Chasing perfection: Costuming enthusiasts use many tricks to create accurate outfits

photo The sonic screwdriver, The Doctor's signature gadget, was purchased from a comic store in Asheville, N.C. for $40.
photo For River Song's sidearm, Rachel Stewart purchased a Nerf gun at a thrift store for $1 and then sanded, primed, painted and detailed it herself.
photo Stewart purchased this journal and painted it. She then filled the pages, which are artificially aged by tea-staining, with pictures and notes in fictional languages.
photo Rachel Stewart, left, and her husband, Kim Swanson created "Doctor Who" costumes from the episode "Day of the Moon." Stewart is River Song and Swanson is the 11th Doctor.

SPLURGING ON ACCURACYPutting together a screen-accurate costume can be expensive if a cosplayer sweats the details. Here is a breakdown of the potential cost of putting together a close-to-screen-accurate costume based on Luke Skywalker's outfit in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope."The shirt: White cotton twill, Kimono-style wrap shirt ($275, $325 with optional distressing, from The Magic Wardrobe)The pants: Sand-colored, dyed medium to heavy denim pants ($200-$400, $550 with optional distressing, from The Magic Wardrobe)The boots: Knee-high leather boots ($950-$1,200 from The Magic Wardrobe)The lightsaber: Star Wars Luke Skywalker Signature Series FX Lightsaber with removable blade ($130 on or Master Replica limited edition FX Lightsaber ($400 on eBay)Optional: 2-inch-wide suede leather leg wraps ($250-$400 from The Magic Wardrobe); brown leather utility belt with lightsaber clip, additional equipment ($650 from The Magic Wardrobe, $800 with homestead pouch)Total price: $1,555 (economy without optional items or distressing); $3,675 (deluxe with option equipment and distressing)

Clark Kent had one. So did Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark and - on occasion - Elvis.

There's a certain mystic appeal to putting on a costume, of temporarily becoming someone, or something, else. It's a temptation most people give in to on just one night a year, but some costuming enthusiasts devote hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on a quest to replicate the look of their favorite pop culture characters.

And they'll wear their creations any chance they get.

"Costuming is addictive," says Rachel Stewart. "You kind of have to watch it. I always loved costuming as a child. Some people like Christmas; I loved Halloween."

For three years, Stewart, 31, has haunted thrift stores, combed the Internet and used her skills as a seamstress to assemble outfits matching those worn by actress Alex Kingston as River Song, a character on the British science-fiction TV series "Doctor Who." Her husband, Kim Swanson, takes part as well, dressing as various incarnations of the show's hero, The Doctor.

A Chattanooga-based health care marketing writer, Stewart says costuming has become her main creative outlet. She estimates that she spends about 16 hours a week working on her own costumes or serving as a resource for others within the cosplay - or costume play - community. In all, she estimates she's spent about $3,000 on her costume wardrobe.

Every year, Stewart and other costuming aficionados show off the fruits of their labor at local pop culture conventions such as Chattacon and Con Nooga or at regional events such as Dragon*Con, which will attract tens of thousands of attendees to downtown Atlanta next weekend.

"Costuming is a hobby like anything else, like going to a sports event or playing golf," she says. "It's the same concept, just on a geek level."


Cosplayers come to the hobby along many avenues. Some, like Stewart, fall in love with a TV show and want to demonstrate their adoration by bringing their favorite characters to life. Others just enjoy the creativity and sleuthing required to recreate an ensemble that doesn't exist outside of a sound stage.

Screen-accurate cosplayers track down replica props identical to those used in a film, TV episode or video game, nitpicking details as seemingly inconsequential as the size of shirt buttons, the weave of a cloak's fabric or the tooling on a leather belt. Cosplayers identify - or "source" - the props and clothing used on set by scrutinizing screen shots and promotional materials, then scouring the web for available replicas. Many websites, such as the Replica Prop Forum ( have sprung up to facilitate this search.

A successful costume doesn't have to be screen-accurate, Stewart says, but it should never require explanation.

"You don't ever want to make a costume where ... you have to hold up a sign that says, 'Hey, I'm [this character],'" she says. "That's probably the most offensive thing, when people say, 'Who are you supposed to be?'"

Online retailers maintain stock of many popular items, such as Capt. Malcom Reynolds' pistol from "Firefly" ($90), Harry Potter's wand ($35 with display box) or the staff wielded by the wizard Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings" films ($252).

Tracking down hard-to-acquire pieces can be much trickier, however, especially if the fabric used by a show's costume designer runs out or a replica prop is no longer in production.

And, for the most elusive finds, the spending quickly can get out of control. When word of an eBay auction for a rare item reaches the costuming community, Stewart says cosplayers begin uttering the phrase "grab the popcorn," because the ensuing bidding war can be entertaining.

The most-expensive items in Stewart's collection are a pair of screen-accurate heels and a screen-accurate leather vest, each worn by Kingston for just one episode. These cost about $200 apiece, she says, but some items can fetch even more exorbitant amounts.

"I know a cosplayer who paid $500 for a dress," she says, laughing. "That's just ridiculous. I didn't pay $500 for my wedding dress."


Sometimes, an item simply doesn't exist, either because it was a lucky flea market find by a crew member or because it was made on-set and was never publicly available. But if cosplayers can't find an item they need, they'll usually make it themselves or pay someone else to.

In 2005, Chad Taylor, 26, decided to attend Dragon*Con dressed as a character from Star Wars, but the prices being asked online for costumes were too high, so he decided to make one using the skills he'd honed doing home and auto repairs.

His first attempt was a customized suit of Mandalorian body armor similar to that worn by the bounty hunter Boba Fett. The suit was so well received, Taylor subsequently founded a cosplay prop fabrication company, Incognito Costumes and Props, near his home in Cleveland, Tenn. He has filled orders from around the world for items ranging from entire suits of armor for Iron Man cosplayers to replicas of Mjölnir, the mystical hammer wielded by comic book character Thor.

"Most of the people who come to me are generally the people who really, really ... want something but don't know how to do it themselves or don't have time to do it," Taylor says. "That's what I'm for."

For cosplayers who share Taylor's skills for fabricating, the process of sketching out and building props can begin months or even years in advance of an expected convention debut.

"There's a lot of planning and problem-solving involved in a costume project that excites all of the engineer-y parts in my brain," says TVA software developer Galen Riley. "It's highly creative. I love the problem-solving aspect of it."

Riley first became interested in cosplay about six years ago when he inadvertently stumbled across Dragon*Con's massive costumed parade on a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. For many costumers, the convention's procession through the heart of downtown Atlanta is a chance to show off a bit for the public. The event attracts thousands of convention goers and Atlantans who gather along sidewalks to watch legions of cosplayers dressed as - among other things - Star Wars stormtroopers, superheroes, ancient Spartan warriors and a menagerie of aliens of various description.

"I was amazed; I never made it to the aquarium," Riley recalls. "When I decided to attend [the convention] the next year, I realized that I felt like a minority running around in plain clothes, so if I was going to go back, I needed to make a costume so I wouldn't stick out."

His initial project was The Scout, a character class from the video game "Team Fortress 2." That outfit proved to be more difficult than he anticipated, but the challenge of pulling off a convincing, recognizable costume was infatuating.

Since then, he says he's tackled increasingly complicated projects, most of which are drawn from memes - cult classic Internet videos - or from video games such as the "Zelda" series, "Mega Man" and "Left 4 Dead." For this year's Dragon*Con, he's put together a costume as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the cross-dressing mad scientist from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," a project which has come with its own set of challenges.

"I'm having a hard time finding size-13 high heels for my Dr. Frank," he confides.

After years of putting together costumes, Riley says he enjoys relying on his ingenuity and fabricating skills. To date, he says, he's never used an item for a costume that was entirely pre-made without customizing it to some degree.

For a friend's costume as another "Team Fortress 2" character, he created a replica of an ironically massive weapon known as a minigun. Originally, the prop was made out of PVC pipe, but when he realized a 40-pound recreation would be too unwieldy to cart around a convention for eight hours, he reworked the design to make it out of foam instead. The final product weighed about 7 pounds.

"I try to stretch my skill set a bit with each new project and encourage others to be ambitious, too," Riley says.


Whatever the price of assembling a costume, when it's complete, costumers say they revel in the freedom afforded by emulating their favorite characters.

"It's a chance to dress up ... and have fun being someone else for a while," says Jeff Hickey, a former president of the local costuming group Chattooine. "Whether that means buying a store-bought costume, completely creating it from scratch or ... acting the part as well doesn't matter. Having fun is first and foremost."

During her 15 years as a cosplayer, Chattooine's treasurer, Shellina Blevins, has spent thousands of dollars creating ensembles ranging from Wonder Woman to a female Darth Vader. (Gender swaps are commonplace in cosplay.)

She also has created costumes for custom characters modeled on existing pop culture universes or genres of fiction. Blevins describes herself as shy but adds that it's easy to feel brave when wearing the peppermint-striped battle armor of her latest creation, Kandy Killalot, a custom character she based on the "Borderlands" video game series.

"For me, costuming is a way to express myself creatively and socially," she explains. "I can pretend I'm a character, and I get to feel less freaked out around people."

The members of Chattooine have posed for pictures during many local events, including midnight movie premieres, at the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera's "Boo"tacular Halloween concert and during the Lookouts' annual Star Wars night.

Hickey's fiance, current Chattooine President Kerys Dolan, 35, began cosplaying as a child, when she and her friends would use household items to cobble together outfits and pretend to be their favorite characters. As an adult, cosplay is a natural extension of that desire to role-play, she says.

It's just a bonus, she says, that her hobby has given her a chance to improve the lives of children during appearances at events for the Ronald McDonald House and other charitable organizations.

"When you can help a sick child escape their reality of hospitals and illness for just a little while, it helps put the rest of our everyday lives into perspective," she says. "Especially with kids, Star Wars characters and superheroes can be bigger than rock stars."

Together, Dolan and Hickey have cosplayed characters from many different pop culture properties, including Star Trek, Harry Potter, The Avengers and G.I. Joe.

In the next two years, they plan to celebrate their love of each other - and of cosplay - by getting married in a Lord of the Rings-themed ceremony. Hickey will dress as the ranger-turned-king Aragorn, and Dolan will don the pointy ears and flowing gown of the elven maiden Arwen. They have yet to set a date, but their costumes are already complete.

At $550, the custom-fitted pair of boots Hickey commissioned as part of his marital attire is the most expensive piece in his cosplay wardrobe, but he's quick to say that the circumstances excuse the price.

"[They] cost me nearly the same as my stormtrooper armor," he says. "I wanted to have it as accurate as possible, [but] I felt it was justified. They're really comfortable. I'd wear them every day, but they kind of stick out."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him at @PhillipsCTFP.