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How To Win A Costume Contest

Helpful hints from cosplay judge Richard Lee Byers

It’s nearly Halloween, so let’s talk costuming. Perhaps you’re a cosplayer, you enjoy entering costume contests at sci-fi conventions, and you’d like to impress the judges and win a ribbon. I’m sometimes drafted to serve as such a judge, so I’m going to offer some insight into who we are, how we think and what is likely to wow us.

1. The judge may be as dumb as a box of rocks, Part Un.

If you’re attending a con where the whole focus is costuming, you can probably assume all the judges will be expert costumers like my friend Lauren Podolak, whose is one of the best costuming sites around. But if the con is one where costuming is just one aspect of a greater whole, you may still be lucky enough to draw a savvy judge like Lauren, but you may also get one like me.

I know nothing about the costumer’s art. But I can still end up sitting at that table right in front of the stage just because I’m an author guest and the event needs another body.

This means you can’t count on workmanship alone to win you a ribbon. Naturally, any judge will notice if the costume is held together with chewing gum and parts of it are falling off. But if the workmanship is extraordinary, if you executed 10,000 tiny perfect stitches or pulled off a technical feat that is difficult but not flashy, I may not appreciate that as much as it deserves or even recognize it.

2. The judge may be as dumb as a box of rocks, Part Deux.

If you’re attending an anime con and cosplaying a popular anime hero, you’re probably on safe ground assuming all the judges know the character. But if you attend a con that encompasses other forms of sci-fi and enter that same costume, you shouldn’t make the same assumption. I might be a judge, and I almost certainly will not know the source material. Anime just doesn’t happen to be my thing.

This is important because I can’t marvel that you’re a dead ringer for the original if I don’t know the original. You can get around this by supplying pictures of the original so I can compare.

The catch is that I need to see them early. Recently, when I was judging at Necronomicon 2013, someone’s pictures reached the judge’s table at the same moment the contestant hit the stage. Unfortunately, that was too late. The format was such that we judges needed to look at a contestant ourselves, reflect, record a numerical rating on a judging form and be ready for the next contestant seconds later. There was literally no time to review the photos before we made our evaluations.

3. Complicated trumps simple.

Also at Necronomicon, a woman cosplayed the Silk Spectre from “Watchmen” to perfection. She scored high, but not quite high enough to win a ribbon.

We judges didn’t discuss the thinking that went into our individual ratings after we finished. But my hunch is that her effort didn’t seem as impressive as that of some others because hers was a less elaborate costume. Other outfits had more pieces, layers, accessories, etc.

Does this mean she shouldn’t have cosplayed the Silk Spectre? Absolutely not. You’re doing this for fun, and you should go with a persona that speaks to you. But if you’re approaching the contest in a competitive spirit and weighing several possibilities, recognize that a more complex option (assuming it isn’t too complex for you to execute properly) may work better.

4. Novel trumps familiar.

Once again at Necronomicon, a guy cosplayed Aragorn very well. Like the Silk Spectre, he didn’t win.

I think that’s because Aragorn — with his tunic, cloak, boots and sword — is pretty much the archetypal fantasy warrior that countless people have cosplayed before. A less familiar image makes a stronger impact.

Again, this doesn’t mean the contestant shouldn’t have dressed up as Aragorn. He definitely should have if that was the costume that made the event enjoyable for him. But if he was keen to win, he might have done better to cosplay Aragorn the King of Gondor as opposed to Strider the ranger. Aragorn the King is a costume judges haven’t seen as often.

5. Body language and attitude matter.

As far as I’m concerned, you shouldn’t let your weight or level of physical fitness prevent you from choosing a particular character. Go with the costume that makes dressing up fun for you (I keep repeating this because I think it’s the most important thing anyone can say about cosplay), be it Superman, Lara Croft or Jabba the Hutt. I won’t knock off points if your physique isn’t a perfect match for the character, and I hope most other judges feel the same way.

But it helps if your body language, facial expression and dialogue (should you choose to speak) work with the costume. If you’re the kung fu superhero Iron Fist, move confidently and stand tall. Don’t be stern or arrogant, though, because Iron Fist is neither of those things. Whereas Darth Vader should reek of haughtiness and menace.

With regard to the above, though, know your limitations. If you’re cosplaying Iron Fist and haven’t studied martial arts, you may not want to attempt any actual moves. A clumsy attempt at a double flying roundhouse kick with a side of tiger-claw strikes can sink the presentation instead of selling it.

6. People need time to see you.

Sometimes, perhaps because they’re nervous, contestants come on stage and exit again in a flash. This can prevent judges from taking in everything that’s cool about the costume. If things are moving fast and I’m still finishing up with the previous contestant’s score sheet, it can even prevent me from catching more than a glimpse of you. It will definitely keep you from using body language and facial expression to your advantage.

7. People get restless if you outstay your welcome.

Just as you can spend too little time onstage, you can stick around too long. No matter how impressive you look, the audience reaches a point where they’re thinking, “all right, seen this, where’s the next thing?” Judges react that way, too.

Contestants are particularly prone to stay onstage too long when they’ve written detailed introductions for the MC to read, are making speeches themselves or performing skits with a partner. If this kind of stuff runs more than a couple sentences (or in the case of a pantomime skit, five seconds), it had better be pretty darn interesting and preferably funny. Otherwise, it works against you.

I can think of one or two extreme cases when somebody came onstage and I thought: Hey, nice costumes. Then some interminable, incomprehensible one-act play began, and 60 excruciating seconds later, I could cheerfully have beaten my torturers to death with a shovel.

Please don’t make me feel that way when you’re onstage. That could be the contest when I snap.

And I wouldn’t really want to slaughter any cosplayers. I love seeing you guys at cons. So please keep brightening up the events for the rest of us, and Happy Halloween!

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Could they be a Rut-ro! Shaggy
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