Dragon Con: STEAM in Cosplay

The featured image is from Victoria_Borodinova via Pixabay.

It’s the ultimate in STEAM education! From the physics and geometry of designing and sewing a costume, to the chemical reactions of fabric dye and adhesives, to planning the appropriate metals to use based on their oxidation and thermal properties, creating your own cosplay can be a major technological adventure.

I first experienced this panel at Dragon Con 2017. It was hosted again in both 2018 and 2019, with a slight change in presentation each year. In 2017, the focus was on incorporating both math and science. In 2018, traditional methods of costume fabrication were explored via the scientific concepts applied. Dragon Con 2019 saw this particular cosplay panel move from the Science Track to the Robotics and Maker Track. This year, they threw programming into the mix by comparing knitting to a coding language.

The overarching theme however, is the use of the design process. Engineers use the design process to solve a problem, fill a need, or meet a challenge by researching, brainstorming, planning, making, testing, and improving a product or solution. Already, you can see how creating the perfect cosplay fits this model. There’s no such thing as finished, there’s always room for improvements, and things rarely turn out as desired on the first try.

The Panel Presenters

Before I share some of the finer points with you, I’ll introduce you to the panelists. In attendance all three years were Ryan Cosnell (an engineer, artist, teacher, and contributor at Mad Art Lab), Emily Finke (a forensic anthropologist and presenter), and Mika McKinnon (a geophysicist, journalist, teacher, and entertainment science consultant). Also present for the 2017 panel were Torrey Stenmark (science teacher and award-winning costumer), and Nelson Burke aka The Engineer Guy. 2018 saw the inclusion of Liz Decolvenaere (a chemical engineer who focuses on the properties of metal alloys). Together, these presenters provided a boisterous yet very educational discussion around one of Dragon Con’s main events: cosplay.

Science

Cosplay is definitely science in practice, if for no other reason, because it makes use of the scientific method. Choosing materials for your cosplay requires that you find a research-based solution, and then test it out. But as previously mentioned, the use of scientific information and practice doesn’t stop there. For detailed information on scientific concepts covered, check out The Science of Cosplay.

Technology

The term technology certainly applies to more than just digital and electronic components. However, incorporating lights and other battery-operated elements is a popular aspect of modern cosplay. It certainly takes a lot of planning. For example, consider wearing a light-up ball gown. You’ve got to plan for the effective placement of the fiber optics (or use fiber optic fabric) as well as the approximately 50 battery packs needed to keep it lit.

The panelists focused on the use of fiber optic fabric, which is obviously tricky. Since it consists of optical fibers that are directly woven with synthetic fibers, it must be cut in such a way as to preserve the wiring. It’s available in rectangular panels that can be sewn together like normal. As far as adding separate fiber optics, I found an interesting example online. A designer at Instructables, Natalina, describes her odyssey in designing, creating, blundering, redesigning, and finishing a dress with fiber optic accents added to it.

Another thing that often gets overlooked by those new to cosplay craft is that any type of woven fabric will pull and stretch in two different directions. This is important when connecting multiple pieces as you want to ensure that the grains are lined up. Also, if you want the fabric to be stiffer and not stretch as much, you have to treat it. You need to wet it, pin it the way you want it, and let it dry so that it will take that shape.

Finally, it’s important to remember that copyright laws do apply to clothing design. However, it only applies to the form, not the function.

Using lights in costumes
Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash.

Engineering

I already mentioned how cosplay makes use of the design process – design and redesign, iterate and iterate again. With each new iteration, costumers are tackling new problems, such as being able to eat. You need to consider the complexity of removing items such as headgear or hand coverings to make it easier to eat. And, if you like eating sitting down, consider how flexible your costume is. Another serious problem is the ability to use the restroom unaided. Something as simple as incorporating a corset can become problematic if it is attached in such a way that it must be unlaced from the back before the wearer can access the restroom (which I witnessed this year).

Also in line with the design process is the fact that alterations to costumes often happen after attending an event. Once the cosplayer is able to take into account observations made while actually wearing the costume at the convention, they have a better idea of what works for extended periods of time, and what just doesn’t.

cosplay with corset
Photo by Fredrick Tendong on Unsplash.

Art

Fashion is a form of art, but creating a costume isn’t just arts and crafts. It’s more of a scientific experiment. Or, perhaps it’s science that is really an art and the scientific method a craft. I suppose the easiest connection to make is that of color. From mixing dyes and pigments to utilizing how a material reflects light, color can be understood both aesthetically and scientifically. The other aspect of costuming that I associate with art specifically is embroidery. Embroidery along with other visual accents, including how the fabric is cut to create certain effects, are what provide the overall jaw-dropping wow effect to a costume.

embroidered costumes
Photo by Adam Muise on Unsplash

Math

The mathematical aspect of costuming is probably pretty clear-cut. Creating patterns that can be pieced together, whether plane or spherical, and actually sewing them into a costume takes a basic understanding of geometry. And, it takes a bit more to conceptualize how the flat pieces of fabric need to be connected in order to fit around a curved shape (i.e. the wearer). And I thought I’d never need to know how to mentally put together a geometric net!

Basic measuring and calculating skills are a must as well. Costumers have to determine the sizes of individual pieces and their percentage in relation to the entire costume as well as figure out how much fabric will be needed. The more complex the costume, the more calculations needed. For example, when designing pleats, the fabric must be measured and divided into equal sections.

All in all, crafting your own cosplay is a complex ordeal. Whether you pursue this as a career or just a hobby, you are cultivating your use of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics in a fun and rewarding way.

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