Friday, November 22, 2013

Tips for Cosplaying (While Broke)

I love to cosplay. I love making costumes, fashioning props, and showing off all my hard work. I love being the characters I adore, even if it's just for eight hours in a crowded convention hall.

I'm also a graduate student, which means I'm broke.

Cosplay is an expensive hobby. Whether you're making your own costumes and props from scratch, or buying some or all of a costume, it can certainly take its toll on your wallet. I've been cosplaying for a few years now, and while I'm nowhere near the level of some of the elite cosplayers, I'm comfortable enough in the cosplay world to give some hints on how you can keep your cosplay costs down. Or at least manageable.

1. Plan in advance.

An essential part of keeping your cosplay costs down is setting a budget for your costume. I usually go to two big cons a year, and I will ideally have one new costume for each convention. This means that I have roughly half a year to plan. The planning includes figuring out what kind of materials I need to buy, and then picking them up over a period of time. It allows me to spread out my spending, and to take advantage of different sales. I'm able to buy almost everything I need for a costume at a greatly reduced price, while I wouldn't be able to do this if I didn't plan so far ahead. Shopping at sales also allows you to stock up on notions and thread, which can be pricey if you have to buy them at full price.

2. Be realistic about your costume.

Do you have a budget of $40 for your costume? If you want to keep to that budget, you'll have to carefully choose which character you're going to cosplay. You'll probably be limited to characters with basic cloth fabrics--cotton blends and the like (but whatever you do, stay away from broadcloth. It's cheap, but it never looks "right"). Incorporating silks, satin, or anything approximating armor will most likely send you way over budget. If you want to include a large prop, you can expect to spend at least $20 on that alone, once you add it all up (foam or wood, glue, paints, etc.)

You should also keep in mind your skill set. If you're working on a tight budget, it may not be wise to try out new methods, materials or to work with new fabrics. Wait until you're comfortable with new approaches, or have enough money to use as a safety net. You don't want to accidentally mess something up and "lose" the money you invested in that material.

3. Work with what you have.

This works the best if you're cosplaying a video game, TV, or movie character who wears normal clothes (or something close). I broke my first rule and had two new cosplays for Chicago Comic Con this past August. I was able to make my second costume for under $20.00, though, since I was Zoey from Left 4 Dead. All I had to do was buy the red track jacket ($4 at the thrift store), toy shotgun ($10), and make the med kit (about $4). The rest of the costume--jeans, white shirt, and shoes--were in my closet. Also, if you have a cool replica prop you can sometimes make yourself the rest of the costume without breaking the bank. A friend of mine had a Master Sword and Hylian Shield replica. It wasn't too costly to get the fabric to make Link's costume from Ocarina of Time.

4. "Recycle" pieces.

Sometimes you have pants, a coat, a robe, or a shirt that you can use for multiple costumes. This really helps to keep your costume on budget. One of the best pieces to recycle, though, is a wig. A wig is a very important part of a costume. It's hard to really pull a character off if you don't have the right hair. Some people can get away with it sometimes, but I'm definitely not one of those people--my hair is a curly, frizzy, unruly mess. The good thing about wigs, though, is that they're investment pieces. I have nice wigs that I use for different costumes, and sometimes I plan costumes based on what wigs I have. $30-$40 on a wig can put a dent in your bank account, but if you can use it for three or four different costumes it could be worth it. Make sure to get a nice wig, though. I prefer Arda Wigs.

5. Invest the time.

So you can't afford worbla or sintra, or to make your own molds. But you can afford Sculpey, cardboard, foam board (and paperclay), and craft foam. If you study up on the material you can afford, and take your time to meticulously and carefully craft your pieces, you can make the cheaper materials look as good (or at least nearly as good) as the pricier materials. Sometimes this takes practice, though, so before you try to make a large sword or full armor, try out a character that has a smaller weapon or pieces of armor.

6. Participate in costume swaps.

Do you want to wear a new costume, but you don't have any money? If you and a friend are the same size (or near enough that it doesn't matter), and both have old costumes lying around, you can trade costumes and satisfy your desire to be a new character without spending a dime. It's fun to try new things without being locked into it. For example, I'm not that invested in anime, and I would probably never spend the money required to make the perfect anime character costume. But there are definitely characters I like and would like to cosplay--and some of my friends have these costumes already made. So I'll go as Motoko Kusanagi and she'll be Dove for the day. It's perfect!

I hope you all find this list helpful. I think that these tips can be helpful even if you aren't pinching pennies to create your costumes. Let me know what you think in the comments :). And check out the weekly blog series on cosplay that I'm writing for Junkies Nation. Weekly Cos-Day features some of the best cosplays found on the internet and submitted to my e-mail ( At the end of each Weekly Cos-day is a link to a cosplay tutorial. You can see the first two editions here and here


  1. Great post!! For the "Recycle" pieces, I've done that for my Zoey Left 4 Dead outfit, hah. I had some similar clothing that looked like hers hidden in my closet so it worked out perfectly :)!

    1. Lori, I'd love to see you Zoey outfit!