written by LK (@thriftcosplayer)
photos by J. Emme
Recently, on a cosplay social network group, I read a post from a user who said that she didn’t know if she was a “real” cosplayer because she found or bought most of her costume pieces rather than building or sewing them all herself. I heard a man say something similar at a cosplay party last month as he expressed sheepishly that someone else helped him build the Winter Solder arm that he was wearing. I know that feeling of uncertainty and shame when it comes to cosplay—that feeling of “imposter syndrome.” Ironically, the time I felt it the most was when I worked the hardest I ever had on a cosplay: when I went to a con dressed as Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
This past spring, I spent what felt like an insane amount of time finding pieces for my Rey costume. I went to three different thrift-shops finding the perfect clothing items and accessories. I found a sand-colored shirt that I cut to make it look like Rey's, various brown belts that I cut and glue-gunned to make Rey's iconic sci-fi style belt and holster. I thought that Rey's shoes would be the hardest piece, but I found boots that were perfect for only $2.99: old Ugg-style boots where I could fold the leather a bit and remove the wool top.
I also made pieces for my Rey cosplay. I couldn't find a cuff or leather pouch that I thought was the right style, so brown duct-tape became my material of choice to create a stickable "fabric" to work with the leather. I love colored duct tape and use it in many cosplays-on-a-budget. Ultimately, I thought the pieces came out well.
I also distressed some ACE bandages with coffee grounds, oolong tea, and very watered down black acrylic paint to create Rey's arm bands. I couldn't find sheets or fabric that looked how I wanted Rey's outfit to look, so I actually used curtains I found at a discount store and cut them apart.
By the time my cosplay was finished, I was rather proud. I had spent around $30, worked hard to be creative with my accessories, and captured what I wanted to about an amazing character...
… and then I showed up to the convention and I came down with a hard case of imposter syndrome.
There were so many other Reys there! People who had clearly spent far more than $30, who had sewn their clothing with care, people who hand-made their arm wraps with fabric and stitched real leather for their pouches and cuffs. Suddenly, all my pride and confidence went rushing away—I felt like a fraud. Like I wasn’t a “real” cosplayer.
Despite my insecurity, I decided to go to the Star Wars meetup group, and it didn’t take long for that to melt away. There, I met a little girl dressed as Rey who was sad she didn’t have a lightsaber for photos. As I let her use mine, I talked with some other Star Wars cosplayers and asked them about how they put their costumes together. Another Rey mentioned that she had imported her fabric for her costume and that she was really disappointed with how her armbands turned out. When she asked me about mine, I explained that I distressed drugstore ACE bandages. "That's what I should have done," she said. "That was a good idea." It was really gratifying, and it made me realize that everyone cosplays differently and no cosplay is “real” or “perfect.” Some cosplays are more creative, some are more authentic, some are handmade, and some are purchased—but they are all real.
I saw a video-game developer speak recently, and she discussed how impostor syndrome affected many women who played and even worked with video games. Women have been significantly less likely to call themselves "gamers," even if they play games every day, she said. For her definition, she responded: "A gamer is someone who is interested in and loves games. Period!" I think that is a perfect definition of a cosplayer as well. The term comes from "costume play," so if you are in a costume, love the character, and are having fun, then there is nothing less "real" about your cosplaying than anyone else's. Sometimes it is just difficult to remember that when there are so many talented people and so many different ways to approach costumes—and sometimes even your friendly neighborhood thrift-shop cosplayer sometimes needs that reminder.
The rest of the convention, I had fun with my Rey cosplay. I took goofy pictures with a Luke Skywalker, participated in mock lightsaber battles, spent time with other Star Wars and sci-fi fans, and met a ton of new people. It reminded me of my favorite cosplay accessory and one which will cost you nothing: a positive attitude.
So if you’re working on a cosplay, just remember that if you’re having fun and love your costume, you’ve succeeded at being a real and awesome cosplayer, no matter how you got there. Happy costume playing!