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First-time cosplay is terrifying, complicated and exhilarating

Want to dress up for a convention like Dragon Con? Here's how I tackled my Chilling Adventures of Sabrina costume.

piper

No, that's not me in my cosplay outfit. It's Piper. She's a menace. 

Erin Carson/CNET

It's 8:30 p.m. on a summer Wednesday, and my mom and I are walking through the fabric aisle of a Joann craft store, looking for a bolt in a specific shade of red. It's not fire engine red, or candy apple red or even ruby red. We're looking for blood red. 

With minutes to go before the store closes, we walk out with a few yards of fabric, thread, a 22-inch zipper and an urgency to get home and start cutting out a pattern for a dress that's going to be my first attempt at cosplaying at none other than San Diego Comic-Con

At this point, you've probably heard about cosplay. Folks dress up as characters from TV, movies, comics, anime or even as characters from their own imaginations. Some outfits are more elaborate than others. You'll often find cosplayers showing off their latest creations at conventions around the world, like SDCC, Disney's D23 and Dragon Con, which takes place this weekend in Atlanta. 

Though people have always dressed up in costume for one reason or another, the word "cosplay" is relatively new. The University of Montana traces the word back to 1984, as an anglicized version of the Japanese word "Kosupure" and a fusion of the words "costume" and "play."

Cosplaying has grown in popularity over the years, in much the same way there's been a boom in geek culture and a burgeoning of conventions on everything from comics to sci-fi to horror.

After attending SDCC for the first time last year, (and watching members of two different groups of Justice League heroes come face-to-face in the convention center, and receive each other with glee) I decided maybe it was something I wanted to try.

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The character

Earlier in the summer, I'm sitting in one of our office conference rooms, on the phone with Yaya Han. One of the best-known cosplayers out there, Han's a 17-year cosplay veteran who's dressed up as everyone from Catwoman to Jessica Rabbit. I ask her for the advice she'd give to a cosplay newbie. 

Han, who's expanding her brand into the creation side of cosplay by making patterns, resources and tools for cosplayers, gives me a starting point: "The first thing is to choose a character you connect with," she tells me. 

This ends up being the easiest part of the whole process. 

I'm going to be Sabrina Spellman, from Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It's a reboot of the '90s ABC comedy starring Melissa Joan Hart, based on Archie Comics' Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I'm mostly anti-reboot these days, but I loved Sabrina as a kid and even read the comics for a few years. Netflix's version is vastly different, with about 3,000% more Satan than the original, drawing from a dark update to the comics from 2015. 

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Sabrina is all about red. 

Diyah Pera/Netflix

Sabrina, now played by Kiernan Shipka, still speaks to me. Modern-day Sabrina isn't just trying to make it to the dance on time, she's questioning the unquestioned gender roles of her belief system, raising the dead and taking on the Devil himself. 

May every teenage girl have that kind of confidence. 

The community

So, I have an idea, but where do I start?

After work, I meet up with Ryan Gatsinger and Kim Baker Taylor, who run the Ohio River Valley Cosplayers and Prop Builders group (or ORCs, for short.) Gatsinger founded ORCs in 2015, and it boasts about 2,800 members, including people from well outside the Ohio River Valley.

"Make a list. What does that character wear? Or what are the pieces you have to create?" Gatsinger advises. 

He and Taylor, who each make about 10 costumes a year, tell me about their planning processes and why they bother with the foam,  wigs, makeup, props and whatever else. 

"I like the psychology of the character, and I like to take and translate that character visually," Taylor tells me, describing past projects, such as a rockabilly Harley Quinn and Lily Munster. 

About that list, though. Here's how I break it down:

  • Blond wig.
  • Long sleeve red dress with lace collar and cuffs.
  • Black headband.
  • Black tights.
  • Black shoes.

The coiffure

On a Saturday afternoon, I meet up with my friend Hannah Stoppel to chat about cosplay and down a couple of desserts from a local bakery. 

cosplay2.jpg

About 20 bobby pins are digging into my scalp. 

Erin Carson/CNET

I'm unbelievably lucky to have Hannah as a pal, for many reasons, including that she 1) studied costuming in college 2) works at a wig-making company 3) can seemingly sew anything, from Regency-era clothing to Daenerys Targaryen's dress from when she arrived at Dragonstone Landing. Hannah even made her own wedding dress. 

We talk about how she learned to costume, and what to look for in wigs. We start perusing websites looking for something blond, medium-length, wavy and roughly $30.

But when I find a wig from a company Hannah doesn't know,  I turn to the ORCs' Facebook group in search of the amped-up cosplay community spirit I keep hearing about. 

The ORCs don't disappoint. They freely give and receive help with everything from props to makeup and more. So when I ask if anyone knows anything about Big Epic Cosplay wigs, multiple people chime in. One person tells me she's bought several from the company. Another actually has the exact model I'm looking into and tells me I might have to trim it a bit for Sabrina. 

When the wig arrives a week later, I slide it out of its mailing envelope -- this soft blond thing, tucked in a ziplock and nestled in netting. I handle it like someone who's never picked up a cat before. It sits on my coffee table for a few days until Hannah can tell me what to do with it. 

When Hannah comes over, she shows me how to gather my hair atop my head with pin curls and braids. She demonstrates how to don the net wig cap, which involves putting the whole thing over the top half of my face for a moment, like I'm about to rob a bank, and then taming flyaway hairs using a pen to prod. Finally, we actually put on the wig, starting at the back. 

Somehow, my mass of wavy hair all fits beneath this groovy new artificial coif. I breathe a sigh of relief and think about the 20-some-odd bobby pins digging into my scalp. 

The couture

Weeks before I make the three-hour trek home to Nashville so my mom (maker of all my childhood Halloween costumes) can help me sew my dress, I descend into a black hole of dress patterns and lace collars and cuffs. 

Though you can find generic-ish patterns specifically for cosplay -- I'm looking at you, medieval fur cape -- there's not an existing, available pattern for Sabrina's red dress. What I have to go on are some screen shots from the show, and a dim sense from childhood of how my mom and I used to adapt patterns to fit our purposes. 

After two afternoons of searching, I find a pattern for a dress with long sleeves and a crew neck. The seams aren't exactly where I need them, but I remind myself I'm not going for screen-accurate, I'm going for good enough, given it's my first time cosplaying. 

Finding the collar and cuffs is a similar challenge. Etsy fails me. And even if I can find a collar, I can't find matching cuffs. I just can't seem to find anything that works. But then my mom, being a problem-solver extraordinaire, texts me a photo -- she's diced up a paper doily to fit around the crew neck of a T-shirt. 

For a first-timer, good enough basically means perfect. 

So, I hop on Amazon and order a six-pack of white, 10-inch crocheted doilies.  

And ... the cat

It essentially takes from Wednesday night to Friday morning (with breaks and brunches in between) to cut out the pattern, pin the pieces together, sew them, sew the zipper, adjust the hem, attach the collar and cuffs and sew on buttons. Overall, it goes well.  

cosplay3

The product of many days of hard work.

Erin Carson/CNET

Except for the presence of our cat Piper, a creature who's been described on multiple occasions as a "threat to humanity."

From the get-go, Piper tries to nap on the fabric, launches herself onto the dining room table where we've got the pieces laid out, steals one of the pattern pieces and nearly shreds it, claws at the box for the sewing machine. Crafting with Piper in the house is like sitting on a raft while a shark circles in the water.

Despite Piper's best efforts, we finish the dress. My mom and I are gleeful.

When I get back to Louisville, my neighbor greets me as I'm getting the dress and my luggage out of the car: "Hey, Sabrina!"

Here's the full breakdown:

  • Wig: $32.99.
  • Wig cap: Donation from Hannah.
  • Fabric: $22.48 for 2.5 yards.
  • Thread: $5.99.
  • Buttons: $1.99 x 2.
  • Zipper: $4.99.
  • Doilies: $16.99.
  • Black tights: I already own.
  • Black shoes: I already own.
  • Lipstick: $4.99.

Originally published July 13. 
Update, Aug. 29: Adds reference to Dragon Con, taking place this weekend.