10 Tips for Cosplay Beginners

Have you been ogling all the amazing costumes that people wear on social media and at conventions? Would you love to start working on a cosplay project of your own, but you simply don’t know where to start? Then I’ve got a list for you that will get you into the right mind for cosplay, conventions and crafting!

  1. Choose a Character You Love
  2. Good, Fast, Cheap – Choose Two
  3. Do Your Research
  4. Start Small… and Keep Growing
  5. Just Do It
  6. Don’t Go It Alone
  7. Don’t Worry About Accuracy (Too Much)
  8. Don’t Let Others Drag You Down
  9. Try to Get Good – Not Famous
  10. Don’t Be Afraid

Choose a Character You Love

Cosplay is not just about wearing the costume. You’re embodying a fictional character and making it come to life! Even if it’s just for the few seconds it takes to pose for a photo, you’ll want to be able to connect with the character you’re cosplaying as. This is much easier if you know and love the character already.

Making the costume yourself (and coming back to it until it’s finished!) will also be easier if you have a strong motivation to portray this character and do them justice. I’ve worked on cosplays before where I wasn’t familiar with the story, but it was never as much fun.

Don’t think too much about whether your character is popular enough. Obscure characters have loyal fans, too, and chances are you’ll win somebody’s heart at the con because you cosplay from their favorite fandom. I’ve made friends either way!

casual cosplay in front of graffiti wall
This closet cosplay is based on a BLEACH artwork. I only painted the t-shirt!

Good, Fast, Cheap – Choose Two

Fast & Cheap: It’s easy to buy a costume off the shelf these days, at least if it’s from a recent series or a popular classic – like a Japanese school uniform or a printed spandex suit for your favorite superhero. These costumes are mass-produced, with inexpensive materials, so don’t expect stellar quality or fit. You can also put together a simple costume from thrifted clothing or items from your wardrobe. Neither is going to win you an award on the big stage – but that’s fine! Buying or thrifting is a great way to dip your toes in the hobby and just have fun at the convention.

Good & Fast: If you want something special that will make people’s heads turn, but you don’t have the time and skills to make it yourself, then you’ll need to find a commissioner who can create a custom-made piece for $$$. Keep in mind that you pay for skilled labor to own a unique piece. This has nothing to do with clothing that you buy off the rack.

Good & Cheap: If you put in the effort to learn how to make things yourself, there are ingenious ways to create costumes from inexpensive materials, thrifted fabrics and lucky finds on the internet. Look at cosplayers from other parts of the world for inspiration – not everyone has access to special cosplay materials and a big workshop.

A complex, high-quality costume will take a lot of skill and time to make, period. There is no magic spell that will let you have all three: a good costume that you can get for cheap with no effort involved.

Here’s my checklist that can help you pick a costume for your wallet and skill level.

chiffon and faux silk

Do Your Research

Collect all the reference images of your character: official artwork, screenshots, concept sketches, even fan art and photos of other people’s cosplays. Details and colors vary, so make up your mind which version of a design you want to use as your main reference. Keep all relevant images in one place where you can look them up while you’re shopping for fabric or working on the costume.

sewing pattern

Before you buy fabric or foam, look for a pattern that you can use. I know sewing patterns can be intimidating for beginners! Working with an existing pattern will make your life a whole lot easier, because you can follow the instructions from someone who has made this piece before. Look at the back of the envelope to find a sizing chart, fabric recommendations and a list of materials.

If you don’t know what the type of clothing is called, show a picture to your fellow cosplayers and sewists to ask for pattern and fabric recommendations. Based on the pattern, calculate the amount of fabric and trim that you’re going to need. When buying online, order fabric swatches first so that you can touch and feel the fabric and see the exact color.

The same is true for props and armor: ask google and your favorite cosplay advice groups what materials and methods they recommend. Read or watch tutorials on techniques that you’re not familiar with. Unless you’re doing a very popular character, be creative with your search terms: look for generic „chest armor“ or „ponytail wig“ tips, rather than a walkthrough for the whole character costume.

You’ll find that there isn’t the one way (TM) to make something. Pick an option that works for you, and if you still have questions or doubts, go back to your peers to discuss your ideas. People are eager to help if they can see that you’ve given it some thought. Provide them with pictures and links for reference!

Start Small… and Keep Growing

When you try something new, pick a smaller project that is easy to complete. For your first prop weapon, make a dagger not a giant sword. If you want to try your hands on embroidery or fabric appliqué, start with a single ornament like a flower or a few letters, rather than a whole dress covered in complex patterns. This will allow you to test the technique or material, realize quickly when it’s not working as it should, and learn from your experience for your next, bigger project. You’ll probably be much faster the next time around – practice makes perfect!

Have confidence in your abilities, but don’t ask too much of yourself! Try to be realistic about how complex a costume is going to be, and respect the opinion of experienced crafters when they tell you that a project will require more time or a higher budget than you planned for. If you get the feeling that you bit off more than you can chew, switch to a more simple project instead. Most characters have a „casual“ version of their costume (like a school uniform or a plain suit without extensive armor) that you can complete for your next con, before continuing to build the final version.

Challenge yourself with every new costume you make – pick one new technique, pattern, or material that you haven’t previously worked with. Step out of your comfort zone with a new photoshoot idea, a costume that shows off a body part you previously weren’t comfortable with, a completely different type of character or makeup…

You don’t have to be perfect (breaking news: nobody is!) as long as you give it your best shot and learn from your mistakes, one step at a time. You’ll have all the more reason to be proud of your dream costume when you’ve finally completed it!

stitching curve
Satin-stitching the appliqué for my Yuuko (xxxHolic) gown

Just Do It

mockup on dress form

As important as it is to research techniques and materials before you start tinkering wildly, all this knowledge is useless if you don’t put it into practice. If you want to know if your idea will work, just give it a try!

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – what may seem like a „stupid“ mistake later, can still be an excellent learning opportunity now. You don’t need to experiment with the most expensive materials: there is often a cheaper way to create a mockup version of what you want to build – card stock or cheap craft foam for armor parts, muslin or bed sheets for sewing. This may sound like more work at first, but you’ll end up with a perfect template that you can use as a pattern for the actual costume.

Don’t be afraid to try something new and take a different route than you have before. Be willing to learn from others and listen to their tips, even if you’re skeptical at first. Some of my biggest level-ups have come from techniques or materials that others suggested to me, when I was so sure that I already knew everything!

Case in point, I couldn’t believe that you can mix your own wig dye, and years later I had colored dozens of wigs and wrote a tutorial about it.

dyeing wig roots
Before and after: Dyeing the roots for Byleth (Fire Emblem 3H)

Don’t Go It Alone

I went to my first conventions alone, without knowing whom I’d meet there. But I always left with new friends! When I look back at old group photos with fellow cosplayers, I see familiar faces and I think of how the fandom brought us all together. Going to a con in cosplay, or even just uploading your photo to a cosplay group on social media, is a great way to connect with people from your favorite fandom – or with fellow crafters who admire your work and want to exchange ideas.

If you think that cosplaying together in a group is more fun, then you’re absolutely right! There are lots of ways, online and offline, to find mutuals:

  • Attend small, local conventions and cosplay gatherings
  • Find a local sewing class, a maker space, an anime or comic-book club at your school or local library
  • Join local cosplay or fandom groups on Facebook and other social media
  • If you cannot find a dedicated group in your area, start a thread in a bigger cosplay or convention group
  • Get your friends and family to help – they might enjoy the crafting aspect, even if they’re not familiar with the fandom!
  • Join „TFP“ (time for pictures) photography & modeling groups*
    *) Be safe: never agree to meet with a stranger alone. Always bring a friend to the photoshoot, or meet up at a convention or social gathering.

And don’t hesitate to seek out fellow fans and crafters even if you don’t have a costume yet! I’ve attended lots of local events wearing jeans and a nerdy t-shirt. While it’s easier to connect with people when you have your costumes to talk about, I love being able to chat with old and new friends who are there for the same reasons like me.

cosplayers holding up fingers for peace signs
Having fun with cosplay homies in 2010

Don’t Worry About Accuracy (Too Much)

When I say that cosplay is about embodying a character, what I mean is: your idea of the character. You alone decide how and why you want to portray this character. There is no perfect way to cosplay a given character, because it is not real, it’s made up. It is so open to interpretation that everybody has a different image in their mind. That’s the beauty of popular culture!

I admit that I love recreating costume designs in as much detail as possible. It’s a challenge to find the „perfect“ fabric, to pattern impossible armor or manipulate wig fiber into gravity-defying styles. But I’m just as much a fan of artists and cosplayers who create an original design based on a character. You can always add your own twist to a costume, adjust it for comfort, or to your personal aesthetic. There are no boundaries in cosplay anymore!

That’s why I’m not a fan of „who should I cosplay“ threads. Others cannot look inside your head, and cosplay is not a lookalike contest. Don’t ever let people tell you that you don’t have the face or the body type (come on, who looks like Sailor Moon anyway?!), that you’re the wrong age or gender, or that your skin is the wrong color.

If cosplaying a character of a different ethnicity is a concern to you, read my piece on Racism and Blackface here.

Don’t Let Others Drag You Down

You’ve probably heard stories about cosplayers getting laughed at by non-cosplay folks (who don’t even know how to sew a crooked seam) or by their own fellow cosplayers for doing a „bad“ interpretation of a character. These haters are a disgrace to the community, but they exist in every area of life.

Do not let the bullies win and discourage you from doing what you love. Believe me when I say that for every negative experience you’ll read about on social media, there will be dozens of encouraging ones. Follow cosplayers who spread positivity and who encourage you to learn from them! Make your own, real-life experiences with people at cons and in online support groups, and steer clear of the drama.

When you’re around people who constantly want to talk to you about how cosplayer X was awful to them and how cosplayer Y is too fat/old/stupid/ugly to deserve any fame: walk away! Life is too short to surround yourself with that sort of negativity.

We are the cosplay community. We want to lift each other up instead of putting others down.

Sailor Moon Cosplay Group
Our Cheongsam Sailor Moon group is one of my most memorable cosplay experiences!

Try to Get Good – Not Famous

With how popular cosplay has become, it is sometimes hard to get noticed in the sea of awesome cosplayers, and social media growth is a fickle beast. I hear you! It feels so discouraging to post a photo that I’m really proud of, and all I hear is crickets. It makes me wonder: Am I doing something wrong? Is anyone even listening?

Take a step back. Think about why you’re doing this, and what you really want to get out of it. To me, planning and crafting my costumes is fun in itself, so I know that it still makes me happy to create stuff, even when no one sees it. So I just tune out sometimes and do my thing. Offline.

There is little to be gained by doing what everyone else does and aiming for likes for likes’ sake. Focus on perfecting your craft instead. The feedback that you receive may be smaller, but it will be genuine. On social media, build a small but loyal audience who are on board with the kind of cosplay you do, and with the type of persona you are online and IRL. Surround yourself with fellow cosplayers and friends who help you grow as an artist, as a maker and a person.

foam braid making of
Making of: Aerith wig for my tutorial book

Don’t Be Afraid

So now you’ve picked a cosplay that you want to make, you’ve done your research, and you’re prepared to go to your first event in cosplay. The next step is to just step outside your room and do it!

Do you have doubts? Believe me, we’ve all been there! To this day, I never know what to expect when I go to a con in a new cosplay. Who will recognize it, how many people will want to take my photo? Will I like the way I look in photos? Who else is cosplaying from the series, and whom will I meet through this cosplay?

I find that choosing a character and costume that you feel comfortable in really helps to make the event more enjoyable. Draw strength from the character you love. Think about how awesome it is that you’ve got the chance to be here, in this moment, and let go of your fear for a few hours. Be glamorous, be wicked, be a superhero! No one can ever take this moment away from you again.

Are you ready to start making your own costumes? Check out my other beginner-friendly guides!

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