How to Enter (and Survive!) A Cosplay Masquerade

This is a guide to enjoying your masquerade experience and gaining the most from it! These are suggestions based on our experiences as cosplay competitors and judges in both craftsmanship and performance. The information given is general, a distillation of many years’ involvement with anime, sci-fi, and gaming conventions, rather than being based on any one event. However, every one of the “don’ts” are actual things we have seen people do.

Before the Con

Read the Rules!

You would think this simple first step would be obvious; unfortunately, you would be amazed how many skip this. Reading the rules for the event you’re entering helps you avoid confusion, frustration, and potential embarrassment. It is embarrassing in the extreme to realize that you have entered an ineligible costume (wrong source, a costume which has won previous awards, etc.). It is equally embarrassing for staff to explain to you that you cannot participate in the masquerade, or aren’t eligible for an award.

In addition, I’ve seen cosplayers scream and rant because they were upset that staff had enforced a clearly written rule. It is very frustrating for staff to be yelled at because participants did not actually read the rules in advance and annoying for other cosplayers who see that someone didn’t think the rules should apply to them.

Read carefully, and be sure you understand what division your costume belongs in, as well as what is expected of you as a participant. Some cons have separate divisions for certain types of costumes (Found Object, Original Design, J-Rock, etc.). Some cons do not allow costumes which have won awards previously. Some cons define Novice, Journeyman, and Masters divisions differently, or use alternate divisions. Some cons don’t allow group entries, or don’t allow models to show off a costume the non-modeling entrant made. Some cons reserve the right to move entries from one division to another (always upward).

DON’T be that person flaming the staff or complaining about judging on the forums after the con, forcing a staffer to copy and paste the relevant rules. Again.

Pre-Register

By all means, pre-register for the masquerade, if the con allows it (most do). And just as importantly, notify staff if you will NOT be participating. If you have signed up but aren’t able to make it for any reason, it’s common courtesy to let staff know so they can allow another cosplayer to participate in your place. Some conventions penalize no-shows by not allowing them to pre-register for the next year’s masquerade (and some cons share blacklists!).

Reference Images for Craftsmanship

The majority of craftsmanship competitions require reference images for judging. Even if it’s not required, prepare several images of your character/source material to take to your judging appointment. Bring multiple images, showing your costume from a variety of angles, so you can explain where you recreated it exactly and why you made any changes you did. If your character goes through multiple costumes, make sure you bring references that are true to the version of the costume you have created.

A few cons allow entries to send references in advance, either by email or handing them in at registration. Even if you turned in a picture, be sure to take printed materials along with you. You never know if the process might break down somewhere — someone could lose the image, or the staff printer might be low on toner and print the colors incorrectly, etc. Take total responsibility for your own presentation.

Things you may wish to include along with your reference images might be notes on the patterns you used, any mechanical schematics or test models, fabric samples, a list of what you made for the costume, etc. All of this fits in a small folder or binder for easy organization.

DON’T be that person who brings in a black-and-white thumbnail image of the character, showing no detail whatsoever. While you might brag that the judges can’t dock points though your costume doesn’t match the character exactly, they also cannot give you any points for accuracy or design.

DON’T be that person who makes the judges wait while he browses the web on his smartphone trying to find an image of his character. Prepare your references in advance.

Planning Your Performance

If you read the rules, you know what the time limit is for your skit or performance. Plan accordingly. If you need extra time to set up or exit after your skit, allow for it within the stated time limits; if the Masquerade is running on a tight schedule, you may not be allowed extra time to set up.

Also, keep your skit as short as you can while still getting your point/punchline across. The con-mandated time limit is an outside boundary — you don’t have to use it all, and shorter is often better. One of the most clever skits I have ever seen took less than 10 seconds, and a decade later I still remember it!

If your skit relies upon a thorough knowledge of your source material or another pop culture source, you may want to reconsider. Not everyone browses YouTube or 4chan, or watches your favorite television show, or knows the running gags from your favorite anime. (Example: “Family reunion” jokes aren’t funny if your audience or judge isn’t familiar with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.) It’s usually best to focus on archetypes and widely-accessible humor, rather than a single source.  If you’re not sure if your skit works for someone who hasn’t seen the show, try it out on someone who is not familiar with your source material, or even someone who isn’t a huge anime fan.  If they laugh in the right places, your skit is funny.  If they’re left staring and saying, “Whaaa…?” you might need a rewrite.

If your performance is a musical, make sure that it still has a plot; dance-offs and musical conversations, played straight, generally lose audience interest after thirty seconds or so. Develop it or use it with other elements rather than standing alone. If you are doing a dance/musical number, make sure you rehearse, and use creative blocking to make it a visually-interesting presentation.

DON’T use a song clip for more than 5-10 seconds unless there is a very good reason for it within the context of your skit. If it is a musical skit, keep it developing both musically and visually; don’t stay in the center of the stage and just dance in place or lip sync.

As a general rule, if the primary humor of your skit is sexual in theme, it’s not going to be as successful as a more balanced skit. Yaoi or innuendo may get you a fangirl squeal from the audience, but on its own it lacks the creative edge needed for a skit to be memorable to judges and audience. The occasional edgy joke can be used to good effect, but if you can’t write a funny joke within PG guidelines, well, you can’t write a joke. Be creative and funny with your content, rather than aiming for the lowest common denominator. (I recently saw a skit which had to revise for more family-friendly content and the resulting jokes were far, far funnier than the originals!)

If you pre-record your skit audio, use a microphone (even if it’s just your USB Rock Band mic plugged into your PC!) and balance the audio levels so it isn’t overdriven, muddy or echoing. Your skit should not sound like it was recorded in the shower! Remember that your audio track will be blasted through an amplifier and a massive wall of speakers before it reaches the ears of your audience. Bad audio at high volume just becomes worse audio, and your audience can’t enjoy what they can’t understand.

If you would like to do something in your presentation that is not explicitly allowed or is unclear in the posted rules, ask the masquerade staff for permission or clarification WELL in advance of the convention.  They will often be willing to work with you, but they may need time to check with the hotel or convention center and clear your request with several levels of upper staff.

If your convention rules require skit pre-approval, present your skit to staff exactly as you will perform it onstage, including any props, audio, choreography, blocking, etc. you will have. Staff needs to know what you will be doing, not only for your safety (in case they need to move microphones or make special stage arrangements to accommodate your performance), but also to maximize the quality of your presentation (proper lighting, audio, introduction, etc.).

DON’T be the skit which presents one performance for approval and another onstage. Not only is this against most conventions’ policies and will cause you to be disqualified, but many cons share staff, meaning that blacklists also get shared. Participants who flaunt the rules at one convention may find themselves barred from entering several cons’ masquerades in the future.

Posing in Costume, part 1

Before the convention, find a full-length mirror and practice posing in your costume. Come up with at least four or five different poses that fit your character and show off your costume. Once you’ve got several poses, grab a camera and have a friend take photos of you in each pose from several different angles. Even if a pose looks really good from the front, it doesn’t always look good from the side, so make sure your poses will look great no matter where the camera is! Review the photos and choose your best two or three poses, and use those for posing at the convention.

If you have several people in your group, prepare both individual and group poses, so you’re ready for a picture at any point. Practice getting into poses quickly, so when you’re asked for a photo, you don’t have to spend time setting up for it.

During the Con

Self-Care

Make plans to eat and drink. If your costume is not food-friendly, carry easy-to-eat snacks and straws so you can keep hydrated. Yes, you can drink even with heavy makeup or facial prostheses if you use a straw. (With some costumes, we keep a package of plastic bendy-straws packed with our cosplay materials, so we never have to choose between keeping our makeup perfect and staying hydrated.)

DON’T go without eating or drinking. Low blood sugar and dehydration not only make you feel ill and slow to think, they make everything seem worse than it is, so you have immature tantrums when the staff asks you to line up. This embarrasses everyone in the room. Plus, when you pass out, it delays the Masquerade while EMTs are called.

Make sure you’ve planned a way to go to the bathroom safely! With some costumes, this is a real challenge. If necessary, have a handler or friend available to help you in and out of your costume. Dehydrating yourself all day is NOT the answer!

Plan for your comfort. If your costume shoes are uncomfortable, bring along another pair you can use for standing in line or running quickly to the bathroom. If your costume does not allow you to sit normally, either find some way to take weight off your feet (kneeling on the chair seat, carrying a camp stool, etc.) or take occasional breaks from your costume so you can rest. If your costume is physically constricting, make sure you remove it periodically to allow for normal blood circulation and breathing room. This is especially important for girls binding for crossplay! Your ribs are designed to protect your organs from impact, not to be under pressure all day. It’s easy to damage the cartilage or bones by binding too tight.

DON’T endure physical discomfort. If you’re dizzy, hot, having trouble breathing, sore or uncomfortable, your body is telling you that something is wrong. If you feel ill, get help from a friend or con staff, and get out of your costume for a while. Cosplayers have been hospitalized on several occasions because they ignored their body’s warning signs – and hospital gowns make poor costumes!

At-Con Preparation

Check in promptly at the masquerade table/office/check-in point. If you weren’t able to pre-register, see if there are openings at the con. When you check in, find out where the judging room is located and when to report for your craftsmanship judging or skit approval appointments. Also find out where the green room is located, and what time you need to report for masquerade lineup.

Report to the green room promptly at the appointed time. Many cons will close the door and late arrivals will not be allowed to participate. Be sure you know where the nearest restrooms are, and ask the staff about time if you need to go.

Craftsmanship Judging

Show up on time to your judging appointment – if possible, show up early! Then you might pick up a couple of extra minutes to show off your work.

Present your references to the judges as you enter, and begin to explain your work. Go through your most important points first, as you’ll probably only have a few minutes to present your costume. Be proactive and point out everything you want the judges to see. Be prepared to answer any questions about your costume; however, if the judges don’t ask questions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t interested. It may mean that you did a great job of explaining!

Plan in advance what you want to say about your costume. If you’re afraid you’ll forget something, take a short list of bullet points to your appointment for your own reference. Here are examples of things you might tell the judges during your presentation:

  • what patterns you used/modified/drafted
  • what fabric(s) you used, and why you chose that material
  • highlights of costume construction (dyed fabric? Hand sewing? Serged hems?)
  • what materials/process you used to make props, jewelry, etc.
  • how you styled your hair or wig
  • point out any extra-special details you added to the costume that make it unique

DON’T go into the room and just stand there, waiting for the judges to prompt you or ask questions. Your job is to present what you’ve made in the minutes you have with the judges. The judges can’t read your mind; they won’t know what to look for if you don’t tell them what you did!

Be nice to the judges. They are unpaid volunteers, donating their time to the masquerade instead of experiencing the rest of the con. They frequently go all day without meal breaks to keep things running on time, and often they will be flamed by trolls on the forums after the con because someone didn’t agree with their judging decision. The judges are trying their best to work without bias, but your attitude will be noticed.

Finally, BE HONEST. Most judges are excellent costumers in their own right, with lots of cosplay experience, and they’ll know if you’re telling the truth about having made your costume. If you purchased any part of your costume, go ahead and tell them what you bought, and then spend the rest of your appointment focusing on the parts you made yourself. If you lie and tell them you made something that they know is a commercial product (or if they recognize a commissioner’s handiwork), they’ll assume you’re also lying about the rest of your work.

DON’T be that person who brags to the judges about how they made from scratch every piece of clothing they’re wearing – including the ones with manufacturers’ tags. Or, how they carved and hand-painted their own prop – with a commercial screen-printed logo on it. Seriously, people.

What to Bring to the Green Room

Food and water. Most green room staff will try to provide water, and some even provide snacks, but some hotels or convention centers allow only catered food service and you might be stuck without either. A bottle of water (and straws, if necessary) can save your green room experience. If you skipped lunch, have a snack bar or other energy source in your bag.

Repair kit. No matter how carefully you made your costume, stuff happens. Many green rooms will have an emergency repair kit, but don’t count on it to keep yourself intact. A small repair kit of safety pins, super glue, a needle and thread, and some folded duct tape will fit into a pocket or a corner of your bag and could save the day for you or another cosplayer!

Makeup. If you’re wearing special costume makeup, throw in a compact mirror and anything else you need for quick touch-ups, especially if you’re planning on snacking in the green room.

Posing in Costume, part 2

If you are entering the masquerade as a walk-on, have three poses prepared. As you cross the stage, stay downstage (nearest the audience) and pose at three different points as you walk across (unless the stage manager instructs otherwise). Count to five before breaking your pose, so the audience has time to admire and photograph your costume — that’s why you’re wearing it!

If someone asks you for a photo in the hallway, move aside to the wall or leave the area before posing — and always pose down the length of the hall, not across it, so that you don’t impede traffic and so that no one walks into your photo.

Shoot down, not across!

Performance Tips for Skits

If you are speaking dialogue live (not using a prerecorded audio track), you may or may not have a microphone available. Even if the stage is mic’d, don’t rely on it for your volume; microphones are notoriously touchy about picking up sounds onstage. To make sure that the audience can understand you, speak slowly and clearly, and be loud. Don’t scream your words, but project your voice from the diaphragm. (If you don’t know how to do this, find a trained vocalist or a stage actor and ask them to teach you. Singers and theatre nerds are great resources!)

While you are onstage, keep your body facing the audience the entire time unless your skit specifically requires you to turn away.  If you need to look at or talk to another character onstage, turn your head toward them, but keep your shoulders angled toward the audience. The audience doesn’t want to see your side or your back; they want to see your face!

Make your facial expressions and gestures huge and dramatic, so even the people sitting in the back row can see them. Use your eyebrows and your arms, and make your body posture reflect what your character is feeling.  (Example: If your character is sad or depressed, don’t just frown; to really show that emotion, drop your head and make your whole body slump to show how dejected you are.)

DON’T stand in one place for the whole skit, turn half away from the audience, and rush through your lines or mumble them at normal speaking volume. How can the audience appreciate your costume or your brilliant skit if they can’t see or hear it?

Heckling, Snobbery & General Jerkdom

This shouldn’t be an issue for anyone past the age of seven or so, but some people are slow learners. Be as supportive and appreciative of other cosplayers as you would like them to be of you. This would seem to be self-evident, but I have seen an amazing amount of jerk behavior over the years. Act like you’re old enough to be out without a babysitter.

DON’T be that guy mocking the skits from the green room, assuming you can’t be heard by the people on the stage. Your fellow cosplayers hear you, and they’re bright enough to realize that you’re likely to make fun of them, as well.

DON’T be that girl who turns to the cosplayers beside her and says, “You’re not really entering those costumes in craftsmanship, are you?” If you don’t like someone’s costume, just talk about something else instead; don’t behave like a passive-aggressive kindergartener with self-esteem problems.

DON’T be that person who announces, “I hope I get an award, because I spent a lot of time on my costume.” What, do you think mine came out of a cereal box?! Don’t belittle the effort other people put into their costumes by bragging about how difficult or expensive yours was.

DON’T be that person who keeps nagging staff after the winners are called, asking them to check and make sure she wasn’t missed. If you didn’t win, accept the judges’ decision graciously and plan to improve for the next event.

Awards

If you win an award, be excited, be happy, and be fast. Enjoy your 15 seconds of fame, but continue to follow the stage manager’s instructions, and exit the stage when directed. The show is running on a tight schedule, and may be running late by this point.

If you don’t win, clap for your fellow participants and congratulate the winners!

If there is a masquerade feedback session, go to it and present your compliments and suggestions for improvement to the staff. If there was something you enjoyed, tell the staff so they know to keep it for next year. If there was something you didn’t like about your experience, tell them, but present a productive suggestion for correcting it rather than just complaining. An angry rant won’t help them solve the problem for next year, and at best it sounds like sour grapes. If you want something changed, suggest an alternative approach.

DON’T be the person who speculates loudly why someone did or didn’t win an award. Saying, “Well, obviously the only reason that person won was because of _____” just sounds petty. Plus, your speculation is probably wrong.

After the Con

Critiques

Many judges are happy to provide constructive feedback on your costume. Ask on the forums or by private message if there is not an official thread. Be nice and accept their observations; it’s not personal. If you see that the judges didn’t notice something significant about your costume, make a note to present that more definitively the next time. Remember, presenting your costume is your job!

(An example: I once chose a non-traditional stitch to finish a costume because I wanted the fabric to move a particular way. I learned in the critique that we’d lost points because of that stitch — they thought I’d made a mistake, because I hadn’t explained the reason. My fault, and I learned to explain it better!)

Forums & Online

Be polite on the forums. There is a tendency to think that the internet, because it isn’t face to face, isn’t personal. It is, and it can be hurtful. Your judges and your fellow cosplayers are still watching, and they do remember who says what.

DON’T be the person who…

whines that the winner didn’t deserve the award. You didn’t see that costume’s judging presentation, or hear the details of how it was constructed, or see the hidden layers or additional detail that doesn’t show from a distance; you may not know that costume as well, and might have missed some aspect of it that the judges saw. It’s the height of rudeness to steal a winner’s joy by saying it wasn’t deserved.

…accuses the judges of partiality or dishonesty because the costume or skit you liked (or were in) didn’t win. All you’re accomplishing is making yourself look bitter and potentially affecting your own chances at future events; what judge thinks favorably of someone who says nasty things about judges?

…spreads rumors about what might or might not have happened backstage, or why the judges picked a certain winner. At best, this rude gossip disseminates false information; at worst, it can harm participants or uninvolved staffers.

Planning for the Future

At the end of the day, what did you learn about your costume? Your construction? Your techniques? Your presentation? Take that information and put it to use for your next event!

5 comments for “How to Enter (and Survive!) A Cosplay Masquerade

  1. Rae Lundquist
    July 16, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    You really have done a good job of summing up important points of cosplay. I’ve been a costume contest judge for years, as well as a masquerade/cosplay director (MarsCon, ValleyCon, Anime Iowa). would you mind if I have this reprinted and inserted into the MarsCon Progress reports for 2015? I think it does a great job of education prospective cosplayers on what to expect and how to act when entering a costume contest. and who should I credit as author?
    please reply to thedreamstitcher@yahoo.com
    Rae Lundquist / The DreamStitcher / Masquerade Director of MarsCon (Mpls, MN)

    • August 1, 2014 at 10:58 pm

      Absolutely! If online, please link directly to the article here. If printed, please include “Copyright “…And Sewing Is Half the Battle!” and our URL. Thank you, and I hope it’s helpful!

  2. February 6, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    THANK YOU!

    I have both participated in and judged cosplay contests before, and I have seen people who are incredibly unprepared, and even worse, I’ve seen people throw tantrums and hissy fits because they didn’t win. I have heard cosplayers ragging on other cosplayers both to their face and behind their back, and I’ve had people come up to me after the contest demanding to know why so and so won over them, without asking for constructive criticism or even politely.

    So having been on both sides of a masquerade, I really appreciate this post, and I will definitely be sharing it. I think you covered pretty much everything that needs to be said!

  3. John
    March 28, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    Laura: Excellent guide. I am the Assistant Director for the Comic-Con and WonderCon Masquerades. Every year we go through most of these points during orientation and at a “Masquerade 101” panel at Comic-Con. Thank you for putting “Read the rules” as the first item. It’s really the most important thing as every convention is different. I might add/modify a few items: Some contests are so big that talking from stage is impossible due to the size of the venue. So if you are planning on speaking from stage, contact the masquerade staff asap to make sure that’s possible. If it isn’t, you’re going to have to record everything ahead of time. Also, because stage entrances are usually upstage, always move downstage as much as possible. If you’re all the way at the back of the stage, the audience in the front will have a hard time seeing you.

    But again, awesome guide. Thanks for putting it out there. We try to give all this advice every year, and the more people that see it the better.

    • March 31, 2016 at 11:55 am

      Thanks, John! Yes, we generally recommend that you never plan on just shouting from the stage; either use provided microphones or record your audio. And practice with both of those, as they are very different!

      Thanks for chiming in!
      Laura recently posted…Flash GordonMy Profile

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