Monday, October 15, 2012

Cosplay 101 and why I love it.

I am by no means an expert when it comes to cosplay, but it is definitely one of my passions.  I have always been a fan of dressing up, and/or playing a character.  At the same time I consider myself a builder and/or a maker.  I am always building something, or thinking about how to build something.  I am also a pretty shy guy.  With such a combination cosplay is a great way for me to put my creative side to work, and to go outside of my comfort zone, all whilst having a good time!

Cosplay - The building and displaying of wearable art! ~ Dictionary of Me
Or from wikipedia - Cosplay (コスプレ kosupure?), short for "costume play",[1] is a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea.

The thing I really love about cosplay is that it can be so many different things to so many people, and that it combines so many skills and passions.  Some people do it to play a character, others to show off something they made, and others to be goofy, or make a statement.  It can be a thrown together build, or something that someone worked on for months or even years.  I love it all.  (Except people who just buy costumes, or insert 'sexy' in front of any other word and make that their costume)  Cosplay is about art and creation, and I love seeing what people make, and how they make it.  Just like a home cooked meal, a homemade costume is always better.

I have only been into cosplay for the last few years... or have I?  Looking back on it, I have been dressing up my entire life.  My parents were awesome about costumes when I was growing up.  My mom would sew costumes for my brother and me; anything from cowboys, to start trek, even the headless horseman one year.  My dad always helped getting us outfitted with props too.  We still have a set of wooden swords and shields back at home, which he built so my brother and I could be knights.  So, I was blessed to grow up in an environment where building and wearing awesome costumes was the thing to do.

While it used to be that Halloween was the big dress-up event of the year, I am now a year round cosplayer.  It is one of my main hobbies, and takes up much of my free time.  It is a great hobby, as it combines so many of my other hobbies: drawing, designing, building, and painting are all things I like to do, that can all be part of making a great costume.

As I have gotten more and more into cosplay I have done a lot of research and development (including many unfinished projects).  I figure you can break all costumes down into roughly 3 groups: clothing, armour, and props.  Here is a brief summary of some of the materials and methods that are used, and what they are used for.  This is by no means a complete list.  Possibilities really are endless; I am constantly learning new and unique methods from people all over the world (yay internets).  

First up is clothing.  Almost every costume is going to have some sort of clothing article, and some are all fabric.  I have very rudimentary sewing skills, and as such I generally have to use existing clothes to make my costumes.  Thrift stores are often a good resource for finding cheap clothes.  You can also find lots of useful clothing pieces online, with prices from very affordable to very pricey.  If you can sew, it really opens up what you can do.  If you are sewing your own clothes, you can easily modify existing patterns, and add/remove necessary details.  Or maybe you know someone who can sew; work with them to create that fancy dress, or sharp looking uniform.

I have always had a passion for armour, and much of my costuming effort goes towards building armour.  There are so many ways to build armour, from actual real armour to completely fake armour (that looks real!).  There are numerous groups that still make real armour out of metal, leather, and wood.  Most costume armour is fake however.  There are many ways of building armour using cheaper and lighter materials than steel.  The three main categories that I see most often are thermo-forming plastic, pepakura, and scratchbuilding.

Thermo-forming plastic is basically using heat and often vacuum pressure to form various types of plastic into a desired shape.  In it’s simplest form, someone could use a heat gun (or even a hair dryer) to heat plastic and bend it into a desired shape.  Getting more complicated you could use (or build and then use) a vac-form table.  Such a device can heat a large sheet of plastic, and form it over a mould using a vacuum.  This is how people make storm trooper armour.   It is also how the movie makers made storm trooper armour, and it is a common manufacturing method for all sorts of products.  This method yields lightweight armour that can be easily duplicated.

Pepakura is the Japanese word for papercraft.  This method uses computer software (called Pepakura) to flatten 3D models into 2D shapes that can be printed out from any home printer.  The flat patterns can be cut out and assembled into a 3D object in the real world.  Paper armour is not going to be very strong, so a healthy coat of resin is added to the model.  Once the model is hardened with resin, filler materials like Bondo, can be added to the model.  The filler is used to help smooth out models and add details.  This method will yield a unique set of armour, and allows the builder to shape it to whatever level of detail they desire.  It is a popular method, as models for the armour are often readily available straight from video games, or from 3d designers on the web.  It is the closest thing to a Lego set for building armour; you get the instructions, and just have to build it.

Scratch-building is a pretty broad category.  When scratch-building, people can use almost any material to build armour.  You can sculpt a model from clay or foam and build a mould, then cast it.  You can cut up cardboard boxes and foam floor mats and piece it all together.  You can build a pepakura model, then use a vac-form table to make endless copies.  This method allows you to make exactly what you want, and it can be as simple, or as complicated as you like.

Props are just an extension of the costume, and will use the same methods.  Props can be anything from a giant sword, or fancy gun, to goggles, pouches, belts and tools.  They are the finishing pieces that can help define your character.  The things that can really make a costume are the details, and props are often those details.  Other details come out in the paint and trim work.  A flat paint job is pretty boring, but highlights, grime and battle damage give your costume an authentic look.

As I have learned more methods and techniques for building costumes, my projects have improved, and my ambitions have grown.  I started with costumes like Mal Reynolds from Firefly.  This was a completely found costume, where I simply bought everything I needed and pieced it together.  Then I went onto being Doctor Horrible.  Much of this costume was pieced together from items I bought as well, though I did modify the boots, and goggles to fit the costume.  Then I got really ambitious and built some armour from scratch.  The armour is a space marine scout from Warhammer 40K.  For this costume I built pretty much everything.  The coveralls I already owned, along with the boots and goggles.  But I built the armour, and weapon, and have added little bits to it over the years.  In other builds I have learned how to build moulds and cast objects.  Jeff and I made Steam Fleet badges for a group of us.  These badges were some of the little details that really made our costumes.  I have learned many new things whilst building costumes, and many of these skills are useful outside of costuming as well.  My costuming experiences have also taken me to cool places and events from the Calgary Comic Expo to DragonCon in Atlanta.

Cosplay is a great hobby for anyone, as it utilises so many other skill sets; there is something in it for everyone.  If anyone ever has questions about an ‘impossible’ costume, feel free to ask me about it, as I would love to help make it real!

Well this is really long, so I will limit the pictures.


  1. Yaaaaay!

    I think the only time I didn't have a homemade Halloween costume was the last year I went trick-or-treating, when I bought a vampire cape thingy at the store.

    All the plastic molding aspects of this are the things that I find most intimidating.

    And re your point early on about being shy, I find that's probably one of the weirder things about cosplay. A good costume can put you in the centre of attention but it also seems to act as a barrier of sorts, where people are interacting with the costume more than they are with you. Or maybe I'm the only one who feels this way?

  2. A good costume will definitely put you at the center of attention, which is always weird for me. I dressed up a few weekends ago for the Black Library Expo, and was ridiculously nervous (hands were shaking and everything). But as it usually goes, it turned out well. People were really excited to see the character. And I don;t quite see the character as a barrier - it is more of a unique handshake. People who get it get excited and approach you. It starts with "can I get a picture?", to "how did you make it?", and conversation can snowball from there.

    And going back to Scott's article - among cosplayers I would say that "how did you make it?" is the equivalent of "How is your day going?".

  3. Holy shit, this is amazing. First of all, I didn't know you were into this Dave, and second of all, I didn't know you were so awesome at it. Great post. You have commented in some of your previous posts that they are too short or rushed; well, I think we just need to talk more about cosplay if we want the long posts from Dave to come out :)

    1. Haha, thanks Scott! And yes, I am always up for cosplay talk.

  4. Awesome!

    I think the socializing aspect of cosplay is really interesting - as both you and Megan have noted above, it draws attention and yet manages that attention in a way that makes it less about 'you' and more about a commonality between you and the other person. Maybe if everyone went about their daily lives with more about what they like immediately evident on their bodies, we'd all be better at small talk. Cause cosplay is just that - displaying an interest (a big one, if you put lots of work into it!) really obviously for all to see.

  5. The Calgary Expo was my first social cosplay experience. (while Halloween has the prior claim for costume-wearing, trick-or-treating isn't as social as social as a Con experience). I'll admit I was pretty nervous walking over to the Expo in downtown Calgary in full Steam Fleet garb. But after a few minutes of noticing how others were also wearing costumes, I didn't feel so awkward. Once in the Con, I was very comfortable and excited to be around so many people I didn't know. It was like the social anxiety barrier that often haunts me dissolved.

    Your posts, Megan, Cat, and Dave, make me realize that cosplay seems to give people an avenue by which they can express who they are outwardly and visibly - a projection of their persona or a nuance of their persona (sometimes one that doesn't show up on the surface very often or ever). By wearing your colours on the outside, you don't have to go through the usual and sometimes daunting ritual of finding out something personal about a stranger. As you pointed out Dave, a costume is a great way to break the ice - a person can immediately recognize that another may have a common thread of interest by visual means.

    Rather than being a barrier, I think a costume can actually free us from those barriers that are self or socially imposed. Now that I think about if, donning an armour shell can actually be an act of breaking out of one.