Cosplay Creation with Elementary Students

Cosplay builds confidence and critical thinking. It can also invite discussion about gender stereotypes, body shaming, media representations, and more.
“It’s Steve! It’s Steve!” the students yelled when Skye unveiled his creation. It was indeed Steve—the boxy protagonist from Minecraft. Third-grader Skye had sketched designs at my maker space as part of a massive library cosplay project and completed it, using cardboard and paper, with help from his mother. A staple at comic and anime conventions, cosplay is the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, video game, or an original character of your own creation. Cosplayers often make their own outfits—and so do students in my elementary and middle school library maker space. It’s a spot where they can tinker and try to invent ways of creating objects with a variety of tools. My maker space is low-tech, with lots of cardboard, LEGO, and items found at Dollar Stores. At heart, it’s about student voice and choice in creation. When I noticed that kids were interested in creating items to wear, I brought that into my lesson planning.

Creativity, dress codes, and who gets to model

Cosplay builds confidence, creativity, and critical thinking as students contemplate how to bring images from pop culture to life. Cosplay creation at your library can also invite deep discussion about contentious issues such as dress codes, gender stereotypes, double-standards, body shaming, media representations, and more. The students at Agnes Macphail Public School in Toronto, where I work, delved into the social justice aspect of clothing creation and acquisition through curated resources. They also learned about sweatshops and the environmental benefits to recycling and repurposing clothes. We also examined how clothing can express our identity, which can be multi-faceted. The grand finale was a fashion show. We examined Google image search results for “fashion show models.” We discussed who seemed to be represented most frequently—and questioned the implied messages that only certain people can qualify as fashion models (e.g. conventionally beautiful, tall, thin, white, females). The show itself was a wonderful opportunity to make with purpose and defy some of those messages. Preparing for the show was a complete unit of study for my students in grades 1–5, starting in February and culminating in June. Students took about three months to complete their outfits, with maker space sessions once or twice a week. They were allowed to work on costumes outside of regular instruction hours in the library and at home. A few made first attempts in the library and tried again with their own materials at home. But before students could make or “upcycle” their own clothes, they needed to develop basic skills. I taught simple lessons on finger-knitting, repurposing cardboard into flip-flops, making bows from duct tape, and effectively using fabric markers, fabric paint, dye, and iron-on transfer sheets. I picked up some of these techniques from craft books or knowledgeable friends. YouTube videos and tips from craft stores like Michael’s also helped. Sewing ability isn’t required, although cosplay is a great opportunity to learn to sew by hand or with a machine. Many outfits, such as those made of paper and cardboard, don’t require any fabric or stitching at all. Our supplies came from several sources: Dollar stores, fabric donations from my mother, cardboard scavenged from businesses, things bought with my library budget, and some I paid for myself. Budget-wise, my goal was to spend as little as possible—and for the students to spend almost nothing. I organized a class trip to Value Village, a local chain of second-hand stores, to look for cheap materials. Fortunately, many store managers let our students pick one item for free. Still, it was easy to go over budget. The students were a little too enthusiastic with the fabric spray paint, for example, and we ran out. Easy cosplay outfits often resemble “regular” clothes or use simple, original ideas. In our superhero unit, when students invented their own hero, a cape, mask or decorated T-shirt sufficed. One super-creative student wore old gift bags. Dressing up as characters such Mystery Incorporated folks from Scooby-Doo mostly involves finding clothes that match the color and type. Things get more complex when the intent is to make the costume as close to the original vision as possible or if there are complicated pieces or components. My own Minecraft creeper costume, for instance, was more time-consuming than difficult, as I glued hundreds of construction paper squares in various shades of green on a vacuum cleaner box to create its body. Another challenge: making appendages that look and act like bird wings without all the feathers. Of course, costumes that look good aren’t always successful, particularly those that are fragile, restrict mobility, or obscure vision. How you define “success” depends greatly on what you hope to achieve. My cosplaying teenage daughter, Mary, came up with six steps to help plan the creation of a costume.
  1. Decide the character you wish to portray.
  2. Think about how your character looks and dresses.
  3. If necessary, research your costume and use other cosplayers’ ideas and techniques as inspiration. How practical this is depends on your age and abilities. YouTube videos and websites can provide ideas and inspiration.
  4. Make a list of the items (such as clothes, wigs and other accessories) that you will need.
  5. Look at your list and determine which items can be bought and which need to be made.
  6. Figure out where to buy the purchasable components of your costume (e.g. thrift stores like Goodwill, party stores like Party City, online sellers on eBay and craft stores like Michael’s) and how to make the other pieces.

Planning the show

If you want to have a culminating event where clothing is displayed, talk with your students about the purpose of the cosplay creation, asking questions such as: Who is the intended audience? How durable must the outfits be? Who wears them? Are we making these costumes to express our creativity/identity or to match a certain character? You should also consider restrictions (e.g. school dress codes that forbid the exposure of bare midriffs) before planning a school-wide event. I clarify expectations for my students with a letter sent home to parents, so everyone knows how much money can be spent, who will provide the materials, how much parental involvement is allowed, and timelines. School library professionals should consider their community when making these decisions. Once the ground rules are set and understood, students can plan their fabulous outfits and, later, assemble them. Sharing the costumes need not be the end. Committed cosplayers often seek feedback and consider how to improve their next outfit. Even if students don’t make costumes every year, examining the strengths and weaknesses of their projects and how they overcame challenges solidifies learning. Making clothing and costumes is rewarding and creative. Let’s give our students, especially those with a fashion passion, a chance to share and shine.
Diana Maliszewski is the teacher-librarian at Agnes Macphail Public School in the Toronto District School Board. She is the former editor-in-chief of The Teaching Librarian, the official publication of the Ontario School Library Association, and was the 2008 recipient of the Follett International Canadian Teacher Librarian of the Year award.  

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