[Editor’s note: Sonja was kind enough to record the process she went through to create a costume that she wore to Grand Prix Utrecht in the Netherlands, March 15-17. This article was written in advance of the event. I do believe she put far more effort into this costume than I usually put into my constructed decks.]
I first came into contact with costume design and creation about ten years ago. Together with my mother and a whole group of history enthusiasts, I was volunteering at a historical event where over the course of a week, my town was transformed into a medieval site. I ran a little shop where I sold a local delicacy, and my mother had created a historically correct medieval dress for me. Years later, and I still volunteer at various festivals and fairs: fantasy/science fiction/steampunk as well as historical events. All my costumes are handmade, though I’ll admit that I buy my corsets rather than make them myself.
Cosplaying is something I’ve been doing regularly for the past two years. While recreating a character is different from designing an original costume and produces a whole new set of challenges and pitfalls, it’s nonetheless fun a process. To me, the challenge of how to translate particular designs to fabric (not always an easy feat, let me tell you), is what draws me in. It’s not just about creating a perfect copy of a character, but a question of how I can best capture the spirit the character embodies. Cosplaying is also a lengthy and at times frustrating process. It can be expensive–though admittedly, in part it’s also a matter of how expensive you want to make it. Things will go wrong. Things you thought would be simple turn out a giant pain in the ass, etcetera.
For the Grand Prix in Utrecht on the 16th and 17th of March this year, I’m creating a new cosplay: Project Counterflux. What follows is a play by play of the creative process, from the moment the idea originated, to the final product. I’ll talk about costs, time, challenges and frustrations.
The First Idea – Head Patterns and Brainstorming on a Budget
Why Counterflux? Izzet is one of my two favourite guilds (the other, surprise, is Orzhov). I’m a tinkerer to my toes, having spent most of my childhood in my father’s workplace. Another big part in choosing this art was the fact that I can use my own hair. While wigs are a big part of character creation, whenever I can use my own hair, I will. The two-fold reason for that is that wigs are very expensive (you’re looking at €45 minimum for a good quality wig), and often not comfortable enough to wear for an entire day.
Well then, I have the character I want to bring to life. Miss Counterflux doesn’t have a name, but in my head I’ve taken to calling her Alexis. The next step is to break down the art in its respective components. Alexis is wearing an outfit that exists out of four main parts:
The first obvious challenges I see are the device and the gloves. Straightaway I’ve decided that the gloves are the lowest priority: I’m on a time crunch, and I know that I can’t get the materials I need anywhere in my vicinity. I would have to search for and order them online, which is both too expensive and too lengthy a process. Instead, I’ll be looking for a proper replacement that fits the flavour. I have leather vambraces which I bought for another costume, and combined with fingerless gloves, I think that’s a pretty good solution.
The device is my main priority, then. My first instinct is to take a piece of PVC piping, cover it in polyurethane foam, carve the design into it and paint over it with acrylic paint. The straps can be fashioned from a belt, and the tubing can be bought readymade from a DIY store, as it looks like the kind of flexible hose they connect to faucets. I’m not going to bother with the light that it emits. You could do that with LEDs, but I don’t have time for that. If I make the rest sound easy, rest assured it isn’t. With drying times, carving and assembly, this is at least going to take me four days. The idea, however, is plausible.
Now, the first thing I usually do when starting on a costume is take a good look at my wardrobe for garments I can cannibalize. I’m terrible at throwing things out for this exact reason; once every two months I go to a thrift store and bulk buy a load of clothing that I might, at some point, be able to use for something. It’s the same with fabrics and accessories. I don’t really want to think about how much money I have spent not directly on costumes this way, but on might-have-beens.
But I digress. Alexis’ trousers are straightforward: dark red with bordeaux stripes. If I can’t find trousers of exactly that sort, I should be able to find the proper fabric to make it myself. The top is a little more complicated and seems to consist of two parts: an either black or dark blue blouse-type undershirt, and a short red vest with buckles and puffy sleeves of the same fabric as the trousers. Recreating this is a simple concept, but might provide me with a challenge in its execution. I will cut a black or dark blue blouse to the right length and sew it into a red vest that I make from scratch.
The belt is a bigger issue. It’s very elaborate, looks to be made out of leather, and even if I can find something readymade that comes close to it, will be very expensive. I’m building on a budget here, still being out of a job and having pretty steep monthly responsibilities. I can try to make my own belt with fabric pouches, but I haven’t actually made pouches before. You could say I’m pretty stumped by the belt, so I’m going to leave that for a while and start on the construction of the other elements of the outfit.
First Stage of Assembly – Gathering the Materials
I mentioned costs before. This is where you’ll find out exactly how expensive a costume can get, because I’m taking you shopping. First stop: the DIY store for polyurethane foam, putty, and a flexible hose. Ah, I forgot to mention that I don’t actually go to craft stores a lot, if at all, when I need supplies for cosplaying. The reason for this is that cosplay in Europe isn’t very big, and most craft stores don’t carry anything useful beyond polystyrene balls and glitter. You have to order things like craft foam over the internet. Because shipping can get excruciatingly pricey, I prefer to get creative and head over to the DIY store.
That’s basically the one talent you have to possess when you want to get into costuming: creative problem-solving. There will be so many moments where an idea you had just doesn’t work out, and you’ll be pulling at your hair. You’ll be forced to start thinking outside the box for a solution. I’ve always had a knack for finding a solution in the oddest of places. It’s something I inherited from my engineer father, together with his penchant for gadgetry. Even if you don’t yet have that flair, it’s something you can cultivate. The main thing here is don’t give up.
The DIY store is like a candy store for the Izzet cosplayer. It has all the nuts and bolts. You have to know what’s what and either spend a lot of time reading labels or pestering the employees. There are a thousand types of putty, and a hundred of polyurethane foam. I went for a quick-dry, household brand white putty and a two-component PUR foam that specifically mentioned sticking to PVC on the label. Other foams would probably work just fine, but I’m not taking any chances because foam isn’t cheap. The two together cost me €14,99. I have PVC piping and protection plugs at home, as well as a trowel and acrylic paints, so that saves me some money. I also bought a flexible hose for €6,99.
Next up: fabrics. Remember when I mentioned the clothing was going to be the least of my worries? Oh, I was so wrong. I’ve searched high and low, but I cannot find a dark red fabric with bordeaux stripes. For a moment I thought to switch to dark red fabric with dark blue stripes, which is very much in the Izzet colour scheme, but you guessed it: impossible to find. I’m going to have to compromise here. I did manage to find a pair of dark red trousers with bordeaux motif for €19, which will for now be my stand-in:
There is a chance I may come across something better, but considering the sheer amount of stores I went to both on and offline, I highly doubt it.
On Twitter, Christine Sprankle suggested looking for spray-on fabric paint to get the stripes. I was able to find that, but the colours seem to be very limited. I ordered a can of bordeaux paint for €8,65, with which I will attempt to give a dark red pair of trousers that was already in my possession the much coveted stripes. For this, I also bought masking tape for €1,59.
For the top, I rummaged around my collection of fabrics. I have this beautiful wooden chest filled to the brim with fabrics, and I knew I still had some dark red cotton left over from my Stalking Vampire cosplay. I will also make the sleeves out of this in lieu of the striped fabric (which is the same for both her trousers and the sleeves):
Technically, this cost me nothing, but I am using about €8 worth of fabric here. I did get two yards of gold bias binding for the seams at €3, and two buckles for €3,50. For the bottom layer I found this black blouse I wasn’t wearing anymore:
Now, I’m unclear what kind of shoes Alexis is wearing, which is great because I get to be creative. I found these lovely Steampunk-reminiscent boots on sale, and while €22,49 isn’t too cheap, I figure it’s worth it:
I also got a bunch of belts for both her utility belt and the straps for carrying her device around. I got all three for €5 each, which makes a €15 total:
The pouches in her belt were still a problem I hadn’t found a solution for, but I wasn’t deterred. There are a bunch of shops here very much akin to dollar stores that have the silliest things you can imagine. They often have fingerless gloves, and this is what I went in for. I bought two pair, one dark brown and the other dark blue. I’ll have to see which ones fit the costume when it’s done, but considering they were only €0,75 per pair, that only cost me €1,50. After getting these, I did my usual round – you’ll never know when you’ll find something useful – and lo and behold: a whole rack full of dark brown and black pouches! They had both the kind that fit a belt as well ones with wrist straps, which I can easily turn into pouches for a belt. I got five at €3,99 a piece, so that’s €19,95 total:
The last thing I’m getting is henna for my hair. One package is €15, but I actually get two dye jobs out of it so that’s pretty neat.
Second Stage of Assembly – Construction
Years and years ago, I made a Fantasy/Renaissance-inspired dress for a ball at my university. It included a corset/jacket hybrid that is a dead ringer for Alexis’ red overtop:
I’m using this to model the new top after. The first step in this is to draft a pattern. I’m using baking paper because I was all out of sketch paper and too lazy to go to the craft store. But hey, this works just as well.
The top consists of three parts, with the two side panels being basically the same. The lining, insofar as it has any, is basically the same fabric, so I needed two cut-outs of each panel. It’s a really simple pattern, but it works perfectly. I traced it onto the baking paper, adding an extra quarter inch for seam allowance:
Then you can either pin the pattern onto the fabric to cut it, or use tailor’s chalk to trace the pattern straight onto the fabric:
I prefer the second method, because it’s quicker, and it can sometimes be a bit of a bother to pin the pattern properly, especially if your fabric is very smooth. So now I have six panels, and it’s time to sew them together:
I sewed the panels together inside out, leaving the bottom open:
Then, I turned it right side out again, folded the bottom seams in and pressed them with an iron to close the top. The next step was attaching the bias binding and the buckles:
On to the sleeves! To get puffy sleeves, I cut out two panels that look like this:
I then gathered the top so that it puffs up, sewed it together, inserted some elastic band and attached it to the top. And just like that, it’s done!
While I was initially planning on directly sewing the bottom layer onto the top layer, I noticed while trying the two tops on that it’s hardly necessary. I’m not going to make it harder on myself by doing something unnecessary, so I’ve cut the blouse to size, cleaned up the seams, and inserted some elastic band to keep it in place:
The trousers, however, were my worst nightmare. The fabric dye I bought was not the right colour; it was more of a pinkish purple than bordeaux. I tried spraying it on the same fabric I used for the top, so that I could sew my own trousers, but it didn’t look good at all:
Unfortunately, this means I’m back to using the red trousers with the paisley motif.
The PalmPulse Counterflux Generator
Remember my plan with the polyurethane foam and the white putty? After some deliberation, I came to the conclusion that there is a far simpler solution that doesn’t require three days worth of waiting until the PUR foam dries out, a day of scouring, putting the putty on, painting, etcetera. It’s far easier to just spray it with primer and paint directly onto the pipe. I already had the PVC pipe and lids, and in the chest of wonders that is project leftovers, I found an attachment of the perfect size that will be the part the hose gets connected to. The PVC itself is already smooth enough, and covering it with polyurethane foam, while a solid idea, would pose some problems of its own. Noticeably, it would complicate attaching pretty much everything else. What I did instead was glue the attachment onto the pipe, as well as the bottom lid:
The top lid I’m going to leave off, so that I can actually carry something in the container–seems like a useful function.
To attach the hosing, I drilled a hole large enough to fit it through. For the straps, I buckled the two belts together to get the proper length and then drilled another two narrow holes in the side of the container so that I can run the belts through it and sling it over my shoulder. Before attaching the belts, I sprayed it with primer so that I can paint it without fear of it peeling off:
It’s a bit of a shame with the PUR and putty, but that stuff keeps forever so we’ll just call it an investment for the future.
I love painting, because it’s an opportunity for me to bring into practice those art academy skills that would otherwise just really go to a waste. For this project, I wanted to go for a wood pattern even though the art the device looks smooth. It’s really simple to get this. You’ll notice my primer is yellow. I got a cheap, coarse and broad brush out and just painted over the primer with dark brown acrylic without worrying about a smooth finish. The result is something that looks rather woody!
When that dried, I painted the gold decoration, leather straps and other parts onto it. For this I used better quality brushes, because I definitely want a texturally different finish on these things. To get the rivet look, I bought some googly eyes (€0,99), stuck ‘em on there and painted them gold. I’ve glued a plastic gemstone appliqué (€0,65 a piece) onto the centre as a finishing touch, and it’s done:
I attached two of the same appliqués to the gloves. I’m going for the brown ones, because they match my vambraces:
For the back piece, I was unable to find anything that could be used as construction material, so I’m opting for an easier fix that is practical and versatile as well: I’ll be using a leather backpack of mine. The flexible hose will run into the backpack, which we will pretend holds the fuel tank. This way, I’ll also have a place to store my decks without having to carry something out of character around.
With the device done, it’s time to work on the belt. Half of the pouches only have wrist straps, and since I want to attach them to the belt rather than my wrists, I’m taking those off and fashioning them into belt straps. I did this by hand because it’s too small of a job to do with a sewing machine.
For the finishing touches I sat down with my makeup collection. Alexis isn’t wearing a lot of makeup, or at least not as far as I can see in the art. I want to keep it natural for that reason. Well, I say “natural,” but I actually put a lot of stuff on my face. I consider cosplay makeup to be the same as theatre makeup: it’s going to need to be out there so that your face doesn’t fall short of your costume. The look I’m going for is a basic foundation topped off with a dusting of mineral powder, a light pink blush, light brown shader, nude lipstick, dark grey eye shadow and a lot of dark brown mascara:
You’ll notice that I kept changing my campaign plan throughout the process. You can’t expect to always get something right in the first go, and like I’ve mentioned before, flexibility plays a huge part in creating a successful cosplay. The trick is to keep going! Of course you have to be realistic in what you can and can’t do, but it’s such a shame if you would give up at the first challenge that arose. I can’t count how many times I’ve cursed this costume – this article would be a huge collection of [REDACTED] had I written down every unfiltered thought during the process.
Beyond the frustrations, the money, and the time, the creative process that goes into costume building, whether it’s an original costume or a cosplay, is rewarding. It’s a combination of thinking and handiwork, a creative challenge, and great a hobby all at the same time. Going to conventions, events and fairs, you get to meet likeminded people and swap tips and tricks. I often go on Twitter to ask for second opinions on something I want to purchase for a particular costume–feedback like that is always really helpful.
We’ll have a show of hands now: who counted along to see how much I spent? Luckily for you, I kept a list with how much I spent on this. Fun fact: I haven’t actually kept track of it myself prior to making this list, so this is going to be just as much of a surprise for me.
|PUR & putty||€14,99||(not used)|
|Textile dye||€8,65||(not used)|
|Fabric, buckles & bias binding||€14,50|
|Gloves||€1,50||(one pair not used)|
Grand Total: €142,36
That’s not too bad, actually. I got lucky because I had a lot of stuff lying around that I could use. If I’d have had to buy the PVC piping and accessories, a leather backpack, acrylics and makeup, I would easily have made it over €200 grand total; over €250 if it would have been necessary to get a wig.
“But it doesn’t look like a €140 costume!” you might say after having seen the entire thing. Perhaps you’ve looked at readymade cosplays and costumes online, and dismissed them after seeing it would cost you $175 excl. shipping. You wouldn’t be the first or the last to assume that costuming or cosplaying can’t be that expensive if you do it “right.” Costumes sold online are expensive because it takes a lot of time and effort to translate a concept to an actual garment. After seeing my more or less built-on-a-budget Counterflux, you might be able to imagine how much a really elaborate cosplay will cost you in terms of time and money (and frustration).
Well, that’s it for the first half of this diptych. I hope you’re curious as to what the costume in its entirety looks like, so stay tuned for my next article, in which I’ll talk about my experiences at Grand Prix Utrecht and show you guys the pictures of the whole thing.
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