To those of us who don’t participate, cosplay can seem like frivolous, lighthearted fun, but upon closer inspection you’ll discover a passionate community and a level of dedication that runs deep. Behind every anime outfit and comic book costume lies hours of problem-solving, makeshift-solutions, and innovative design.
Nowhere is that kind of devotion and attention to detail as elaborately executed as in the creation of metal armour; with all the engravings, plating, and finishing that it usually involves. It can be one of the trickiest parts of an outfit to get right (often far easier to draw than to build) whether it’s the complex designs of Japanese video game characters, or the heavy-duty suits of Iron-Man or Master Chief.
Material selection is one of the trickiest and most important decisions cosplayers make when embarking on a project. Go to any cosplay forum and you’ll find a constant stream of questions regarding cost, durability, and ease-of-use crop up over and over again. With many outfits created on a budget (and sometimes even a deadline) cosplay is all about the do-it-yourself spirit, with people often resorting to whatever materials they have available. As every project is unique (often varied somewhat even from the original character design) there are literally hundreds of materials that have been used for creating pieces.
Final Fantasy XIV Dragon cosplay using Wonderflex and craft foam
At the more expensive end of the spectrum, Wonderflex/Worbla (a formable plastic sheet), pricy foam coatings, clays, and plaster are often used in combination to create pieces that not only endure all the detailing required, but possess some of the weight and durability of real metal. Wonderflex in particular is common in more elaborate projects due to its sturdiness and flexibility.
These larger projects often involve a combination of differing materials, layering, and smaller, individual pieces. Check out this awesome creation of Bioshock’s ‘Big Daddy’ character, formed from a combination of Ureshell, silicon, putty, cardboard, and even wood! There are also cases of people using real metal (albeit lighter, more malleable types such as sheet metal), and reading up on historical armour designs to help them with their contemporary editions.
Gears Of War cosplay using a combination of craft foam, resin, and fiberglass resin
For those who cannot afford professional-grade materials there are a number of cheaper solutions in common use amongst cosplayers. After cardboard, which despite its fragility has been used in all manner of inventive and effective ways, craft foam is the most popular material for entry-level cosplayers. Essentially a cheap, foam-like sheet that is easily cut and quickly molded with heat, it offers a cheap solution to complex designs for those without too much time or skill. Papier mache is another readily-available choice. Though it is time-consuming to use, it can produce great results when finished with things like latex or forming glues.
Space Marine created using fiberglass
Beyond craft foam, things begin to get complex; EVA foam, polystyrene-type materials, and Bondo putty are all options for advanced costume creators, often in combination with various spray-on plastic finishes. Fibreglass (often cribbed from repair kits) is an extremely popular choice, though it requires a lot of skill to achieve good results. In the right hands it can be astonishingly realistic, however. Often coming in three parts; a hardener, resin and a silky cloth. When the hardener and resin are combined they give the desirably metal-esque qualities of shininess, smoothness, and durability.
Crafting for cosplay is unlike crafting for anything else in that no two designs are the same. Even accounting for the wild variety in materials, costumes (even for the same character) often have to be specifically sized and shaped for the wearer. Add to that natural variations in the detailing and colour, and you begin to realise there are no set guidelines for any specific costume. Whilst the net is full of helpful cosplayers offering tips, tutorials, and advice, when it comes to crafting a cosplay costume – particularly one involving armour – cosplayers often need to use their own solutions, skills, and creativity.
Kushala Daora armour: A base of polyurethane foam moulded with pvc covering
The most important stage of crafting armour comes during the planning stage. Unlike fabric, many of the materials used cannot be changed or altered very much once they’ve been created. Because of this, measurements, process, and design must be carefully thought out beforehand. How costumes feel like to wear is yet another thing that needs careful consideration. With various pieces fitting together like a complicated jigsaw, it can be extra tricky to create something that both looks good, whilst also being wearable and practical.
Elaborate (Unfinished) Mass Effect armour made with many pieces of craft foam
Despite the wealth of information available, most cosplayers tend to learn most things through trial and error. Part of the reason the community is notoriously helpful, welcoming, and social is the appreciation that cosplayers have for one another’s outfits. What many of us casual observers only see in a photo, or briefly at a convention, can often take months of preparation and work. It’s difficult to appreciate just how much goes into these outfits at first glance, and to understand the pride and dedication cosplayers show towards both their own, and others’, designs, unless you do it yourself.
One thing is for certain, the growing popularity of cosplay doesn’t look like stopping any time soon. Eventually, perhaps, the world at large will have a better understanding of just how creative and skilled many cosplayers are.