Time to pretend

The Tech takes an inside look at cosplaying at MIT — how students take their engineering skills and apply them to crafting the perfect costume.

30 percent of MIT students who responded to The Tech’s survey (427 people) have dressed up as a character from Harry Potter, Firefly, Star Trek, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings. While many of this number are very likely casual fans who threw on a Gryffindor scarf to see the premiere of The Deathly Hallows, hidden within this statistic is a number of devoted MIT students who take costumes to the next level — cosplayers.

Participants in cosplay, which is short for “costume play,” represent fictional characters or ideas through costumes and accessories. Cosplay is a popular art at conventions and festivals.

MIT has a fair share of cosplayers in its student body. They’ve cosplayed as everything from Harry Potter and Doctor Who (the 11th!) to a variety of Pokémon (Raichu, the Eeveelutions etc.) ,to anime (Neon Genesis Evangelion is a popular choice) and video game (Team Fortress 2 and Zelda among others) characters. Some students have also dressed as superheroes (Marvel Universe) and characters from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Twilight Sparkle).

MIT-cosplay balance

How can you balance the extensive process of costume-making with being a full-time student at MIT?

“It’s difficult,” laughed Michael Ahearn ’13, who has cosplayed as a number of Homestuck characters as well as the protagonist of the Playstation 3 hit Journey. “Basically if I’m working on a cosplay and it’s close to the deadline I almost perceive it as another due date along with my homework and stuff.”

Victoria Vega ’13, who has cosplayed as Zelda from The Legend of Zelda among other things, mentioned that part of her family’s hesitation about her hobby stemmed from worry over schoolwork life balance. “They are all pretty adamant about me not sewing until I graduate because they want me to pass my classes,” Vega said. But for the most part “as long as it doesn’t interfere with [my] studies,” it seems to be fine.

Vega’s parents aren’t the only ones who see cosplay as an odd use of their children’s time.

“My parents see it as a time sink,” said Helena Wang ’15, whose favorite cosplay is Zer0 from Borderlands 2, “But they bug me for pictures afterwards, so they’re supportive because they know it’s something I enjoy participating it.”

“My parents were not incredibly supportive,” Alyssa Waln ’16 (who is Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed games in the accompany photograph displayed here) said, “They thought this was a strange hobby for a kid to have.”

But Alyssa’s parents changed their mind pretty soon after college application season. A common question during MIT admissions interviews is what you do in your spare time, and Waln took the opportunity to discuss cosplay. After she received her acceptance letter Waln says she got an email from Chris Peterson in the admissions office. “He said I liked your cosplay video game stuff and I think you’ll find a place at MIT,” Waln remembers. “I showed that to my parents and they were ok with it,” she laughed.

Intro to Cosplay

After being into anime for a while, Arianna McQuillen ’15 discovered there is more to being a fan than just looking at artwork. “I thought [cosplay] was a promotional thing” at first, she said, “But then I realized it was people doing it in their free time.”

Most MIT students who cosplay started with the hobby while they were in high school. They discovered it through the Internet, friends, or just expanded their love of Halloween into a full-time craft.

“Junior year sucked,” recalls Waln. “I was really busy all the time, stressed out with school. Costuming was my way of de-stressing.”

Both Waln and Vega got into costuming because of their mothers. Waln’s mother taught her to sew in the 7th grade, and she’s been making her own costumes ever since.

Ahearn was introduced to the idea of cosplaying by his girlfriend: “I was sort of leery of the concept as being an extreme introvert,” he said, but a friend who was also into the hobby encouraged him. “It was clear a lot of fun things happened at cons. It sounded extremely scary, but also a lot of fun.”

Where does MIT cosplay?

What’s the most popular destination for your average MIT cosplayer? The local conventions are where most of them start — PAX East and Anime Boston, which are both held in Boston in the spring. Waln has ventured to Fanime in San Joe, McQuillen to Otakon in Baltimore, Wang to New York Comic-Con.

“Anime conventions are interesting because they are technically anime conventions but if you’re in costume … it’s not limited to just anime. It’s a lot more broad than the name would suggest,” Waln said.

While costumes aren’t required for con attendance, once you cosplay once it’s difficult to go back to normal attire, the cosplayers said.

“It feels kind of weird to be at one of these conventions and NOT be in costume,” Brian Chan ’02, an instructor at the MIT Hobby Shop, said.

Picking a character

With thousands of fictional characters to choose from, cosplayers tend to gravitate towards their favorite characters, and those who would be fun to act out.

“I choose from things I’m really invested in because that will probably transfer over to the costume,” said Waln, who adored the Assassin’s Creed games. “Doing costumes take a really long time, and you have to want to be making it.”

Wang also chooses her costumes based on how comfortable she feels playing a character for a long period of time.

“While I’d be able to pull off a Sailor Scout costume based on looks,” Wang said, “I’d much rather walk around as Surge [from X-Men] because I’m more comfortable with the character, fandom, and outfit.”

“I generally like to pick something I already have the hair for,” added Waln, “I can’t stand wearing wigs, they itch SO BAD.”

Sometimes physical appearance can act as a barrier — “There aren’t that many fictional characters of color,” said Jacobs, who is planning to do a Storm (from X-Men) costume soon. “I’ve stayed away from too many human characters because of that. Pokémon are safe because there’s no ‘you’re not accurate because you’re black.’”

Jacobs says that she hasn’t personally had any of these types of experiences since she’s avoided dressing in a way that could put her in that position. “I’ve seen it happen to other cosplayers online,” she said.

Wang is aware of this issue as well, and is planning for her next costume to be a Daft Punk / Tron Legacy crossover. “I’m going to continue cosplaying androgynous/desexualized/masked characters; there’s a different convention experience under the helmet.”

Others are fans of gijinka, a cosplay style where you anthropomorphize a character and represent it without actually being the character.

“You can’t dress up as Pokémon without suits, and that’s a whole different world,” said Vega, whose Glaceon outfit was an example of gijinka.

Gijinka can make it easy to go in a group. Jacobs, Vega, and Arianna all dressed as Eeveelutions when attending Anime Boston.

“I like to costume in groups,” Jacobs said. “That’s why Pokémon is usually a good idea, there are lots of options for everybody.” Jacobs has also cosplayed in a group as Twilight Sparkle (from My Little Pony).

“Cosplaying alone is awkward,” she said, “especially on the T. If you’re by yourself, people start staring.”

Creation of a costume

Cosplayers typically plan the costumes for a convention far in advance of the event. Designing a costume can take anywhere from a week to six months to a year.

The worst night? The cosplayers all agree — right before the con.

“Most of the work is done the night before,” said Paula Jacobs ’13.

“I was practically tooling to get the Journey costume done,” Ahearn mused. “It’s Parkinson’s Law — work expands to fill the time to allot its completion.”

Creating a costume isn’t cheap, either. Cost for a single character can range drastically. Some costumes can be assembled for free from the right selection of items from a cosplayer’s current closet and a good touch of makeup, while the price of materials for others can be extremely expensive.

Vega compared the “work/sleep/friends” question students often struggle with to a typical crafting problem that cosplayers face.

“You can have it cheap, you can have it well made, or you can have it now,” she said. The three factors need to be taken into consideration when designing a costume.

Waln’s Ezio costume cost her $200 and six months of work. Chan said that most of his costumes are a few hundred dollars, “if [he] budgets well.” Chan saves money by reusing materials — his Iron Man costume has parts that are made from soda cans and scraps from the Hobby Shop.

You can find costume parts in surprising places, said a number of the cosplayers. Thrift shops are an excellent resource, as are dollar stores and office supply stores. The Internet serves as an excellent resource for ideas.

“The Internet is awesome for tutorials. Chances are, if you want to make something, someone else has already made something a lot like it.” Vega said.

“Everyday office supplies,” can be incredibly useful said Waln. She made the hidden blades for her Ezio costume out of “paper, popsicle sticks, a little bit of epoxy putty, rubber bands, and paper clips.”

Other skills can play a role in saving money for a costume. “If you put a lot of care into painting things, you can get a pretty good result,” said Vega. “Little things go a long way.”

Unsurprisingly, the primary tool of choice for cosplayers is a sewing machine. Whether it’s their mother’s machine or one that belongs to the dorm, the classic item is still the best way to make costumes.

But fabric and fortunate finds in the dollar store aren’t the only thing you need to cosplay — sometimes more expensive materials are needed.

“Different materials you have to deal with in different ways,” said Waln. She rotated between foam, plastics, wood, and a variety of other methods to complete her Ezio costume.


One of the delights of cosplaying working through design difficulties. How can you hide things effectively within a costume? What’s the best way to make a prop?

“Cosplay is an engineering problem,” Ahearn said.

In that vein, MIT offers a number of resources that can be helpful to students looking to cosplay. The waterjet and laser cutters scattered across campus (though they require the proper safety training!) are tools that can be used to make authentic costumes. As for workspaces, the MIT Hobby Shop has classes where students can learn metal and wood working, and MITERS offers an EE lab. Trying to craft a costume alone in a dormitory can be difficult.

“I’ve definitely upset the members of my common area before,” said Vega, who lives in Random Hall. “If I have balls of yarn flying everywhere” it’s not appreciated.

Waln explained that the hidden blades for the Ezio costume were one of the most difficult things to pull off, especially considering the constraints against weapons when going to conventions. It “went through ten, fifteen different iterations trying to make it work correctly” (the blades were meant to be mobile).

“That was a lot of fun actually. It’s something I’m interested in doing here,” she said. “The idea of prototype, try it fail, try it fail, try it fail…”

For the cosplayers of MIT, costuming creatively engages their critical thinking and engineering skills.

“I want to build a thing. I love designing things,” said Waln. “At the end of the day, that’s what it is. It is designing and building things.”