A Step-by-Step Guide to Start Cosplaying for Beginners

how to cosplay for the first time

Cosplay can be an intimidating hobby to get into. You’ll see all these amazing and intricate costumes and wonder how people manage to create it all! While you may not be able to make an Ironman suit from scratch for your first costume, starting cosplay does not have to be as complicated as it seems.

To start cosplaying, the best thing to do is choose a character and break the costume down into pieces. The basic parts of every costume include clothing, wig, shoes, and props. Once you have these aspects taken care of, you’ll be ready to cosplay at a convention.

But, of course, nothing is quite as simple as that. I’ll walk you through my process of creating a new costume so you can get an idea of how to approach your new hobby. Most of this will become second nature as you get more experience cosplaying and going to conventions, but if this is your first time putting yourself out there in costume, you might not even know where to start.

Step 1: What are your timeline and budget?

Before you even think about the character you’ll be cosplaying, you need to determine how much time you have to complete it and what you can afford. You won’t be able to create an elaborate costume with just one week to go, and your choice of clothing and materials can differ dramatically depending on your budget.

Generally, your timeline will be determined by the convention you plan on attending. If you still have a few months until the next anime or comic convention, then you will probably have time to make a costume from scratch or order it online. However, if the convention is next week, you’ll probably have to put a costume together from the clothes available in the back of your closet to make a last-minute cosplay.

A tight budget can also limit your cosplay choices. Cosplay can be an expensive hobby, but there are many ways you can reduce the overall cost. By knowing the amount of money you can afford to spend on your costume, you can make choices about who you will cosplay (more elaborate characters will be more expensive), where you will get your cosplay, or if you will learn to make it yourself.

Don’t forget to budget for the convention as well as the cosplay. You’ll have to pay for the ticket price, transportation and parking, and a hotel room. Learn more about the cost of anime and comic conventions.

Step 2: Choose a character to cosplay

Now that you have a basic idea of what you can afford and how much time you have to complete it, it’s time to choose a character. For your first cosplay, it’s best not to pick a character that has a very complicated costume, but honestly, there are no limits to who you can choose. I recommend picking your favorite character. 

It doesn’t matter if the character you love doesn’t look like you. It doesn’t even matter if they’re a completely different gender. If you’re running on a very short timeline, you do probably want to choose a very simple costume. However, if you have time to purchase a costume or learn new skills don’t worry too much about the appearance of your character, just find someone you want to cosplay.

The other thing that you want to consider when choosing a character is the likely weather you’ll encounter at the convention. You don’t want to be stuck wearing a cosplay with a winter coat while you’re in 90º weather in the middle of August (trust me, it’s no fun!). 

Now time for the most important part of this step! Find as many reference pictures of your character as you can. Try to find images that show their outfit from all different angles. Figure out what their hair looks like, and find images of their shoes and any props you want to make. This will be essential to recreating your character’s look and putting your costume together.

labeling pieces of your costume
After finding reference images, list out all the pieces of the costume that you’ll need to buy or create.

Step 3: Break the costume down into pieces

You have the character you want to cosplay picked out and you have a bunch of reference pictures to use. Look at the pictures you found and make a list of every single part of your character’s costume. The list should include the layers of the costume as well as the props and accessories that you need.

Some examples of the parts of a cosplay include

  • White button-up shirt
  • Red jacket or coat
  • Scarf
  • Ram horns
  • Knee-length socks
  • Red shoes
  • White skirt
  • Red overskirt
  • Petticoat
  • White wig
  • Elf ears 
  • Red body paint makeup
  • Silver necklace
  • Magic wand
  • White cape
  • Glasses 
  • Etc. 

Be as detailed as you need to be for your costume so that you’ll know exactly what you’ll need to purchase or make. Even if you plan on purchasing a whole costume from an online cosplay shop, it’s helpful to make this list. Oftentimes, these costumes come without shoes, wigs, jewelry, socks, and other miscellaneous pieces that you’ll need to purchase on your own.

It’s important to remember that the costume does not have to be 100% accurate. While this is the goal for many cosplayers, you can make a recognizable cosplay without some of the small details being exactly on-point. So don’t worry if the shoes end up a little different from the character, or you can’t find the perfect color fabric.

Step 4: Decide which pieces to buy and which to make

Now that you have your whole list written out, it’s time to decide how you are going to get each part of the costume. You’ll want to go through each piece of your cosplay and decide how you’re going to get it. In general, I like to separate these into the ‘to-buy’ and ‘to-make’ categories. This way I can better organize my time and my budget in the months leading up to the convention.

Some costume parts will already be in your closet. For example, you might already have a button-up shirt you can use. Other objects will be easiest to buy. Basic red shoes and basic jewelry are often found easily in stores.

If you have some sewing skills already, you can easily pick some pieces to make from scratch. But, don’t feel like you only have to work with your current skill level. There are plenty of tutorials you can watch online to learn how to make your first shirt or style your first wig. Challenge yourself to learn one or two basic skills with each new costume you make!

You don’t need to make any part of your costume if you don’t want to. You can buy the costume and accompanying pieces or have them commissioned for you. In fact, sometimes it is cheaper to purchase a costume than it is to make it from scratch. It’s perfectly acceptable to find the costume in an online shop and purchase it that way. However, make sure to check the shipping time. These costumes are usually made to order, so it takes a couple of months for them to arrive.

measure yourself
It’s a good idea to measure yourself and keep track of your three main measurements: the chest, waist and hips

Step 5: Gather the costume pieces

Start putting your costume together. I like to start by doing research to find the pieces I’m going to buy. I will find specific pieces of clothing that I need (such as a pair of knee-length socks, or a red scarf) and go ahead and purchase those so that I don’t forget about them. 

If you are purchasing your costume from an online store, be sure to double-check your own measurements. Often the measurements are smaller than typical American sizes, so you should always measure yourself first. 

To measure yourself, take a flexible measuring tape and measure the widest part of your chest, the widest part of your hips, and the smallest part of your waist. These are the three standard measurements that are used.

For anything you are making yourself, you’ll need to get all the materials necessary for the costume construction. This will include the fabric, thread, zippers, buttons, ribbons, or any other accessories necessary. Make sure the colors you choose work well together, and they match with any costume pieces you are buying.

Step 6: Wigs, makeup, and contacts

Wigs, makeup, and contacts are extras that you don’t have to include with every cosplay, but they can make the whole outfit come together. Contacts are the least important of the three. Some characters have unique eyes, but wearing contacts incorrectly can permanently damage your eye. You should always get a prescription from an eye doctor before purchasing or wearing colored contacts.

Wigs are not always necessary because you can always style and dye your real hair. However, I do recommend wearing them for most cosplays, they make life much easier since you don’t have to worry about creating the perfect hairstyle on the morning of a convention. Arda Wigs is my favorite place to buy high-quality wigs for cosplay, however, they are not cheap. I’ve put together a guide to help you find affordable wigs for your costume.

I recommend makeup for all cosplayers (unless you’re wearing a full-face mask). It’s technically not necessary so you can go without, but makeup creates a more finessed look that will make your cosplay look better in photographs. Even just using a basic foundation with a matte finishing powder will help you look so much better while in cosplay.

link from windwaker
You can make a prop, like this hourglass, to carry around with your character.

Step 7: Do you want any props?

Props are not a necessary part of any costume, but they can look pretty impressive. Making props can be intimidating, but pretty fun (in my opinion). Purchasing them can be prohibitively expensive, so many people choose to cosplay without carrying a prop around.

Some props are easy to include with your costume. For example, if you’re cosplaying a mage, you can cover a book to make it look like a magic tome. You could also carry around a stuffed animal if your character has a cute animal sidekick.

Even if you want to make a more complicated prop, you can start with something simple and slowly gain new skills with every new costume you create. If you want to create a sword, start by making it out of cardboard and learning how to cut straight lines and paint something metallic. You can level up your next prop using EVA foam, Worbla, or many other types of materials. 

Challenge yourself to try something new for every costume you make. Eventually, you’ll look back and be shocked at the number of new skills you’ve developed in the process.

Step 8: Try everything on for a practice run

You’ve collected all the pieces of your costume and now you’re almost ready for the convention. Before you go, take the time to try everything on. When you try on the costume, check for these issues:

  • Make sure it fits properly. You still have time to make basic adjustments to make the costume fit you a little better.
  • Check to see if your underwear is showing. If it’s a bodysuit, consider getting different underwear that won’t leave a visible line when you’re wearing it. You can wear shorts under a short skirt, or wear a different bra if the straps are showing.
  • Make sure you can move around. You don’t want to sit down only to hear your pants rip down the middle. Walk around in your clothing, lift your arms and swing them around, crouch down on the ground. You want to make sure your costume will withstand everyday wear and tear, so you don’t end up with a ripped seam in the middle of a convention.

This is also a good opportunity to practice some poses in front of the mirror. Watch your character in the show or game they are from, so you have an idea of how they would sit or stand. Then decide on a few poses you like. This will make it a lot easier to quickly hit your mark when someone asks for a photo at the convention.

styled wig in a large bag
You can transport a styled wig in a large bag if it won’t be easily crushed by the flexible sides of the bag.

Step 9: Traveling to the convention

It’s the day of the convention and you can’t wait to show off your new costume, but you have to get there first! If you have any fragile pieces of your costume, they can easily end up damaged on the way to the convention, so want to make sure you pack everything carefully.

If you’re staying in a hotel room, be sure to take the costume out when you get there and iron it before you wear it. This will get rid of all those wrinkles that developed while it was folded up in your suitcase.

Once you arrive at the convention, but your costume on and enjoy the day.

Step 10: Wearing cosplay to a convention

You’re finally cosplaying at the convention! It’s a pretty exciting experience, and I hope you wholeheartedly enjoy yourself. Here are a couple of tips to help you keep your cosplay looking good all day long:

  • Keep a repair kit handy. Even the most well-crafted cosplay will need repairs sometimes. Keep a simple repair kit with a needle and thread, safety pins, hot glue, and scissors with you in the hotel room so you can make quick fixes to the costume.
  • Touch up your makeup. Occasionally during the day, step into the bathroom to touch up your makeup and dab away any sweat that might make you look shiny in photographs.
  • Take a break. Don’t be afraid to take a break where you take off your wig and shoes to air out a little. Try not to push yourself too hard, if the costume is uncomfortable.
  • Be aware in crowded spaces. In crowded spaces, there’s a greater chance that someone could bump into, step on, or snag a piece of your costume. Try to be aware of where you are to try to avoid any of these mishaps.

Read more: 20 Tips to stand out in your cosplay at the next convention

Emily Joice

My name is Emily, and I have been Cosplaying Since my very first convention in 2008. Over the years I've learned a lot of new skills that have helped me become better and making cosplay and looking good for the camera.

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