Friday, March 29, 2013

How to design a costume (Brooke's rough guide)

So I was talking with a friend I met at the Anime Convention I went to last week. The conversation moved to plans for the next costume they were making and they mentioned about how they weren't really great with sewing, and the challenges of knowing where to start with their project.

I started explaining what I did, and then realised that it would be good blog material. My thanks to you, Michael, for inspiring me to get off my butt and explain something I always think is a given when talking to other people about designing costumes.

So let's begin.

The Idea.

So picture this: you're sitting down one afternoon, and like a bolt from the blue, you're like, I should make this my next costume.
Okay, probably not. But hey. Most of the time when I've decided to make a costume, I've been on a bender of some series, cottoned on to one character, and then gone, 'Hey, I know what would be a brilliant idea right about now...'

Sometimes it's because I like how the character looks, or what kind of a person the character is. I might be drawn to how epic their outfit looks or enjoy how they move. It's usually a visual thing, really. Other times I'm drawn to it because I really like the type of character the person is and therefore would like to try emulating it a little. Other times its because I want to do another cosplay and I need to find someone else I like with really long strawberry-blonde hair, since mine doesn't really fit under a wig anymore.

That's mostly been the story the last couple things. But hey, you work around what you have.

Speaking of which...

Setting the handicap level.

So you have your character? Or an idea of your character? This is the bit where you decide whether to actually keep it or scrap it. Look at the base stats of your character, and your own base stats, and figure out whether its physically possible to actually do.

Start with the basics. Height, weight, physiology. If you're planning to add some major changes to the character, this is when you'd do it or deal with it.

So, for example:

This lad. This was my last cosplay, for those not following the blog. I picked this because A) I like Bleach B) I prefer warlike berserkers to Orihime C) Hair.

The latest rendition turned out like this:

(I'm waiting on clearance for a different photo.)

Now, I am not male, not ripped, and not seven foot tall. But you work with what you've got.

Consider the things that will dictate everything else about the costume that are to do with yourself. Your own physical attributes; what you'll have to change and what you can't. Sometimes, if the difference is too great, it's just something you have to forget about doing. Which sucks sometimes, and sometimes turns out to be something of better judgement.

Okay! Other things you need to consider.

Address minor details as well - hair colour and style and what colour wig you might need if that's the case (if it's an anime character, it often is). Eye colour if you feel like a stickler, which can be rectified with colour contact lenses if you can wear them.

Okay. Next step.

Identifying the 'feel'

So you've looked at the basics of the character. Next is beginning to work on the cosplay itself. I go about this in two ways.

The first way is to go back to the original source and check the character again. If you have a video of the character in motion, it's better. What you want to identify here are the items of clothing you need and how they should behave on a character.

This is the trailer for my second-favourite movie, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete. I'm not sure if you can turn on captioning for it, so the dialogue might be hard to understand. Dialogue isn't really what you're after at this stage though; you want the look and feel of the costume. Mostly to figure out what the articles of clothing should be made out of.

Advent Children is a pretty good example of looking at the source to gauge what you should make the costume articles from - you can practically see the thread count on some of the articles in the film. Other projects might require a little more imagination.

So, by this stage you go 'oh, the pants are hard-wearing and the cloak is too. But the cloak is always flapping about. Does that mean I should make it out of something lighter?'

Or something like that. Have a think also about the type of fabric suited to the character - when my sister and I made Tetra's outfit from The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker, we made the pants from linen, the top, belt and scarf from jersey knit and the jacket from rubber-backed curtain fabric.

So. Stock image from series.

Real life. And EZLO HAT.

The linen is an obvious choice - Tetra is a seafaring pirate. It wouldn't make sense for her to be wearing satin pants. Jersey knit is basically what most t-shirts are constructed out of, and has the double-whammy of draping nicely and feeling good. The curtain fabric had the right texture and colour, for the most part, and would probably be the only thing out of place if Tetra had been running around in real life. (Well, jersey knit is probably a bit anochronistic for the time, but hey.)

So if the character is wearing something that looks hardwearing, find a fabric that looks tough. If you're more after something that's floaty, pick a fabric that's light. If you're after drape or form-fitting-ness; go for a knit fabric.

I apologise if it sounds like I'm telling the reader how to suck eggs. I'm just going through the thought process for these things.

And yeah, choose materials that suit the look first and then the function.
Unless it looks like you're choosing between fabric composition over type.

Fabric type: a tangent

Yeah. Natural fabrics essentially feel better on your skin and give better airflow. Cotton breathes, as does linen, acetate and rayon, to a degree. Cellulose fibres (plant-based ones) feel best but crease like the little ratbags they are, so keep that in mind. Protein-based fibres like wool, alpaca and silk are often relatively expensive and will warm you up fairly well. It might help at this stage to distinguish what I mean by 'silk'.

Silk is made from silkworms. Protein fibre. It's used to make fabric. For some reason I am not entirely sure of though, when I say 'silk' or when a lot of other people say 'silk', it inspires thoughts of this fabric:

which is a satin-weave fabric, and is usually found in polyester and nylon varieties. So silk is used (sometimes) to make satin. Satin refers to how the fabric is constructed, rather than its composition.

Textiles lesson aside. The third type of fabrics you can get are synthetics. Nylon, polyester, and a variety of other things. They don't soak up liquids and are as effective at keeping your body warm as if you wrapped it in a plastic bag. However, they're usually pretty cheap, and they don't crease as easily as natural fibres.

Something to consider.

So. We've identified the character. We've figured out which of our attributes match to the character, and which ones we'll have to change. Maybe we've even worked out how to change these. We've figured out what articles of clothing the character wears and have had a guess as to what we could make them out of.
The next bit is where we actually start doing stuff.

Where do I start?

I begin by checking out other cosplays of the character that have been done in the past. See how people have done them; the little things that they found along the way that can make or break a cosplay, and the tips, tricks and hints on where to start and how to do things.

If you're adamant about doing things by yourself, you can skip this one. I prefer to see how I want these things to turn out though. DeviantART is a good starting point for research, although keep in mind that there's some terrifying stuff in there. Be specific with your search criteria and keep reciting Sturgeon's Law.

But hey. Research like this is how you can find out what to do, and what not to do with your costume. Consider it all advice, which you can take or leave.

Also, for those of you who possess little time or sewing skills. (I do this too - I can't sew jeans to save my life). Hit up a couple op shops. See if they have anything that looks vaguely similar to any of the clothing articles you're after. Sometimes you might need to do a little modification to get what you want, but it's also a good way to get the 'worn-in' look. If you're a stickler for a certain pattern or colour, you may end up building from scratch, but hey. Don't make your life harder than it is.

If you're the type who can't sew, I'd recommend finding a friend who does and talking with them at length before you go near a sewing machine about what you're planning on doing. Make sure you've got the correct gear and you're going about it the right way. If you can, get them to teach you the bare minimum to succeed. If you're the type of person who likes to figure things out along the way, that's fine. Just make sure you buy plenty of extra fabric. TT.TT


I'm a sewer, and I make my own patterns. It's just what I do. *shrugs*
However, a commercial pattern can usually do the job if you're now at the stage of 'I'm making something from scratch and I need to know how to make it'. Just keep in mind the type of clothing you're making while you're staring at the pattern selection book in the store, wondering where your mind is.

Commercial patterns have their ups and downs. They come in sizes, and have instructions, and can give you an immediate estimate of the type and amount of fabric that you'll need for a given project. However, they're usually printed on the thinnest paper known to man (so they're not very sturdy), have the same properties as sleeping bags and tents (in that they never quite go back in the bag the same way) and the instructions describe the hardest way to do something. In English and French.
c'est la vie.
If you have to pick between pattern companies, keep in mind that they have their own difficulty level. Simplicity patterns are usually the easiest. Burda are moderate. Vogue are for the fearless.

Or insane.

Keep in mind that you can also modify these patterns if they don't quite meet your needs. It's pretty easy to make something more fitted or flowing before the fabric gets chopped up.

Sewing! Crafting!

Keep calm and follow the instructions. Keep your reference pictures handy. When I'm sewing at home, I usually end up shutting myself in a room and wearing something like a tank top and shorts - something I can usually try the item on over the top of. It's a good idea to check how the sewing together is going as it is going. This has two advantages: it's encouraging to see the thing you're making start to take shape, and you can identify problems fairly quickly. A dummy handy helps you keep an eye on things from a third-person perspective, although if you don't have one of those (they're not absolutely necessary for life) then a mirror can be just as handy.

Don't panic. It's almost a given that you'll stuff something up, so just make sure you know what you're chopping up before going at it with the scissors. Those mistakes are the hardest to fix. Let's never speak of how long it took me to finish my Espada coat because of cutting things out wrong-side-up and sewing the wrong bits together and interfacing the wrong side of bits. That thing was the bane of my TAFE course.

It was also supposed to have pants. Anyway.

Inevitably, at this stage, you'll realise that you're so short on time that it was a foolish thing to even begin. Don't listen to that voice. Keep going. You'll pull through.


Here, you're about 95% done. The things that distinguish a great cosplay from a good one are ultimately the fiddly, time-consuming details. Stuff like nails and earrings, yes, but more than that.
I'm guessing I probably don't need to say this, because if you're into cosplay at least, you probably know this one.

Get in character.

Wait, what are you doing here?

Or give off some semblance of trying to be in character.

You don't have to be all the time. Heck - one of the funniest photos I popped up in from Animania recently was my full hollow makeup with the cheesiest thumbs-up I could deal out at the time.


Out of character.

But that's kind of what made it hilarious. And it achieved its purpose.

But. Acting in character, at least for photos and when people give their initial reaction to you really adds to the experience.

(See: That time I went to a con as Kairi and had someone scream my name and hold our their arms for a hug.)


Take photos. Sleep. Leave the thing for a few days and then come back to it. And be proud of it.

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