Cosplay 101

A Renoite spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours building a costume for a Seattle video games convention

Vance Dehne constructs his costume, a Spartan from <i>Halo</i>, for the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, in Seattle.

Vance Dehne constructs his costume, a Spartan from Halo, for the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, in Seattle.

Photo By sean Mazner

Vance Dehne walks into the Washington Trade & Convention Center wearing his $2,000 custom suit. All eyes in the massive building immediately gravitate toward him. He stands there in his cobalt-colored suit, only 5-feet-8-inches, yet appearing to tower over all others. Convention attendees rush the entrance to get a closer view of the new arrival. Many instinctively reach for their cameras and begin snapping pictures. The white flashes are blinding, making it impossible for Dehne to travel any farther.

After about five minutes of non-stop photography, the building security asks Dehne and the crowd that has formed around him to move. Their formation is blocking the entrance to the hall. With the assistance of friends, Dehne is able to make it up three escalators to a relatively empty space. The crowd has followed them up the escalator and continues to take pictures. It takes another five minutes before the crowd finally disperses and he is able to move again.

“It’s going to be like this all day,” says Dehne.

At the Penny Arcade Expo, Sept. 3-5, Dehne and his friends receive this sort of rock star treatment non-stop. Within minutes of one crowd leaving, another seems to arrive. He’s congenial enough to pose for all of them, yet really wants to play some games. After all, that’s what he’s come here to do. But cosplaying (costume playing) as a Spartan from the Halo series, this is almost impossible. He stands out too much.

The Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX for short, is a twice-yearly gaming convention that takes place on both sides of the country. Tens of thousands of gamers from all over the world flock to downtown Seattle, Wash., to play the hundreds of games displayed on all six floors of the colossal building. Much like what Comic Con does for comics and sci-fi fans, PAX does for video, card and tabletop gamers.

The costume

Twenty-four-year-old Reno resident Dehne spent months preparing for this convention. His suit required five months of meticulous craftsmanship to build.

“The armor was a little easier to build this year,” says Dehne. “I had the experience of doing the same thing last year, so I kind of knew what to expect this time around.”

At last year’s PAX, Dehne also cosplayed as a Spartan. He said the experience was well worth all the money and time put into his costume. To make the armor, which weighs more than 60 pounds, he had to start from scratch.

The first stage of assembly was sketching 20 individual armor pieces on specialized paper, which act as the foundation for the molds. Each mold is constructed from the shape the paper is formed into. Next, slush casts consisting of Bondo and resin fill these molds. The material solidifies, becoming the pieces of armor. The armor is then buffed and painted to create the final product.

Half the money Dehne spent last year went toward startup costs, such as buying the sander and rotary tools used during this process. This year’s armor cost less to assemble, as he already had the tools.

“One of the hardest parts is just getting the pieces to stay together,” says Dehne. “I use everything from micro-fiber webbing to Velcro to keep it all in one piece. Last year, my armor slowly came apart as I was walking around the convention.”

Dehne still experienced the same problem this year, but on a reduced level. He thanks his friends for helping him keep his costume together—or even move.

“The whole [thing] was chaos,” says Will Smathers, one of Dehne’s friends. “His movement and hearing is reduced when he’s in [the armor], so we have to take him by the arm and guide him along.”

What is cosplay?

What differentiates cosplay from a regular Halloween costume is how the cosplayer acts while in costume. Ideally, the cosplayer takes on the personality of the character they portray, essentially personifying the fictional character.

For example, it is not enough for a person to dress as Super Mario, he must also jump around, speak with an Italian accent, and act chivalrous. Sometimes the performances can get cheesy, but therein lies the charm of cosplay.

For Dehne, the Spartan character he portrays is an elite soldier, a no-nonsense fighter who makes only deliberate movements with his statuesque body. As much as he can, given the constraints of his costume, he flawlessly performs this act. Only when he needs to walk long distances does he require assistance.

PAX is not known like Comic Con is for its number of cosplayers, yet hundreds of cosplayers attended the event. The trend of cosplay itself has grown exponentially in the past decade, with entire websites dedicated to discussing and exhibiting various costumes.

Vance Dehne becomes a Spartan.

Photo By sean Mazner

Cosplayers at PAX this year consisted of very recognizable faces, such as Mario and Princess Peach, to more obscure characters such as Rachel and Hazama from BlazBlue. Even original characters and costumes were accepted by fellow gamers.

Why cosplay?

A question Dehne often gets is why he would spend several thousand dollars to dress as a fictional character for a couple of days.

“It’s for the experience,” he says. “So many folks realize that my armor is completely custom-made and compliment the craftsmanship. Even the employees at Bungie themselves [the company that makes Halo] took pics with me and posted them on Facebook. That kind of recognition is almost unreal.”

“The reason I cosplay is to use my creativity and skills to create a costume that can be eye-catching and gets the attention of people for either entertainment or curiosity,” says Melissa Franklin, one of Dehne’s friends.

Franklin cosplayed as Street Fighter’s Juri Friday and Saturday at PAX. On Sunday, she and her friend Karley Pennock cosplayed as Pokemon’s Plusle and Minun.

“The reason I cosplayed Juri is because when that game was announced I was intrigued by [her] design, and her attitude was unique,” says Franklin. “I was sold.”

How to cosplay

Many people get intimidated when wanting to cosplay for the first time. Indeed, when one sees someone like Dehne walking down the convention hall wearing an expensive costume, they may become dispirited. Fret not. One needn’t spend a lot of money to cosplay. In fact, I cosplayed for the first time at PAX while writing this story.

The character I dressed up as was Nick from Left 4 Dead 2, and the costume took only a day to design. All items were purchased at Savers and consisted of this:

White suit jacket: $2.99

White women’s dress pants: $6.99

Blue collared shirt: $3.99

Shoes: pre-owned

Fake blood: $1.99

Ninja sword: $2.99

Dirt outside hotel: free

Total Cost: $18.95

All I had to do was act surly and hunt down any zombies within an earshot, something I do anyway. The majority of the day was spent in character. I only halted the performance when buying food, so as not to get punched by the restaurant cashier. It was fun, and I’ll try it again in the future.

Others looking to start cosplaying can consult such websites as, which has thousands of members willing to help beginners on their forums. Also, the expos themselves are full of friendly people with similar interests.

“PAX and other expos give you the freedom to be whoever you want in a friendly environment and other like-minded people,” says cosplayer Will Smathers. “You can just let loose and not get looked at negatively.”