noticeable and just makes them look like they have perfect skin and big eyes. This is the effect you're going for if you're just hall costuming. For performing on stage, you need a bit more emphasis on eyes and mouth, and even some fake shadows and highlights (called contouring). You'd be surprised how exaggerated most stage makeup is--it's necessary in order for people far at the back to be able to see your face.

    Also, carry a compact of translucent pressed powder or blotting papers with you and touch up your face from time to time; a crowded and hot con makes for shiny foreheads and noses REAL fast.

    On body paint: The best thing for painting on your face or body is professional water-based body paint. I recommend Ben Nye or Kryolan brands; you can find them at your local costume or makeup supply store, or Kryolan is sold online at Some people use acrylic paint on themselves, but I'd really advise against it--that stuff isn't supposed to go on skin and some of the pigments are toxic.

    That said, though, painting your entire body is really time-consuming (it takes at least 4 hours unless you have an airbrush), and you need help. Also, even with setting spray the paint will rub off a bit over the course of the day, especially in areas like your hands, underarms and anywhere the costume rubs. If you plan on wearing the costume more than once, it can be far more convenient to make/buy a bodysuit in the right colour and just airbrush/paint the detail onto the suit.

    IMPORTANT for body paint: know how to remove it! Water-based paints can be removed with soap and water, but out of courtesy please bring your own towels so you don't ruin the hotel's towels. Cream-based makeup/paint can be removed with oil-based removers; please remove as much as possible using tissues BEFORE showering so you don't leave residue in the shower. And NEVER go into the pool/hot-tub with paint on.

  14. Footwear is also important.   A lot of people don't pay much attention to the shoes they'll be wearing, and I've see a number of fancy costumes worn with sneakers...which just ruins the entire effect. Getting the right footwear is important, but it can be difficult and potentially expensive. There are ways to avoid having to buy expensive new shoes or boots for every single costume. The most inexpensive way is to make boot or shoe covers out of the appropriate fabric. These can be permanently attached to shoes, fasten underneath the shoe like spats, or go over the entire shoe like a big sock. Hunting for cheap shoes at secondhand stores is also a good idea. Even if you can't get the exactly accurate footwear for your costume, try to wear something that suits the character and doesn't look out-of-place. Plain dress shoes for a fancier costume, for example, or plain flip-flops for a Japanese costume if you can't find geta/zori.

    Even if you're wearing a big dress and think no-one will see your shoes, so it doesn't matter - THEY WILL. If you're going onstage, the judges' eyes will be exactly at the level of your feet, and it will be glaringly obvious that your shoes don't match.

  15. If you're wearing a kimono, wear it properly.   It's always left panel over right panel--right over left means you're dead. I see this a LOT. Also, for the love of Urd, please don't make a kimono out of satin or Chinese brocade. Chinese brocade =/= kimono. Despite widespread confusion in the general public about Asian costumes, China and Japan are different countries.

  16. Sexy + Cheap = Trashy.   There's nothing wrong with wearing a sexy costume, but make sure that it's well-made and fits you properly. Cheap, badly-made costumes look even more sad when they're also trying to be sexy; you often end up looking like a cheap hooker. The less you wear, the better-made it needs to be.

  17. When having pictures taken, POSE!   Posing well won't turn a bad costume into a great costume, but standing stiffly like a dork will make any costume look bad. ANYTHING is better than just facing the camera head-on and looking like a zombie. Turn a little, smile, do anything in character. Practice in front of the mirror before the con so you know what looks good! My default pose is a 3/4 turn, with the body tilted slightly sideways and the shoulders twisting towards the camera a bit; it's easy and flattering on most people.

    During the Masquerade Contest:

  18. If you're doing a skit, keep it short.    The audience usually has to sit through at least forty skits and their attention span is only so long. You may have written a beautiful and eloquent script, but to the audience it's just babbling on and on, i.e. boring. You should keep your entry under a minute if possible; most skits should not be more than 2 minutes at the absolute max. It may seem like not much time, but it's actually a very long time if you're sitting watching the masquerade. The rule of thumb is that you need to have something new and interesting happening every 10 seconds. If you don't, the audience gets bored. As a judge I've seen SO many otherwise great skits completely ruined by staying too long onstage and boring the audience. Leave them wanting more!

  19. If you can't come up with a good skit, don't do one.   Some people may disagree with me (and some contests do require an actual skit), but in my opinion you don't necessarily need a skit at all. It's perfectly fine to just go onstage (ideally with some music or voice-over by the MC), pose a bit, maybe do something funny and leave. The audience will thank you for it! However, if you do decide to do a 'walk-on' skit, make sure you don't just rush on and off-stage too fast for anyone to see you! Come on in character, do a few cool poses, walk around a bit so the audience and judges can see all sides of your costume, then walk off in-character.

  20. You should be in-character the whole time you're onstage. I can't stress that enough; few things ruin a great presentation faster than the person suddenly dropping character and slouching offstage.

  21. Pre-record your dialogue.    Many cons don't allow the use of microphones, and even if you speak loudly there's no guarantee the back of the audience will be able to hear you. You certainly won't be heard on any tapes made of the masquerade. Also, some cons (like Worldcon) do not allow speaking on stage at all, so getting in the habit of pre-recording your dialogue and then lip-synching is a good idea. Besides making sure everybody will hear your dialogue, pre-recording can also ensure that you don't run over the time limit.

  22. Very few cross-anime skits (skits that include characters from many different shows) work particularly well.    Most of them end up being just confused and pointless, and it's obvious that a bunch of friends who each did their own costume independently just threw a skit together without a real concept beforehand. The best crossover skits are ones that start with a particular concept ('Anime Villains', for example, or 'wouldn't it be funny if Captain Kirk met Godzilla on an away-mission instead of the Gorn?') and then come up with the characters involved, not ones where people fabricate a skit just so all their different characters can interact. 'Okay, Bob's dressing up like Naruto, and Ken's dressing up as Tuxedo Mask, and Nancy's dressing up as what kind of skit can we come up with?'....if the characters have nothing in common, the skit probably won't work.

  23. Random dancing is not the recipe for a winning skit.    I've seen a lot of skits lately that involved a bunch of unrelated characters doing an unrelated dance for no apparent reason. It may seem hilarious when you're hopped up on sugar at 3am, but it won't make much sense to the audience OR the judges. If you must dance, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE until everyone is perfectly in synch, and try to have the dance have a purpose. I've seen too many otherwise good skits ruined by having the characters suddenly start dancing for no reason.

  24. Think carefully: do you REALLY need to take that onstage?    I always evaluate my costumes to see if they're truly stage-worthy. Some costumes are better for the halls, and some are better for the stage. This doesn't apply at all masquerades, but at ones where the spots are hotly contested, you should have at least one of these two: a strong costume, or a strong presentation....ideally both. If you don't have either, there is no good reason to go onstage. "Having fun" is not enough -- you need to consider the audience and the other competitors too. A masquerade is not just all about you; be kind and considerate and think of what is best for everyone. It's about showing off work you're proud of and/or putting on a great performance, not just running around onstage like a hyperactive monkey.

How to Enter (and Survive!) A Cosplay Masquerade A great rundown of everything to do and not to do before, during and after the Masq.