How to Cosplay: The Ultimate Guide For Beginners

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Cosplay is for Everyone!

It’s a typical Thursday morning in New York City, and the streets are filled with people in business suits and uniforms on their way to work. As usual, the city is roaring. Cars are stopped in gridlock, honking at each other every 5 seconds. As you close your door and put your headphones on, preparing to conquer your walk to work, you realize something different is in the air. Little did you know that this day will be one you will not soon forget?

Walking through the crowds, you find that your surroundings are slowly transforming. The business people and their suits have been replaced with a massive group of superheroes and video gaming characters. Directly in front of you is Link from Zelda, waiting to cross the intersection.

You turn around, and Princess Peach is fixing her blonde wig. To your right, Boba Fett, the bounty hunter from Star Wars, is having a super intense conversation with D.Va from Overwatch. To make things even weirder, across the street, Spiderman and Sailor Moon are walking together, holding hands. You think to yourself, what the heck is going on? And decide to follow the animated crowd to find where everyone is going.

After a 15-minute walk down West 34th, you realize you’re approaching the Javits Convention Center, and all of a sudden, you see huge banners and signage for New York Comic Con, an annual event that celebrates the culture of comics, graphic novels, video games, movies, anime, and more.

Cosplay fans crossing the street to a convention.

And then it all dawns on you; Link, Peach, Boba Fett, D.Va, Spiderman, and Sailor Moon are all on their way to this massive gathering. While you’ve never been to Comic Con before, you’ve seen coverage from previous years all over the internet, featuring thousands of people dressed up as their favorite fantasy characters and heroes.

Dressing up in full costume and accessories to become a specific character isn’t something only reserved for Comic Con. It’s an entire culture and art known internationally as cosplay.

Cosplay is a combination of the words costume and play and is performance art. If you participate in cosplay, you are known as a cosplayer, meaning someone who dresses up as a specific character from video games, comics, anime, manga, movies, television, and more.

The Rise of Cosplay: A Brief History

While dressing up in costume has been around for thousands of years, it’s widely accepted that cosplay originated in the 1980s. The earliest reports of people dressing up as science fiction characters are from 1939-1941 at the World Science Fiction Convention, also known as Worldcon. Over the years, using costumes to represent fictional characters has become increasingly common.

Then in 1984, a Japanese man named Takahashi Nobuyuki (Nov Takahashi in the U.S.), the founder of an anime publishing company, Studio Hard, attended Worldcon in Los Angeles, California. He was blown away at the event by the costumed science fiction and fantasy fans he saw and met. 

Takahashi wrote about his experiences at the convention in My Anime, stating that he was particularly in awe over the elaborate costumes and masquerade. In his writing, he encouraged his readers to incorporate costumes and dress up in their anime and manga events.

In his writing, he also invented the phrase costume play, which he eventually shortened to kosupure or cosplay. And thus, the term that we all know and love today as cosplay was born. Although the word cosplay didn’t catch on immediately, it eventually became widely used in the 1990s, thanks to exposure on TV and various print publications.

Not only did the word cosplay become famous, but so did the practice, especially in Japan. In the late 1990s, the first cosplay cafes appeared in Akihabara, known for its shopping districts for video games, anime, manga, and computer goods. 

Picture of cosplay convention
A Crowd of Fans Cosplaying at Comic Con

These cafes featured waitresses dressed up in costumes from the series of computer dating simulator games called “Welcome to Pia Carrot!!” and were temporary pop-up cafes that served as a promotion for the game. In 2001, the first permanent cosplay cafe, Cure Maid Cafe, opened in Akihabara.

Cosplay continued to gain momentum over the years, especially in Japan. Then, in 2003, two huge developments in the world of cosplay occurred.

  1. First was the launch of Dengeki Layers, a magazine that targeted the Japanese cosplay community. 
  2. Second was the first World Cosplay Summit held in Nagoya, Japan, where cosplayers from various countries, including Germany, France, and Italy, joined together to celebrate cosplay. 

Soon after 2005, the World Cosplay Championship began, which was the first significant cosplay contest competition. 40 people from seven countries competed in the event, which saw Italy take home the final overall trophy.

In 2009, cosplay got its huge big break in the United States when Jessica Nigri was photographed at the annual San Diego Comic Con as sexy Pikachu. Her pictures went viral and took the internet by storm, and she quickly became one of the biggest cosplayers in the world. 

She inspired thousands of people worldwide to dress up as their favorite characters. Most importantly, she normalized cosplay and helped it transition from a Japanese niche culture to a global phenomenon. 

And in 2013, the American cable television channel SyFy debuted the reality competition series, Heroes of Cosplay, which drew an audience of over 3 million people!

This history and background have brought us to the present day. Cosplay is no longer just popular with a small group of people in Japan. It is now a huge worldwide art form in which men and women of all ages, shapes, colors, and sizes participate. 

Over the years, cosplay has become a fundamental part of gaming convention and event culture, especially for things like Comic Con, Pax, and Blizzcon. While it was rare to find someone dressed up at a public event in full costume as their favorite character, it has now become the norm.

Now that you know what cosplay is, you may wonder how one participates in cosplay. Well, luckily for you, this guide will cover all the steps of how to cosplay.

A Step-by-Step Beginner’s Guide for Getting Started with Cosplay

  1. Choose Your Cosplay Character
  2. Do Your Research and Plan Ahead
  3. Set Your Cosplay Budget
  4. Add Your Own Spin
  5. Make a List of Everything You Need
  6. Purchase Your Pieces and Supplies
  7. Assemble Your Outfit and Accessories
  8. Plan Out Your Hair and Makeup
  9. Try Everything On In a Practice Run
  10. Pull It All Together

Now that you know the history of cosplay, we’ll dive into how to cosplay. The critical thing to note about cosplay is that it’s a form of self-expression and performance art. There’s no wrong way to dress up in cosplay, making it an incredibly inclusive culture.

This inclusivity means that how you dress up and what you choose to wear is entirely up to you. There is plenty of room for interpretation, creativity, and innovation to put your own spin on a character.

If this is your first time cosplaying, and you don’t know where to begin, look no further! This next section will review the steps in detail to set you up for cosplay success.

Picture of woman in Pokemon cosplay
A Cosplayer Dressed as Nurse Joy from Pokemon Holding a Chancy

1. Choose Your Cosplay Character

Before you can do anything, you must first go through the process of choosing the character you will cosplay as. This step may seem obvious, but narrowing the many choices down to a single character is critical. It will make all the remaining steps on this list go smoothly. How do you narrow your options down to one? 

First, an important tactic is choosing a character you can relate to personality-wise. For example, if you are easily frightened, innocent, humble, and supportive, consider choosing Toad from Super Mario since he fits that personality description. Again, this is not mandatory, and the beauty of cosplay is that you can also select characters you don’t relate to or resemble in any way, shape, or form.

Second, think about characters that already share similar physical characteristics to you. This factors in because your character transformation could be more seamless if you look at the part naturally. For example, if you are a female with long red hair, think of characters who also fit that description. One that comes to mind is Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

It’s important to note that naturally looking like a character is not mandatory. Most cosplayers dress up as characters they look nothing like, which is totally encouraged. Anyone can cosplay as any character that they’d like to!

Another consideration is the difficulty level of the character in terms of costume design. If this is your first time cosplaying, stick with a character with a more straightforward design. You will have fewer pieces to put together for the costume, which could save you time and money. For example, if you want to cosplay as Sailor Moon, it’s a relatively easy character to start with because of her simple outfit. Or you can be one of the Powerpuff Girls, which also have very simple costumes to create.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, characters like Groot or Bowser are more difficult because their design is incredibly detailed and would require more custom pieces. For example, you’d need a spiked shell, a spiked tail, horns, and more with Bowser. Those pieces can be relatively difficult to make or more expensive to purchase. 

Simplicity is just a guideline we like to give, but again, the choice is entirely up to you!

2. Do Your Research and Plan Ahead

Once you choose your character, planning and doing thorough research is essential. The best way to do this is to collect and gather many photos of your character. Check out as many images as possible to see exactly how the character comes to life. 

Many characters come in different versions or wear different outfits, so during this phase, you must choose the specific version of the character you are going to cosplay. For example, if you wanted to cosplay as Harley Quinn, she wears various outfits in animated comics and films and in real-life depictions. Or take Batman as another example—his Batsuit changes in almost every movie. You’ll need to choose one of those specific looks before moving forward.

During your research phase, it’s most important to take notes of all the details (no matter how small they are) for the character you’ve chosen, such as:

  • Does the character have any distinctive markings on their body or outfit? 
  • What specific colors or shades will you need so your cosplay is as authentic as possible? 

The devil is definitely in the details with cosplay! You’ll want to ensure you spot all the small things others might overlook. The more detailed you get, the more spot-on your cosplay will be.

The final part of this step is to make sure you set a timeline so that you have enough time to put together your cosplay. Some costumes can take weeks or months to put together, so make sure you take that into account early. 

If you are buying pieces of your cosplay, make sure you take shipping timelines into account. If you purchase a custom piece that someone will make for you, find out how long it will take to create and ship to you. 

Even if you are making your own custom piece, give yourself enough time to create a high-quality product without enormous stress. Though this might sound obvious, the more detailed and complex the character, the more time it will take to assemble the costume!

3. Set Your Cosplay Budget

It is extremely easy to spend your hard-earned money quickly when piecing together a cosplay. And the amount can add up just as fast! Some of the most intricate cosplays we’ve seen have cost well over $1,000. But don’t be discouraged because it is possible to piece together a fantastic cosplay for under $100. A great aspect of cosplaying is that how much you want to spend is entirely up to you!

So in this step, you’ll need to set your total budget for your costume. It’s imperative to be realistic when determining your budget amount. If you choose a character with a detailed and challenging costume, you will likely have to spend more.

At this stage, you should look up the costs of items, accessories, supplies, and other things you’ll need to assemble your cosplay. We also recommend starting a budget spreadsheet so you can easily plan out all your costume pieces and how much you anticipate they will cost.

The good news is that you don’t need much money to execute an awesome-looking cosplay! The more you are willing to put together yourself, the cheaper the cost will ultimately be.

If you’re okay with DIY (do-it-yourself), it’s a more cost-effective option for you and will keep your budget lower. The other part of DIY is that it will take longer to create, so account for that in your timeline.

4. Add Your Own Spin

You’ll need to decide early on whether you want to keep your cosplay accurate to the original character or if you would like to add your spin. 

  • If you want your cosplay to look precisely how the original character looks without modification, you can move on to the next step! 
  • If you are considering adding your own flair to your cosplay, this will be the time to do it.

This flair can be as simple as changing the hair color of the character or adding an accessory to the costume. Alternatively, your own spin could be rather complicated. 

For example, consider coming up with a character mashup, which combines elements of two separate characters into one hybrid character. The best example of this is Bowsette, which is a mashup of Princess Peach and Bowser. 

Whatever your spin may be, it’s vital to decide early on so that you can plan ahead in your timeline, budget, and costume design.

5. Make a List of Everything You Need

Mario Cosplay
A Man Dressed Up in a Mario Cosplay

It’s time to break out your spreadsheets in this step, as you’ll create a list of everything you’ll need for your cosplay. This list should first include every piece of the costume. 

For example, let’s pretend you want to dress up as Mario. You should write down all of the following items on your list:

Once you list all the pieces of the cosplay design, you may need to break your list down further into materials or supplies that make up those pieces. For example, if you are going to create Mario’s hat from scratch, you’ll need to get a red hat, but you will also need to get some white felt or a white fabric marker to create the “M” on the front of the hat. 

This list should include all the supplies you need to create any outfit piece, so think carefully about everything you need to bring your cosplay to life! Don’t be afraid to include sewing thread and needles, hot glue guns, and more. The more thorough the list, the better.

It’s also in this step that you’ll need to decide which items you will make yourself vs. which items you will purchase. This step is vital so that you can fully flesh out your supply list ahead of time and know what precisely you’ll need to shop for. 

For example, if you purchase white gloves for your Mario cosplay, you must document that on your list. However, if you are going to make them from scratch, you’ll need to write down all the supplies it will take to create those, such as white fabric, foam stuffing, white sewing thread, a sewing machine, etc. Trust us, spending the time on this early on will make the steps later in this process go a lot more smooth!

In the world of cosplay, there is usually a large debate over purchasing costume pieces vs. creating everything from scratch. Both approaches have their pros and cons, and neither is right or wrong, better or worse.

Purchasing your costume pieces will be much faster and easier but will cost more. If it’s your first time cosplaying, consider this route to help build up your confidence. You can learn quite a bit from pre-assembled cosplay costumes. Just remember, with pre-assembled costumes, you can’t customize the cosplay as much as you may like to because the pieces are already pre-made.

With a DIY costume, you can customize everything the exact way you’d like, but it will take a lot of time and effort. Ultimately though, you’re more likely to save more money with DIY. 

Buying costumes or pieces of a costume is typically a great way to start off with your first cosplay so that you don’t get overwhelmed with having to create everything yourself.

6. Purchase Your Pieces and Supplies

Once you have everything documented on your list, you can purchase all the pieces of your cosplay and any supplies you’ll need to bring your character to life. We recommend using the same spreadsheet you built your list on to keep track of all the items you’ve purchased and your costs.

In this step, you should also shop around and price compare. Don’t just purchase the first thing you see! It’s essential to do comparison shopping to evaluate your options before buying. 

While you may see something exciting you instantly want to buy, we strongly warn against this as you could miss out on something even more impressive or cost-effective. For example, when shopping for a Bowsette cosplay, you should look around at all your different options before making your purchase. You might discover you like the size of one style of horn and crown better than the first one your saw. Or the material might be nicer, lighter weight, more breathable, etc. 

Whatever it may be, it’s important not to be impulsive when shopping for your cosplay costume. Do your due diligence and shop around.

We recommend online shopping on Amazon, eBay, and Etsy. These three sites have a fantastic selection with millions of products in their inventories. They typically have some of the best prices and the rarest items available. For example, if you want to cosplay as Spiderman, there are many fabulous options like this one on Amazon or eBay. Or if you need a wig for your Harley Quinn costume, search no further. Amazon and eBay have a variety of great wigs like this one and this one (eBay)

7. Assemble Your Outfit and Accessories

Assemble Your Outfit and Accessories

Once you have purchased all of your cosplay pieces and supplies and they’ve all arrived, it’s time to start assembling your costume. You will need to begin work on all of your DIY pieces. That means it’s finally time to break out the scissors, glue, and sewing machine!

This step will take the most time because you’ll need to physically assemble all the parts of the cosplay you determined you would do yourself. Give yourself ample time for this step in your overall timeline so you don’t feel rushed or stressed out.

Make sure to check the sizes, dimensions, colors, and any special properties of each item to ensure you receive the right pieces. Mistakes happen; the sooner you catch them, the more time you’ll have to rectify the situation.

Don’t rush any significant steps, such as cutting or sewing. Take the time to think through and triple-check the current and next steps. It can save your project from catastrophe. The last thing you want to happen is to destroy a critical piece of your cosplay costume due to a silly, rushed mistake.

8. Plan Out Your Hair and Makeup

Hair and makeup are a very important part of cosplay for women and men. Contrary to popular belief, men should absolutely be thinking about their hair and makeup for their cosplay. These are two of the most essential elements of cosplay!

It would be best if you first focused on your hair.

  • Does your natural hair look enough like your character’s hair?
  • Can you get away with slight modifications (like straightening or curling) of your natural hair to bring your cosplay together?

If not, you’ll need to think about the next steps.

  • Will you need a wig?
  • Can you dye your hair?
  • Do you need a haircut?

These are all valid questions when planning out your hairstyle for your cosplay. If you need to dye your hair or get a haircut, make sure to do this a few days in advance so you have time to correct anything should you need to. 

If you need to purchase a wig, choose something high-quality and realistic. Avoid the cheap stuff because you can’t style it or apply heat if needed. Please ensure you get your wig in advance so you have time to style it and get it ready before putting it on. This is a common mistake new cosplayers make!

When it comes to makeup, our number one recommendation is to wear it! Yes, even if you are a male. Makeup will help you look better in photos and bring your cosplay together. It also helps your skin look more smooth and settled.

Depending on who your character is, you may need more or less makeup. Most characters will require a natural look, including foundation, concealer, eyeliner, and eyeshadow. You’ll probably want to add lipstick, mascara, false lashes, blush, bronzer, and highlighter if you’re a girl. Your look should resemble your character; makeup can help get you there.

9. Try Everything On In a Practice Run

Now you have all your pieces created and assembled, and you’re ready to try it all on. It’s critical to ensure everything fits and do a dry run with your cosplay before your big debut. It’s rehearsal time! 

Please track how long it takes to complete this process from start to finish. You’ll want to know so that you give yourself enough prep time for your event(s)!

We recommend doing this at least a few days before you plan to cosplay. You should put on each costume piece as if you are dressing up for the real thing. Walk around in your cosplay and ensure you are completely comfortable with what you’ll wear.

This is the best time to test your mobility in the cosplay costume. Make sure you can walk, bend over, and sit. Try different motions and movements to ensure your outfit can move with you.

Additionally, this is the time to determine if you need to make any modifications. Something may not fit right, or an accessory isn’t attached correctly. You want to discover this during your practice run so that you don’t run into any surprises during your cosplay event.

You’ll also want to practice your hair and makeup and ensure you are happy with how it turns out. Here’s your chance to practice how you will style your hair and apply your makeup, so don’t miss out on it. 

It’s a great time to photograph each step to document the process. You can share it later on your social feeds or blog or have the memories in photo format.

10. Pull It All Together

It’s finally game day! After days, weeks, or even months of planning, you are finally ready to put everything together. No sweat! Since you took heed of our tip to track how long your dry run took, you’ll have given yourself enough time to prepare for your cosplay.

Some cosplay can take hours to dress in, so plan ahead. We also recommend bringing some emergency supplies with you if something happens to your costume. Some helpful supplies include:

  • Bobby pins
  • Safety pins
  • Small Can of Hairspray
  • Double-stick Tape
  • Tide-To-Go Pen
  • Touch-up Makeup 

You never know when you’ll need these extra emergency supplies, but it’s better to be prepared!

You’re Now Ready for Your Cosplay Debut

Two Cosplayers Posing in a Convention Hallway
Two Cosplayers Posing in a Convention Hallway

Congratulations! Now that you’ve gotten through the whole list, you’re ready for your big cosplay debut.

You now know all the steps of how to cosplay, and we can’t wait to see how your awesome costume turns out. We recommend debuting your cosplay at an upcoming gaming event or convention, where you can expect hundreds, or even thousands, of others to be dressed up as their favorite characters.

And who knows, you may even consider trying your hand at a cosplay competition somewhere down the line. Whatever you decide to do with your cosplay, it will be awesome. Welcome to the exciting world of cosplay, and don’t forget to get pictures!

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