[Article] Costume Design and Prep

Every cosplayer has their own process when it comes to the initial phases of a costume; some choose to obsessively collect source pictures, some hunt down patterns and look up textiles as step one, and some start by calling up all their friends and seeing who can help them. The method you use when you’re confronted by a large project is totally flexible; whatever works for you is the right way. I’m going to talk about my personal steps from first wanting to cosplay, to finally starting to work.

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Step 1) SOURCE!

I am one of the aforementioned source photo horders. I think having accurate and numerous source photos is the best way to have a well made and accurate costume. When I see a character I want to cosplay, I immediately create a new folder within my cosplay file for that character, and then create a ‘Source’ folder. The next few days/weeks/months are devoting to finding pictures of every angle of the costume. Sometimes this means playing through a game and grabbing screenshots as I go so that I can get the most accurate source photos.

For your collection of source  photos, there are several really good places to look. For my current project, Elsa from Frozen, I’ve been watching all of the clips and previews on youtube and grabbing screenshots from there, as well as finding everything released by Disney that has photos. I actually found the officially licensed dolls have a lot of cannon detail that is never clearly pictured in the movie, like Elsa’s ice-crystal shoes:

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This little detail will really help pull together the costume, and if I’d just stuck to googling wallpapers, I’d never have seen it!

Step 2) Sketch

I have always made the personal choice not to use commercial patterns for my costumes. I find that they never tend to be exactly what I’m looking for, altering a pattern takes just as much work as making your own, and pattern making is super fun! Of course this totally isn’t the case for everyone, and I’ve seen some great cosplays made from purchased patterns. One of the ways to get into patterning is to just take notice of the seams on every day clothing.When you start to get comfortable with the generic shape of clothing pieces, you can start to see how embellishing them changes a garment. You can also get patterning books for fashion, and create your own patterns from the rules those books set forward. Some of my favorite go-to patterning books are textbooks from Theater Arts classes.

Sketch I did for my updated Link and Shadow Link tunics

Sketch I did for my updated Link and Shadow Link tunics

When I start patterning I’ll sketch the costumes as accurately as I can, with all seams marked, and then break those drawings down into each pattern piece, which leads into…

Step 3: Yardage estimates and Purchasing

Cloth shopping is probably one of my favorite parts of cosplaying. My favorite days are where I’m in a store with a few good source photos and nowhere else to be. As far as amounts, I’m firmly of the mind of over-purchasing rather than under-purchasing. I know I can easily make a simple bodice with a yard of material, but I’d rather buy a yard and a half just to be safe. When I purchase a very specific material for a cosplay, I’ll try and get something very similar in stretch, strength, pile, and thickness that is also cheaper to use for my mock-up. Generally I’ll buy 1.5 times the mock-up material just for trial and error incase I made some mistake in my patterning step that I didn’t catch before cutting.

This is my Disney Land

My Disney Land 😉

My general policy on yardage for the most basic of items (of course yours will vary depending on the specific design of anything you’re doing, what you’re using, your size, etc) is as follows:

  • For shirts I buy 1 yard to 1.5 yards
  • Tunics, 2yds
  • Dresses, 2-5yds, more for fuller
  • Skirts, 2yds
  • Pants, 3 yds
  • Gloves, 1/2yd
  • Boot Covers, 1.5yds

These values are obviously very rough, and reading through commercial patterns can help you get a more exact idea for what your specific needs are, but when I’m rough budgeting, it’s really nice to have a basic idea of what I’ll be buying.  It’s important to remember the more complex something is, with many small pieces, the more cloth you’ll have to buy, since you’ll need room to lay out all your pieces on the correct straight of grain.

Step 4: Mock-up

I consider the mock-up to be part of the planning phase, I’ve had costumes that I’ve done a mock-up for and never actually done the costume for. My mock-ups become the pattern pieces I use to cut my final fabric from, and are really important in getting a good fit in any costume. When I mark the pieces that will be my mock-up, I do 1-inch seam allowances on all sides to allow for alteration, and after basting the pieces together (either by hand or by machine, by machine is faster), I’ll do a fitting on myself or my twin. I really prefer to do fittings on a human body rather than a dress form, because knowing how you’ll be getting the garment on and off your body will be super important in decisions like zipper and elastic placement, and how fitted you can go with the final product. It also gives me a chance to get really excited about the costume!

My first purchase for the mock-up of Elsa from Frozen

My first purchase for the mock-up of Elsa from Frozen

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