How To Cosplay (The Complete Guide)

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Cosplay Is For Everyone

Picture of a woman dressed in cosplay of Overwatch character D.Va
Looking for some help to get you started with copslay? Well, look no further because this post explains all the steps, tips, and tricks on how to cosplay. iStock.com/ColobusYeti

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.

Now walking through the crowds, you find that your surroundings are slowly transforming. The business people and their suits have been replaced with a massive crowd 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 out 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. 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 who dress 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. In fact, it’s actually an entire culture and art known internationally as cosplay. Cosplay is essentially 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.

Now that you know what cosplay is, you may now be wondering how does one participate in cosplay? Well luckily for you, this post will go over the exact steps of how to cosplay. Those steps are:

  1. Choose your character
  2. Plan ahead and do your research
  3. Set your 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 as practice
  10. Put it all together

In the rest of this article, we’ll also explain the history of cosplay, how you can participate in cosplay, and more!

The rise of cosplay

Picture of cosplay convention
iStock.com/ColobusYeti

While the concept of dressing up in costume has been around for thousands of years, it’s widely accepted that the term 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, the use of costumes to represent fictional characters became more and more normal to see.

Then in 1984, a Japanese man by the name of Takahashi Nobuyuki (known as Nov Takahashi in the U.S.), who was the founder of an anime publishing company, called Studio Hard, attended Worldcon in Los Angeles, California. At the event, he was blown away with the costumed science fiction and fantasy fans he saw and met. He 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 to dress up into their anime and manga events.

It was also in his writing that he 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, an area known for it’s shopping districts for video games, anime, manga, and computer goods. 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, called the 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. First was the launch of Dengeki Layers, a magazine that targeted the Japanese cosplay community. The second was the first World Cosplay Summit was held in Nagoya, Japan, in which cosplayers from various countries including Germany, France, and Italy joined together to celebrate cosplay. Soon after, in 2005, the World Cosplay Championship began, which was the first significant cosplay contest competition. 40 people from seven different 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 all over the world 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 known as Heroes of Cosplay, which drew an audience of over 3 million people!

All of this history and background now has 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 in. 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 used to be rare to find someone dressed up at a public event in full costume as their favorite character, it has now become the norm.

How to cosplay

Picture of woman in Pokemon cosplay

Now that you know the history of cosplay, we’ll dive into the steps of how to cosplay. The important thing to first note about cosplay is that it’s a form of self-expression and performance art. There’s not really a wrong way to dress up in cosplay, which is what makes it an extremely inclusive culture. This 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, then look no further! In this next section, we’ll go over the exact steps that will get you set up for cosplay success.

1. Choose your character

Before you can do anything, you’ll have to choose the character that you are going to cosplay. This may seem obvious, but it’s critical to narrow the many choices down to a single character. This will make all the remaining steps on this list go more smooth. So how do you narrow your options down to one? 

First, an important tactic is to choose a character who you can relate to personality-wise. For example, if you are easily frightened, innocent, humble, and supportive, you may want to 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 select characters who you don’t relate to or resemble in any way, shape, or form.

Second, you could try thinking about characters that already share similar physical characteristics to you. This is because your transformation could be a lot more seamless if you already look the part naturally. For example, if you are a female with long red hair, you may want to think of characters who also fit that description. One that comes to mind is Ariel from The Little Mermaid. It’s really important to note that naturally looking like a character is not mandatory. Most cosplayers dress up as characters who they look nothing like, and that 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, it probably is best to stick with a character who has a simpler design. This means you will have fewer pieces to put together for the costume, which could save you time and money. For example, Sailor Moon is a relatively easy character to cosplay because her outfit is very simple. Or you can be one of the Powerpuff Girls, which are very easy 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, with Bowser, you’d need a spiked shell, a spiked tail, horns, and more. Those are all pieces that can be relatively difficult to make or more expensive to purchase. Simplicity is just a guideline that we like to give, but again, the choice is entirely up to you!

2. Plan ahead and do your research

Once you have chosen your character, it’s essential to plan ahead and do thorough research. The best way to do this is to collect and gather a ton of photos of your character. Make sure you check out as many images as possible so you can see exactly how the character comes to life. A lot of characters come in different versions or wear different outfits, so it’s important during this phase that you choose the specific version of the character you are going to cosplay. For example, Harley Quinn has a variety of different outfits that she wears both 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 move 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. 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 make sure you spot out all the small things that 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 definitely 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 are going purchase a custom piece that someone will make for you, make sure 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 so that you can create a high-quality product without an enormous amount of stress. Though this might sound obvious, the more detailed and difficult the character is, the more time it will take to put the costume together!

3. Set your budget

This probably goes without saying, but it is extremely easy to spend your hard-earned money quickly when it comes to cosplay. And that amount can add up very quickly. Some of the most intricate cosplays we’ve seen have cost well over $1,000. But don’t be discouraged, because it is totally possible to cosplay for under $100. The great part of cosplaying is that how much you want to spend is completely up to you!

So in step 3, you’ll need to set your total budget for your costume. It’s imperative to be realistic though when determining your budget amount. If you chose a character with a detailed and challenging costume, you are likely going to have to spend more. At this stage, you should look up the costs of items, accessories, supplies, and other things you’ll need to put together your cosplay. We also recommend starting a budget spreadsheet so you can easily plan out all the pieces of your costume and exactly how much you anticipate they will cost.

The good news is that you don’t need a lot of 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), then it’s definitely 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 just make sure to account for that in your timeline.

4. Add your own spin

Picture of gamers standing in front of video game character billboards

Something that you’ll need to decide early on is whether you want to keep your cosplay true to the original character or if you would like to add your own spin. If you want your cosplay to look exactly how the original character looks without any modification, you can move on to the next step! However, 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, you may want to consider coming up with your own character mashup, which puts together elements of two separate characters into one hybrid character. The best example of this is Bowsette, who is a mashup of Princess Peach and Bowser. Whatever your spin may be, it’s important 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

It’s time to break out your spreadsheets in this step as you’ll be creating a list of everything you’ll need for your cosplay. This list should first include every piece of the costume. For example, if you’re dressing up as Mario, you should write down the following items on your list:

Once you list out all the pieces of the cosplay design, you may need to break your list down further into materials or supplies that make up those individual pieces. For example, if you are going to create Mario’s hat from scratch, you’ll need to get a red hat, but will also need to get some white felt or a white fabric marker so that you can create the “M” on the front of the hat. This list should include all of your supplies that you will need to create any piece of the outfit, so make sure you think long and hard about everything you will need to bring your cosplay to life! Don’t be afraid to include things like 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 are going to make yourself vs. which items you are going to purchase. This is important so that you can fully flesh out your supply list ahead of time and know exactly what you’ll need to shop for. For example, if you are going to purchase the white gloves for your Mario cosplay, you just need to 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 pieces of a costume vs. creating everything from scratch. There are clearly pros and cons to both. Purchasing pieces of your costume will be a lot faster and easier but will cost more. You also 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’s going to take a lot of time and effort to do so. Ultimately though, you’ll probably 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 start purchasing all the pieces to your cosplay and any supplies you’ll need to bring your character to life. We recommend using the same spreadsheet that you built your list on to keep track of all the items you’ve purchased and also to keep track of your costs.

It’s also in this step that you should shop around and price compare. Don’t just purchase the first thing you see! It’s essential to do comparison shopping so you can evaluate all of your options before you purchase. While you may seem something exciting that you instantly want to buy, we strongly warn against this as you could be missing out on something even more impressive or cost-effective. For example, when shopping for a Bowsette cosplay, you should definitely look around at all of your different options before you make your purchase. You might discover you like the size of one style of horns and crown better than the first one your saw. Or the material might be nicer or lighter. Whatever it may be, it’s important not to be impulsive when it comes to shopping for your cosplay. Do your due diligence and shop around.

We recommend online shopping on Amazon or eBay. Both have a fantastic selection with millions of products in their inventories. Plus, they typically have some of the best prices you’ll find. For example, if you want to cosplay as Spiderman, there are a ton of fabulous options like this one on Amazon or this one on 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

Once you have purchased all of your pieces and supplies, it’s time to start assembling your costume. This is the step in which you work on all of your DIY pieces. That means it’s finally time to break out the scissors, glue, and sewing machine! This is also the step that is probably going to take the most time because you’ll actually need to physically put together all the parts of the cosplay that you determined you would do yourself. Give yourself ample amounts of time for this step in your overall timeline so that you don’t feel rushed or stressed out.

8. Plan out your hair and makeup

Hair and makeup are a very important part of cosplay for both 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 important elements of cosplay!

You should first focus on your hair. Does your real 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, make sure to choose something high quality and realistic looking. We recommend avoiding the cheap stuff because you can’t really style it or apply heat if needed. Make sure you get your wig in advance, so you have time to style it and get it ready before you need to put it on.

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 will 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, which includes things like foundation, concealer, eyeliner, and eyeshadow. If you’re a girl, you’ll probably want to add lipstick, mascara, false lashes, blush, bronzer, and highlighter. Your look should ultimately resemble your character, and makeup can definitely help get you there.

9. Try everything on as practice

Alright so now you have all of your pieces created and assembled, and you’re ready to try it all on. It’s critical to make sure everything fits and to do a dry run with your cosplay before your big debut. This is your rehearsal! We recommend doing this at least a few days before you are planning to cosplay. You should put on each piece of the costume as if you are dressing up for the real thing. Walk around in your cosplay and make sure you are comfortable with what you are wearing. This is a great time to test your mobility in the costume. Make sure you can walk, bend over, and sit. Try out different motions and movements to ensure that your costume can move with you. This is also the time to figure out if you need to make any modifications. Maybe something isn’t fitting quite right. Or perhaps an accessory isn’t attached correctly. This all should be discovered during your practice run so that you don’t run into any surprises before it’s too late.

You’ll also want to practice your hair and makeup and make sure that you are happy with the way it turns out. This is a great chance to practice how you are going to style your hair and apply your makeup, so definitely don’t miss out on it.

10. Put it all together

It’s [finally] gameday! After days, weeks, or even months of planning, you are finally ready to put everything together. Make sure to give yourself enough time to get ready and prepare yourself in your cosplay. Some cosplay can take hours to dress in, so as always, plan ahead. We also recommend bringing some emergency supplies along with you just in case something happens to your costume. Some helpful supplies include bobby pins, safety pins, a small can of hairspray, double-stick tape, a Tide-To-Go pen, and 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

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 in a cosplay competition somewhere down the line. Whatever you decide to do with your cosplay, it’s going to be awesome. Welcome to the exciting world of cosplay!

Looking at other costume trends? Check out our articles on Furry Fandom!

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