Do You Want to Build a Costume?

This year was only my second CONvergence and SkepchickCon, and I’m pretty sure I’m hooked. I felt a bit left out last year because I didn’t have any awesome costumes like the rest of my fellow Labbers, so I brilliantly decided that 8:30pm two days before I was supposed to leave was a BRILLIANT time to decide “yes, costumes now!”

I wanted to do something new. I mean, I have my Rachael gear from last Halloween, but I didn’t really think I’d be up to the incredibly complex hair on the morning before a Con day. I have my Sally dress from a bajillion years ago in NOLA, but it’s thick and hot and I don’t have the hair down to there any more. I have my awesome corset and a great skirt, but that kinda feels like a cop-out. I needed to make something, but what could I possibly throw together last-minute like this?

When in doubt, I’ve gone with Halloween costumes that I could reasonably already look like. My long hair was usually a factor. Wednesday Addams, braids, check. Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas, red wash, check. Rachael from Blade Runner, victory rolls, check. Cosplaying at a convention is still new to me, but I knew I wasn’t going to want to do anything particularly constricting or complex or extra-makeup-y on ALL the days of the convention, or even for an entire day. So… what to do?

River Tam. Sundress, middle part, check.

I can do this! I shall order online! Everything will be delivered to my door, I can pack it all up and be awesome at CONvergence!

However, Amazon hadn’t updated my payment information and my supplies would not be delivered in time. After an afternoon of dejectedly giving up on my plan, I decided to just go ahead and hack it as well as I could. A Tuesday-night run to Target (“This dress is only available right now in XXL? What? Gah, okay…”) and Blick got me most of what I’d need, if not the time to make anything.

So there I was, loading bag with a sheet of foamcore, a glue stick, some tinfoil and a large roll of electrical tape into Ashley’s trunk at 8am on Thursday morning, in the hopes that I’d maybe find time during the convention to build my props.

Heh heh heh.

I don’t think I’m assuming too much to think that the crazy-awesome berzerker fight scene in Serenity was one of the most memorable and badass of all of River. And that particular version of River needs weapons. Which I didn’t have when I left Chicago.

So no joke, there I was, sitting in a hotel room outside of Minneapolis, very grateful that I’d thought to also pack my cutting mat. This is what I had to work with:

sheet of white foamcore on a table, with a roll of tinfoil, roll of black duct tape, glue stick, X-Acto knife and silver embroidery floss on top and a green, gridded cutting mat underneath

I’d printed out some super-rough outlines of River’s Reaver weapons at home. I’d taken some images from a Google search, filled the weapon outlines with black, then embiggened and grid-printed them with InDesign. I think Rasterbator would have worked in this situation as well, but when you’re printing the night before whilst packing you kinda stick with what you know.

Printed outline of grid-printed Reaver weapons from Serenity, taped to sheet of white foamcomre

I cut the two weapons apart so things would be easier to manage. I was working on a little hotel desk-table-thing, after all.

Printed outline of grid-printed Reaver weapons from Serenity, taped to sheet of white foamcore

I cut through the whole shebang with my X-Acto blade. The paper came off, but the foamcore wasn’t wanting to let go of the cutout. It’s the only sheet of foamcore I had, so I didn’t want to completely mess the thing up.

Cut-out outline of grid-printed Reaver weapon from Serenity, taped to sheet of white foamcore

So what was I doing wrong? I knew everything was cut all the way through, and I’d already cut past the corners… on most corners. You want to do that to avoid the squished corner you see at the top here, which I oops-ed because I forgot Foamcore Cutting 101 in my rush.

Detail of cut-out outline of a Reaver weapon from Serenity, showing cuts past corners

Well, kinda like cutting out cookies, you want to pull away the unwanted bits, not pull on (and possibly mess up) the parts you want to keep. So I made some cuts out to the edges of the foamcore and pulled away the extra parts.

Detail of cut-out outline of a Reaver weapon from Serenity, showing cuts to edge of foamcore

I didn’t take any pictures of my futzing around to get the oval cutout, but it was pretty futzy. I will admit to some amount of concern that I had rather unwisely decided to do this alone, in my hotel room, across the street from the convention, where probably nobody would hear me screaming bloody murder if I inadvertently removed a finger.*

Foamcore cut-out of a Reaver weapon from Serenity next to printed outline

So I have a weapon. But foamcore is all blunt and boring! I want edges. I want vicious Reaver weapons. (Because the Reavers were big on tinfoil, right?) So I tried to kinda slice away part of the edge of the foamcore at an angle, in the hopes that I’d be able to smoosh the tinfoil along it to look like an edged blade.

I had no idea if this was going to actually work, but at this point I was committed.

Detail of angled cutting through the edge of foamcore

Reaver weapons ain’t pretty. This will do.

"after" shot of foamcore Reaver weapon with "edges" cut away

One down. Sword to go. And, of course, the overlapping sections had some of the details I wanted to make sure to keep. So I looked up the source pictures on my phone again so I could draw them in, while taking these photos with my iPad. O technology….

closeup of overlapping printed sword outline with missing sections drawn on

This was a bit less complex to cut out. You guys know how knives work.

Reaver sword cut out of white foamcore

It, too, needed some vicious edges. Rar.

Closeup of cutting the edge off of a reaver sword cut out of white foamcore

However, I’d intended to bring one of my yard-long rulers along to shove inside the foamcore to help keep it from going all floppy. The ruler didn’t make it into the bag, though, and the cool-looking part in the middle of the sword was already losing cohesion and starting to go all thlop even with a slight test wave of the piece. It needed reinforcement!

What to use, what to use? Is there a stick? Some sort of rigid-yet-flat item I won’t mind wrapping in tape for the next few hours? Of course not, I’m in a friggin’ hotel room. But there were these cards you’re supposed to leave on your bed if you want housekeeping to change your sheets during your stay. Printed on decently-heavy cardstock. It wasn’t the nice metal ruler I’d intended to use, but it was also nicely disposable. Done! I added a couple of layers to the bit threatening to go flop and wrapped the whole shebang in more tape.

closeup of tape-wrapped foamcore sword next to sliced-up info card

Reaver weapons still ain’t pretty.

Foamcore cut-out of a Reaver sword from Serenity wrapped in black duct tape

Now for the foil. Because what else makes things look shiny like metal and can be purchased last-minute and thrown in a bag? (Other than automotive tape, which I really should have used.) Obviously tinfoil is THE Reaver weapon of choice. And can also be used for storing leftovers that aren’t still wriggling and screaming.

Foamcore Reaver sword, wrapped in black tape, on a sheet of tinfoil

How to keep that tinfoil where it’s supposed to be? Well, the only thing I had brought with me: one glue stick to rule them all. Smear, wrap, done.

Wash sticky fingers.

(Pro tip: glue stick apparently doesn’t really do much for tinfoil, FYI. I made do.)

Foamcore Reaver sword, handle wrapped in black tape and "blade" covered in tinfoil

Sword is done! Now just the… hatchet? Chopper? Awful-evil-looking-wotzit?

Aw, crap, how do I wrap this curvy little nightmare?

Foamcore Reaver weapon on a sheet of tinfoil

I don’t even know what I’m supposed to call this… technique? Method? I knew I wasn’t going to be able to cover both sides at once, or even the edges in their entirety, but it was a start.

closeup of foamcore curve on tinfoil with pie-corners cut into the curve

So I cut little pie pieces into the foil, then folded ’em over and glued. Same for the other interior curves. The rest I was just gonna try to smoosh onto itself and hope I’d cut enough to cover.

closeup of foamcore curve on tinfoil with pie-corners wrapped around the curve

Nope, the back wasn’t covered all the way and I had to add more. I just glued on a new chunk of foil onto the naked bits, cut off the excessive extra pieces and wrapped it around, hoping the nature of the tinfoil would just kinda… stay.

closeup of foamcore weapon wrapped in tinfoil, with additional covering piece underneath

I had juuuuuuuuuuust enough glue.

glue stick used down to the end

I may or may not have been spreading those last bits on with my fingers… but I didn’t have anything else in the hotel room and I knew pomade wasn’t gonna cut it.

Reaver weapons still ain’t pretty. But these’ll do.

Finished foamcore Reaver weapons, wrapped in black tape and tinfoil

So I stuck ’em on top of the TV so they wouldn’t get too bashed around until I wanted to use them, lamented the hugeness of my dress, resolved to wear a tank top and shorts underneath because reasons, and went back to the con. Nobody knew I was going to be able to kill them with my brain when I showed up in costume the next day.

Beth as River Tam at CONvergence 2014. Photo by Jamie Bernstein.

You take care of me, Simon. You’ve always taken care of me. My turn.

I will admit that I wasn’t expecting much from my two-hour costume, but I was recognized by more than a few people at the convention. Sci-fi nerds, you are my people! I was also really friggin’ comfortable, I didn’t have to worry about re-doing makeup, and I only got stopped by Ops once to ask if I’d had my vicious weapons checked and okay-ed by staff. Rar!

So yep, even a last-minute planner can throw together a costume while at a convention and have it turn out okay.

I might actually even do this again.

* no fingers were inadvertently amputated in the creation of these props.

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Beth Voigt

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and public transit and is still on her first smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around.


  1. July 14, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    This was so badass–well done! And for the record, I decided to pull together my Orphan Black costumes at 6:30 PM the night before I left for CON. So, right there with you on the last-minute costumes.

  2. July 14, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Now I know what happened between seeing a big piece of foamcore in my trunk and seeing your pretty shiny weapons! Also, now that song from Frozen is permanently stuck in my head (but with better lyrics this time).

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