Cosplayer Uses Engineering Background for Over the Top Costume Effects

Costumes, Cosplay, and Props Craft & Design
Cosplayer Uses Engineering Background for Over the Top Costume Effects
Marchese displays her steampunk Dalek dress at Gen Con. Photo: Engineering Couture
Marchese displays her steampunk Dalek dress at Gen Con. Photograph courtesy of Chrissy of Engineering Couture

Every year, thousands of geeks head to Gen Con in Indianapolis, many of them come dressed in fantastic cosplay costumes. One of them is Chrissy Setian Marchese, a mechanical engineer who has been heavily interested in cosplay since 2002.

After graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology in 2006, Marchese worked in the elevator industry in Manhattan. Wanting to bring something unique to her cosplay, she began integrating her mechanical engineering skills into her costume design. Marchese refers to this as Engineering Couture, and has a Facebook page dedicated to her designs.

At Comic Con in 2011, Marchese saw a pre-made costume with wings on a pull-string. She felt she could make something better. Working with PVC pipe and a heat gun, she integrated linear actuators to make electromagnetically actuated wings. The amazing blue drake costume from 2013 shown below is an example.

This blue drake costume includes articulated wings.Photo: Chrissy of Engineering Couture
This blue drake costume includes articulated wings. Photograph courtesy of Chrissy of Engineering Couture

Articulated wings became something of a trademark for Marchese for a while. At Dragon Con 2014, Marchese cosplayed as St. Celestine of Warhammer 40K, a giant gold armored angel-warrior. The St. Celestine costume included two pounds of real turkey feathers, which Marchese attached individually to a chicken wire frame. The armor was hand sculpted from a thermoplastic called Worbla, and then coated with wood filler, sanded, painted, and covered in epoxy.

St. Celestine at Dragon Con. Photo: Chrissy of Engineering Couture
St. Celestine at Dragon Con. Photograph courtesy of Chrissy of Engineering Couture

Although the costume was fantastic, her limited experience with electrical design led to a fault. Marchese used too small a gauge wire, and managed to light herself on fire during pre-judging of the cosplay contest. “That’s a cool smoke effect,” someone commented. “How are you doing it?”

“What smoke effect?” Luckily, a friend was on hand and tore off the battery pack before Marchese was hurt.

Speaking of smoke, Marchese brought her latest creation to Gen Con this year. It was a steampunk Dalek dress that included a DIY smoke machine. She started with a copper Dalek hat created by The Blonde Swan Hat Boutique. She made the Dalek dress based on a costume pattern from Simplicity. To make it really steampunk, she wanted to add smoke, but how to do it?

After considering some options, including dry ice, Marchese researched the “fog juice” used in fog machines. It turns out to be mostly vegetable glycerin. Getting the glycerin heated to the point where it smokes without burning turned out to be tricky. Marchese didn’t want to set herself on fire again, so she looked into existing heating methods that worked at the right temperatures. It turns out that vape pipes (an alternative to smoking), were just about right. In fact there seemed to be an entire sub-culture around getting vape pipes to output the maximum amount of smoke.

Marchese used a borrowed vape pipe and connected the output to ¼ inch tubing. The tubing runs to a small battery powered computer fan via a custom made reducing funnel she made from Worbla. Another reducer on the output leads to a second length of tubing, which is routed inside the dress. The smoke exits between the bodice and the skirt, at about waist level.

Smoke from the DIY fog machine exits the bottom of the bodice.Photo: Chrissy of Engineering Couture
Smoke from the DIY fog machine exits the bottom of the bodice. Photograph courtesy of Chrissy of Engineering Couture

The reaction to the dress was tremendous; people were really into the mix of Doctor Who and Victorian steampunk with a cool engineering gimmick. It didn’t all go smoothly. By the end of the day the heat from vape pipe was sort of melting the Worbla thermoplastic for the fan housing. If she tries a fog machine again, Marchese says she’ll have to re-think that part of the design.

You can find more examples of Marchese’s work at Engineering Couture, including an amazing take on Queen Titania from A Midsumer Night’s Dream, which rises two feet above the ground on an actuated elevator beneath the skirt. Her next con will be New York Comic Con, but Marchese hasn’t decided what she wants to dress as yet. You’ll just have to wait and see!

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Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.

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