Okay, I’ll admit. That title was a bit click baity. There’s no one way to win any contest. There are, however, things you can do to help yourself stand out to the judges and make a lasting impression.
I love entering contests – they’re my favorite part of cosplay. I feel like competing always pushes me to get better and improve as a maker. I try to enter contests at every con I go to, and quite often bug the judges afterwards for any feedback I can get to improve my entries. Over the year I’ve made some observations on what judges tend to look for in winning entries, so I wrote this article to try and help others compete at a higher level.
Think about the competition from the planning stages. When planning out a new costume, I always ask myself – how will this look up close from a craftsmanship judges perspective? How will this look on stage? Is there anything I can add/change while remaining faithful to the character that will show more technical skill? Has this costume been done before? If so, what did they do right? What did they do wrong?
When possible, I always try to up the level of detail in my costumes. This is especially important when translating an animated character into real life. Most animated characters lack details and tend to consist mostly of large blocks of color. Rather than keep my outfit simple with large blank areas, I try to see if I can add some textures or patterns to those areas without losing the identity of the character. When translating a character from a live-action or highly detailed source however, I try to be as accurate as possible and catch as many small details as I can.
#2: Be Thorough
Assume every part of the costume will be inspected. Yes, that means insides too. I always make sure to remove the texture from the backs of my foam, finish all of my seams, make pretty lining, and finish even the pieces I think will be covered by other pieces. You never know what craftsmanship judges will catch a glimpse of during craftsmanship judging. Seeing that your costume is professionally finished, even in the dark corners, will impress them. I have lost points in a contest because the judges caught a glimpse of some hot glue on the back of a piece that didn’t look clean enough. Having every part of the costume finished professionally will prevent you from losing any points from an accidental glimpse.
An extension of this is paying attention to what is between the pieces of your costume. Nothing ruins a great suit of armor faster than a blank bodysuit, when there should be more. Filling the gaps between armor plates with texture, faux chain mail, painted fabric, wires- whatever your character calls for, will bring you big points for detail. It will also make your costume look far more complete on the show floor. I made this mistake when I first made my daedric armor – I had a nicely detailed set of armor, with nothing but matte black space in between the pieces. For the following con I made a point of painting the bodysuit underneath to look like the missing panel pieces I wasn’t able to add for mobility reasons. This helped the armor look far more complete and unified compared to the first wearing.
#3: Go Above and Beyond
Go above and beyond to achieve details. Rather than picking the fabric that’s close enough – dye a fabric of your own. Rather than buying an inaccurate hoop bustle, make one from scratch using historically accurate patterns. Hand embroider that historical costume instead of using a machine. Things like this always impress the tar out of judges. When they see that you’ve put in that extra work it will put you ahead of someone with a similar costume quality who bought and used everything as-is. It shows that you have the skills and attention to detail to make high level costumes. When in doubt, do things you don’t have to do – I technically didn’t need to make a bustle for leafeon, I could have bought one. But the judges loved the fact that I made my own from scratch using historical patterns, and it added a lot to my credibility as a maker and the quality of my costume.
#4: Make a Make Book
Document EVERYTHING. Compile a “Make Book” with all of your work in progress photos and descriptions of how you did everything. Explain your process, your materials, teach the reader how to make your costume. Print out your book, put it in a plastic cover, and hand it to the judges when you go for craftsmanship judging. Insist they keep it, so they can reference it when making their final judging decisions. This adds a ton of credibility to you as a maker. The judges can see the whole crafting process, your thought process, and most importantly, that you know what you’re doing. Presenting this book in a professional way also makes you look like you truly are a professional and deserve that award. And of course, leaving a lasting impression like that will come in handy when the judges are trying to decide on their winners! If you’d like an idea of how to format a make book, check out my “How It’s Made” posts. 90% of them are my make books copy and pasted onto this website!
Of course, winning isn’t easy. Everyone has worked just as hard as you and there are many skilled cosplayers out there who are all capable of winning masters level contests. But if you put the extra effort into your costume and your impression on the judges, it’s entirely possible to increase your chances of success.
Take it from someone who occasionally judges costume contests – judging is hard. Usually you have several costumes of very similar quality you have to choose between, and decisions can be impossible to make. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t win – the judges are human too, and judging is hard. You just have to keep entering contests and keep trying, and do whatever you can to improve between shows. In 2015 I went to around 10 cons and entered at least one contest at each, often more. Out of the 20 or so contests I entered, I won 4 awards. That is an extraordinarily high ratio, even for someone like me. Don’t expect to win every con, it just doesn’t happen. But if you keep trying and keep striving for improvement, it might happen eventually!