While people have different motives to enter a costume contest/masquerade at a convention, one thing is for sure: it sucks to lose.
You may often wonder why you lost. You may be quick to blame others in your group. You might think the judges are biased or weren't skilled enough to properly judge you. You might feel you got shafted because first place doesn't look that special. But as someone who has ten years of judging and competing experience, I'm going to bring some hard truth and say that it's probably your own fault that you lost. Let's look at this critically.
1. Did you bring your absolute A-game?
Many times you'll feel that you tried your absolute best on a costume, but in reality, you know that's not true. Did you spend months working on your costume to absolute perfection or did you wait two weeks before the convention and end up cutting corners? For example: gluing your applique instead of properly sewing it or skipping the filling and sanding stage on your Worbla? How about hot gluing things to yourself instead of applying proper closures? All these details are aspects the judges will notice and mark you down for. Look at how much time you spent on your costume versus how much time you should have spent.
Take a step and look critically at your work. Was it ironed? Do you see glue anywhere? Are there frayed edges? Did you properly sand, prime, and paint your props and armor? If you see a flaw, chances are the judges saw it too.
2. The top is nice, but what about underneath?
It's called craftsmanship judging for a reason: every inch of your costume will be critiqued. That means it's not just the outside the judges will look at, but the inside as well. How did you sew your seams? Are there raw edges on your fabric or is glue spilling out from your foam? There is almost never a good excuse for having raw edges on fabric, even if it's supposed to look distressed. There are ways to seal raw edges and keep a distressed look. Did you make the understructure (petticoat, hoop skirt, underwear, etc) or did you buy it? Making every look clean, especially the pieces you don't see, will always give you extra craftsmanship points.
3. Is it it tailored and proportional?
Just because you can put it on your body does not mean it fits. The fit on your costume is literally one of the most important aspects of judging. While it might be awesome you made a tunic made out of leather, if it doesn't fit, it doesn't matter. A well tailored garment will always outshine something that simply seems more advanced. Is your garment pulling in areas? Rippling in others? A well fitted garment sits flat and smooth when in a standing and relaxed position- does yours?
The same goes for prop and armor work. Are your props scaled to you? Does the armor make you look like a box or bulky in a bad way? How do your bracers fit around your arm? Too big? Too small? Tailoring isn't just for sewing, it's also a major part in armor as well. And I stress this again: just because you can wear it, doesn't mean it actually fits.
4. Flashy isn't everything!
Just because you come in as a Gundam with lights and sounds and moving parts, doesn't mean you will automatically win. Is your Gundam cool? Hell yeah! But how did you make it? What's the paint job like? How are things sealed? Did you do all the programming yourself or did someone help you? Did you do all the files on your 3D printing or did you just buy them?
I have given Best in Show to someone who cosplayed Luffy from One Piece. Yes, the Luffy with shorts, sandals, vest, and a straw hat beat out ball gown dresses and crazy light up armor. Why? Luffy made every single piece of their costume including making the leather sandals from scratch and weaving their own straw hat; not to mention, their tailoring was perfect. The costume was simple but literally flawless. You don't need a million components to win an award- you need proper craftsmanship.
5. How did you sell yourself?
You get five, maybe ten, minutes max with those judges- you better make them count. There's a solid chance you didn't utilize your time well enough, while the winner might have. Here are some tips to get the best milage for those few minutes.
Bring a physical book with references of your character, WIP photos, and write ups on parts that are extremely detailed. If you did research, put that in as well. Your entire costume should be documented and put in this book. This is important because (1) judges need references anyway and just going off your phone makes viewing very difficult and (2) if you run out of time the judges can look through the book and see details you may have missed mentioning. If you have amazing details on your costume but don't get to them, the judges don't know they exist! You can't be given a higher score if the judges don't see your hard work.
Have a plan of attack before getting there. I cannot tell you how many times people ask "I don't know where to start" or go on a tangent about how much they love the character instead of speaking about their costume. I always say "start from the top and work your way down" as a general guide, but you should have a plan on what to talk about and emphasize on your costume before being judged.
Do not point out your flaws unless (1) a judge asks you specifically and you shouldn't lie about it or (2) a flaw turned into a learning experience and you were able turn a bad situation around. Judges are human as well; so while we are looking closely, we often miss things. Best to take that chance. Also, you only have a few minutes, don't waste time talking about the negatives in your costume.
Be presentable. If you come in out of breath, struggling, throwing a temper tantrum, acting rude or entitled, you won't make a good impression with the judges. Think of your time there like an interview. It's ok to be nervous, it happens to the best of us. But this is your time to shine! You are literally trying to sell us your costume and we need to know why you should win. Take a deep breath and be confident in your work.
Your costume isn't just sewing or prop work, it's everything. If you put a lot of time and effort into your wig- tell the judges! If you specialize in makeup or did your makeup in a way specifically for that character- tell the judges! If you are wearing a scent that represents your character- tell the judges! I've had people make in-character underwear for themselves- please tell us about it! Every little piece of hard work that you put into your costume is worth talking about.
This should be obvious but this happens nearly every time I judge: DO NOT LIE. Judges are picked for a reason and will be able to see through the lies on your costume. Don't pretend you made something when you didn't- they will find out. Do not lie about your level, credentials, or awards you won for the same costume you're entering- they will find out. If you are caught lying, you are almost always disqualified and shadow banned.
6. Did you work the stage?
Yes, presentation matters, even if you're just doing a simple walk-on. Were you dynamic? Did you pose? Did you quickly shuffle off the stage before anyone could take a photo? Did you linger on stage for longer than necessary? Best in Show is almost always a combination of best craftsmanship and best performance; so you need to put thought into what you're doing on stage. It doesn't have to be an elaborate show with lazar beams; but it should be clean, rehearsed, and in character.
7. It may not be you.
This is tough to say, but you aren't always the reason you lost. I see this a lot in groups: you'll have a few journeymen, a master, and a couple of novice. Most contest require you to enter at the highest skill leveled individual in your group; so even though your group has novices, you'll have to enter as a master level. While judges try to be understanding in those situations, your group is still entered at master and needs to be evaluated along side other master level entrees. Another instance I often see in a group is when one entree put their heart and soul in their costume and performance while their partner does not. Both members of the group have to be evaluated equally and you're only as good as your weakest link.
Honestly, and again this is tough but, sometimes someone just does something better. I once spent two hours judging with my fellow panelist- TWO HOURS. We debated on the top two for quite awhile because both were flawless costumes but only one could win. Judging is not easy. It hurts to see someone upset for losing when they had a truly magnificent costume. Sometimes, there's just something a little better even though you gave it your all. That doesn't mean your costume is bad or unworthy of an award- that's just how the game works.
There are, roughly, a billion and twelve aspects that go into choosing the winners in a costume contest. There's no guideline or checklist of things to do to make sure you win- sometimes it goes to an armor makers, sometimes sewing-centered costumes, other times mixed media. For some judges, they look for people who are learning new skills and trying new things but that isn't the be-all-end-all either. The only consistent thing for winning is cleanliness in your costume.
While it's not the same as walking away with a huge trophy or cash prize, you should be proud of what you have accomplished. Most people can't sew a button back on a jacket but you made an entire costume. It takes a lot of confidence to not just go face-to-face with experienced judges, but to walk a big stage and perform in front of hundreds or even thousands of people. Be proud of all that you've done and use the loss to better yourself and your craft.