Cosplaying is a huge part of anime, comic, and sci-fi conventions. Costuming at conventions first started earlier than you may think. In 1939 at the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), Forrest J Ackerman wore the first "futuristicostume" and the is history. The term cosplay came about when a Japanese reporter saw costumes being worn at Worldcon 1984. There has been a convention devoted to just costuming, Costume-Con, that has been running since 1983.
After seeing cosplayers at in the halls, on stage, and online, maybe you want to be a part of all the fun. But the big question is, where do you begin? The world of costuming and cosplay can seem overwhelming and daunting, but the best place to start is at the beginning.
Who Should I Be?
The first question you want to ask is, who do I want to cosplay? The best characters to cosplay are the ones that you love. Think about your favorite series and video games. Once you have a few characters picked out, look at the designs of their clothing. Since you are just starting out, find something that is simple, maybe even something that can be made with clothes you can find in your closet or buy at a store.
Buying vs. Making Yourself
If you don't plan on entering your costume in any craftsmanship competitions, there's absolutely nothing wrong with buying your costume from an eBay seller, a commissioner, having a friend or family member make it, or using all store bought items if they work for the costume. It doesn't make you any less of a cosplayer. Don't let anyone tell you any differently. However, there is a sense of pride that comes with making your costume yourself and telling others how you created it. If you're entering it in a craftsmanship competition, you will definitely need to make it, or have the person who made it for you with you during your judging (and if the costume wins a craftsmanship award, it is theirs, not yours).
Breaking It Down
After you have picked out a costume that you want to make, break down all the components. Make a list of the different parts: tops, bottoms, accessories, shoes, hair, props, etc. Look at each part individually and see how you can construct it. Can you modify an existing sewing pattern, or do you have to create one? Can you buy things in the store to be used as is, or change them? What types of fabrics would work best? How are you going to get the pieces on and off? How will they stay on?
Learning to Sew
It is definitely possible to cosplay without sewing at all. However, if you want to be able to cosplay any character and make the costume yourself, you will need to learn.
First, find out if any of your friends or family members know how to sew and would be willing to teach you. If that does not work out, see if there are any classes in the area, either at schools or craft stores. You can also see if there are any costuming, crafting, or sewing groups in the area that provide lessons as well. Search online for tutorials, both written and on YouTube. See if your local library has any books on sewing to help you learn.
Start out with things other than costumes to get a feel for how the sewing machine works. Try making a pillow out of inexpensive fabric or an old T-shirt. Find a book on simple sewing projects or sewing patterns marked "easy" for more practice.
Armor, Props, Accessories, and "Non-Sewing" Components
For many costumes, it's more than just sewing. Completing the look may involve using things other than fabric, such as plastic, foam, paint, tools, beads, wood, and much more. Just like sewing, these techniques are learned from others or learning on your own. There are tons of tutorials out there making all sorts of non-fabric creations.
For some people, creating these parts of the costume are easier and more enjoyable than using a sewing machine. If you find that you really like making props and armor, and your friend prefers to sew (or vice versa) offer your skills for theirs in exchange. If they need a cool sword to complete their costume, ask if in exchange they can make a jacket that you would otherwise be stuck on.
Get Help From Your Friends
Do you have friends who cosplay? They are your first source of information and help. Tell them you want to get into cosplay, and they will likely be very excited and eager to get you involved. Ask them how they got started and if they have advice for beginners. See if they have suggestions for characters they think you could be. Find out if they have any upcoming cosplay plans and see if there are any characters they may need to complete a group. They likely won't offer to make an entire costume for you, but if you ask for help they might be able to provide it. If they do help you make a costume, make sure to thank them and don't just sit around and tell them what they're doing wrong. Help out by cutting pattern pieces, painting props, ironing hems, sanding wood - whatever you are able to do with little or no instruction. This can be a great learning experience, so ask if they can show you how to fit the sleeves or sew the hem. At the con, buy them lunch or a drink as a thank you.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Look at the first costumes or sewing projects of any cosplayer and you will quickly see that everyone starts at the beginning. Being able to make impressive costumes comes from learning along the way, trial and error, and lots of patience and practice. There may be a point one day when you can create a new costume in just a few days. But if you're just starting out, give yourself several weeks to give yourself lots of time to learn along the way.