Sunday, November 30, 2014

Costuming for Beginners

If you were at the costuming panel at Chicago TARDIS on Sunday, you'll remember that just about the only thing I could shoe-horn in was, "go to my blog!"  I'm reposting my Costuming Basics information from my 2011 Chicago TARDIS panel with a few updates.  Enjoy.

Here are some of my notes from my Costuming Basics panel at ChicagoTARDIS.

Choosing Your Character

Decide which character you'd like to do, how much time and money it would take to create that costume, and if you can actually create the costume.  Personally, I love to see specific, unique costumes, like Rory with glasses and a magnifying glass from The Girl Who Waited.  Put time and effort into your research - learn the details of your costumes.  Details are what makes a costume go from, "oh, there's another Doctor", to "HOLY CRAP, I need a photo with the Tenth Doctor RIGHT NOW!"  The same goes for a unique costume.  You can do a basic Amy with skirt, sweater, and scarf, or you can make her kick-ass armor from The Girl Who Waited.  Keep in mind, it is absolutely fine for you to do a very basic costume, especially if you're new to cosplay.  However, if you want to enter a costume contest or even just stand out, then definitely try to do something that no one's done before, or no one's done as well as you'd like to see it.

Doctor Who Costuming Resources

Look at hi-res screen captures.  Watch Doctor Who Confidential.  Watch any behind-the-scenes footage you can of anyone in any film making props and costumes.  Visit websites for photos, how-tos, props, etc.  Follow famous cosplayers like Ana Aesthetic, who often talk about their costumes.

You can find a great Weeping Angel costume how-to here.

Sewing Tips:

- Find patterns on Ebay, or on sale at Hobby Lobby and* JoAnn Fabrics.  Never, ever, ever pay full price for a pattern!  *I don't support Hobby Lobby anymore.  If you can find somewhere else to shop, please do so.

- When buying a pattern, measure your hips, waist, chest, and shoulders (depending on what the pattern is for).  Look at the back of the pattern, and whichever size corresponds to your largest body part is the size that you should purchase.  It's much easier to reshape the rest of it by cutting the pattern down rather than trying to make it larger.
Keep in mind that pattern sizes are the same as formal wear - if you wear an 8 or 10 off the rack, you'll probably end up buying a pattern size of 14 or 16.

- Pattern companies like Simplicity or McCall's make patterns that fit a particular size, but no one is the exact dimensions of each size.  For instance, a women's size 14 will be a 36" bust, a 28" waist, and a 38" hip.  You'll probably end up matching the measurements for at least 2 different sizes, so you'll have to alter patterns so that they fit you correctly.  Make sure you always buy the biggest size - it's easiest to make something smaller - and then draw new cutting lines.

- If you want to make your own patterns, I recommend making your own master template.  This will help you make patterns that fit you exactly.  You can find kits to make your own templates here.  For homemade patterns or major alterations, I recommend purchasing pattern paper, a large cutting mat, and transparent plastic ruler or styling curve.  I put off purchasing these for years because they can be pricey, but now I can't believe I waited for so long.  I use these tools with every single project.

- If you want to try out altering/patterning before spending money on pattern-making tools, you can also buy a large gridded presentation easel from Office Depot or similar office supply store.

- Get a good pair of shears, and ONLY use them for cutting material.  Paper will dull the blade.

- Use the correct sewing machine needles for the fabric you're using.  Check the needle package to see if it's for lightweight or heavy weight fabrics.  If you use the wrong needle, you could end up breaking or even shattering it (which I've done when I accidentally put the wrong one in).  If a needle breaks, you could end up damaging your fabric, your machine, or yourself.  

- Plan on making the first version out of cheap material - learn what works and what doesn't.  Old bed sheets work great as a stand-in for cotton.  Sheer curtains from the thrift store work for chiffon.

- New costumers should stay away from difficult fabrics like chiffon, velvet, and silks and satins until you're more comfortable working with material.

- Advanced sewers should invest in a serger to make beautifully-finished seams.  A serger also makes working with chiffon and other thin materials much easier, as it will prevent the edges from unraveling.

- The seam ripper is your friend.  You will use it often.  You will throw it across the room.  Buy two.

- You will also throw your costume across the room, swear at it, threaten to throw it out, etc.  You will probably have to take the entire thing apart at some point.  Do not despair - everyone does it at one point or another.  Or every costume, in my case.

- You will probably have to make one piece of your costume over again.  Make sure you have enough time before the con in case that happens.

- Start a fabric book for every project.  Cut a swatch from each fabric, glue it onto the page, and write down the store where you purchased it, the item name, color, and SKU.  That way, if you want to remake part of it in the future, you have all of the information you need to buy new fabric.

- If you can afford a dressmaker's form, buy an adjustable one.  That way you can use it for you and a friend!  Check Ebay or JoAnn Fabrics.  Again, never pay full-price for a form.

- If you don't have the room or the funds for a form, you can make your own out of duct tape!  You can find a tutorial here.

- If you want to learn how to do something new, search YouTube.  There are thousands upon thousands of tutorials for making all kinds of things!

- Sign up for any mailing list your local fabric store offers.  Chains like JoAnn Fabrics offer weekly 40% off coupons that are good for anything, and often have additional coupons for fabric, notions, etc.

- Take your time!  If you read my blog, you'll see that I mess up from time to time because I don't pay attention to simple things like which way the velvet lies ... Everyone does it, so just be careful and make sure it doesn't happen too often.

Selecting Fabrics

- Keep in mind that the color of the costume onscreen may not be the color of the costume off-screen.  This is because the DP might use a filter, the editor might color correct.  This means two things:  one - you can either make the costume reflect the on-screen version or the off-screen version; two - you don't need to worry about matching your fabric color exactly.

- For the beginner, pick fabrics that look similar to the ones used in the costume, but are cheaper and easier to work with.

- Heavier fabrics = heavier and hotter costumes, so consider how hot (or how breezy) your costume would be if you decided to make it out of wool (or chiffon).  For instance, my Clockwork Droid costume is made out of stretch velvet.  If it was made out of wool, I'd sweat to death in about five minutes.  (Also, I'm extremely sensitive to wool, which is another thing to keep in mind when making your costume.)

- Drape is important, so keep in mind that heavier fabrics don't drape well, and lighter fabrics will show off every curve.

- Look for fabric in every department, even upholstery.  You never know where you'll find the perfect pattern or weight.  Also look in upholstery for trim.

- Thrift stores are great for finding huge batches of fabric.  Look for curtains, tablecloths, and bedspreads.

- In Chicagoland, there is a fantastic store called Vogue.  There are two locations, one in Evanston and one in Chicago.  Each location consists of room upon room of fabric bolts.  I know other cities have a fabric district as well, so do an online search and see what you find.

There are also some great online fabric stores.  Make sure you order swatches, because color might be different from the photo, and it's hard to tell weight and texture from a photo. (This is the online site for the store in Chicago/Evanston, and the selection online is hit or miss.  I recommend visiting one of the stores if you can.)

Accuracy vs. Cost

Your costume can be accurate, or it can be cheap, but rarely can it be both!  Decide before you start if you're going to set a budget, or if you're just going to go all out and screw the money (I usually have the latter approach).

However, keep in mind that there are lots of ways you can cheat and make a really good costume without spending tons of money.  All of the "buttons" on my Clockwork Droid costume are wood that I got from Hobby Lobby's wood aisle and are just painted gold.  If I'd purchased actual buttons, I'd have easily spent over $100.  And remember, you can always go back and remake parts of your costume later when you have more skills or more money.  Basically, I go cheap where I can so that I can spend the money where it's needed.


- Visit the Replica Prop Forum to start learning how to use different techniques.  Look at things you won't even use for your own costume - often it will give you ideas anyway.

- When building props or non-fabric parts of your costume, wander the aisles at Home Depot or other hardware stores.  The jewelry sections of craft stores are great for decorations and wire.

- A great substitute for leather and metal is craft foam.  There are some great websites that teach you how to use craft foam, like this one.  You can shape it, paint it, carve it, you name it!  I've used it for my Queen Susan vanbrace.  My husband made all of his Eomer armor out of it.

- Seriously - and I can't stress this enough - learn how to cheat.  Found items can be repurposed with a little paint and glue.  Plastic and wood can be painted to look like metal.  Just please, please, please do not make a sword out of aluminum foil!  As you get more comfortable making props, you'll be able to start making them more and more accurate, and out of more expensive or difficult materials.

The Cosplay Community

- Join to see if someone else has already made your costume.  If so, you can get an idea on how to go about creating yours, or see how you can improve upon someone else's technique.

- Google your costume to see what resources are out there.  I used the tutorial on the Lissie Rose website to learn how to do pleated ruffles. 

- As I said before, follow famous cosplayers on Twitter or Facebook.

- Pay attention to what other costumers are doing.  Ask questions.  Most people would love to share how they made their costume.

At the Convention

- Pockets are super important!  If you can sew a pocket into your costume, please do so.  I have a pocket on the inside of my Clockwork Droid costume in which to store my phone, keys, and business cards.  If your costume is a dress or something where you can't sew a pocket in, get creative.  I make a little bag for each of my dresses out of the same material using a drawstring bag pattern.  It blends right in, and if anyone even notices it, it looks like it belongs to the costume.  I've known people to hide compartments in their armor or weapons in which to store their belongings as well.

- Bring a quick-fix kit that consists of thread, needle, safety pins, double-sided tape, velcro, a hot glue gun - anything you might need to slap your costume back together.  Remember, even in films they're sometimes fixing costumes between each take, so don't be upset if things start falling off of your costume in the middle of the day.  Just run back to your hotel room and remember to do a better fix when you get home.

- Even if you have a basic costume, chances are someone is going to take a photo of you, so be prepared!  Practice a pose in your costume before you get into the halls - pick something your character does.

- Be confident!  Putting on a costume and walking around in public is scary, but remember - you're surrounded by people who are huge geeks and who love the same show that you do.  Cosplayers are icing on the convention cake.

- Connect with other cosplayers!

Next Year

- Learn from your mistakes.  If something didn't work before, why didn't it work?

- Recognize your strengths and weaknesses - build on your talents, and work on things you're having trouble with (it used to take me 8 hours to put in a zipper, I've got it down to about a half an hour now!)

- Think about what you liked best about your last costume and incorporate that into your new costume.  If you liked making props, then make a costume that requires a lot of props.  If you liked working with lots of fabric, then make a costume that contains yards of fabric!

- Challenge yourself.  It will make your costuming experience more rewarding, and it will make your costume more interesting.

- Branch out into other areas like masks, leather, or metalwork.  Even if you want to try, but you think you can't do it, try anyway.  Give yourself months to work on learning how to make molds or shape leather.  The worst that can happen is that you hate it and you find a different way to make that piece.

Good luck, and please feel free to let me know if you have any questions!