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,



1 Comment

Filed under Costuming

One response to “Cosplay Judging 102: Some Practical Exercises

  1. Pingback: Cosplay Judging 101: Give Yourself Your Best Chance | Too Many Trades

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