Costume & Fabric

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Early Adventures in Cosplay

Images of Gloriana

I’ve been interested in clothes ever since I can remember, and it was very early in my life that the basic interest turned into an enquiry into why clothes are as they are, and why they vary so much throughout space and time. It’s still one of my most enduring passions. I’ve thought about it, researched, written about it, and made garments ranging from clothes for my younger siblings to wedding dresses and party outfits. I used to make costume for conventions and re-create historic dress, though now my costume work is restricted to doll-size garments. Doll clothes have certain advantages: they cost less, take less time to make and are easy to store, and the models never change size, have bad hair days or say “that’s not really my colour.” Still, I miss the thrill of seeing someone in an outfit I made.

I blame my family, of course. My mother and grandmother started telling me stories almost from birth, and they were stories from history as well as myths and fairytales; my father was a film fanatic who used to take his girls to the pictures on Saturday afternoon so my mother could have some time on her own. It all developed from there, a primordial soup of visual and verbal images that found expression in my love of fabric and form.

My earliest distinct memory is of lace. I was lying in the shade and hanging at the top of my field of vision, out of reach, was a beautiful pattern of loops and curves, white against blue, undulating gently. For years that image danced in my mind, unplaced and undated but always creating feelings of joy, wonder, warmth.  I was in my twenties when I told my mother about it, and she told me that in my first summer – I was a late February baby, so I was four to six months old – I had spent a few hours every afternoon in a big, old-fashioned pram parked in the front garden of my grandmother’s house. It was usual then for babies and children to spend as much time as possible in the fresh air. To keep the sun off my delicate skin, the hood of the pram was always kept up, and my grandmother tacked a deep border of white lace along the edge to provide a little extra protection from the sun and “to give her something pretty to look at.”

So many fabrics make up the patchwork of my childhood. I remember a beautiful Kelly green dress in Irish linen, with a white collar and a band of crochet lace along the yoke. I remember a summer cotton frock with a full skirt, scattered with a design of big, colourful liquorice allsorts. I remember the paper taffeta petticoats and white-on-white flowered nylon of a dress for the May Day procession, usually called “the Walking”, a major annual event in our Catholic community when schoolchildren dressed all in white and blue walked from church to school and back through the streets and lanes, singing, behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin garlanded with flowers and carried by our fathers.

I remember all these in pairs, because my sister Eunice, just over a year younger than me, was dressed identically until I was eleven. My younger sisters came along much later, starting with Angela when I was eight, and were also sometimes dressed alike, especially as they inherited our outgrown clothes. It didn’t take long for our individuality to wear down my mother’s love of symmetry, though. I made clothes for my baby brothers, shorts and romper suits, but they soon needed clothes that could withstand the rough treatment schoolboys give.

By then I was making costumes for school plays. I started making dresses for my dolls and paper dolls very early, and loved improvising fancy dress for parties. From school and university theatre I went on to spend a few years working in theatrical wardrobe, a useful lesson in subordinating historical accuracy to the necessities of time and budget.

When I moved to London for a more conventional job, I found new friends and a new outlet for my passion for costume in science fiction and media fandom. I went to my first science fiction convention in 1974, while costume was still a very minor part of the sf con scene, but I was already active in Star Trek fandom, where it was far more significant, and over the next few years I saw those two worlds collide and eventually re-align their orbits to overlap. I also helped to set up a historical re-creation group called the Far Isles, and was very active in writing, research and making costume. My early work was very rudimentary, but practice improves most things: some of my writing is still in use and some of the clothes are still wearable.

I’m still fascinated by clothes, ancient, modern and imaginary. So I might write some more about them here sometime.

10 thoughts on “Costume & Fabric

  1. I’ve recently been exchanging Facebook messages with my best friend’s daughter, who can now fit into costumes I made for her mother over 20 years ago. I’m eagerly awaiting photos!

  2. Also just put a headshot of myself as Atlanta Shore at a Fanderson convention in 1982 on my Facebook page. I really must get around to scanning some of my old photos from the days before digital.

  3. Oh Helen, we already shared a passion for anime (I have all of Anime UK/FX issues – and I live in Portugal) but I didn’t know we also shared the passion for costuming! When I started to get my Anime UK issues, I discovered cosplay through the pages of your magazine, I already loved to sew and to make costumes, so I became probably the first anime cosplayer in Portugal, I’m so happy for you to have inspired me in so many ways, and somewhat indirectly also in this fabulous activity that is costuming!
    I’m also very happy to have discovered your blog, although just now, and keep reading your articles. I’ve missed them since Anime FX ended… Thank you!

    • Hi there, great to hear from you! And your pioneering work was successful: I met another cosplayer from Portugal at AnimeIowa! Please send me some pics of your costumes, I’d love to see them.

      • I don’t have any from back then, film cameras and not many people carried them (most of the existing pics are with people I don’t meet often nowadays), but I can show you some of my latest, although I gained a lot of weight, so no more “anime-type-body” for me 😉
        Last year (but I made it around 2003-4) as Maetel (it all started with the suitcase, which was my Dad’s from the 60’s):
        This year as Yuuko Ichihara from the xxx HOLiC manga (snow episode), I also made the Mokona plushie:
        The blog posts are in Portuguese (you can try Google Translate if you wish), and you can also see the photos of other cosplayers at the annual Cosplay Photoshoot (at Carnival Tuesday) here in Lisbon. Cosplay has grown really popular lately here! And there are several people really great at it!
        I’ll be working on another Yuuko/Watanuki elaborate, very Victorian, cosplays (making a pair with a friend) but haven’t had the time to start them yet, although I have most of the materials already.

      • Wow, you look so gorgeous! Those are beautiful costumes, beautifully made, and they both really suit you. The ‘anime body’ is all very well, but if you get the fit & proportions right for your frame, anyone can wear anything.

        I also loved the Kamesennin (one of my favourite characters) and St. Tail, and it was great to see a proper Daily Planet Clark Kent and a Jack Skellington in there with all the anime cosplayers. You really have nurtured a wonderful cosplay scene in Portugal!

  4. Thank you Helen! I agree, one only has to know how to use the proportions to one’s own advantage! And this isn’t my last Yuuko cosplay, I love her as a character (it fits my personality) and her wardrobe is gorgeous, and CLAMP’s stuff is also really challenging and I love a good challenge!

    The Clark Kent is my best friend, he’s a huge Superman fan and I think he looks like Clark Kent a lot! I also loved the Kamesennin, he’s one of my favourite Dragon Ball characters and such a fun cosplay! I almost had a fit when I saw the Jack Skellington, I think “he” was a girl.

    • I love to see cosplayers step outside the norm. I can understand why so many people want to do the same charas at one time, but I think it’s more fun to stand out from the crowd and choose a costume that won’t be worn by 300 other people at the con!

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