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Cosplay Planning for Beginners

Updated on January 11, 2015
Stitches of Cheer," The Junior Sewing Circle of the North Lima Congregation, North Lima, Ohio David S. Harnley August 11, 1952 from Mennonite Church USA Archives
Stitches of Cheer," The Junior Sewing Circle of the North Lima Congregation, North Lima, Ohio David S. Harnley August 11, 1952 from Mennonite Church USA Archives | Source

Before you start any project, you should plan out how you're going to go about it. This article should give you some idea of how you should get started by planning so you get a satisfying final product.

How to use reference images to get a better understanding of your character.

The first thing you'll need to do in the planning phase is to gather some reference images of your character in the costume you're going to try to replicate. You can use google image searches to find the images you need. You'll want detailed pictures of everything from hats to shoes that the character wears, as well as of the character's hair and any makeup or tattoos the character may appear onscreen with. You can use official images and fan art images as your reference photos, because sometimes the community perception of your character is more important to you than the official appearance.

Once you have those images, analyze them to determine what exactly is going on in the image. Here are some questions about your costume you should be trying to determine using these reference images.

  • What type of material is each part of the costume most likely to be made of?
  • Are there any unusual props involved in this costume?
  • What about distinctive jewelry, buckles, or buttons?
  • Do I see any elements that I know I have the skill to make?
  • Do I see any elements I know I will have to buy premade?
  • What will I have to do with my hair and makeup to pull this look off?

Consult Other Cosplayers

Now that you have your reference image and have studied over it for a while, find some other cosplayer's interpretations of that costume. This is not intended to copy another cosplayer's design, only to get a better idea of what others have done to interpret what they've seen. Sometimes it's hard to see based on an image from an anime or a cartoon exactly what the artist intended the colors to represent. Some cosplayers might see cotton fabric and others might see leather. There is a lot of variation in cosplay in part for that reason.

You can also see which mediums other cosplayers used to reach a final design. Some cosplayers might use craft foam some might use heavy EVA foam, some might use worbla, some might use resin, some might use leather. Weigh your options in part based on the results you've seen other cosplayers get with their mediums. See if there are ways you can improve the design to make it more realistic or more authentic.

An easy way to look at some other cosplay designs is to look up your cosplay character on E-bay. If you look at what's available there, you might see several interpretations of the same character's design. I'm in the planning stages of a GGO Kirito costume from Sword Art Online II right now, and Ebay has given me some real insight into how to best interpret that costume. I know from looking at the E-bay images that I don't want Kirito's armor to come off as being too flat, and that I want my armor to have a metallic sheen. I also didn't notice some construction elements of Kirito's belt that these ebayers have included in their auctions. I wouldn't even have thought of using the belt if I were just looking at the reference images, that don't emphasize the waist region. I've put some examples of different Kirito cosplay ebay listings here so you can see what I'm talking about. Each of these is a little bit different, which gives me some idea of what the choices I make will do to the final effect of my costume.

Take your consultation a step further by asking questions on online forums about how people went about their cosplay. They might give you some important construction tips that will help you build your costume.

Budgeting for Cosplay

As you are identifying the materials you will need to finish the costume, come up with a budget for how much you are willing to spend. Some people spend quite a lot on their cosplays, while others don't spend very much.

Consider this part of your cosplay very carefully, and remember to include all the parts you plan on including in your cosplay in your budget. This will include props, wigs, shoes, any premade materials, fabric, jewelry, sewing notions, and anything else you intend to buy to complete your cosplay.

Good cosplays generally cost big money, although there are ways you can keep the costs down by reusing materials and tools you already own, thrifting, and looking for sales at your local craft supply store. Jo-Ann's Fabric, Michael's, and Hobby Lobby have coupons on their websites sometimes that you can just look up on your smart phone and show to the cashier. Using coupons helps you stay within your budget.

Sometimes I personally have to decide where I want to draw the line for how much I want to spend on a cosplay prop. Sure, I could buy a $300 light saber that would make cool sounds just like in the movies, but how much is sound worth to me? Not $300, would be the answer to that. Instead, I chose a more practical light saber more in the $80 range.

Wigs for sale at night in Madrid.
Wigs for sale at night in Madrid. | Source

Shop Around!

Sometimes there are cosplay pieces you don't want to make for yourself. I know I have no jewelry making skills and I don't anticipate myself learning this one, so if I want to use jewelry, I have to find a way to get it premade.

There are also times when you might want to buy an item and alter it. I know I have no skills with making my own electronics, so when I do my Kirito cosplay, my plan for now is to buy a light saber from Ultra Sabers and alter it by making a craft foam case for the handle. I haven't yet determined how I'm going to do that yet, so I'm going to hold off on the actual purchase until I have a firmer plan.

Some pieces can be bought locally, so keep an eye out for the things you need when you're out.

Otherwise, you'll have to buy your item online. My local cosplay group has a facebook sales page where I could pick up parts, if any of them have the things I need.

Generally, though, I buy my cosplay supplies through dealers on E-bay or etsy. Lots of people will tell you you should buy wigs and cosplay pieces through specialty shops, and that's great if you can find them that way.

I shopped for hours looking for just the right wig for my GGO Kirito cospay, and I didn't see any outstanding options on the commonly refereed wig sources (such as Arda). High quality wigs are what we all want out of our cosplay lives, and in a lot of ways Arda is perfect. However, they didn't happen to have a wig cut the way I need, and I don't want to risk a $40 wig on my completely unpracticed hair cutting skills. So I fished around on Ebay for a few options.

I cannot emphasize the value of comparison shopping enough. This is a great use for a pinboard on Pinterest or an Amazon Wishlist. These services allow you to look at potential purchases closely and compare them before you make your final purchase. Look at considerations like quality and price as well as general appearance.

You can get some really great items on the cheap using Wish, especially things like jewelry. Etsy has a ton of handmade items available. E-bay has more variety of choice and sometimes lower prices than the other two. Amazon is also a good place to get jewelry and prop replicas.

Price is certainly a consideration, but when you're buying something like a wig, your main consideration should always be quality. A wig will either make your cosplay look amazing or make it look like a cheap Halloween costume. You do not want to get cheap with wigs. I know from personal experience, cheaply made wigs are very unflattering. Read some e-bay feedback. Have a good, close look at the photos. A good e-bay wig should have lots of detailed pictures and a description of exactly what you're getting.

One of the most important considerations of online shopping is how long it'll take to ship your item. If you buy a wig from China, it's not going to be at your house next week, there will be a long wait. It may be very worth it, but it won't do you any good to order things from China a week before the con, they just won't make it here in time.

The Design Process

Once you have your budget in mind and have decided which parts of the costume you're going to attempt to make yourself, get your reference images handy and begin your design process. If you're able, draw yourself a blueprint of how you want your final costume to look and also draw out details and in depth images of complex pieces.

If drawing isn't among your skills, make yourself a pinboard on Pinterest that includes your reference photos and any other information that you may need to complete your cosplay. You don't have to use Pinterest, you could print the images out or save them to a file on your computer.

Consult your reference images and your blueprint frequently during the construction process to ensure things are still going the way you intended them to go.

Remember, it's all about creating a costume that makes you happy, if you're interested in altering a character's appearance to make it more fun or beautiful, go for it. My favorite cosplay I've ever seen is "Party Thandruil," which is a Thranduil Cosplayer wearing slit glasses and holding a red solo cup. That was a hilarious, fun cosplay to look at.

Also consider unconventional props. I saw a great Star Lord cosplayer carrying around an actual taxidermy raccoon dressed as Rocket. That was probably the most photographed dead raccoon in the history of dead raccoons.

Learn New Skills!

If your cosplay includes any props or pieces in a medium you haven't used before, you will have to learn to work with that medium. A basic google search will get you to some text tutorials on how to use materials like Worbla that may be unfamiliar to you.

I generally prefer to watch someone else use new techniques so I can see exactly what their hands are doing, so I get on youtube and look up a demonstration on there. Sometimes you can see a tutorial of the exact piece you're trying to make, and sometimes you may have to look at something more general to get the construction right.

For example, when I first made my Winter Soldier bionic arm, I was working on it before the movie came out, so there weren't many Winter Soldier cosplays out there yet. I found tutorials on how to make armor out of craft foam and applied that knowledge to make my Winter Soldier cosplay.

Another thing you might need to learn would be paint app techniques. If you've never made something that is suppose to look like metal, you will have to learn how to achieve that effect.

Practice your new skills until you nail them.

An Example of a Youtube Tutorial

Build Prototypes and Create!

If you're working in a fairly inexpensive medium, like craft foam, try it out a few times. I built my Winter Soldier arm once and was unsatisfied with the shape, so I built it a second time. I used the unsatisfactory build to test my paint apps and sealants, and I think that helped me learn to do a better final draft. Keep plugging at it until you're satisfied with your final cosplay. After your cosplay is finished, you could even think of it as a continuing project for improvement. Some of the best cosplayers I know do the same character quite a bit, but continuously look for ways to improve their cosplay. Every cosplay you do is another step towards mastering your skills and becoming a better cosplayer.


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