The rise of EVA-based foam in cosplay and costume design
by Duncan Geddes
Using exclusive interviews with costume designers, this article explores the use of foam as a material for costume and cosplay design.
Armour, swords, hats and dresses. These may not be topics you’d expect Technical Foam Services to write about. But while we champion professional foam conversion on industrial scales, there is a growing community of costume makers that are doing their own amateur foam conversion on a smaller scale – and we’re blown away by the ingenuity and skill. The passion we share with this community is for the versatility of EVA foam and the craftsmanship it takes to turn a ‘blank canvas’ into something functional.
To get better insight into the costume-making process and the essential role foam plays, we talked to three impressive cosplayers.
Cosplay (a combination of the words ‘costume’ and ‘play’) is a pastime most commonly associated with comic conventions that involves dressing in costumes specific to a character from popular culture.
You’ll find more details about our interviewees at the end of this article.
The rise of cosplay foam
For those not in the know, cosplaying is an activity where you dress as your favourite character from comic books, film or TV. It is far beyond the typical Halloween fancy-dress you may be imagining. Cosplayers often spend months sourcing and handcrafting their costumes, focusing on the smallest details to make an authentic and believable costume replica.
Over the past decade, a type of elasticised closed-cell foam called EVA foam (ethylene-vinyl acetate copolymer foam) has become a staple for many costume makers. Caity Stella, who started cosplaying seven years ago, talks about how foam has become more accessible to those who may previously have been intimidated by the material. “There are certainly more books and resources for creating things out of foam than there were when I started,” she says. “This includes some sewing-type patterns you can buy from the big-name pattern companies. People like KamuiCosplay and Yaya Han have brought it into the mainstream with their books and big box store products.”
Riot Rogers agrees: “I remember when foam started first being used more commonly in cosplay; before that it was more common to see people, at best, using thin 1mm sheets of craft foam, or making paper versions of armour and then fibre-glassing it. This was about 10 years ago, and it’s been fascinating watching foam go from a trade secret to becoming an absolute staple in cosplay and prop creation. Now, it’s not only easy to find, but it’s also available in different thicknesses and densities. I think it’s as common in a cosplayers arsenal as hot glue nowadays.”
The versatility of foam for costume design
When we asked our three cosplayers their favourite thing about foam, the answer was clear:
- “The best thing about foam has got to be that versatility” – Angel
- “The versatility is the best part in my opinion” – Riot
- “It’s super versatile!” – Caity
Using just a few tools, such as a heat gun, tinfoil, paint and craft knife, costume designers can make a sheet of EVA foam look like wood, metal, leather and even skin. The image below shows Caity’s Eowyn costume, based on the dynamic heroine of Rohan in Lord of the Rings. It may be hard to believe, but the helmet, bracers, chest plate, sword and sheath are all created from foam!
“My Eowyn costume, in a perfect world, would have had leather and metal armour,” she explains. “I, however, am not skilled in leather or metal smithing not to mention that it would cost A LOT of money to purchase the materials to do so. I ended up using ¼” EVA foam and small amounts of craft foam for most of that project.”
When is foam the right material?
When it comes to costume design, the choice of materials is endless. So, when is foam the right option?
For Angel, whose cosplays include characters from games such as Diablo III, Mass Effect and Final Fantasy XII, it all starts with planning: “Before I start any new project, I’ll try to gather all the reference pictures and videos I can, from as many angles as possible. Then I can start to deconstruct each piece to figure out what I need to make it, how it needs to be constructed and the best method for attaching it and keeping it in place. Once I get my head around that, I can get my materials together!”
Riot’s approach is similar: “Initially, I break a costume down into what it’s actual materials would be. A metal breastplate, a suede tabard, silk ribbon etc. Then, I choose my materials based on cost, comfort and whether or not I actually know how to do it. A metal breastplate is heavy and expensive to make, and I’m not a blacksmith – so that’s out. So, I look at alternatives, which might be sculpting and casting it out of rubber or, more often than not, fabricating it out of foam.”
“I used foam to make the bulk of my Evil-Lyn cosplay, specifically the metal armour and the raised detailing on the corset, because it’s a material I just find insanely easy to work with. I needed something affordable, and easy to shape and carve. But it also needed to keep its shape, be light and be comfortable.”
The finishing touches
One thing that all our cosplayers are passionate about is detail. It’s essential to selling the fantasy; that the characters people see in books and on screens are right in front of them.
Those unfamiliar with the intricacies of foam conversion are forgiven for conjuring an imagine of a flat block of foam – uninspiring, plain. But used in the right way, foam can add the most intricate of detail to costumes and props. For example, Caity, who has created costumes of The Wasp, Merida (from Disney’s Brave) and Bilbo Baggins, often uses foam “to add relief details to something to give it more of a 3D look.”
Angel agrees: “I tend to use a wide variety of foams, ranging from 5-10 for armour pieces, down to 2mm for more intricate areas. Once you start working with it, you can really begin to build up consistent levels of detail.”
Foam conversion meets costume design
As we know at TFS, conversion is all about turning foam into something else, something functional. The same is true for cosplayers, albeit it on a smaller scale. Walking around a packed convention hall – when space is tight and bumps are common – can lead to costume mishaps. So, increasing the durability of an EVA-based foam costume with additional materials is essential for serious cosplayers.
“Thermoplastics such as Worbla are great for this if you want a thin but sturdy covering,” says Angel. “Fabric works well too. You can wrap it over a foam shape and glue it in place on the underside. And because it’s still foam underneath, you can drill holes in it and pop in studs, rivets or any other finishing touch you might need.”
While foam is great for beginners to costume design, all our cosplayers spoke about the techniques and craftmanship required when using foam. Indeed, Riot notes that she you will rarely find materials that don’t work well with foam, “provided you use your brain a little”.
Angel offers an example: “Foams are tricky to get most things to stick to. You can’t just use any glue. Hot glue and contact (or barge) cements work the best. And you have to seal the surface before you paint it.”
“If you put it straight onto foam it just gets absorbed,” agrees Caity. “You have to seal the surface first, before you can apply paint – PVA, Mod Podge or specialist spray primers all do a great job. Once that’s down, you can get a beautiful smooth finish and top it off with lacquer for extra shine if you like.”
Of course, manufacturing on any scale, requires the upmost care and attention to health and safety – something Riot was keen to share. “In my first years using foam, and with a lot of cosplayers I see now, people don’t think to wear dust masks when sanding it, even when you get absolutely covered in black plastic dust all over your face and mouth.”
If you’re planning to use foam as part of your costume materials, we certainly echo Riot’s tip of wearing a respirator when gluing, spraying, sanding or soldering foam.
Sharing the passion
As you can see from the extraordinary designs featured in this article, the care cosplayers put into their work is truly awe-inspiring. Instead of simply buying a budget replica costume online, they spend enormous amounts of time and energy constructing their fantastical creations from raw materials. Why? Because they are passionate about what they are doing. That’s something we at TFS can certainly appreciate.
About our cosplayers
Angel Martin is a cosplayer based in Southampton, Hampshire. She got into cosplay by accident rather than design. Despite her love for video games, sci-fi and fantasy, she never gave conventions much thought and as such, she found cosplay fairly late compared to many in the community – she was in her thirties when she attended her first convention: MCM Expo, 2011. While her first costume was bought online, she quickly became determined that her next one would be self-made. She now loves making elaborate and accurate armour builds and competes in masquerades. She has previously won cosplay shows at EGX, LFCC and MCM.
Facebook: Littleblondegoth Cosplay
Riot Rogers is a freelancer seamstress and cosplayer based in London. She has been cosplaying for 14 years, recreating characters from film, television, anime, comics and video games. She’s been a judge in multiple cosplay competitions and now produces tutorial videos on costume and prop fabrication. She also has a bachelor’s degree in Prop Making for screen and theatre.
YouTube: Riot Rogers
Caity Stella has been cosplaying since 2013 and is currently based in Central, NY. Caity has a background in musical theatre, music performance and broadcasting, which sparked her interest in costume making. Her costumes range from comic book characters, to TV/movie heroes, to some Disney favourites. In 2017, she had the honour of being a contestant at the New York Comic Con Eastern Championships of Cosplay with her hand-crafted Eowyn (Lord of the Rings) costume. Her cosplays have also appeared on theonering.net and Rollingstone.com. She is currently developing a costume creation-based YouTube channel, that will feature tutorials, costume breakdowns and progress updates.
Facebook: Caity Stella Cosplay