The Cosplay Doldrums: 5 Tips for Getting Through

“Doldrums” is a term with maritime origins. The Doldrums are  “a part of the ocean near the equator abounding in calms, squalls, and light shifting winds” (definition from Merriam-Webster). Back in the days of sailing ships, voyagers could be stuck in this frustrating part of the ocean for days on end. Of course, in modern parlance “doldrums” has come to signify more generally any period of depressing inactivity or lack of progress. But when it comes to describing the cosplay process I’m rather drawn to the nautical meaning. Building a costume is a journey, right? Sailing from inception to convention(s). But it’s rarely plain sailing  and the doldrums are one hazard that may need to be overcome along the way. I love cosplay but I’d be lying if I said the build process was all sunshine and rainbows. Maybe it is for people who are more talented/experienced than I am but, personally, if I had to plot my emotional state during the cosplay journey, the graph would look rather like this:

A rigorously scientific graph of AddAltModeR's cosplay journey

A rigorously scientific graph of the typical emotional life-cycle of one of my cosplay projects

I think – I hope – with my current costume build (Transformers Animated Slipstream) I am currently moving upwards somewhere in the “Back on Track” vicinity, but it’s been a bit of a struggle recently. I remember experiencing very much the same period of doubt and disappointment when I was working on my Arcee costume. I’m sure I’m not alone in this kind of experience, am I, fellow cosplayers? But knowing that the doldrums are a fairly natural part of any creative process doesn’t  make them any easier to get through. It would be all too easy to give up at this stage; carrying on takes a concerted effort but WILL be worth it in the end. So, for anyone stuck in a similar period of cosplay-related frustration, here are my top 5 tips for getting through the cosplay doldrums. Perhaps they will be helpful….

5. Reconnect with your chosen character

Why pick a certain character to cosplay in the first place? Hopefully because you’re passionate about that character and want to share that love in a very fun and visual way. Yet in the process of designing and building a costume it’s easy to get bogged down in the practical details: how big are those shoulder pads? What colour fabric do I need to source? At this point it can get all too easy to lose your sense of the character as a whole.

TFA Slipstream character model

TFA Slipstream character model

If a difficult build is denting your enthusiasm for a project it’s always worth going back to the character and reminding yourself just why you were drawn to them in the first place. Reread those comics or rewatch your favourite scenes and print off even more screen shots. Perhaps one of these will give you a new angle to help overcome any tricky practical construction problems; but even if not it should help reignite your passion. The thing that always reminds me why I love Slipstream so much is this brilliant clip of her first appearance in Transformers Animated. Even though she’s not in it until the end, it conveys so much of her wonderful snarkiness and I love the big reveal as the camera moves along the line of Starscream clones to finally show that one of them is inexplicably female. Slipstream wouldn’t languish in the doldrums, she’d just say something suitably cutting – probably blaming Starscream along the way – then carry right on.

4. Give yourself credit for what you’ve already achieved

When things are going badly feelings of frustration and failure can quickly run riot and you suddenly find yourself thinking “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough, this project was over-ambitious.” If you find yourself mired in the Doldrums like this, it can often help to revisit past successes. When I realised I’d started making excuses for not working on Slipstream, I tried to re-motivate myself by looking at what I’d achieved in the past with my previous costumes. I’m not the kind of person who is hard wired to show off and be particularly self-congratulatory (when I’m in costume, I’m not me, which is how I can do such an outgoing thing in the first place) but sometimes it’s good to give yourself credit where credit’s due. And if you’ve put in the time to design and build a costume in the past then you’ve achieved a lot, and credit is definitely due! And remember, you were less experienced then than you are now, so if you made that costume successfully then surely the present difficulties must be only a blip, not the end of the line? This is what I’ve been trying to tell myself.


Arcee costume in silhouette

But beware, if you’re caught in really stubborn doldrums then negativity can infect your perspective on past projects too: suddenly you start seeing little problems you didn’t previously notice and wondering if that old costume was ever really as good as you thought it was. So don’t rely on just your own judgement. When I lost my cosplay mojo I didn’t just look at photos from past events I’d attended, I also  browsed through their Facebook and Twitter pages  and found all the lovely comments, likes and feedback I’d had about my costumes. The doldrums can make it hard to trust your own judgement, so listen to other people! The geek scene is generally a friendly place so I’ll bet you’ve got some compliments you can revisit to help rekindle your enthusiasm. I experienced a real warm glow remembering the fun I’d had out and about as Arcee and it certainly boosted my morale. Of course, if the you’ve hit the doldrums during your first ever build, the above advice may not be so helpful. But I’m sure you can look back some other kind of past success to give you an ego boost. And the doldrums rarely strike right at the beginning of a build. Look at what you’ve already done on the current project, that can also provide inspiration. For me, it was third piece of the Slipstream costume (her boots) that was giving me trouble and making me lose my enthusiasm but I was really happy with the helmet and blasters I’d built previously. It sounds silly but a bit of time in front of the mirror posing with the parts of the costume you do like can sometimes do the trick!

3. Don’t be afraid to scrap parts and start over

Nobody likes feeling like they’ve wasted time or money but starting over doesn’t mean your previous work was wasted time, it’s part of learning curve – albeit a frustrating part. And if junking one component is what it takes to save you from abandoning the whole project then doing so probably makes better sense financially too,  especially if you’ve already bought most of the materials you need for the project as a whole. The problems I encountered with Slipstream’s boots came as quite a surprise. I’d expected the footwear to be a fairly straightforward element of the build, so the fact that I just couldn’t get the boots right really dented my confidence. I’d spent many hours on the boot pieces and had fully built them for both legs in foam but I just wasn’t happy with them. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was the problem, though, so I kept telling myself they were fine and I was just being silly. Meanwhile I was finding myself less and less inclined to go into the spare room (where I work on my projects) and pick up the craft knife.

Work in progress

Work in progress

It took me longer than it should have done to realise these two things were connected but when I finally did I didn’t hang about. Time to be ruthless. I decided I liked the fins I’d built for the boots but that they were the only part worth saving. I sliced out the fins and consigned the rest of the boots to the bin. Yes I wasted a fair amount of foam and an awful lot of glue but you know what? I felt better already with the fail-boots out of sight. I printed off some different angled shots of both Slipstream’s and Starscream’s legs (that’s the nice thing about clones, loads of source material) and began again. Card first, then foam. Slipstream boots mark two I made slightly sleeker, drawing on the things I’d learned during the previous attempt, and suddenly I was enjoying the project again…

2. Set a realistic deadline

A tight deadline can give you an inspiring adrenalin rush but if you’re working under too much pressure then it’s easy to make mistakes or try to kid yourself a piece works when it doesn’t (see #3). So if motivation is low it may be best to set your sights on the convention after the one you’d originally planned for, at least then you know you’ll be ready and by taking a bit more time you can hopefully start enjoying the build again. Remember it is meant to be fun! But I think my doldrums were actually due to the opposite scenario: I needed more focus. You see, I started making Slipstream without any particular timetable. I wanted to have her done by August – for Auto Assembly –  but that’s an incredibly generous deadline. I figured there’d be some local conventions where I could test her out before then but nothing had been officially announced so I wasn’t feeling much pressure, which made it so much harder to stay motivated when things weren’t going right. So I was thrilled when the date for the next DevCon in Plymouth was recently announced as May 30th. That sounds perfect: close enough that I’m going to need to stay focused to get my new costume finished by then but not so close that doing so would be completely unrealistic. So yes, I’m hoping to make my Decepticon debut at DevCon this May. Oh, hi motivation, it’s nice to see you around, you’ve been missed!

1. Listen to Professor Elemental

But the very best way to get out of the doldrums or – better still to avoid getting them in the first place – is never to lose sight of the golden rule:

cosplay is fun!

When I’m frustrated by lack of progress during a build and I need to recapture the fun side of this hobby then I find the best way to do so is by like to listening to the awesome steampunk chap hop artist Professor Elemental. I’ve seem him perform live twice now and I can’t think of anyone who better captures the sense of idiosyncratic joy and belonging that dressing up at geek events can bring.

Still from Professor Elemental's ''All in Together'' Video:

Professor Elemental and friends. Still from his ”All in Together” video, see below for link

In fact, the Prof’s tracks ”All in Together” and ”Enter the Convention” are just as important parts of my cosplay toolbox as my craft-knife, glue-gun or dremel because they’re such good antidotes to the doldrums. If you haven’t heard them do check them out!

Don’t let the silly sausages say your passion is preposterous Accomplish it and if they demolish it repolish it (Lyrics from ”All in Together”)

I’d drink to that resolution! Tea of course! Now, back to the build… Fellow cosplayers, can you relate to my experience of ‘the doldrums’? If you’ve got any motivational tips you’d add to my list I’d love to hear them.

7 thoughts on “The Cosplay Doldrums: 5 Tips for Getting Through

    • Oh cool! Do please pass on the message if you get the chance. He’s such a… I was going to say “great bloke” but it should be “splendid chap!” B and I chatted to him a bit about cosplay when we met him in the bar at the Steampunk Yule Ball last December but I never really got the chance to say what an inspiration he is!


  1. So, from the cosplay point of view:

    My Mega Man costume didn’t make it to Rezzed, but no biggie, I will keep working on it. I did hit the lowest point of the costume, by saying “Gah, I cannot make costumes, how dare I think I can grr, people are so much better than me!” We all get there.

    I love your list on getting back on track! 🙂 Keep it up, Rox! I can’t wait for the final piece!


    • I’d been wondering how you were getting on with Mega Man. That low point is awful isn’t it, I guess it hits most of us at some point during a build. I’ll look forward to seeing your results. If I was working on a Mega Man costume I’d definitely be listening to lots of Mega Man inspired music along the way, the Dr Wiley’s Castle theme is classic!

      And thanks, I’m writing up a cosplay progress post at the minute so should have more pics soon. 🙂


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