Cosplayers at Dragon Con 2018, provided by Eric Lange

Dragon Con starts tomorrow, Sept. 1, so artists and crafters across the city are working feverishly to complete their costumes for this weekend’s sci-fi and fantasy extravaganza.

Dragon Con is a beloved annual tradition (85,000 attended over Labor Day weekend in 2019) and many locals start their preparations for the next year’s event just after the festival comes to a close.

Thousands return year after year to shop in maker’s alleys, attend panels, get autographs from visiting celebrities, and party in their best costumes. For cosplayers, transformation into a character goes beyond store-bought costumes with intricate handmade pieces and props.

While some cosplayers are artists full-time, others use this as an opportunity to get creative after shifts at work. Often creating costumes requires skills across a variety of disciplines and mediums, such as sculpting, sewing, and even programming or wiring for interactive elements.

I recently caught up with six local cosplayers to learn more about their process leading up to Dragon Con and what it’s like to be a cosplayer.

Brianna Alvarez

Brianna Alvarez has been attending Dragon Con for 27 years, her father brought her when she was a child and she has returned year after year ever since. Alvarez has made her own costumes and considered herself a cosplayer for the past decade or so. During the day she is a freelance prop fabricator, costumer, and nurse for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “You’d be surprised how often those skill sets overlap!”

Typically choosing to personify strong and complex female characters, she also looks for a challenge on the design. While each costume is different she attempts to keep the build 100% handmade when possible. Her techniques include sewing, foam molding, leatherworking, wiring, sculpting, moldmaking, and resin casting. 

She is also an administrator for a collective called Beltline Cosplay which hosts cosplay events year-round. Starting next month the collective will host a monthly cosplay party at MJQ that will be open to the public. 

Alvarez will be attending this year’s festivities dressed as a pastel mini-Gundam RX-79 Ground Type and Ryuko Matoi from Kill La Kill in her Life Fiber Sync armor. “The gundam costume was about 30 hours of work because I’m reusing parts from an old costume. Ryuko is a competition piece that is entirely self-patterned and made from scratch. It’s got LEDs and a mini fog machine built in, and I’ve been working on it since November of 2021,” she explained. “I’ve put in several hundred hours at this point, with an estimated 20 more before I compete on Friday!”

Stephanie Denham has been attending Dragon Con in costume since 2016. By day an anesthetist at Emory Midtown, she is also working on her art career as an oil painter. Denham typically chooses to embody empowered female characters, especially those that heavily influenced her as a child. Some notable figures include the sorceress from He Man, San from Princess Mononoke, Elektra, and this year’s costume, Princess Zelda. She’s crafting her husband’s Link costume as well, devoting more than 250 hours between the two. 

While this year’s costume is heavily hand-sewn, her favorite technique is a 3D process. “I love dremeling foam and covering it with worbla before I paint it,” Denham said. “The process is so easy and very satisfying. The dremel is my favorite tool to use to get smooth edges and fine details.”

Not all cosplayers work solo, some form groups to personify larger collections of characters. Cosplayer Jay Arcement is in one such group with a roster of 16 other members. In the weeks leading up to Dragon Con they complete group costumes such as SuperSmash Bros, Studio Ghibli, Suicide Squad, and He Man and She Ra. By coming together as a creative group they are able to make the most of their individual talents. 

Jay Arcement and his group of cosplaying friends Credit: Dragon Con Cosplayers, provided by Jay Arcement

“Now we all congregate at my house once a year to feverishly finish our costumes and enjoy each other’s company,” said Arcement. “Everyone has their own talents.” The group includes members with skills in sewing, art, hair and makeup, wood, metal, and 3D printing. 

Arcement described the steps to creating intricate group costumes. They research the characters, craft digital or paper models, gather resources and materials, and craft their outfits and props. Their costumes sometimes include leather, worbla thermoplastic, and even chainmail. Arcement has been cosplaying for ten years, and in preparation for 2022’s event he has spent more than 80 hours of design, construction, and testing for four costumes: He Man, BoJack Horseman, Capital Falcon, and Craven the Hunter. 

Eric Lange

Eric Lange, a Senior Project Engineer for a large consumer products company in Atlanta, is also a member of the same cosplayer group with Arcement. Lange takes the opportunity to work on freelance art and engineering projects whenever possible and has been cosplaying for about seven years, attending Dragon Con since 2004. He especially loves working with CAD to create costume parts which he then manufactures with a 3D printer. 

“When I first decide on a character, I make a plan on which parts to make and which parts to buy,” Lange explained, opting to buy basic fabric components as he is still developing his sewing skills. “For hardgood props, I’ll get reference images of the prop and bring that into CAD – either Fusion 360 or Blender depending on if it’s a geometric part vs an organic-looking part – and build the prop in 3D. From there, I’ll chop up the prop into smaller parts to make it easier for 3D printing, then print, paint, and assemble. I love working digitally because I can save the designs for sharing or fancy rendering later. For other parts I need to buy, I’ll visit thrift stores around Atlanta to see if I can find anything that works.”

Lange’s most intricate costume to date was Man At Arms from the He Man universe which required around 150 hours to design and fabricate. This year he will be cosplaying as Pokemon Trainer from Super Smash Bros. 

Hayley Chapman, left

Often choosing to personify sweet and cute characters, graphic designer Hayley Chapman has been cosplaying since she was 15 years old. A Dragon Con regular for the past 18 years, she says nothing compares to this Atlanta tradition. As a teen and later in her twenties she regularly attended anime cons, and now she is more likely to attend events like the gaming convention PAX and the pop culture SDCC. 

“DragonCon is my favorite hands down,” she said. “There is nothing that can beat it because there is nothing like it!”

Chapman’s costumes are a mix of handmade and locally bought from stores like Eddie’s Trick Shop with locations in Stone Mountain and Marietta for special effects makeup and accessories.  

This year, Chapman will attend the festivities dressed as Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle and participating in a group costume with friends as the Wilderness Girls of America from the 80’s movie Troop Beverly Hills. She may even rock a store-bought inflatable T-Rex costume at one point over the weekend. But that’s just standard Dragon Con attire, not cosplay.

Cosplayer Maddie, who goes by the handle Veenacos

Local artist Maddie, also known as Veenacos, is a full-time cosplayer and model. Outside of conventions she often attends and works events that combine nerd culture and bars or restaurants. Maddie is a promoter for Invasian at District Atlanta, a regular at Battle and Brew cosplay nights, and model for a cosplay swimsuit company.

“I love strong, confident female characters,” said Maddie, who has been cosplaying for eight years. “I’m pretty shy and introverted in real life, but the characters I cosplay have helped me learn how to carry myself confidently and not be so scared of social interactions. It took so many years to build up my self esteem, and I have to thank cosplay for that.”

Most of Maddie’s costumes are entirely handmade. “It starts with an expensive trip to Joann’s to gather materials,” she explained. Once she has developed her patterns she holes up at home for up to a month as she crafts the costume. She sews, makes props and armor, and wigs. Occasionally her pieces include thrifted or store-bought items, but she usually ends up making everything herself. “A special technique I’ve picked up lately is using eyeshadow and paint to add dimensions to your fabric and wig!”

In the past, Maddie frequently competed in craftsmanship competitions and conventions across the country, winning awards such as ​​Best in Show at Seishuncon 2017 for a Ciri cosplay from The Witcher. “Armor has always been my forte, and I think my attention to detail was what would win me these awards,” she told me. “I never competed to win, it was moreso to challenge and motivate myself. The fact that I placed was just a bonus!” 

This year Maddie will return to Dragon Con dressed as Carmilla from Castlevania, Black Widow from Marvel, 2b from Nier Automata, and Jinx from Arcane. She has spent nearly 200 hours on these four costumes combined. 

Dragon Con represents a truly incredible outpouring of artistry and whimsy, providing a much needed outlet for creativity to flourish. Whether you’re there for the parade, the costume contests, the panels, shopping, or just to party, Dragon Con 2022 is sure to be a fun and vibrant event thanks to the commitment of artists like these.

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.