How To Spot Really Good Cosplay

How To Spot Really Good Cosplay
Picture Source: Space Lion Cosplay by PhotosNXS

Cosplay gets shared around on the internet like the flu at your local convention, but when there’s so much out there, what really makes a cosplay worth sharing? When all the contestants in a cosplay competition look so impressive, how does anyone ever pick the best?

A few years ago I put together a Daenerys costume, sometime between the end of season one and the release of season two of Game of Thrones. I wish I could say I did it before it was cool, but I really didn’t — I did it at the height of Khaleesi-mania, because I’m really slow at putting costumes together.

I searched for weeks for the perfect woven fabric, and ended up having to extensively alter, fringe and texture the fabric I did buy. I commissioned a bronzesmith for a replica brooch and wrecked my hands cutting, hammering and filing sheet bronze to make Dany’s dothraki belt. A couple of hundred dollars’ worth of leather went into that costume, but it wasn’t the material cost that made it valuable to me, it was the hundreds of hours of hand working and detailing. When the moment of truth came and I finally wore it to a convention, well… I was just another blonde girl in burlap and leather pants among many, many others.

I wouldn’t have minded the relative obscurity if it wasn’t for another costume I made a couple of months later. It was the day before a convention and I had already finished my costume for the Saturday (which in the cosplay community is known as a ‘miracle’) but was still lacking anything new to wear on the Sunday. Being only a few weeks after E3, the internet was still having a collective aneurysm over Wii Fit Trainer’s inclusion in the new Smash Bros roster, and the costume seemed easy enough to put together.

One short trip to Kmart later, I had everything I needed for what I thought was a last minute gag costume. The most effort I spent on this costume was the two hours I took painting myself (and a good part of my bathroom floor) white, and I only took ten minutes out of my con day to snap a few quick photos in front of a white wall.

Image: Hayley Elise

When I uploaded them, the internet went crazy. You’d think they’d never seen a pale girl in yoga pants before. I scored my first Daily Deviation on DeviantArt, had my photos shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Tumblr, and even here on Kotaku — which is great and all, but I couldn’t help but wish that it was my 18 month long project, not my half-hour one that had been featured. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the internet just doesn’t know what good cosplay looks like.

So here I am to show you what it looks like when cosplayers go above and beyond in their pursuit of costuming perfection. Cosplay is like fine wine — meaning I’m going to explain it using a bunch of fancy sounding words that I may have made up, but you’re welcome to steal for next time you want to sound like you know what you’re on about.

Kantus by Jarman Props

When every second cosplayer is in the process of building intricate armour suits, it takes a lot to actually stand out. Meet Jarman Props, the crazy genius who has been building a full armoured Kantus from Gears of War out of foam, spare parts, and the odd 3D printed detail. And when I say foam, I don’t mean some fancy, expensive, specialty-designed material, but rather those puzzle-piece floor mats that you can get at your local Bunnings.

One misconception about amazing cosplay is that you have to spend a month’s wages just to make anything worth wearing — everyone’s seen the extravagant reports of cosplayers who spent thousands making the perfect costume but the truth of it is that cosplayers are, by definition, perpetually broke. The cheaper materials you can use, the better. A work in progress shot of one of Kantus’s bracers shows materials that you might have been given for a primary school craft day, including nylon twine and brightly coloured craft foam.

For all its insane details, my favourite part of Jarman’s Kantus build is the way he chose to go about making it. Looking back through his portfolio makes it clear that Jarman is no stranger to difficult builds including sculpting and resin casting, yet he decided to go with a cheaper, lower tech build — and still came out with something that wouldn’t look out of place on a major movie set.

Koi Nami by Néréide Cosplay

It has to be something in the water. The League of Legends community is an interesting one, but it is nothing if not dedicated to its games, making it entirely unsurprising that the MOBA’s huge cast of characters is eventually going to lead to some incredible costumes. Néréide Cosplay was evidently so inspired by League’s token mermaid character that she decided to cast herself a full-sized, scaled bodysuit, complete with tail. Wait a sec — I know I only just said that I liked Jarman’s costume specifically because he didn’t cast it, but now I’m saying I like Néréide’s just because she did.

Just a look at Néréide’s progress pictures shows how she went the extra mile to put this costume together, from individually laying out the thousands of scales that go into Nami’s skin texture, to making the world’s hugest plaster mould, to casting sheets and sheets worth of silicone scaling up with which to build the final bodysuit.

Silicone, for the uninitiated, is one of those materials that cosplayers try to avoid at all costs — it’s sticky, difficult and ridiculously expensive, and it’s likely to fail to cure if you so much as look at it the wrong way. Seeing a cosplayer get elbow deep in it for the sake of a perfect costume is definitely worthy of respect — and the fact that she took her photos in an actual koi pond is just an added bonus.

Miss Kitty Mouse by Major Sam Cosplay

Sometimes a cosplay doesn’t have to be covered in armour, scales or even flashy LEDs to be good — though unfortunately it usually needs one of these elements to stand out. For a hobby that is assumed to mostly involve sewing, well-sewn costumes really don’t get the spotlight as often as they should. Sewing is one of those things that gets taken for granted, right up until the moment where you have to do it yourself. For those who have never touched a sewing machine, I can guarantee that even the relatively simple task of sewing a single straight line can be a challenge for the ages.

Major Sam is one of those odd cosplayers who actually knows how to sew — the rest of us are just making it up as we go, and using hot glue to patch it up when that fails. Not only did she create a fully boned bodysuit, she also hand sewed its thousands of sequins and beads, not to mention the perfect ‘tail’ of ostrich feathers. Is Major Sam’s costume a literal depiction of our favourite sexy cartoon mouse? Not at all. Does it capture the character’s essence regardless? Hell yes.

Now, I could go on about amazing costumes all day, but by this point you should have enough information to become a truly discerning cosplay connoisseur yourself. Go forth across the internet and seek out the best of the best — and please, feel free to forget that Wii Fit Trainer was ever a thing that I cosplayed.

Feature image: Space Lion Cosplay by PhotosNXS

This story has been updated since its original publication.


  • Can’t say I’m really a fan of the tone of this article – it just reads to me as “stop appreciating the end result and focus on the process”

    • I can understand what both you and the author is saying. Why can’t we appreciate both?
      But seriously, it can be incredibly upsetting when you work all year long on a costume and someone buys one and it’s so much better then yours. It’s unavoidable, but it’s still upsetting when it happens

      • I agree with appreciating both. I was hoping to find out more about these things, but all I see are some examples of lots of effort and a correlation being drawn between ‘effort’ and ‘good’.
        Things can be good without extreme effort.

    • The thing that I ran out of space to include was that it’s of course totally awesome for you to appreciate any cosplay for any reason. Sometimes it’s just nice to appreciate all the unseen work that went into these huge cosplay projects along the way.

      • Hayley, I hope you don’t mind, but this is just a process question to satisfy my own morbid curiosity.

        You said you ‘ran out of space’. Are you restricted to a certain length of article as part of your terms of employment? I haven’t done any contract writing for internet publication, and your comment made me wonder how similar it was to writing for print.

        • It’s more a turn of phrase than anything. While there’s definitely no hard word limit, I also want to keep my writing as concise and on topic as I can, and this one was reaching the limits of what I as a reader would have the patience to sit down and read.

      • Except your whole “the internet doesn’t know what good cosplay looks like” kind of contradicts that exact point and in fact ends up sounding judgmental.

        You hit on the exact point why your Daenerys costume didn’t land when you were surrounded by dozens of others, frankly originality will always stand out over craftmanship. Beyond that with a live action character we’re also more used to seeing the actual thing than cosplay, so you need to be on a whole other level just to meet our expectations.

        Whereas your WiiFit Trainer? No one had done it at that point, it turned out looking really good so much so the photo almost looks like it’s from the source material.

        Last Supernova I went to I saw a handful of really great X-men costumes, the one I remember most though was probably one of the simplest but they carried it through with makeup to give everyone in the group a cell shaded animated look reminiscent of the 90s series.

        That creativity, that expression will always be more effective than tiny details.

        That said I’m continually blown away by the technical side of cosplay, it’s something that interests me in the same way lighting or camera work in a film interests me. But I can’t judge a movie as being the best purely based on it’s camera work, I’ll generally be left with an impression of the hollistic piece compared to other similar works.

      • I love seeing cosplay that isn’t just a reproduction of a movie or book character, but that is a unique version that appeals to the creator of the costume.
        Like 40s lady ‘Cap’

        I like this kind of thing much more than technically accurate costumes, even though I can really appreciate the work that goes into making a perfect replica.
        I got more attention with my “night before” crappy Octodad costume, and almost literally last minute Willy Wonka (gene wilder) costume that was 5 minutes work than with builds that took months.
        Sometimes just the fact that you are a forgotten or lone version of something is enough to bring a smile to everyone’s face, and for me, that is the best part of Cosplay.

        • For sure, I love seeing people do original takes on characters, I’m thinking about potentially doing an article on that too. And what I didn’t mention in the article was that I actually had a blast cosplaying Wii Fit Trainer – I ended up leading mass-cosplayer yoga sessions and terrifying people who hadn’t used their Wii Fit for years. Sometimes last minute cosplays are the most fun.

  • I am making an Elsa dress as a commission. I have cut and hand sewn hundreds of sequins only for the sequins colour to scrape off so I also have to paint them using an old dancers trick. Nail polish.

      • So frustrating. Even worse is that I have to glue certain parts down to stop the corners scraping from destroying everything in their wake.

  • Iv been going to supanova syd for years now and only by physically going to such an event really gave me a stronger appreciation and understanding of cosplay.
    Im not the type of person that will take part but even the less professional attempts really makes it an enjoyable experience.

  • I thoroughly enjoy cosplaying and making the cosplay itself because it’s usually very challenging but artistic in its own way. There’s the thrill of emotions on the day of the conventions as well, if you’re like most cosplayers the costume is finished about 20 minutes before you head out to the convention and you’re exhausted.

    Then the nervousness sets in, what if it doesn’t sit right, or it doesn’t look just like you imagined? You walk in all suited / painted up and after the first photo or two you really settle down and chill out because people really appreciated the few or even hundreds of hours you may have put into it which is very satisfying. Staying in character can be difficult if you like to go as villains because you’ve got a big grin on your face because you’re elated.

    I’ve always found fellow cosplayers are incredibly appreciative towards one another because we know just how much effort and time goes into making one. It doesn’t matter if you make or buy your costume because it all adds to the atmosphere and fun environment of a convention.

    • Staying in character can be difficult if you like to go as villains because you’ve got a big grin on your face because you’re elated.I envy the people who do this. I’ve got no sense for it at all, I’m just some dude wandering around in weird clothes. All cos, no play 😛

  • My favourite cosplay ever was at Sydney Supanova: someone done up as “Floreda”.

    It wasn’t particularly impressive (of course, for anyone who knows the reference), but it was awesome.

    I guess that’s only peripherally relevant, though. To get us back on topic, I know a few people who are really deep in the cosplay scene, and I know how insanely hard they work on their costumes. Their dedication is astonishing, impressive and utterly terrifying.

  • Whenever I see cosplay stuff with full scale masks like the Aria T’loak one or heaps of heavy armour like the Kantus, my first thought is how hot is must be inside there. Then I usually start to feel slightly claustrophobic and have to think about something else. It gives me a lot of sympathy for the actors who used to play Cardassians or Jem’Hadar in Star Trek…

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