Category Archives: Costuming

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

Abby ADOS Cosplay

Full Dive Cosplay

Kara P.

‘Til next time!

Miri

Leave a comment

Filed under Costuming

Today we’re gonna talk about process.

Right now I’m working on Captains Gin and Aizen from Bleach, which are very close to duplicates of the same costume (as they won’t diverge until I get to the haori/overcoats). So far, this hasn’t been so much a test of my sewing ability (though we’ll get there–those hakama aren’t going to pleat themselves) as my organizational skills. It’s tempting, and it always has been, to just barrel ahead and leave pieces sorted into piles that you put together and will thus definitely remember later. This is something we’ve all done, and I’m definitely guilty.

BlackRectangles

Yeah, you know, the black rectangular piece.

This will inevitably go wrong.

I work a full-time job that has nothing to do with sewing. I play video games and run a Pathfinder campaign and try to read and write books and go to the occasional Magic tournament. I do not have the time to correct for the kinds of mistakes that not organizing my stuff will cause. Yes, it takes extra time and effort up front. It introduces the overhead of pinning notes and sorting things on the fly and cleaning up every few hours to what can already be a crowded process.

But it saves so much time, frustration, and (in the worst-case scenario) wasted materials to put in that little bit of extra effort, and if you can work it into your habitual process, it’ll only continue to pay for itself going forward.

That’s all well and good, but how do we go about implementing this?

1. Dedicated containers.

Containers

I got this two-pack of plastic bins at Target for maybe three bucks. Each is labeled with a sticky-note (with which I am obsessed) and two pieces of Scotch tape, so that I can reuse them for future projects. This system a) gives me a place to get prepared bits and bobs off of my floor/desk/bed/couch/fiance, and b) keeps the version of the costume that I’m working on at the front of my mind. It also establishes a

2. Color code.

You know how I mentioned I’m obsessed with sticky notes?

 

Stickies

I picked out two very distinct colors (the lighting in my workspace is a little bit crappy, but it’s what I have and I work around it as best I can) and have started pinning them to everything. Panels for a kosode? Label ‘em. Pattern pieces? Label ‘em. Strings that are identical to other strings but that I need to remember to include? Label ‘em. Then toss ‘em all in the correct bin (which I don’t have to do any mental gymnastics to remember, because it’s the one that matches).

 

Labels

This may seem really obvious, but see above about full-time job and tons of hobbies. I do a lot of my work late at night, when the lighting in my room is even worse than usual and I’ve already got a full day of Other Stuff kicking around in my brain. Believe me: every little bit helps.

3. Automate.

I don’t have a fancy computerized automatic machine. (I do, however, have a Husqvarna Viking Emerald 118 that has been an absolute workhorse since I got it lightly used back in 2009. It’s my baby, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.)

 

GoodGirl

You go, girl.

 

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t parts of my process I can (semi-)automate.

Back to Gin and Aizen and duplication: both of those fine gentlemen are wearing exaggerated versions of relatively traditional Japanese items. For the black robes (the term I’ve adopted after seeing it get used repeatedly for this piece is “kosode”, but I am far from a scholar on Japanese garb), I need six rectangular panels each, and since I don’t want to introduce a ton of bulk by flat-felling or doing some other kind of layered finish on the seams, I need to run a kind of serge stitch down each of the long raw edges. Typically, if I’m working on one item, I’ll do things like finish edges as needed–finish two, stitch them together, repeat. But that approach means a lot of fiddling with the machine and changing settings–which can add up to a lot of time lost and introduce inconsistencies in the stitching.

Or I can just stack them up and run through all 44 feet (I counted) of stitching in a single marathon.

Settings

These settings are your god now. This turtle is their prophet.

Sidebar: If you’re going to do something like this, go ahead and prepare a lot of bobbins. A lot of bobbins. At least n+2, where n is the number you think you need. I was not prepared for how much thread this process was going to take. I’ve used about one full bobbin on each three panels–that’s four full bobbins over the course of a few hours of prep. If you’re doing satin-stitching of any kind, that equation changes to n*3.

Second sidebar: Before even prepping my bobbins and getting my settings right, I ironed every panel. All twelve. This is mandatory. I could have split up the ironing more, but doing it all at once enabled me to develop what I think of as short-term muscle memory: getting in a rhythm that works and being able to continue it without constant thought. Iron however works for you best, but don’t you dare not iron.

“But it’s just flat fabric!” you cry into the darkness. “How can a wrinkle matter?”

It matters because we work along a continuous stream. Maybe a weird wrinkle sneaks through and gets caught in a stitch as I’m running the piece through the machine. This piece of fabric is no longer perfectly flat. The edge is ever so slightly warped, and now it doesn’t match exactly with the edge it’s meant to attach to, or with itself when it’s folded over for a hem. Maybe that tiny stitched fold spawns another weird fold when trying to stitch something else to it, which in turn affects the next three pieces down the line. Things propagate. Iron your shit.

End sidebars.

The end result: when I switch my settings back to a straight-stitch at the length and tension that I want, I don’t have to change it ever again (until the next fabric or piece change). I’ve saved the thirty seconds or so it might take me to exactingly fiddle, times six or twelve or however much I ended up going back and forth, as well as the annoyance of having to do it (and your mental state is as much a resource as time or money, but I’ll address that in a later post. And ironing. I could soapbox for three thousand words about ironing) and the worry of getting it wrong or introducing those tiny inconsistencies that can eventually build to reduce the quality of your work.

This kind of organization process work takes planning, and forethought, and dedication to spend time now to save time later. But if you find yourself frustrated with the way your tasks play out–or worse, having to spend way more time correcting for mistakes made while not paying attention–give it a try. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

P.S. No, seriously. Iron your shit.

1 Comment

Filed under Costuming