There is nothing ordinary about cosplay. Whether it’s the character’s personality or the costume, the end result is always larger than life—not that cosplayers would ever have it any other way. But both the inspiring art and the craft behind cosplay are neither solely historical costuming nor modern fashion: cosplay is the fusion of tradition and innovation.
In this same way, creating the costumes is a combination of learning from the past and inventing the present.
From a beginning cosplayer’s perspective, the skills needed to create a costume seem endless. The average costume will have most of the following: a garment that needs to be sewn or altered, armor, props, accessories, a wig, millinery, make-up, and shoes. As daunting as such a list initially seems, the skills behind cosplay are infinitely more basic. A cosplayer only needs two skills. Neither of these is a skill in the sense of backstitching or ventilating, but in the sense that it must be cultivated with time and focus. The first skill necessary for cosplay is the will to learn.
Every single cosplayer was a beginner at some point in time; every single cosplayer has that first costume. When a cosplayer decides to learn the technical skills necessary to put a costume together, that cosplayer isn’t unlike an individual learning to speak his or her first language. The basic technical skill set that a cosplayer learns for that first costume is like a child’s primary language. If one cosplayer’s first costume is from the game Final Fantasy IV and another’s first costume is from the series Hellsing, one will initially feel more comfortable with different skills than the other. One will have experimented with introductory armor-crafting techniques, while the other will have begun learning the basics of sewing and modifying a modern-day suit or outerwear. But in between there are skills that overlap, from understanding a sewing machine to the art of presentation.
Learning an additional language doesn’t mean starting over from nothing; learning subsequent costume ‘languages’ is much like this. The term ‘language’ fits cosplay because cosplay, of course, is not just about the original character artwork. Cosplay also includes translating a 2D drawing into real life in both the costume and the character, in addition to interpreting the defining texture and color palettes and silhouettes that define each series’ costumes as a whole. If the cosplayer who made Sir Integra Hellsing’s costume next decided to create Cecil Harvey’s costume from Final Fantasy IV, the overlapped skills would facilitate the transition from the suit to the fantasy-inspired paladin armor just like a thorough understanding of one’s first language makes it easier to comprehend an additional language. This also works the other way. Just as learning an additional language makes one more aware of the intricacies of one’s primary language, a cosplayer stepping outside of his or her comfort zone to make a drastically different costume can bring about insight into that first costume language that for reasons like time, budget, or experience, didn’t occur the first time around.
In order for a cosplayer to step outside of that comfort zone and continue to make different types costumes, or even just develop the intricacies of the costume language already studied, the will to learn is the key.
Learning from what others have done in the past, however, does little for the innovative aspect of cosplayer. A starting cosplayer should never discount his or her original ideas. The second skill needed for cosplay is imagination. After absorbing the basics, there is no reason not to apply them in ways that are not immediately obvious. The dye created from Sharpies for acrylic wigs can also be used to dye appliqués made from polyester felt, because polyester felt fibers and acrylic wig fibers are the same thing: plastic. Listen to a beginning cosplayer describe the process of making the costume: some things are less than perfect, but more often than not, that cosplayer did something new simply because he or she was unaware of a previously established and possibly overused way of crafting a piece. Cosplay doesn’t improve with everyone doing things over and over again in the exact same way.
In anything, the hardest step is to begin. After that, the next hardest step is to continue in spite of realizing how much one doesn’t know. Cosplay is no different. But even in the daunting face of that realization, a cosplayer’s most important tools are other cosplayers, and personal reasoning and reinterpretation. After that, everything else will fall into place.