A few days ago I got a quite interesting request: ‘Can you make a blog entry with some tips for anybody participating in a costume contest?’
So yeah, I guess why not!
Many of you surely watched or maybe even participated in a masquerade – and even won one of those! However it’s not uncommon that the decisions the judges make seem a little bit odd from the outside. Why did these costumes win, while others were a lot more impressive? Why did this performance get an award? And what was wrong with my own costume or performance? What can I do better next time?
Contests are fun!
One thing before we start: Every costume contest, every stage and also every judge is different, so there is no “definitive” way to win an award. Your first reason to participate in such an event should always be to have fun. It’s surely frustrating if you put months of hard work, blood and sweat into your project and only be disappointed afterwards – this happened to me as well – but also keep in mind that you will meet many amazing and skilled people during these contests. You’ll maybe even find a true friend there! Conventions are always busy and crazy and the calm backstage area of a contest is the perfect opportunity to chat with all these people you maybe already follow online for months and years already.
Now, about the costume contests – and there are a lot of different types!
Masquerades are usually the most straightforward and are quite popular in the US and Canada. You simply dress up, maybe show the judges your costume before you walk on stage, do a pose and … you are done. These contests are usually quite popular and big since everyone can participate and there are not many requirements. They often take a lot of time, so be prepared for that. Costume contests in Europe however are focused on the craftsmanship as well as the performance of every participant. The relevance of the performance part is often based on the size of the stage and time you have for your skit. Simply check the contest rules before you sign up, especially if you don’t feel comfortable with being on stage in general.
Years ago I participated in a bunch of contests, but today I mainly do the judging. I still get super nervous on stage, so I have a lot of respect for everybody, who not only put a lot of effort into a skit, but simply has the balls (or lady-balls) to go up on stage in front of a big crowd. Do you want to get some inspiration for amazing performances, then check out the finals of World Cosplay Summit, the European Cosplay Gathering and Euro Cosplay on Youtube!
Craftmanship Judging: Think outside the box!
An essential part of judging is the craftsmanship. I participated in and judged a few contests that did not have any pre-judging. It’s really difficult to see every detail of a costume, the choice of different materials and all its intricate details only during the often very brief performance on stage. So, if you put a lot of emphasis on your workmanship, make sure your contests allows for pre-judging, even if this costs you extra time. Even with many other participants pre-judging is usually really fast. In around 1-5 minutes per participant, judges will ask you questions and try to figure out, how you made your costume. You can wait for the right questions, or you just start talking by your own. Collect everything you want to say in your mind before you go in there and start explaining different materials, techniques, maybe hard challenges and also those parts that you are really proud of. Even mention tiny little details, which took you an eternity to finish, or something that might even have nothing to do with the costume itself like that it was your first costume or armor – you’ve had to learn a new skill or that did a sewing course before. It also helps if you bring progress pictures on your tablet or phone (or printed out) even if it is not requested in the rules. We really appreciate such preparation!
Additionally if you want a fair contest, mention if you had help or bought something. This might be though and yes, it will give you minus points, but if you want to support other contestants and want a well chosen winner, don’t lie about your own costume. Especially craftsmanship contests are all about making a costume and it would simply be unfair if your costume or even a big part of it was done by someone else. This doesn’t always mean that you are not eligible to win something! Special awards may also be for the best styled wig, best prop or even best performance. And isn’t it better to be rewarded for something YOU are proud of? 🙂
(Note here that judges are often cosplayers themselves and even if the rules doesn’t force you to make your costume by your own, usually judges try to find out how much work you’ve put into your project.)
Regarding the costume itself it’s usually judged on the quality of your craftsmanship, resemblance to the reference and the difficulty of your project. This means that if you’ve worked very clean, your costume is complete, looks similar to your chosen character and required extensive and a lot of different skills, you usually get a good rating for your costume. While huge, intricate costumes were rare highlights at conventions in the past, even some beginners are able to pull out a cool armor for their very first costume contests today. LED lights are not that special anymore and even animatronic effects, 3D printed props and costumes covered in machine stitchings everywhere are an often seen sight in contests nowadays. You’ll find tutorials for almost everything online, have skilled and supportive friends and can get materials, which turn even impossible projects into a cakewalk. What I want to say is that today it became really hard for us judges to pick the right winner and we need to be extra picky and careful in our decisions.
Joa Black Cosplay, first place winner of the costume contest at German Comic Con – While the costume looks simply, his painting and leatherwork was stunning up close. Additionally he build his own 3D printer, designed pole arm and armor in a 3D program spent countless hours to clean up the prints. He used LED strips for his prop as well as for a Horadic cube he’ve build just for this performance. Photo by N8e.
So, today we not only look at the quality of your costume like clean seams, well primed Worbla and a brushed wig, but also on the little details like proportions or costume attachments. All costume parts need to be present, everything has to be at the right place and in the right size. Especially armor costumes need this thorough check. Are colors correct and does the choice of materials fit to the character? You surely understand that a mighty Dovakiin from Sykrim would wear leather and fur (or something similar that at least looks the part) instead of satin and cheap flokati, right? In addition his costume needs to be weathered and used instead of clean and shiny. So try to think about your character and follow this story instead of only wearing his outfit.
Also think out of the box! We already saw countless great Worbla armors, but a Space Marine suit made completely out of leather is new! Don’t be scared to try out something new, since often this will be the costume that will impress judges the most. Also, don’t stick to one single skill and try to combine different materials. It’s impressive, if you’re good in sewing, but it’s even better if you’re wearing a hand styled wig, build a sword and are even able to light up your costumes. Bigger is not always better and especially here, details count. Here you can get extra points even for costumes, that may look ‘boring’ or less challenging.
Papa Cosplay won the costume contest at Blizzcon 2015. He’ve used 8 leather hides and spent months on the countless leather punches to give the leather a medieval and technical texture. The costume might look small on stage, but up close judges were able an amazing amount of work he’ve put into his amazing project.
At this point I’m able to tell you much, much more, but remember, every contest is different. My general tip is again, don’t participate to win a prize, participate for the people around you and for having fun. With low expectations you won’t be disappointed and will be even more excited if you’re one of the lucky winners!
Performance Judging: Let me entertain you!
If your contest of choice has a performance part, then judging is even more difficult, since your show and your costume affect your final rating. In addition every judge likes something different, as well as the audience. In general, try to entertain them, try to be original, funny, serious and tell a story. It’s up to you what you’re doing with your time on stage, notice however that just a cool pose or a voice over song might don’t score as high as somebody who convincingly tells the story of a character with countless props around him. And a good performance is often a lot of work: You have to choose a tune, record your text for a voice-over on the stage, learn a fight or dance choreography, build props or even a stage design and spend weeks on practicing your big gig on stage. At this point we also appreciate a good sound quality, additional craftsmanship for props and if your act fits to the sound and music you’ve chosen.
An important point which many participants also forget is originality: We’ve heard that Frozen song already a BAzillion times and these days your performance needs to be truly outstanding to get a high rating with something like this. Same goes for ever-changing memes, jokes and popular trailer music for example. Try to entertain the audience and find a performance you would also like to see. There is no need to tell THE WHOLE STORY of all 42 manga of Dragonball, but you can choose a scene Son Goku is known for like the fight against Freeza for example. Be in character and play a drama or be silly and make fun about it. There is no limit for your creativity and a good performance will be memorable for you and as well your audience.
Now combined points for craftsmanship and your show are usually just a rough orientation for judges. After the contest we still need to hide in the backstage area and talk about our personal favorites. If we would run the contests, we would love to give every participant an award, but prices are limited and so making decisions is extra though. At the end we all hope you agree with us. As a participant you can usually also ask judges for feedback if you like. No matter who won and who didn’t, keep in mind that we are cosplayers as well. We also signed up for countless contests in the past, know how much work you’ve put into your costume and how important this contest might be for you. We are all proud of you and it’s so amazing to see all these beautiful projects up close. And no matter what the results are, see every contest as a motivation for your next project. Stay in contact with all your new friends and just keep on doing what you do!