A good wig will rip your scalp off... and other lessons learned from a first-time cosplayer

Earlier this month, I did something I'd always admired others for doing, but never had the guts or focus to do myself: cosplay. Over the course of three days, you could find me dressed as characters from the dating simulator Dream Daddy, action-RPG Nier: Automata, and Netflix comedy BoJack Horseman, strolling around Detroit's Renaissance Center and Cobo Center for an annual anime convention called Youmacon.

But let's rewind a bit; my experience didn't start with a fully-finished costume. In truth, this whole journey has been about half a year in the making, and I've learned things about a hobby that I never would've if I hadn't tried it for myself.

Lesson 1: Planning

Just like PAX is a major event for the games industry, Youmacon in Detroit is among the most popular anime conventions in the country. I had never been, but my fiancee, Katey, made it her annual pilgrimage and 2017 would be her ninth year in a row attending. Although the event wasn't until November, she began talking about it as early as May. She wanted me to come with her this time. Sure, a weekend away at a convention sounded fun and agreeable enough.

Then she asked me: "Okay, so what costume do you want to do?"

Um, excuse me? Costume? Nooooo no no. Not gonna happen. I hadn't the talent to make anything, and I didn't know that I could handle strangers gawking at me all day. My fiancee offered to make the costume since she had experience, and even offered a few suggestions for characters. She and her friend would be dressing up as Haru (Noir) and Ann (Panther) from Persona 5, so perhaps I could be Joker, Skull, or Fox?

Ehhh. While I liked what I'd seen of Persona 5, I hadn't played it myself and didn't feel comfortable dressing up as a character I didn't know particularly well. Plus, have you seen the main characters' costumes in that game? Intricate! I wanted something simpler, both in terms of my putting it on and the work Katey would have to do to make it. At the same time, I wanted to stand out. Just a little.

This was the first lesson I'd learn on my cosplay journey: Planning. Is. Important. If you're going to actually make your own costume instead of buying it, you need to give yourself time, and be realistic about what you can achieve. We had half a year. With work and other obligations, that gave us enough time to put together something moderately complex, perhaps a custom accessory or three, but nothing so intricate and detailed as, say, a suit of plate armor.

I chose Adam from Nier: Automata as my costume. I knew the game well, adored its visual style, and the guy is basically wearing a white button-down with some gloves. Not too hard. Or so I thought.

Lesson 2: Expect the unexpected

As we started work on the costumes, we came across a few problems. The axe for Haru would be made out of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam, and it was Katey's first time working with the material. Shaping it proved more difficult than anticipated; the axe's handle had to be reinforced with a wooden dowel rod, while the blade was reinforced with Sintra PVC foam board.

That was nothing compared to Adam, who ended up being far more complicated than I'd originally anticipated. His dress slacks were not a simple black, but featured a unique, repeating design that we couldn't find in any fabric store. His shirt sleeves were physically improbable, with extremely long cuffs that didn't seem to attach to anything, despite each having an abundance of buttons. His belt simply hung loose on one side, so not really functioning as... y'know... a belt.

Adam's top started as a simple white dress shirt bought from Goodwill. By the time we were done with it, we had taken in the sides to make it more form-fitting, cut off the original cuffs and replaced them with extra long ones, and glued non-functional buttons onto them. For the lower half, I cropped out a promotional image of Adam and traced over the pattern on his slacks. I submitted the traced design to a custom fabric-printing site, and we used this to make the pants.

We would come across various setbacks throughout the costume-making process. Stores ran out of material we needed, accessories needed to be created from scratch instead of modifying store-bought jewelry, and so on. Even when we thought we had our timeline plotted out, we needed to account for these complications. But once the costumes were done, they looked amazing, and it felt great to wear them - at home, at least.

Lesson 3: Be confident

When deciding what costume I should wear, I tried to be mindful of my body shape and facial structure. Was this a character I could pull off? I hit the gym extra hard in the weeks leading up to the convention in an attempt to burn off excess fat and fit just a little bit better into the Adam costume.

I had also decided to bring along two more costumes (Craig from Dream Daddy and Mr. Peanutbutter from BoJack Horseman) in an effort to keep up with Katey, who was bringing five. Both of these characters were also relatively fit, and I was self-conscious about making weight before the convention.

Of course, even with the extra effort I put in, on the day I wore my Adam costume, I bumped into someone whose physical profile resembled the villain's far better than my own. I didn't see anyone else dressed as Craig or Mr. Peanutbutter, but there was no shortage of exceptionally talented and remarkably attractive cosplayers on the show floor. I'm not going to lie: it was intimidating and I felt inadequate by comparison.

But another thing I learned about the cosplay community from attending Youmacon is that by and large, these fans are exceptionally body-positive. People of color cosplayed as traditionally white-skinned characters, husky men cosplayed waifish women, petite women cosplayed burly warriors, and so on. Every shape and size was present. Some played to their strengths (there was a particularly ripped guy who made for an excellent Goku) while others went against type.

Here's the thing: whether you think you're too fat, too skinny, too pale, too dark, too top-heavy, too short, too anything... people will love and appreciate your costume. True, some people are jerks (I personally had one person tell me I was too thick to be Adam, and that my wig wasn't the correct style or color) but the love I saw people express toward one another far outweighed the negativity.

Lesson 4: Do it for you

Katey and I spent a lot of time and effort working on our Noir and Adam costumes. Each one took roughly two months to make, and I was concerned with getting mine as close to accurate as possible. Meanwhile, my last-minute costume additions were pretty much just athletic clothes plus an accessory or two. Can you guess which ones got the most praise? Here's a hint: not the one I started getting a migraine from thanks to the pinching of a wig cap. (The pain was how you knew it was good and secure, I was told.)

The Adam costume was, frankly, a bitch to put together. Because he wears one long glove which extends up beyond the cuff of his shirt, I had to start with that so it wouldn't roll down my forearm. Because that glove has claws on it, I needed help getting my shirt buttoned and bracelets clipped. Strands of hair from the wig kept getting under my glasses, irritating my eyes.

Speaking of my eyes, I ended up wearing one colored contact that had no corrective prescription and one that had a +.5 prescription due to a mistake in one of the lenses. And of course, there was the aforementioned migraine due to the intense squeezing of my wig. Two hours into wearing the costume, I had to stop and sit down because I thought I was going to vomit. I was miserable, and what made it worse was that, compared to my other costumes, almost nobody called it out or wanted pictures.

Two hours into wearing the costume, I had to stop and sit down because I thought I was going to vomit.

I felt awful. I was in physical pain, I was mentally exhausted and irritable, and it was as though all the hard work that'd gone into the making of the costume was for nothing. Why try so hard when people seemed to prefer a simple spraypainted dog mask or painted eyebrows and a baby harness?

We took a tram ride back to the hotel so I could change out of the costume. By exceptional coincidence, there just happened to be two cosplayers dressed as Nier: Automata's 2B and 9S sitting in the car, with an open seat next to them. I sat down and chatted with the pair for a bit, and we grabbed a picture as if it were any other day and the three white-haired androids were on their way to work in the big city.

It was then that I realized what had felt different about dressing up as Adam versus dressing up as Craig or Mr. Peanutbutter. I hadn't expected anyone to 'get' my non-Adam costumes, and so I had more fun with them. I didn't worry about what people thought or if the outfits were good enough. When I look at the picture we took of me and the other Nier cosplayers on the tram, it doesn't look like anything the characters would actually do, but it's one of my favorites from the trip. In that moment, I was having fun and dressing up in a costume because dressing up in a costume is fun.

When we got back to the hotel room, I changed out of costume and went in street clothes for the rest of the con. Hey, 'fun' doesn't outweigh 'ow ow, dear god ow, my scalp can't take this.' But I held onto that realization, that the fun of cosplay doesn't come from getting recognition and doesn't correlate to how many pictures people take of you.

If I can give you one piece of advice if you choose to dip your foot into this pond, it's that you need to do it for yourself. Do it because you think it'll be fun, because you like whatever character you choose to dress as.

Do that, and maybe you'll find it fun enough to cosplay again. I know I plan to.

Sam Prell

Sam is a former News Editor here at GamesRadar. His expert words have appeared on many of the web's well-known gaming sites, including Joystiq, Penny Arcade, Destructoid, and G4 Media, among others. Sam has a serious soft spot for MOBAs, MMOs, and emo music. Forever a farm boy, forever a '90s kid.