Monthly Archives: August 2017

Cosplay Judging 102: Some Practical Exercises

In my last post, I tried to pull back the curtain on what cosplay craftsmanship contest judges tend to be looking for when you step into the room, and then I promised you some practical steps you can take to prepare. I’m not saying “Do these things and you will definitely win;” these are things that have worked for me and for my lovely contributors (see the list at the bottom of this post!), and you may take or leave them as you see fit.

Print out your reference images.

You didn’t think I was going to let you get away without this one, did you? A printed reference image means that we can give you all the points for accuracy that you deserve, and has a side benefit of being a reference while you’re putting on your costume in the morning, especially helpful if there are things like asymmetric pieces or weird makeup.


I would have gotten myself in so much trouble without my references.

Make yourself a list of things to talk about.

You know better than anyone else what went into making your costume, but on the spot, if you’re anything like me, it’ll abruptly depart your head and you’ll be left staring out your work of art stammering, “Officer, I’ve never seen this top hat before in my life.” Sit down the night or week before and make yourself a list.

For my Souseiseki, from Rozen Maiden, this list looked something like this:

  • Patterned everything from scratch
  • Handmade top hat, plastic canvas + posterboard + craft foam
  • Lined cape and pants, hand-finished waistband
  • Fun scissors fabric in pockets, waistband, hat
  • 100+ inches of pleated trim
  • Functional buttons in cuffs
  • Boning in vest front
  • Patterned shoe attachments

It’s just…a list of stuff, but it’s a list of stuff I want to remember to mention, because some of it (like “I patterned everything myself”) is where a ton of the mythical Points come from, and some of it (“100+ inches of pleated trim”) is fun, impressive details that will stick in a judge’s head. One of my favorite things to do is get cutesy with my linings, which is fun and memorable, but that doesn’t help me if I forget to mention it!

Optional: Print out and bring in your progress pictures.

This doesn’t get you Points, but it will help you remember what you did and act as a visual aid as you explain it to us. Also, every once in a blue moon, if we see something that looks pro-grade but the competitor can’t explain it very well, this helps us know if the competitor is simply new or self-taught and doesn’t have all the vocabulary/isn’t comfortable speaking to us (it happens!), or if they’re entering someone else’s work without that person present (it’s cheating!).

Practice your spiel.

Once you have your list, practice how you’re going to say it all in two minutes, without talking so fast that only hummingbirds would be able to understand you. If you can, have a friend who’s competed before pretend to judge you, doing the walk-around, flipping up your seams to check the finish, “Mmm-hmmm, and how did you do this?”, and keeping you on a timer. If you don’t have someone like that at hand, try recording yourself and playing it back. (I know, I know, I hate the sound of my own voice, but it’ll help you hear all the pauses, or rambling, or “like”s and “um”s that eat up your time.)

Every judge is different, so the proportion of “Tell me about your costume” free-form time to specific costume questions will vary. Make sure you can go off-script enough to answer those questions, but the process of practicing a speech will put the answers in the forefront of your mind, and make your presentation stronger overall.

Iron your costume.

I’ve blogged about this before (yes, it says it’s about process, but one of those processes is “iron everything, all the time”), but this is the single biggest thing you can do to make all of your work look a million times better. Ironing removes wrinkles, makes sure that things that are supposed to be lined up are lined up, lets you cheat at lining things up if you need to, gives you credit for your cleanliness and seam finishes, and is generally basically magic. I know that just the act of walking from your hotel room to judging will put some wear wrinkles in. Don’t worry about those. They’re fine. But your seam lines, your hems, large broad pieces of drapery like skirts and capes? Those need to be nice and pressed.

Here’s the simple truth: your costume could be beautifully constructed and technically perfect, but if it hasn’t been ironed, I can’t tell.

If you’re away from home? Good news: I have never stayed in a hotel room that didn’t have an iron. They’ve got you covered.

You did all the work. Show it off to its fullest potential. Iron your costume.

Take a deep breath, and remember that we’re all nerds in costume.

This is the most important one. It’s also the hardest.

I started cosplaying when I was fourteen, dressed up as Ty Lee with hair clips standing in for darts in the back of my top. And then, because I can’t do anything just a little bit, I started competing when I was sixteen. I picked up my Best Novice and Best Journeyman awards when I was eighteen, respectively three months before and two months after college crashed in and took over, and I am still out of my mind nervous when I’m standing waiting to be judged.

There are a lot of reasons for this, a lot of thoughts spiraling around my mind: “They’re going to see all these issues.” “Nothing about this is actually that impressive.” “I have no right to be competing, and they’re going to know that and judge me.” “I’m a fraud.”

There are two things that I have to remind myself of, sometimes out loud, sometimes out loud ad nauseum to where my fellow competitors would love to catapult me out of the waiting room:

Those judges are here because they love this craft as much as I do.

They’re nerds in costume! They’ve been nerds in costume for years! They started in exactly the same place you are: making stuff, wanting to make it good, wanting validation that it’s good, wanting to connect with people who love the source material and the craft and the community as much as they do. There is no convention that I know of that makes judging a costume contest such a juicy prize that people would ever do it if they didn’t want to. Which leads into my second reminder:

They want to like you.

Two years ago, an Iron Strike Mark 1 walked into my contest.

It was earlyish in the day, and we were still pretty bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when he clanked in, metal and artfully chipped paint, and explained how he’d cold-forged his suit, how the spine supported itself on a series of heavy springs, how he’d sourced the metal from an aircraft he flew in Iraq.

And he was so surprised when he won Best in Show.

Seeing work like that, meeting these people, is what I love about judging. It’s why I do it, and what I remember. It’s the stories I tell, years later. I want you to walk in and impress me. I want to be all over your seam finishes or crazy techniques or amazing ideas. Before I ever meet you, I am on your side. We both want you to be awesome. So go in there, or come in here, and be awesome. Let’s geek out together.

And there you go!

As last time, contributions to the content of the post were brought to you by:

Coffee Cat Cosplay (and her new Patreon!)

Abby ADOS Cosplay

Full Dive Cosplay

Kara P.


Tune in next week for a brief final grab-bag of thoughts on competing, etiquette, and the mythical Points, but I hope this has been a practical guide to feeling like you’re ready to take on the world when you step into the judging room.

Let’s geek out together,



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Cosplay Judging 101: Give Yourself Your Best Chance

It’s the final push of the con season (so far as there is a “con” season—MAGfest and KatsuCon in January and February have spread it out to the full year for me), and cosplay contests are everywhere.

If you’re new to this blog, or have only seen the writing stuff so far, 1. Thanks for hanging out! Don’t worry, I keep my tags/categories organized. And 2. I’ve been part of the cosplay community for a decade now, won several awards, and have been judging the Saturday Cosplay Contest at DragonCon for the last four, and today I’d like to peel a couple of layers of mysticism and anxiety off of the judging process.

I’ll break this down into a few parts: What the judges are looking for, steps you can take to prepare, and a grab bag of thoughts on the competitive scene as a whole. They’ll be linked here once they’re up.

But first:


Rule Zero: Do Your Homework.

Stealth-section! A lot of what I’m saying here can be applied to a lot of different types of cosplay craftsmanship contests, but notice how many qualifiers I had to put there. Different contests—and different judges!—will be looking for different things. Know what contest you’re entering. If you spent three hundred hours crafting a screen-accurate suit of armor, make sure you’re in a contest that will judge your craftsmanship; if you’ve found the perfect pieces out thrifting and have the stage presence to back them up, you’ll get the best reception in a lookalike or performance-based contest. Check the contest you’ve got your eye on out ahead of time, either by asking around or reading the con’s official pages or Googling it. If your expectations and the contest match up, you’ll have a much better time, and get the kind of credit you want for the kind of work that you did.

That out of the way, this post will focus on cosplay craftsmanship contests, which I’ll define here as contests where points are awarded based on 1. Costume construction skill, techniques, cleanliness, and overall quality, and 2. Accuracy to a reference.


What We’re Looking For: A Judge’s Take

I say “a judge”, but I am blessed to be part of a fantastic community of competitors and judges, and I asked around with them and synthesized the answers (mostly to make sure it wasn’t just my experience, but we had a lot of overlap). There’s a nifty “Contributors” section at the bottom of this post to direct you to some fantastic and talented ladies (and to give credit where due!), and here’s what the lot of us came up with:


  1. We want to hear about your costume, not your character.

While it’s pretty likely that one of your judges has come across the character you’re portraying at some point and may even be a fan, our familiarity (or lack thereof) doesn’t influence our ability to judge your craftsmanship (with one very important caveat: see point 2). Enthusiasm is awesome, but you’re going to have a very limited amount of time (I have to set my contestants on a two-and-a-half-minute timer, to give thirty seconds for entry/exit, and it’s just as painful for me as it is for you), and you want to spend all of that telling me as many construction details as you possibly can, because that’s what’s going to get you the elusive and mysterious Points.


  1. We want to see reference photos.

“But Miri, you just said—” I said craftsmanship, not accuracy. If you want accuracy points, you need a reference photo, and it needs to be printed out, on something you can leave with your judges and be okay with never seeing again.

“But no one uses paper—” Well, you don’t want to leave me your phone, do you?*

Part of what sets a “cosplay” competition from other types is that one of the key criteria is seeing how successfully you can bring a reference to life. There are a lot of ways to do this, all of them interesting and valid, but the adherence to the original reference is key, and if you want to get those points, we have to be able to see it in front of us.

* Sidebar:

To put some perspective on what you may imagine (or have experienced!) as brusque or dismissive behavior from judges, 1. I’m really sorry, I know from personal experience that it sucks to feel that way (the worst one of these I ever had was in a contest I won, and which I have not entered since), and I try every year not to do that to my contestants, but 2. here’s roughly what my judging schedule looks like:

10:30 AM – Show up at judging area, make sure that the table staff have forms and that we know where the contest will be held, all the administrivia is in order

11:00 AM – Start seeing contestants at a rate of one per 3 minutes

( this continues, and sometimes speeds up )

3:00 PM – Send out last contestant, begin frantically reviewing notes and pictures to distill dozens of amazing humans into a painfully limited slate of awards

3:45 PM – Show up at contest area with full list of winners and something strongly caffeinated

4:00 PM – Smile and put on a show for not just exhausted, anxious competitors, but the 400+ people who waited in line to see what everyone has to offer.

Conventions vary (quite wildly) by how they source their judges and what kinds of perks or payment they get, but frequently, they’re not paid or privileged beyond any other attendee, maybe, depending on the show, at the level of “guest” (and that’s only if they were already a guest). Speaking for me: I judge my contest because I love it, and I pay for my badge like everyone else and simply donate most of my Saturday to the con. Your judges are craftspeople and fans and attendees just like you, and they want to like you and love your work, but they’re rushed and trying to give as many people a chance as they possibly can. And that’s why you don’t want to hand them your phone.

End sidebar!


  1. We want you to tell us what techniques you used.

A lot of cosplay judging is apples to oranges to Volkswagen buses, but underneath the surface differences, there are a lot of things that are common. Working with certain materials. Patternmaking and drafting. Alterations. Papercraft. Foamcore. Wig styling. We want to know everything that you did, even if it seems obvious to you. This is another place that the elusive Points come from. You get more of them for drafting your own perfect pants than you do for following a commercial pattern. You get more for flawlessly executing in three different crazy materials than you would for just one.

Note that the quality of workmanship still very much matters: doing a few things really well will serve you better than doing a bunch of things just okay, but the more techniques are happening, the higher the ceiling. That’s something you’ll have to balance for yourself when you’re choosing and making your outfits, but once you’re in my judging room, show off! We may not know unless you tell us, and the small details that really make something shine are the easiest to miss.


  1. We want you to tell us what decisions you made.

This one’s a little more philosophical, but it’s one of the things I love most about cosplay. I mentioned above that there are a lot of different ways to bring these unreal designs into the real world, and choosing between them—and being able to articulate and defend that choice—will go a long way toward getting your judges to love your work as much as you do.

The most frequent place for this to come up is in fabric choice, but it can apply to just about any aspect of creating your piece. You’ve probably heard statements like “avoid costume satin and broadcloth” or “line everything,” which are usually good advice in a fair number of circumstances, but being able to look at not just a reference, but the context that it’s part of, and decide which materials make sense—which would the character chose for themselves, or how would this jacket meant for battle and survival really be constructed, or what would this overall color palette look like toned into the real world, or what material gives the exact same kinds of crazy reflections as the most over-the-top frame of the anime—will bring your costuming work to the next level. Once you’re being judged, you can show off not just your work, but your thought process, too.

HOWEVER (I can hear you crying out about mixed messages from the back row, I know, I know it sucks), don’t go too in-depth. “I chose this linen because of the era the show is set in” is plenty. Remember, you’re only going to have a couple of minutes. We can use single reasons, not a history lesson.


  1. Bonus round: We’re NOT looking for your mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ll usually see them. It’s what we’re there for. But don’t feel obligated to point them out. Couple of reasons:

  1. It takes time away from telling us all the cool stuff you did, and
  2. They’re probably not as major as you think they are.

If we don’t see it, you got away with it, and that’s okay. We want to hear about the cool stuff you did and tried and learned, not the parts that you hate. You’re not on trial, you’re here to show off something you love.

You do love it, right? I hope so. I know I do.

Well, that got long.

Stay tuned in the next few days for Part 2, or “Cosplay Judging 102: Some Practical Steps For Giving Yourself Your Best Shot.” I hope you’ve found this useful, and as always, please feel free to ask me any questions you may have, here or at my cosplay page.

Last but certainly not least, contributions to the content of the post were brought to you by: 

Coffee Cat Cosplay (and her new Patreon!)

Abby ADOS Cosplay

Full Dive Cosplay

Kara P.

‘Til next time!


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WXR.R1: The New World


I’ve been a convention rat since 2007.

I’m still not clear on how I convinced my parents to take me, fourteen and parading a homemade Ty Lee costume, to DragonCon that year, but the second I got out of the car, I was home. Never mind the social anxiety that made me sick to my stomach on Saturday nights before church youth group the next morning. Never mind the full-tilt scholastic competition I engaged in because it was the only way I knew how to relate to my peers.

Someone with a nice camera stopped me for a photo before I even made it into the con. Other Avatar fans brought me into their photoshoots, celebrated something we all loved until our various crews had to drag us from the food court. I had a twenty-minute conversation in the elevator with a stranger twice my age about dice. I spent a weekend drunk on inclusion, having the time of my life. That DragonCon placed me—very, very directly—on the life path I am now on.

So when I say that attending the Writing Excuses retreat was like going to my first con again, I want you to understand a little bit of what I mean.

Everyone I talked to was bad at small talk and professed such, so we unilaterally dispensed with it. “What are you working on?” was our opening salvo, in the full knowledge that it would be an intensely personal question with an incredible answer. I knew my yellow-badged tribe better in fifteen minutes of conversation than I know some of the colleagues I’ve worked with for two years. I stayed up late into the night playing board games and discussing writing and books and shows and anxiety and life with these amazing people I’d known less than a week. (The haze of sleep deprivation also does a lot to make an event feel like a con. I’m still paying down that debt, and will be for quite a while.)

Thing is, as incredible as all the attendees were, this kind of atmosphere doesn’t just happen. It’s crafted. And the organizers of this event are exquisite craftspeople.

Never before in my life have I been to an event of any kind that places so much importance on the physical and mental safely, comfort, and care of its participants. The WXR crew had a chief safety officer whose cabin number we all had written down, in case something should go wrong, as well as additional staff of five dedicated committee members. I never heard about any problems on the ship, but I have absolute faith that any that happened were handled well.

We all wrote our pronouns on our name badges, regardless of whether that’s a thing we normally think about, because, well, we’ve never met one another and we’re looking at each other’s badges anyway. Why assume? Why single anyone out? To me, a cis woman, it felt like a small thing, but it contributed to an atmosphere of inclusion and comfort and, honestly, love.

We had the Newmans. I’ll talk more about that in another post (I’m anticipating three of these), but two of the instructors went so far beyond what anyone expected, and I owe them an immense debt of gratitude—for helping me get unstuck with my story when what was really happening was that I, myself, was stuck. Every instructor was incredible and available, but the Newmans really set the tone for the event, and it was richer for having them.

At the beginning, we had the image laid out for us that we were sitting in a loading screen: that we would emerge leveled up, with better gear, but that we hadn’t yet. That we would need to be patient and be prepared for it to get harder, but that we had our party with us.

And in the end, we had the acknowledgement that leaving was going to hurt. That writing was going to be harder. That we would grieve.

I’m grieving. I’m ecstatic and thoughtful and catching up on sleep, and I’m grieving.

I had everyone I could sign the little blank passport notebook I won during one of the shipboard writing challenges. Instructors, new dear friends, people I met once, a collage of the hands and pens that changed my life. On the second-to-last page, while we waited to disembark, Mary Robinette Kowal jotted the line I needed: You are out of excuses.

Now write.

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