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A Cosplayer's Guide to Costumes on a Budget

By Kate Maloney

The origins of cosplay, or costume play, are debated, but what's not in question is that this activity is growing in popularity. While it's not required, cosplay is a staple at popular conventions like the San Diego Comic-Con, but as most attendees know, going to these events can be rather pricey. If expenses such as travel, food, and lodging take up most of their budget, then there may be little left for creating a costume for the event. Some people feel that an expensive, elaborate costume is a must for being accepted in the cosplay community, but the truth is that typical cosplayers enjoy seeing each other's costumes no matter what resources were used because they respect the effort and creativity put into each person's outfit. With an open mind and a bit of creativity, it's possible to create a great cosplay outfit no matter how tight the budget might be.

Planning Your Costume

Cosplay outfits take time, effort, and resources, and first-time cosplayers might be intimidated by the amount of work that can go into the whole experience. However, many cosplayers are eager to offer tips and advice to help novices get started. The most important thing when you're just getting started is to take the time to adequately plan out the costume. Most conventions are annual, which means the best time to start planning for next year is right after this year's event is over.

First-time cosplayers might be stuck coming up with ideas, but there really are few limits to what are considered acceptable costumes. Some conventions have rules in place for safety that should always be taken into consideration, but cosplayers are free to choose whichever character or theme they'd like, whether it's medieval or furry.

Next, collect as much information about the intended look as possible. This can be done through watching the movie/show or playing the video game it's based on while taking notes about the character's appearance and behavior. Another method for collecting details about the character is by reading other people's notes on how they created their character costumes.

Crafting Your Own Props and Accessories

One way to save some money, especially if cosplay is a regular part of your life, is to craft your own props and accessories. These can range from weapons to physical details of a character, like horns, to jewelry. Those who know how to sew or are up for the challenge of learning might even create their entire costume from raw materials.

Many materials can be used for crafting props. Higher-quality materials such as expanding foam or PVC pipes can start getting expensive fairly quickly, but less-expensive materials, such as papier maché and cardboard, can get the job done as well, with a bit of ingenuity.

Many cosplayers make the prop elements of their costumes from scratch, and tutorials can be found to help beginner cosplayers learn the art. However, an alternative to making your own props that's worth considering is modifying something you might already own, like repainting a water pistol or mask.

Scrounging for Costume Components

If a costume does not require specific pieces like armor or an intricate headpiece, a good place to look for clothing is your closet. You might already own some things that would work as part of a costume. For example, if you plan to attend a convention as the Ninth Doctor from Doctor Who, you can probably pull a pair of dark jeans from your closet. If you do not have a piece you need, check with friends and family. If you plan to go as Han Solo, for instance, you might know someone who has a leather jacket you can borrow.

Local thrift stores also can be a great resource for pieces to complete your costume. They can be good places to get coats or accessories, and you might even be able to find period clothing or pieces you can transform to fit what you need. If you look closely, a thrift store might also provide the elements needed to create costume pieces, like armor or a sword, with some creativity and elbow grease.

Check eBay and Etsy

Two other resources that you can use to find costume elements on a budget are websites like eBay and Etsy. Due to the growing popularity of cosplay, Ebay has its own cosplay section where sellers offer things like clothing or wigs. On Etsy, crafty cosplay enthusiasts specialize in costume elements and accessories. Depending on the materials the seller uses to create them and the location of the seller, some items will come at a higher or lower cost than others.


One versatile resource cosplayers can use is makeup. The makeup can be anything accessible to you, from leftover Halloween makeup to whatever you can find in your bathroom cupboards. Makeup can be complex or simple, adding the finishing touch to a complete costume or making up a majority of the costume itself. In some cases, a cosplayer might be allergic to the materials usually found in costume masks, such as latex or silicone, and this is another place where makeup can come in handy. However, anyone with allergies should be careful to read the ingredients in any makeup they use to ensure that it will not irritate their skin.

The more complex the makeup is for a costume, the more makeup you will need to have. This should be thought of during planning to give you enough time to gather and budget for the materials. Having a practiced hand for makeup will benefit you because it will allow you to create the intricate details more easily. However, a more inexperienced makeup artist can achieve their look with the help of video tutorials and practice.

Complete the Look

If you are careful, a lot of your costume can be planned and created on your own for very little. Then, you can save money to buy things you can't find or make more economically or to splurge on a special item that you want to be exactly right. If you find yourself needing to buy a lot of your costume rather than make it, it can be helpful to purchase pieces one or two at a time, so you can spread out the expense over the course of the year. But with a bit of planning and a willingness to learn and get creative, a killer cosplay doesn't have to cost as much as you might think.