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Are Cosplay Contests Fair?

It’s no secret cosplayers are often unsatisfied with cosplay contests feeling dominated by winners with access to expensive tools and materials. This is nothing new but in recent years, I’ve judged with or been judged by a growing percentage of people who are not experienced with sewing at all. While every judge brings benefits to the process, not understanding the backbone of costuming can lead to high-skill, low cost techniques being overlooked.

Cosplay contests don’t have to feel rigged for the flashy or deep pocked! What can help?

A majority of judges on any cosplay contest panel should be able to identify (and preferably have experience with) sewing techniques used in costuming such as:

  • Blind Hemming

  • Rolled Hem

  • Horsehair Braid Hems

  • Pinked Seam Finishing

  • French Seam Finishing

  • Hong Kong Seam Finishing

  • Half-Lined Garments

  • Fully Lined Garments

  • Bag Lined Garments

  • Smocking

  • Making Piping Trim

  • Making Bias Tape Trim

  • Quilting

  • Applique

  • Couching

  • Satin Stitching

  • Hand Embroidery

  • Free Motion Embroidery

  • Draping

  • Flat Patterning

This is a short list of sewing techniques that do not require much in the way of tools to learn and execute, but do require skill and experience. Many are not flashy- in fact, much of this list involves techniques that aren’t visible without examination.

Why is knowing all this important? A judge needs to be able to identify these skills to know how far along a contestant is in their crafting journey, to see if they are in the right category (example: beginner, journeyman, and masters level ranking) and how critically to score certain choices.

For example, if I ask about how an entrant lined a garment:

If they tell me that they “didn’t line the garment” I will ask to see the seam work. If seams have been left unfinished, I know they are a beginner to sewing. If they have created Hong-Kong or French seams, they are more advanced and may have wished to avoid adding bulk or cost to the costume.

From here, I can then assess how well done or appropriate their choice was for the costume.

Here’s an example of my thought process when I ask a contest entrant how they drafted their cosplay:

If they answer “I flat patterned it based on a block I made for my measurements” I know that they have experience with pattern making, which is a masters level task. A self drafted pattern should fit well and be proportionate to the wearer, unless intentionally designed to exaggerate proportions.

If they answer “I used a pattern from McCalls” I know that they are probably not as experienced with drafting and thus explaining why the pattern may not be perfectly fitted to their proportions. Having this information, I can then better judge how well drafted the garment appears on the person wearing it, with consideration for the category they entered in.

Who can help? While ‘squeaky wheel’ attendees can always make their voices heard on an event’s social media posts, the solution ultimately lies with the contest runners.

Contest organizers, it’s on you to pick a good balance of judges that understand prop making, wig work, sewing and FX work. You usually want to find judges that have cachet in the community but sometimes you put more emphasis on them to have a big ol’ social media following to create buzz. While doing that, keep in mind the majority of the public entering your contest has limited access to tools so your judges should ALL have a good grounding in skills that don’t require a workshop.

It may not seem all that important that your entrants walk away satisfied with the experience, but think about what you have to lose by letting people down. Next year, less of them feel like attending and trying again. They tell their friends it’s not worth entering. It degrades the overall experience. It’s ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to an important community building event for your convention.

The very best way to have a fair, successful contest that your community feels satisfied with is to select a well balanced, skilled panel of judges who aren’t too far removed from the challenges of making do with a grandparent’s sewing machine and a Joann’s gift card.


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