Cosplay isn’t just about posing for photos at conventions anymore. Cosplayers are impressing fans and makers alike by constructing their own original costumes that include elaborate armor, movie-ready prosthetics, special effects makeup, and intimidating weaponry.

Our favorite cosplayers — some of the most talented in the world — share their design and fabrication processes, favorite moments, and inspiring advice for newbies hoping to transform themselves. If you’re bummed Halloween only comes once a year, this might be the hobby for you.

Erin St. Blaine

After seeing Kiss on a reunion tour in high school, I decided I had to dress like Gene Simmons for Halloween. I went overboard on the costume — grease paint makeup, giant wig, cheesy toy guitar, the works.

I showed up at school that day and discovered a magical world where nobody recognized me and everyone smiled at me. They even gave me first prize in the costume contest. I was blown away. I was suddenly part of something bigger than myself. I found myself connecting with people effortlessly, and being funny, charming, confident, and amazing. Putting on a costume allowed me to put my fears aside and let my true self show through.

These days, all I want to do is dress up in costumes and bring people smiles. I started a small business in 2002 called Fire Pixie Entertainment, and after 15 years we’ve grown to a small empire of princesses, dancers, and performers of all types who go to parties and make people smile. The costumes are still the best part. It delights me every day that I can make a living, and provide jobs for artists in the San Francisco Bay Area, through cosplay.

What is your design and fabrication process when making a costume?

I write, diagram, and sketch out ideas until I just can’t stand it anymore and I have to run into my shop and start tinkering. From there, each project is different and takes on its own life. I also love to travel and have the kind of adventures I read about as a kid. My favorite materials and costume elements come from these trips, and they add a strong element of truth and authenticity to the costumes I create. My favorite costumes rely on things like polished seashells from Hawaii, real pirate coins from Bermuda, raw silks from Thailand, and, most recently, a full reindeer pelt from Stockholm.

What kind of tech, tools and equipment do you prefer to use?

I come from a family of makers. My dad was an architect and builder, and my mom is an amazing woodworker, so I learned the value of having the right tool for the job pretty early on. I inherited my first sewing machine from my grandmother, and I have a love of tools of all kinds from both parents.

These days, I’ve got a delightful workshop populated with a good soldering iron, a sewing and embroidery machine, a quality serger, and a 3D printer. For all that, the tool I use most is probably my trusty hot glue gun.

What are your favorite costumes/pieces that you have made?

My favorite costumes are my mermaid tails. I have four full swimmable tails at the moment. I have two green “Ariel” tails, one “Elsa” cosplay tail with 3D printed snowflakes, and my own personal favorite: Mermaid Glimmer, the world’s first swimming LED mermaid.

Photo by Chris Crumley

Mermaid Glimmer is done up all in white and purple, with plenty of lace and jewels. She has 225 addressable LED lights that animate in various patterns as I swim. The lights are controlled with Arduino, and the costume is bluetooth controllable. I wrote an Android app that can change and trigger the animations. I’ve also choreographed the lights to music and offer a swimming mermaid light show that’s really unique and delicious.

Making costumes that light up underwater is hard. It took months and months of frustration and no less than three major rebuilds to get Mermaid Glimmer working reliably. I poured so much of my time, energy, money, and love into this project, and in return it taught me so much about electronics, building, and the sheer tenacity that comes with never giving up.

What has been your favorite moment/memory while cosplaying?

In 2013, I traveled with three other mermaids and photographers from Way Beyond Productions to Isla Mujeres in Mexico, off the coast of Cancun, to swim and do a photo shoot with migrating whale sharks. Underwater modeling is tricky: with no mask it’s hard to see where anything is, and staying aware of facial expressions, body shape and breath control (we can’t have bubbles in the shot!) is quite a feat. The photographers were working even harder, holding their breath for up to four minutes while swimming along chasing the mermaids and whale sharks. It was an experience I will never forget.

Photo by Way Beyond Productions

What are you making next?

I’ve always got three or four projects in the pipeline. I document most of my cosplay projects on my blog, and put up a lot of tutorials at the Adafruit Learning Center. I’ve also got a video project coming up featuring Mermaid Glimmer swimming in underwater caves, so stay tuned.

Any advice for aspiring cosplayers?

Don’t worry if your first attempt doesn’t look the way it did in your head. Keep showing up, keep trying, and your maker skills will someday match your imagination.

Lee Camara

My first “costume” was in 1996. I butchered some sweatpants to dress up as Haohmaru from Samurai Spirits. I later pulled out the costume when I went to my first convention in 1998. The convention bug bit me, and I attended them by participating in artist alleys. I began adding a prop or two as a display piece, and cosplayed if there was room to fit the costume in the suitcases. In 2004 I began doing commissions.

Lee showing off her build. Photo by Henry Mei

What’s your process when making a costume?

I’ll go through concept art and any other official images for reference. I’ll sometimes make a hybrid of the design and sneak in personal touches.

I’ll use Inkscape to create an orthographic drawing at full scale. If it needs to be sculpted, I’ll just work from the reference images.

Additional sketches are done should the prop have special requirements, like the need to disassemble, safety, convention policies, weight, and other factors. Questions like “How quickly can I use the bathroom?” are also taken into consideration.

Photo by Lee Camara

I have a laser cutter, and will cut some elements directly from the vector files. Most of the work is done using hand and power tools. A Dremel, jigsaw, and my belt sander are the most frequently used, and the detail work is done with hand carving, sculpting, and filing tools.

For smaller accessories and sculpting in general, my preference is polymer clay. It can be baked in a toaster oven, carved, drilled, added upon, re-baked multiple times, and polished to a shine. Most items get molded and cast in resin.

Photo by Lee Camara

What has been your favorite cosplay moment?

Meeting people who tuned in to my streams, or used tutorials to help them are my favorite. Seeing that it actually helped someone makes it all worth it.

Advice for aspiring cosplayers?

If you’ve never done a costume before, pick a smaller project that isn’t too difficult. There are a ton of resources online. See if there are makerspaces or costuming groups that get together and build in your area.

Chloe Dykstra

In 2010, my friends were making a web series called There Will Be Brawl, which was a dark re-imagining of Nintendo’s lore. They asked me if I wanted to play Malon (from Zelda: OoT) as a prostitute. The only correct answer to that question is yes. I threw together a Malon cosplay from thrift store items and my closet, and that was the beginning of the end.

What’s your process when making a costume?

I pick a costume based on my abilities and Frankenstein the whole thing. Every piece is planned — what materials, what process. It’s all trial and error.

What kind of tech and equipment do you use?

I’m fairly low tech. You can make anything out of EVA foam.

Photo by Greg de Stefano

Any favorite pieces?

I built a robot on top of a modded R/C car in a day. It wasn’t perfect, but I was on a serious time crunch, as well as recovering from surgery.

Advice for aspiring cosplayers?

Keep failing. That’s like 70% of cosplay, and the other 30% is figuring out how to fix those mistakes. Embrace it, that’s part of the fun of it!

Holly Conrad

I was first interested in cosplay when I was around 5 years old. My favorite costume was a green pillow I taped around my back — a Koopa from Super Mario Brothers. After that, I got into going to the Renaissance Faire as a Tiefling from D&D, and the rest is history.

Photo by Holly Conrad

What’s your process when making a costume?

I love to illustrate and do art, so I sort of take an artist’s approach to cosplay. I don’t like to replicate things, I like to make them my own and do my own spin on them. This may be using interesting and unique materials, to actually aging costumes in the dirt in my backyard. I love being messy when the costume requires it.

What kind of tech and equipment do you use?

I use a lot of molding and casting; a lot of resin and cloth. I’ve made a few complicated mascot costumes from Animal Crossing (I love birds so I made Blathers and Brewster) and with those I had to challenge myself and do a lot of sewing on top of the foam fabrication. That was fun, but I like to stick to foam and clay.

Any favorite pieces?

My favorite costumes are those that I have a real emotional connection with. I loved being Commander Shepard because she was such a strong character. I’ve retired that costume, but my love of storytelling and characters is what drives me to cosplay. Right now my favorite costume is Strix — my Tiefling Sorcerer from Dungeons & Dragons.

Photo by Holly Conrad

What has been your favorite cosplay moment?

Meeting other people who love the things you do. When I made a costume of the Lady of Pain from my favorite Dungeons & Dragons setting, one of the creators commented on my blog that I’d done the character justice. It has nothing to do with the likes, and everything to do with the spirit of why we create.

What are you making next?

I’m going to actually be re-making my Strix costume for a big event coming up. I’ve been learning to wet felt, which is super exciting and interesting to me. I’ve also learned to felt my own witch hats (she has a witch hat) so I’m going to be making that by hand as well. I love learning cool techniques to make things look old.

Advice for aspiring cosplayers?

Be true to yourself, ignore the drama and petty things that a large community comes with, and just make what feels good to you. Make anything, as long as you have passion and drive and kindness, people will come to you and love your work.

Photo by Holly Conrad

Natasha aka Bindi Smalls

I got into cosplay after having a habit of making extravagant Halloween costumes. I was disappointed that I could only flex my creativity for this once a year, so cosplay was the answer.

What’s your process when making a costume?

I 3D model, 3D print, sew, paint, and do leatherwork for all of my costumes. 3D modeling and 3D printing are my favorite to make armor and props.

What has been your favorite cosplay moment?

When I get to cosplay with my friends as characters from the same video game or series. It’s best to cosplay with friends.

Photo by Bindi Smalls

Advice for aspiring cosplayers?

Take your time. It’s okay to push your deadline to get it right.

Tim Winn

When I was a kid my mom made the best costumes. I didn’t know what cosplay was back then. Only in the last two years have I turned it into a full time job.

What’s your process when making a costume?

I’m known for my foam fabrication. I start with research and use 3D modeling to create templates, which I then convert into 2D patterns. I transfer that to the foam and put it all together like a puzzle.

Photo by Marvin Reyes – CyberHead Designs

What has been your favorite cosplay moment?

A few years ago, I was asked to play Halo with a very sick young boy. It wasn’t a huge event, it was just me dressed as a Spartan from Halo, meeting this wonderful family and playing a game we both loved. We had a great time. A few weeks later he passed away. That was hard, but the memory was one of the best I have while cosplaying.

What are you making next?

My job is to create the amazing costumes that you see on the Freakinrad YouTube channel, Twitch, and various commercials. I’m working on a tutorial series about how to build the things we make, and to help people get started.

Photo by Bryan Humphrey – Mad Scientist with a Camera

Advice for aspiring cosplayers?

When you fail, you learn. As long as you keep trying you will succeed.

Amie Danielle Dansby

The first character that had me interested in cosplay was Anna Valerious from Van Helsing. I started with every maker’s gateway drug: cardboard and foam. I started in 2012, and it brings me joy to introduce others to the chaos of making.

Photo by Phoenix Taylor Photography

What’s your process when making a costume?

I’m a software developer so I practice project planning for work and for cosplay. I use Trello for my programming sprints, personal projects, and cosplay. I storyboard my cosplay projects into categories. I break down every piece think I’ll need, document materials I’ve used, what worked, and what didn’t.

What kind of tech and equipment do you use?

I’m working on a Rufio cosplay and I used a laser cutter for some of the bamboo and leather pieces. I’ve utilized foam, Worbla, woodshop tools, blacksmith forge, 3D printing, molding and life casting, sewing, electronics, servo motors, and Lego. Each cosplay I have learned a new skill.

Any favorite pieces?

I was really proud of my sword scabbard I made for my Ciri cosplay. The base was cereal boxes. You don’t have to spend lots of money to make something look great. Another was the Princess Hilda’s staff. I designed the parts in Fusion 360, 3D printed the parts and electronics in two days. This was the first time I designed the CAD parts to fit my design, electronic components, and schematics. Previously, if I needed space, I’d make my design in Fusion 360 with a square or area big enough to shove all the wires and parts into to stay hidden.

What has been your favorite cosplay moment?

We lost my mom to breast cancer. My dad filled the role as mom and dad. We have gone to conventions before, but last year he surprised me at a con and dressed up as Mario riding a blow-up Yoshi costume. My dad has always supported me.

Advice for aspiring cosplayers?

Don’t be afraid to be a beginner. I’ve learned to solve problems, and try new things, and along the way I’ve met some of the most passionate makers from around the world. 

Photo by Amie Danielle Dansby

Kenny Cosplay Stuff

I started cosplay in 2013 when I visited my first comic con with a friend. I was in awe of all the cool costumes and wanted my own. As soon as I went home, I wanted to find out how much it would cost to buy an Iron Man suit, and it turned out it to be over £3,000! I dug deeper and found that a lot of people had just made their own. That was the point where it all kicked off.

Photo by Alternative Motion Photography

What is your design and fabrication process when making a costume?

Since most of my builds consist of some sort of armor, all I really do is cut up floor mats, glue them together and then paint it.

What kind of tech, tools and equipment do you prefer to use?

My set up is pretty simple. I have a desk, box cutter, glue, foam and a sander. You can find out more on my website.

Any advice for aspiring cosplayers?

Stop talking about your project and actually start!