Costumes are a lot of fun. I wear them on Halloween (my favorite holiday). I wear them to movies. I like. I wear them to GenCon and other gaming conventions. Heck, I wear them any old time. Some of you may be wondering “Yes, I like costumes, too. But how can they make me, the average Joe, some cold, hard cash?”

The answer is: a costume contest! Costume contests are easy to find around Halloween. Just about every school, dance club, major party will have one. You can also find costume contests at conventions, and sometimes at the premieres of certain movies.

The competition can be pretty stiff. Here are some tips to help you get the edge at a costume contest:

Step 1: Choose the right costume

If there were fairness in the world of costume contests, my friends and I would have come home with many a prize for our Ghostbusters costumes. But there isn't. The problem was, nobody appreciated the work that went into the costumes because they couldn't see the detail in the dark bar atmosphere. Nobody got that we weren't supposed to be The Ghostbusters, but a franchise of them because we didn't get much of a chance to tell anyone. Nobody cared because we were up against Jack Skellington on stilts, Ozzy Osbourne, and Porno Barbie.

The first thing you should consider in picking your costume is, of course, personal preference. If you aren’t excited about your costume it will be apparent. Dress as something you like. Secondly, you should consider your own features and limitations. Not all of us can pull off an Elvira costume. Live with it.

Your audience, the judge/judges, has to be considered too. Here are some general costume-picking guidelines:

Kids - Halloween:

Cute is key. The cuter, the better.

Stay away from dressing as a character that adults might not know too much about, because adults will most likely be the ones doing the judging. You may think Cassie from Dragontales is the best, but an adult might just see “Pink Dragon.” Your best bet is something that’s easy to recognize that no one else will be dressed up as. Avoid over-done costumes like witches, princesses, ninjas, ghosts, and pumpkins. Good choices for babies and toddlers are animals, fairy or flowers (think Anne Geddes). For slightly older children, animals are still a good choice, as are scarecrows, doctors (especially a veterinarian: carry a stuffed animal with a band aid on it), police, and firefighters.

Teens- Halloween:

Your choice of costume largely will depend on who is doing the voting. If adults are choosing the winners you want to stay away from:

  • girls: costumes that are revealing
  • boys: cross-dressing
  • Costumes that signify violence, have fake blood, scars, etc
  • Costumes that make fun of people: e.g. hippie, gangster, fat suit, etc.
  • References to current teen pop culture: e.g. Britney Spears, South Park, etc.

    If your peers are doing the voting (such as with applause) feel free to utilize any of the above. In fact, use them as much as you can. Commonly, school costume contests will have the teachers pick their favorite costumes to be voted on by applause. If so, you have to try to strike a balance between the two. Something sexy and/or violent you can pass off as historical may be your best bet: Al Capone, Mae West, Genghis Khan, Caesar, or Cleopatra, for instance.

    Adults – Halloween

    Three things are your best bet: funny, sexy, or scary.

    Funny: Making fun of people in the media or recent events is a great way to go. I know of a couple who is going to dress up as mauled Roy and a white tiger. Clever costumes are a gambit: your audience might not be smart enough to figure it out. Remember that you probably won't get the chance to talk about your costume, so it has to be something that can be "gotten" without the need for explanation. Never forget there is a fine line between funny and stupid, though.

    Sexy: If you have the body, this is a great way to go, but remember that a bunch of other people will be dressed just as scantily. Find a way to set yourself apart. One really good costume I mentioned earlier: "Porno Barbie." It consisted of a woman in black vinyl, a big blonde Barbie wig, and a refrigerator box decorated to look like Barbie packaging, complete with plastic-wrap see-through sides. The more drinking there is at a party, the more likely it will be a sexy costume will win.

    Scary:This is the most difficult one to pull off well. It's really more attitude then anything else. Repeat after me: there is no such thing as a scary costume. Everyone knows I'm not really a monster. No matter how much fake blood you smear on or how black your black is, a scary costume will do you no good unless you act the part. Whether it's hovering silently over people or just screaming your head off in a fit of psychosis, find some way to say "I could kill you at any moment, really I could" Scary is the best winning costume choice for smaller costume parties.

    If you can combine two of those (please don’t try to do all three) all he better!

    As a coinsurer of costumes, it pains me to say it... but: In most Halloween contests, costume quality and accuracy matters very little. Don't put too much work into the intricate details... you'll be disappointed when no one cares.

    The best way to win: If you are very serious about winning: learn to walk on stilts. A character on stilts is practically a guaranteed victory.

    All – Convention

    On a side note, the Ghostbusters costumes took first place in the Sci-Fi category at GenCon 2003. Admittedly the victory was helped by the distinctly low number of entrants

    Accuracy and craftsmanship counts. Spend as much time as you can on your costume. Unlike Halloween costumes, people will be scrutinizing every detail of your creation, and they will probably know what to look for. In other words: don’t dress up as Mace Windu and carry around a blue lightsaber. Special effects, such as light and sound effects, will help a lot. As for the character you choose, go for something a little unconventional. You don’t want to be dressed up as the same character as anyone else, and the convention atmosphere allows you to be esoteric.

    Acting and showmanship are important, too. Not only do you have to look the part, but act it as well. Don’t do anything that will take away from the realism of your costume. If you can’t do the correct voice for your character, don’t speak... at least not to the people doing the judging. Kids can waiver this rule, because I know from personal experience there’s nothing cuter then a tiny girl dressed as Aurra Sing yelling “the bounty is mine!”

    Many convention costume contests will have a separate category for professional and amateur costumes. If it doesn’t, try to scope out the competition before you enter to gauge the level of the particular contest. There’s nothing worse then being in a costume contest with people way above or way below your level.

    NEVER use a store-bought costume at a convention.

    Step 2: Pandering

    There are two main ways a costume contest is judged: by applause and by a panel of judges. To win a costume contest, you have to know how to pander to each.

    Audience Applause:Remember that an audience applause voting method is essentially a popularity contest. Work the crowd. If it’s a party then talk in character to as many people as you can before the contest. Show off your creation. Flirt, if you and your costume are so inclined. People are much more likely to cheer for you if they talked personally to you.

    When it becomes your turn to be clapped for, do something to up the applause. If your costume does something this is the time to make it do it. If your costume doesn’t do something... try something outrageous (for example, in the Roy and Tiger example, the tiger could “maul” Roy).

    Panel of Judges: If you can, find out what the judging criteria (e.g. craftsmanship, originality, scariness) are beforehand and plan your costume accordingly. If you are allowed to talk to the judges prior to the competition, do so (again, in character). If you aren’t then make sure you show off your costume as best as you can when you are in front of them (the above tips for getting applause work nicely here). Use your time before the competition to plan what you are going to do when in front of the judges; one major killer of otherwise good costumes is the person inside being nervous.

    Step 3: Getting into Character

    Many of these hints involve being in character. Get into it! If you're dressed up as someone specific, bone up on them before hand. If at all possible, watch video footage. This is easy with movie characters and other famous people. If no actual footage of your character exits, watch something to get you into the mood. Learn mannerisms, commonly used phrases, etc. The more realism and depth you can add to your character the better. This step is essential to a convention costume.

    Step 4: Have fun

    No, seriously. Costumes are a blast, and winning isn’t everything. Happy haunting, everyone! If you see a winged pirate at a costume contest, cheer extra loud.

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