Home » Essays » Some Thoughts on Costuming

Some Thoughts on Costuming

by Carol Resnick

I don’t know why other people go into costuming, but to me it is the thrill of visualizing a costume (or a presentation, as in 1979) and then making that visualization a reality. In truth, by the night of the competition, it’s all rather anti-climactic; I know long before then whether or not I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the cheers of the crowd; of course I do-and as Sandra Miesel says elsewhere, the biggest thrill and most sought-after accolades are those that come from my fellow costume-makers. I think perhaps my proudest moment in costuming came at the 1979 NorthAmericon: when our group came off the stage after our presentation, we were given a standing ovation from our competitors.

We all borrow from each other; it is the natural course of events. But I feel that lately too many costumes have been almost totally derivative of what went before. If there is a particularly stunning head dress one year, or an extremely effective use of colors or materials, you can be almost certain that these will turn up four or five times in the next year or two.

There is a difference between building on a theme and out-and-out swiping it, and I wish a few more costumers would make that distinction. I sometimes wonder if this practice has become more prevalent over the last five to ten years. I can only assume that some people are not aware they are plagiarizing.

Also, perhaps there is too much emphasis on winning: i.e., “Feathers won last year, so this year I’ll go in feathers.” Possibly this causes some newcomers to be afraid to try something different for fear they will not win.

Perhaps we need to make the masquerades less competitive, either by awarding more prizes, or by eliminating prizes altogether. I will never forget a costume panel I was on at a regional convention. A young girl stood up and complained that she and her group had not won a prize or even been given what she thought was due consideration by the judges at the previous Worldcon masquerade. She felt that to win, one had to be “well known” or produce a costume that looked like someone “well known” had made it. This may have been sour grapes; after all, many of the contributors to this magazine won prizes with their first costumes-but sometimes I can’t help wondering if there is some truth to what this girl said. Newcomers bring new ideas and fresh concepts to Costuming, and the more people who participate, the more fun it will be for us all.

Over the years, most presentations have been absolutely awful. Astrid’s “The Bat and the Bitten,” our own “The Avengers of Space,” and most of the Stopas’ costumes have been exceptions, but for every exception there have been 20 or 30 bombs.

My own feeling is that verbal presentations have never worked, and probably never will. Many humorous presentations are so poorly conceived and so inadequately rehearsed that the audience never quite understands what is going on. And I truly see no reason for a presentation to be an exact word-by-word or move-by-move replica of a scene from a book or a movie.

And yet, on the other hand, there are literally hundreds of presentation ideas worthy of being done. And certainly a good presentation is not eliminated from the top awards-two presentations have been given Best in Show in the past 11 years. It’s a neglected area that I feel deserves much more attention than it has been given.

I’m against it—which requires some explanation, since I was nude once and nearly nude on a couple of other occasions. So I’ll begin by saying that, obviously, I have no moral objections to nudity. But I do feel, unlike the bulk of costumers I’ve spoken to on the subject, that only a very small handful of costumes lend themselves to nudity and remain competitive.

The more flesh you expose, especially if you happen to be blessed with a good figure, the more attention will be taken away from what little costume you are wearing. I got around it as Lith (Torcon, 1973) by loading myself down with all kinds of things that had been mentioned in the story: a golden loom, frogs in cages, a tapistry, a grimmoire, feathers, etc., just as Julie Zell loaded herself down at the LACon in 1972. Nevertheless, the fact remains that you have considerably less than 60 seconds on stage, and if you are bare-breasted (or bare-whatevered) the audience is going to spend most of that time recovering from the initial shock before they notice-if indeed they ever do-that you are actually wearing a costume.

Nudity was very popular for a three or four-year period in the early 1970s-as witness many of the contributors to this magazine-but it seems to have gone out of vogue, and I truly believe the reason for this is the lack of nude costumes that will make you look like something more than simply a naked girl.

After wasting a couple of evenings back in 1973 proving to myself that there was no cheap and easy way to dye waist-length black hair a metallic gold, I said to hell with it, and appeared with my own black hair-and won Most Authentic anyway. Which reinforced a conclusion that I had already formed: it is more important to be true to the spirit of a story than to the letter.

The White Sybil, in Clark Ashton Smith’s story, was merely a pale girl who wore a diaphanous white veil, and the Ice Demon was a blue-green mist. Yet I built the costumes that the names and the flavor of the story inspired in me-and Lin Carter, who was then editing Smith’s work for Ballantine, came up later to say that he too had read the stories, and letter-perfect descriptions be damned: these costumes were what Smith was all about, even if he hadn’t so described them.

In all of my costumes I have tried to capture the mood the author was striving for in the story. Occasionally I’ll touch base with some portion of the description, but I honestly feel that a word-for-word representation of a costume would hamstring me artistically.

While accurate renditions of artists’ cover work excite my admiration-The Beauty and the Beast, 1978, springs to mind-I want to plead for more originality in costuming. After all, in our own small way, we are striving to create works of art, and the best art- though often derivative-is always unique and an artistic statement unto itself.

We breed and show collies, which means that 30 weekends or so every year we drive hundreds of miles to a show site, groom our dogs for hours, and then walk into the ring with them. We have about 60 seconds in which to make an impression on the judge, to show off all the dog’s good points and hide his bad ones, and we do this in front of a large audience. I think this has uniquely prepared us for masquerade competitions, where the conditions are much the same: driving (or flying) hundreds of miles, spending half a day getting ready, and then finding ourselves on stage with 60 seconds or less to make the best possible impression. We’re used to the time limitation, we’re used to playing up good points and hiding bad ones, and we’re used to competing before huge crowds. These three things-especially making the most of the time limitation-have served us very well. I think it’s something that most costumers take a number of years to fully adjust to, and yet if they don’t adjust they are doing their costumes a disservice.

When creating costumes for Mike and myself, I am continually cognizant of what can and can’t be done with our basic shapes. Mike, alas, is never going to pass for Tarzan or Doc Savage; on the other hand, he’s large (and appears larger on stage), which makes him a marvelous model for such creatures as Chun the Unavoidable and The Master of the Crabs, and he has excellent stage presence, which means he can also handle slapstick (1979) or an intricate mirror-image presentation (1976). But his brawn does have its limitations, and I could never make the kind of costume for him that, say, Drew Sanders wears so well.

As for myself, I have always had to watch my weight. Hopefully it doesn’t show in my costumes, but there are certain features I do try to de-emphasize. Also, I’m approaching my 38th birthday, and I have to make sure that I don’t choose a costume that makes me look like a silly middle-aged woman pretending to be 19 again. I have certain features I’m rather pleased with, and certain features I’d rather not think about-and, as Michaele Jordan points out elsewhere in this magazine, it is absolutely essential that you objectively evaluate what you can and can’t do, what you could look like and what you will never look like, before choosing a costume for yourself.

Originally published in Masquerade : The Magazine Of Science Fiction Costuming #1 (1980)

, , ,