A First Time Con Goer’s Cosplay FAQ

A collage of cosplay photos including a large blue creature and two child cosplays, a casual darth vader and stormtrooper cosplay, crowley and aziraphale, ariel in a blue dress, and an Eleven from Stranger Things cosplay.
Photos by Geekiary Contributor Angie, Collage by Angel

So you’re going to a convention for the first time and you have no idea where to start when it comes to cosplay?  I feel you.  It’s daunting.

First and foremost, cosplay is not required for the average convention.  If this is too daunting, you don’t have to do it.  Cosplay is meant to be fun and if it’s giving you a huge level of anxiety and no dopamine reward, just skip it.  You’ll be fine.  I promise.

If you want to blend into the convention crowd, though, and want to know just how much of the crowd will be dressed up so you can make that decision, I get it.  In general, the percentage of cosplay varies drastically from convention to convention.  Some conventions are more geared towards a cosplaying experience or just happen to attract a more cosplay-oriented group of attendees through social circles.  Some attract a group more interested in panelists than cosplay and cosplayers are more of a rarity as a result. 

If in doubt, you can always look for groups for your specific con on social media like Facebook or Reddit, and gauge the vibe there.  You can even just ask and people are usually happy to tell you.  But regardless of whether you cosplay or not, you won’t be alone in your choice.  There will be a mix of people dressed up and people in casual clothes at almost every con you go to.

There are a few general questions that have answers that will apply to the vast majority of cons that you might attend.  There may always be exceptions, of course, but in general, the answers to the following questions are the same regardless of where you’re going.

Can I wear X cosplay at Y con?

WonderCon 2019 Game of Thrones Cosplay
Game of Thrones Cosplay Meet at WonderCon 2019.

Generally yes, you can wear any genre of costume to any type of convention.  Video game character at an anime con? Anime character at a comic con? Comic character at a video game con?  Yes.  Yes to all

Occasionally there will be specific gatherings for certain types of costumes at cons.  These are usually unofficial meet-ups and the people arranging it may want only one type of costume in the photos they take.  But conventions themselves are typically pretty broad and won’t restrict the type of costume you can wear.

Some conventions may have rules for safety, however.  Crowded conventions may not allow extremely large costumes into the exhibit hall, for example.  Or perhaps all prop guns need to have brightly colored tips or a tag from a prop check-in booth, or perhaps be zip-tied into a holster or something.  These safety rules may vary from con to con, so check their website.

There’s also the question of taste.  Taste can be quite subjective so I’ll avoid delineating everything and just cover the very basics.

As far as modesty goes, a good baseline is that if you couldn’t wear it to the beach, you likely won’t be allowed in the door with it.  Grossly offensive costumes, such as Nazi uniforms, are likely also to get turned away or removed from the convention. Cosplay is not an excuse to express bigoted opinions under the guise of artistic expression.  Your swastika patch is not edgy or cool.

Likewise, be sensitive to cosplaying as characters from other cultures or races.  Blackface is never okay.  Cosplaying across racial and cultural lines is not entirely-off limits, and can actually be quite common, but context is important.  However, cosplaying across gender lines is even more common, and even has a specific name: Crossplay.

These are the bare-bones benchmarks for tastes, but beyond that, it gets too subjective to list.  If you aren’t sure where that line is between offensive and acceptable, you can just choose to not do it and avoid any missteps altogether.  You can also check your convention’s website to see if they set a different benchmark.  Some cons are better at outlining this than others.

What should I cosplay?

People tend to go one of two routes: “What character do I love” or “What character do I look like?”  For those on the craftier side, perhaps there’s a third “What do I want to craft” route, too.  So start with that basic set of questions and then go from there.

I tend to go the “What character do I love” route.  Both Aizawa and Loki definitely fit that category.  I don’t really look like either of them, but I love their vibes and that was enough to seal the deal for me.  But this is something that’s really hard for strangers on the Internet to answer for you without knowing you.  Loki or Aizawa are perhaps not the best costumes for you like they are for me.  

Still, if you want to ask forums anyway, go for it.  Just give people something to go off of first, like a list of things you like or a picture of yourself if you’re looking for a character you might resemble.  Just dropping the question, “What should I cosplay” and hoping for the best rarely gets good results.

Is it okay if my costume isn’t high quality?

Yes!  Unless you’re entering a cosplay contest or masquerade at the convention, it’s not about quality.  It’s about fun.  For some people, high quality is fun, but for others, just wearing something that’s vaguely like their favorite character is fun enough. Maybe quality will be fun for you, but you won’t know that until you try.  So give it a shot and you may find that crafting full, elaborate costumes ends up being something you enjoy.

I personally tend to not feel super comfortable in a full costume.  I’ve done it a few times and I get hot and feel gross (most of the cons I go to are in hot places like Hawaii, Arizona, and summer in California).  I’ll often just thrown a prop on, like my Aizawa goggles or Loki horns, and head out the door.  Sometimes I’ll dress a bit more similarly to the character, but in casual clothes, as a sort of Disney Bounding attempt.  Full-blown cosplay is not fun for me, but this is.  And remember, that’s what this is about.

What if I do want to enter a contest/Masquerade?  What’s that like?

AwesomeCon 2024
The winners of the 2024 Awesome Con cosplay competition.

The contests at various conventions tend to have a lot of different award categories.  I haven’t seen one that was simply one winner or a podium-type situation in my personal con attendance, but conventions tend to do their own thing so your experience may vary! 

There’s usually a craftmanship award of some kind for people who aim for quality, but there are usually categories for other interests, too.  I’ve seen junior categories for kids, group categories for more than one cosplayer, performance awards, humor awards, and all sorts of other things.

If you’re going to a convention alone for the first time and are nervous about how these contests work, you can always attend that event just as a visitor to check it out.  Not all cosplayers participate.  Most don’t, in my experience.  It’s absolutely common for there to be more cosplay in the audience than on the stage.  

Once you’ve been a spectator you might have a better idea if it’s something you want to be a part of.  I did it once and hated it.  I am, in fact, a massive introvert and prefer a more casual approach to the hobby.  You do you.

This all seems like a lot of effort.  Can I just buy a pre-made costume for fun?

Heck yes, you can. 

At most conventions, you won’t be able to enter the costume contests with something you purchased, but if that’s not your goal, it’s really not a problem.  Etsy is a great place to look for pre-made costumes or props.  Extremely popular characters might even have cheap versions of their costumes around Halloween in places like Target, Wal-Mart, and Spirit Halloween.  If you’re going for an Avenger, you’ll probably find a plastic mask and nylon costume around October with little issue.    

There are also communities on social media, like Facebook and Reddit, where you can find people willing to commission something for you.  Be sure to give them lots of time to make your costume, but feel free to ask for progress updates as they go.  This is common practice.  Be sure to also Google whoever you commission and check out their reviews if you can and provide a review in return if you enjoy what they deliver. 

In my experience, these can be expensive, but are worth it if quality is important to you.  Commissioners generally have a true love of the craft and deserve the fees they charge for their time, effort, and experience.  Don’t try to barter them down in price.  If it’s too expensive, try one of these other methods I’m outlining instead.

You can also, as I’ve said before, take a Disneybounding approach and buy street clothes that generally look like your character’s outfit.  Maybe you’ll buy a couple of high-quality props to spruce it up a bit and make it more clear who you are, but the clothing itself may be just regular clothes from your closet or purchased off-the-rack.

Get creative! Make what you want.  Buy what you want. Have fun.

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They identify as queer.

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