Guide to Cosplay by noted author and costuming expert, James "Kuukuuson" Kavanaugh
Hi all! Didn't mean to sneak up on you, I'm in disguise. Wow, that was really dumb... But if you did have fun with my opening line then you’re probably light hearted enough to engage in the wild and exciting world of “cosplay.”
Cosplay (costume role-playing) has become quite a mainstay and a key element with today’s convention goers and pop culture social gatherings. People spend a lot of time and money researching and recreating living embodiments of characters that they know and love. I've enjoyed dressing up at the International G.I. Joe Convention or "JoeCon" since 2005 but people have been dressing up at Joe conventions since the early 90's. My good friend and costume consort Jon "Hela Viper" Cremeans portrayed such a striking Destro in 1994 that Hasbro thought he was hired help! But what made me dawn the infamous Crystal Ball costume, the one that got me started? Simply, the club offered a costuming alternative to the casual dress to their JoeCon dinner. I have always had a flair for the dramatic and thought bringing to life such a goof as Crystal Ball would be a great for a laugh and add to the dinner. And it was. I think everyone had a good time and Crystal Ball was a great contradiction to all the exciting and elaborate costumes worn.
There are many approaches to cosplay but the foundation to a good costume is fun. It is important to be prepared to "be" the character and roll with the banter of onlookers and conventioneers as the core element to bringing the character to life is indeed having it live. A great starting place with any form of expression is research. If you're interested in dawning the mantel of a fictional character, I'll readily assume you have a basic interest and familiarity with the character. I would then look at how the general audience perceives the character as, again, you'll be interacting with an audience. Don't necessarily let the general perception dictate the portrayal; simply acknowledge the perception as that will help you guide the flow of interaction. It is also important to study key moments in the character's fictional life and key images of the character. Fictional characters begin their existence in the imagery that people take in and retain. For example, G.I. Joe card art is very influential on a G.I. Joe collector. I will rattle off some figures: 1982 Snake Eyes, 1984 Duke, and 1985 Flint. I'm pretty confident you pictured Snake Eyes kneeling and pointing up, Duke standing with his gun and helmet and Flint holding a shotgun with his fist in the air. Every character has at least one image or one key moment where they are captured by the audience. Gaining a grasp of that moment with the character is a great springboard to deliver that character to the audience.
Now that the method of the character has been established, the visual representation of the character needs to be created. This critical juncture decides what version of the character to develop (if it has multiple representations), do you want to put a personal spin on the character, and how much time, resources and, honestly, money you want to put into the costume. Some people want to have a completely accurate "down to the number of eyelets in the boots" physical manifestation of a given character’s likeness. This will increase your chances of winning any contest (which might have a monetary reward to recoup costs) and will certainly engage the audience. There is also a sense of bragging rights and a semi-ownership of the character within the cosplay community that these creators feed off of and raise the bar in the spirit of competition and innovation. I will clarify money/time doesn’t always mean a “good” or “winning” costume. This might be an opportunity for your creativeness and resourcefulness to shine and work around financial barriers to get the final costume you desire. Some essential pit stops are ebay.com, etsy.com, or your local good will and costume/specialty shops. It is important to take some prep time to write down or draw a mock up of your costume, identify the materials you need and maybe bounce the idea off some friends to get feedback before you go aimlessly searching for the components needed. If you are concerned about money or time, I would prioritize the key visuals to your character of choice. If you want to dress as 1985 Flint, I would prioritize his costume needs by:
- Black beret, black shirt, camo pants, black boots, shotgun shell suspenders, shot gun, and gloves (for the love of god, don’t forget the gloves!!! If you don’t get the gloves joke, solid research as stated in step one will clue you in).
- Airborne medal, watch, two brown belts, red symbol on hat
- Short black hair (dye and/or cut) refine accuracy and quality of shirt, pants, gloves, boots and beret, capping used shot gun shells (might be a little much but how far do you want to go down the rabbit hole? Oh and no live guns/ammo!) military accurate medals etc…
As you can see, a very basic Flint can be achieved in step one but the more you look into him, the more intricate a seemingly basic/or more “true to life” character like Flint can be.
Now that you’ve identified and/or obtained the components you feel necessary to complete your interpretation of a character, some assembly may be required (see what I did there eh? Tough audience…). Your best friend will always be the hot glue gun. You get what you pay for so if you’re interested in becoming a regular on the cosplay scene, a decent one will be a must. A fair understanding of sewing is an asset as well. There are many iron-on options out there in today’s world that can save you a lot of hassle if sewing isn’t your strong suit. Another very essential tool of the trade is the internet. There are a ton of tutorials, forums, guides and blogs out there that will help guide you in making your costume as good as you want it to be. Measuring twice and cutting once is always a good rule in any project. If you wear size 34” leg pants, you will want to include some extra length if your costume requires a waist-to-floor aesthetic. And honestly, your final tool to assembling your costume is your imagination. Looking at your costume and seeing beyond what it’s supposed to be in a fantasy environment and bringing it convincingly to reality is essential no matter what level of quality/detail you want to bring to your costume. Hollowing out shotgun shells might not be the safest or easily approachable way to achieve the aesthetic. Maybe a dowel rod cut into pieces, painted red with some wash and capped by some seals at the local hardware store might give you the same effect. Your imagination is the most essential tool through this entire process.
The final step to any costume is its presentation. You’ve assembled your costume and you’re ready for con, how will you greet the audience? How will the audience greet you? No, I’m not trying to be all philosophical, “chicken and the egg” mixed with Alice in Wonderland; some mental prep work is important to fill the costume you are now trying to play. If you are dressed as a member of G.I. Joe, you might want to occasionally say, “and now you know” when someone makes an observation. If you are taking your character in an unfamiliar route, you probably need to come up with some witty or striking remarks to help guide the audience into your direction with the character or they will be lost. Maybe the character is going to fire off a rocket so some build up is necessary for that moment where the rocket takes flight. It might also help to have some friends in the audience who are not dressed in cosplay to set the stage as an onlooker that you can walk into a staged environment. Finally, be prepared to adlib and interact with others in cosplay to help set the environment engage in the fun of cosplay. It might be funny to have someone dressed as Strawberry Shortcake get in the middle of a group of Cobra soldiers, be prepared to let loose and have fun with it. Finally, be prepared to have children actively engage you and convention goers want their photograph taken with you.
A lot of cosplay stems from carnivals and amusement parks who hire people to wear costumes of the characters in their theme. You have essentially brought their favorite characters into the real world and it is exciting for them. When I say don’t be shy when in costume, that sentiment applies to all facets of the cosplay pretty much comes with the territory. Take it in as a few of your fifteen minutes of fame.
While the pointers stated above can be used sparingly throughout the general convention, if you are interested in competing in a costume contest, they are pretty essential. Breathing life into the costume is essential at this juncture. A visually appealing costume gets you noticed when you’re on stage; but if you’re just standing there like a lump, you will work against all the hard work you’ve put into the costume. When it’s your time to shine, be strong, be sharp, be vivacious and be brief. You only have a couple of seconds to wow the audience before the emcee moves to the next costume so be prepared before hand to deliver the essence of your character in one solid blast. Also be prepared to have a few layers to that character if the judging goes in rounds and tier them from an introduction to the character all the way to more enticing elements of the character as the rounds progress.
I hope this dissertation helps give you some insight into the world of cosplay and helps focus the generation of ideas you might have in bringing your favorite characters to life. I have given you many avenues and many aspects to take into consideration but the core to cosplay (and conventioneering [it’s a word now] for that matter) is fun. If you’re excited about not only bringing one of your favorite characters to life; but bringing it out into the world for everyone to see then your cosplay experience will be a blast for you and appreciated by many.