We covered our cosplay process in our panel “Queer and Plus Sized Cosplay” at ClexaCon, but we thought it might be fun to walk you through how we do it for those who missed our panel. And who better to model it after than the beloved Hollstein heroines that we brought to life on the floor at ClexaCon? Now, for those who did not get to see us walking around we did not choose the street wear looks for Carmilla and Laura. As cosplayers (and having worn their Season 1 clothes the first year of ClexaCon) we can attest that street wear, while great for closet cosplaying, is not quite as impressive as a fully built cosplay and we really wanted to make a statement as panelists. So, we created the gowns from the ball in The Carmilla Movie, ruffles and all. It was our most ambitious project yet, but @skyberry13 has been wanting to dive into ballgowns for a while now and this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
Step 1: What do You Want to Cosplay?
So, before we even start researching a cosplay, when we are deciding what we want to do there are some vital questions we ask ourselves:
- Where Are We Wearing It?
- What is Our Budget?
- How Long Do We Have?
- What Are Our Favorite Characters?
- Is a Favorite Actor/Actress a Guest?
- Do We Want to Do a Closet Cosplay?
- Do We Want to Mash Up Two Different Characters?
- What Version of the Character Do We Want to Do?
Obviously many of these are a ‘do as we say and not as we do’ situation since walking between hotels and around the casino floors in ball gowns was not our greatest idea yet and I promise the fabrics for Laura and Carmilla were not cheap. But this is a good list of ideas and things to consider when deciding on a cosplay. Really, our deciding factor on cosplaying Hollstein was that Natasha Negovanlis and Elise Bauman would be guests at ClexaCon and we really wanted to impress them.
Step 2: Draft a Timeline
Before you do anything you need to take a serious look at how far out you are from the event you plan on wearing your cosplay at. We definitely should have started earlier on this project. If you follow our Instagram, in true professional cosplayer fashion we checked our sewing machine on our flight and were sewing up until the day we wore the dresses. Depending on the complexity and size of the project, you want to start earlier. Knowing how apt at sewing and how long certain types of garments will take will serve you well. We bought the fabric for this cosplay in February, which, did not give us much time. I would suggest six months to a year for a big project. If there are additional embellishments like embroidery or special stitching, possibly a year or more. But for those cosplayers who like to fly by the seat of their pants A.K.A. us and almost every “professional” cosplayer we know, make a timeline that works for you. Life happens, so be prepared and factor that into your timeline in advance. Part of our unexpected drama which shortened our timeline on these dresses was the lack of purple striped fabric in the world which meant that we had to dye it on top of everything else, which we’ll go over later.
Step 3: Search for Reference Photos
This is one of the best parts of creating a cosplay even though not a single fabric has been cut. It is the first stage of imagining what your cosplay will look like. I start with Google, but with live action there is a sad lack of 3D images of costumes. Finding photos of the Hollstein gowns from the back proved almost impossible, but we have become really good finders through our cosplay research and, of course, my day job optimizing SEO. I also like to gather character reference photos that, while they may not depict the costume best are good poses for photoshoots of your cosplay. Planning out poses ahead of time before you are taken aback by people wanting your picture on the convention floor is a good practice.
Step 4: Take/Know Your Measurements
The most common measurements needed are Bust, Waist, and Hips. If you know these then you can figure out what size patterns you will need. The Bust is the measurement taken at the widest part of your chest. The measuring tape should be parallel to the ground. If you do not have a measuring tape, but have a hard ruler then you can use a piece of string to get your measurement. The Waist measurement is taken at the smallest part of your torso. The Hip measurement is taken at the widest part of your butt. Some other measurements that you might come across on a pattern are the neck, shoulder (width of one shoulder to the other), under bust (directly under breasts, along the rib cage), torso length (along the back from the base of neck to the top of butt), leg inseam (from the crotch to where you want the hemline), leg out seam (waistline to hemline), arm inseam (armpit to wrist), and arm out seam (shoulder to wrist).
Step 5: Find/Modify/Make Patterns
This step is where you really need to get creative, because the likelihood of you finding a single pattern that is exactly what you need is pretty much zero. So, you are going to need to pull from several different patterns to create your final look. The skirt for Laura came from a wedding gown pattern (Butterick B4131), and the top was from a pattern set that had separate corsets and skirts (Butterick B6338). From that I found the correct corset shape and skirt shape, but I needed them to be one piece. This is where the frankenstiening begins. I knew I was going to have to heavily modify the pattern for it to do what I needed it to do, but it was going to be easier to make the mock up according to the original directions and manipulate the mock up into the new pieces I would need. Carmilla’s dress did, in fact, come from one pattern but required heavy modifications as well (Butterick B5969). Ironically, I really do not like Butterick patterns. They are hard to read and the instructions can be confusing. I prefer McCall’s and Simplicity. They have a wider selection of costume style patterns so they are easier to work with for cosplay. Butterick does have the market cornered on historically accurate patterns and that is why they worked out best for our Carmilla and Laura.
Step 6: Choose Your Fabrics/Materials
Picking the right fabric is critical to the overall outcome of your finished costume. Are you wearing a bodysuit? Cotton probably isn’t the way to go. A ballgown? Sure spandex looks fun, but it’s not going to have the weight needed to have a flowing dress. If you are stubborn, you can make pretty much anything work, but here are some tricks that I use and some that I have yet had the opportunity to use. For general sewing of woven fabric I always use a heavy duty needle. Is it overkill? Yeah, probably, but I’ve had too many needles break on me because they couldn’t keep up with the speed I was sewing at. However, if you are working with a finer woven fabric like lace or chiffon you should switch to a more delicate needle to prevent snagging. If working with denim or leather go ahead and use a denim or leather needle. They make specific ones on purpose. The trickiest fabric to work with is knit fabrics. This is basically going to be anything with stretch. There are also special needles for knit fabric called ball point, they also prevent snagging. There are some fabrics out there that can be sticky. The easiest solution is to use a walking foot on your machine. If it is still sticking you can put tissue paper on both sides of the fabric you are working on. When you are done with the seam, you just tear the paper away. Sometimes, you will not be able to find the fabric you need in the color you need. That’s okay. There are so many dye options. There are dyes for both natural and synthetic fibers (RIT had both, Polydye works on synthetics). RIT has a guide for color mixing to get you all sorts of colors. (Here is RITs official page but there are also tons of guides on Pinterest.) There are also plenty of household food items that can be used on natural fabrics (coffee, tea, KoolAid). The most important part when you are dying fabric is to make sure you have all that you need. It is nearly impossible to come back and match a second batch to your first batch. (Trust me, I know. Carmilla’s skirt was supposed to be only one color of purple.)
Step 7: Create Mock Ups/ Do a Fitting
This is when things get crazy. Mock-ups should be made in a much cheaper fabric so that if you need to do it over you will not cry. Most of the time muslin is a good fabric to use, but you should use a fabric that is similar in weight and stretch to your final fabric to get an accurate fitting. If the original pattern is similar enough to your end product it is easier to just create your mock-up following the original instructions. Once the mock-up is complete you can begin your modifications. Laura’s skirt was exactly what I needed so I left it alone but, like I mentioned previously, the top required heavy mods. The corset and top skirt started out as separate pieces so I first sewed those together. Fortunately, the way the pattern was designed, most of the seams lined up. Once it was all together, I made sure I liked the way it fit. When I was happy with it I began the process of taking it all apart with a seam ripper. If you can, you should use a longer straight stitch in your mock-ups so it will come apart quicker. Once you have it disassembled, you can use your mock-up pieces as the pattern for you final product.
Step 8: Sewing and Crafting
This is the part that will take the longest, so prepare yourself. If the original pattern worked for you go ahead and follow the directions that came with it. If you had to bend the pattern to your will, make sure you take note of the order things will need to be sewn in. A smart person would actually write it down like in a journal or something… but that’s not how it happens in my craft room so I just number my pieces. Fortunately, this works for me, so do whatever works for you. The worst thing about making ballgowns is the sheer amount of fabric that goes into one. This means long seams and even longer hemlines, so buckle-up cupcake, you’re in for the long haul (cries). Once you have it all together you are going to want to put it on again to make sure that it still fits. If you need to make adjustments, put it on inside out and pin along the seams that need fitting.
Crafting is @operadivablock‘s specialty. It basically means props and all embellishments on the clothing. For Laura’s gown this meant pleating all of her ruffles by hand. So, for days I sat there with an iron and folded each pleat into place before running the iron over it and letting it dry in place until it held it’s shape. The only other embellishments on Laura’s gown was a circular broach like element laying at the cleavage and corresponding to the one on Carmilla’s gown in the middle of her flower, and a single ruffle of white chiffon along the bottom of the skirt, made that same way as the ruffles on Carmilla’s.
Carmilla’s gown had allot more work as far as embellishment. To begin, the bulk of the dress and it’s train are made up of striped purple ruffles. As we mentioned earlier there was no purple white and black fabric to be found. So, we bought 10 yards of a white and black fabric and dyed it with a purple polyester dye. First we cut across the grain of the fabric with the stripes of the pattern upright for six inch strips. The dying process is pretty straightforward, but for that amount of fabric it took longer. We have a large dying pot where we mix the water and dying components before putting the fabric in. The fabric steeped for half an hour with constant stirring. Then, we rinsed it off in cold water to retain the color while washing off the dye. We let it air dry outside for about an hour. Then we ironed each strip so that @skyberry13 could crate the ruffles. (I made the ruffles separately by pleating about every 2 inches. Then I attached the ruffles to the dress.) Unfortunately, we underestimated how many ruffles would be required to go around the circumference of the gown as many times as was needed so we had to repeat this process twice which ended in two different colors of purple.
For the embellishments on Carmilla’s gown we bought some laces that could be cut into similar shapes as those lining the front opening of her gown. We sewed those in place along the edges of the opening. We then found a single black and white fabric daisy, cut the stem off and glued the matching broach in the middle before mounting it to the right side of the front opening.
There are also chokers for each of these cosplays. Laura’s is made up of two pieces of white lace with triangular fringe sewn together and a scalloped silver pleather strip glued along the center with E6000. Carmilla’s choker was made with a black pleather ribbon with silver spikes sewn at two inch intervals. Then, I hammered on clips at the edges and attached lobster claw clasps.
The props for these cosplays were masques from the masquerade ball. There were also few pictures of this, but we finally found a closeup online that helped us craft them to a T. I started with white bases that had almond shaped eyes and the face shape I was looking for and wooden dowels. I cut the black wooden dowels in half and sanded off the edges. I also sanded the edges of the masks to make sure everything was smooth and then sprayed a clear primer on, letting that dry. Then I spray painted them a matte black. I coated them with a clear matte coat once they were dry. I used a mixture of hot glue to hold the rod to the edge of the mask and E6000 under it to permanently glue the two together. Then I used various beading elements, rhinestones and feathers to decorate each mask as it appeared on the show.
Step 9: Choose Wigs
While many cosplayers favor more expensive wigs from cosplay specific brands like Epic Cosplay Wigs and Arda Wigs we tend to lean towards the less expensive options. Mainly, we purchase wigs from Amazon and have only had a couple we were not happy with. While they may be made of lower quality fibers the maintenance on them fixes them right up. Of course, there will be frizz which you would not experience with a higher quality wig because of the type of fibers it is made out of. I would, however, caution against anything but a heat resistant wig unless you know for sure it will never need styling. Since we do order from Amazon, we can order the wigs closer to the convention, however, if you are ordering specialized wigs or do not have Amazon Prime I suggest leaving an extra week between the expected arrival date just in case.
Step 10: Finalize the Details
You’ve done it. It’s all one piece and it is wearable. Congratulations! Are all the loose strings cut? Did you add all the embellishments? Do you have shoes? You bought a wig, but is it styled? What are you going to do with your face? Make-up? Some contouring? Do you need to do a body paint? Do you have all of your props together? How long are you going to be able to wear your costume? There is no shame in needing to change halfway through the day. Your comfort is so important. Is your costume going to require a friend to act as a handler so you don’t get stomped on? These are just some of the things you need to consider before calling your costume finalized. But once you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, you’re good to go! Time to rest? Probably not if you cut it close to the deadline, but have fun and revel in all of the hard work you have put into your costume!
For those of you who want to join in the craziness of creating a cosplay from scratch, welcome to the insanity. You will sweat, you’ll likely cry, and there will probably be blood; but the end result is totally worth it all. For those of you that aren’t sure if you want to sign up for that but still want to enjoy costume play. Go for it! Whether you commission a piece or do a closet cosplay, your cosplay is still valid and still something to be proud of. Be kind to each other and encourage everyone, no matter what their skill level is.
That is our cosplay process. These 10 steps were only the first slide of our panel “Queer and Plus Sized Cosplay” at ClexaCon 2018. Keep an eye out for our future appearances as panelists, hopefully at ClexaCon again next year! If you want to see our Carmilla Movie ballgowns in action check out ClexaCon’s Sunday Highlights video from their YouTube channel.