The Problem With Judges
While my previous post spoke on why you may or may not have lost a costume contest, it holds one important assumption: the judges are qualified to judge. The entire premise of a craftsmanship contest is moot unless you have capable judges. Going into a contest, you trust that the people judging you are qualified, respectful, and professional. We may be dressed in crazy costumes, but our hard work deserves proper recognition; and unfortunately, this isn't always the case- for a variety of reasons.
1. Not all guests are created equal.
Conventions have various standards for choosing their cosplay guests: some go based on skill or awards, others social media following and popularity, some physical appearance, and even location, convenience, and price can be a factor. I'm not here to debate whether this is the best way to choose a cosplay guest, simply that not every cosplay guest is fit to judge a craftsmanship contest.
A cosplayer who cannot make their own costume shouldn't be judging a costume making contest. You'd think that would be obvious, but I see it all the time. It's perfectly fine to not make your own costumes; but if you don't have the knowledge and understanding of what goes into making something, you have no business judging it. They can have an opinion on a costume, just like I can have an opinion on food at a restaurant; but there's a reason I'm not on Master Chef. (For the record, I do make a pretty mean grilled cheese.) The same is true for any other guest at a convention: voice actors, photographers, animation directors, etc. If you can't make it, don't judge it. So if your cosplay guests are not qualified to judge your contest, find someone who is.
2. Where is the diversity?
The armor versus sewing debate is ongoing- so much, I often hear that conventions should hold separate contests or divisions for amor, sewing, and mixed media. Having been part of the logistics of a few masquerades, I can tell you that entrants always have a lot of questions. Splitting the type of crafting is only going to make the masquerade staff loose more hair. However, I do think having a diverse panel of judges will make judging more fair across the board.
Using myself as an example: I am a seamstress and am confident in my ability to judge sewing. I have done enough work with foam and thermoplastics where I know what to look for and critique. I'm by no means an amazing wig stylist but I know a thing or two about that, along with makeup, to decently judge on those aspects as well. However, when it comes to more advanced prop work (3D modeling/printing, sculpting, casting, woodwork, metal and chainmail), lighting, animatronics, or even mascot-type costumes, I am not fit to properly judge them. I understand the bare minimum to have an opinion on whether the work is clean, but I don't have the proper knowledge to tell if something was rushed, made properly, or even bought.
Off that previous point, this can lead to huge issues in judging. If a judge is unable to tell a contestant lied about a piece that was actually purchased, the contest is now tainted. This could completely throw off the winners of the contest and and could lead to damaging a convention's reputation. Judges should be able to either (1) tell by looking at a costume if something was purchased or (2) be able to ask the appropriate questions to figure out if the item in question was bought. I don't which questions to ask or how to verify an entrant did all the modeling for the piece they 3D printed or if they just bought the file.
You can have a qualified panel of judges, but if they are are sewing-based, who is looking at the other costuming aspects? I was lucky to be part of a diverse panel which included a talented prop maker and wig stylist. With our range of experience, we were able to judge all aspects of the costumes we saw that day. While this type of panel takes more work on the organizer's part, this will lead to a more equalized system. A more equalized system means a better turnouts for contest and potentially more convention attendees.
3. Dealing with the same judges repeatedly.
This can be an issue in smaller communities where there aren't as many experienced crafters who know how to judge. I know Vegas suffers from seeing my face at almost every event. While I absolutely love judging and supporting my local community, I know this is a valid complaint. Judges should be in rotation so the contest seems more fair- especially from an outsider's point of view. However, I've also seen masquerade organizers simply choose local cosplayers who aren't qualified or trained on how to judge over those more experienced crafters. This isn't optimal either.
Entering a contest is incredibly nerve-wracking for entrees, especially first-timers. When you let a group of cosplayers judge without proper experience or training, you will often get negative experiences including entrants thinking they aren't worth the judges time or inappropriate/unprofessional behavior. This is coming from first-hand experience of a friend who has been entering contests for years. This contestant almost left the judging room in tears because two of the judges didn't bother looking at her reference book, didn't ask her any questions about the costume, didn't bother to stand up and check the hems and quality of her costume, and overall didn't seem interested in anything a master level cosplayer had to say. That's heartbreaking and no one should have to feel that way coming out of the judging room. This isn't an isolated incident either; it happens to entrees across the US.
In the event that your local convention needs a larger variety of judges, start a learning system. Let a potential new judge (maybe last year's Best in Show or Best Craftsmanship) sit with two or three experienced judges so they can learn properly. Have panels where experienced judges can speak on the topic. There are a lot of options to broaden your local pool of judges; having your entrants cry or feel inadequate should never be an end result.
So then, what are the qualifications to be a judge? This isn't a be-all-end-all list; but hopefully event organizers can use this as a starting point to choosing judges that will elevate their events.
Confirm your judge can make their own costumes and that those costumes are up to a certain quality (not covered in hot glue, falling apart, poorly painted, fraying edges, etc.) A lot of cosplayers look great on Instagram with filters and Photoshop, but will have costumes literally safety pinned together. Don't be fooled by cool photos or social media numbers because that is not a representation of skill.
Verify they have judged before, preferably with pre-judging/craftsmanship judging. Many comic book conventions only have people walk a stage and you, essentially, pick whatever looks the coolest. That is not craftsmanship judging! This point is moot if you are bringing on a new judge to learn.
Check if they have entered a costume contest before. It's important that your judges know the process and can relate to your entrants as they are often scared or nervous. You should have the personal experience of what it's like to be judged and entering, before being on the other side of the table.
Know your judges skill sets. This goes along with my second point: don't have judges with the exact same skills (unless somehow they all know how to do everything). Get a variety of judges or judges with multiple skill sets to cover all your judging bases, or at least as much as possible.
Consider their professionalism. Your judges should be people who you trust because, at the end of the day, judging is a job. These are people who are representing your event, giving out awards, and sometimes handing out cash prizes. Make sure they are timely, considerate, compassionate, and have a decent amount of common sense.
Lastly, I believe the community as a whole bears a bit of the responsibility in making sure the judges are held to certain standards. This does not mean going on a temper tantrum because you didn't win. But you should voice your concern if you feel someone wasn't up to par for judging or if you had a negative experience. If you put in hundreds of hours on chainmail but none of the judges knew what chainmail was to properly judge you, that is a valid concern. Drop the con a polite email indicating that you'd like to see a more diverse panel next year. If a judge said something rude to you or treated you poorly, send a courteous message informing the staff of your experiences. Attendees hold more power than they know for these situations. If you feel your local convention can do better, I encourage you to say something. On the flip side, if you had a wonderful experience, please let the staff or judges know!
At the end of the day, we all want a well executed and fair event. Cosplayers and event organizers both work extremely hard to put on masquerades. And lets be honest, we wouldn't enter or work this hard if we didn't love it.
Photo credit to B Squared Photography