Costume Research & Practice for Fiction Writers: “What in the World are They Wearing?” Creative Writing Workshop- Jennifer McGrew, FYRECON 2017







Handout, notes and a summary from our time together on Saturday, June 10, 2017:


These are some of my general outline notes, summarizing things we did and talked about and why.  They should help make sense of the combined materials, especially if you’re seeing all this for the first time and want to try some of these techniques.  Please feel encouraged to share your costume research/writing goals, strategies, challenges and triumphs in the comments. Happy writing, everyone!


1.       We read and analyzed excerpts from several pieces of fiction featuring wearables (I removed the authors’ names as well as the book or story titles so you wouldn’t be distracted by them). We summarized your thoughts on the whiteboard, then discussed your ideas. I’ve added scans of these plus the authors’ and publishers info at the end of this material.


2.     We summarized general costume research strategies and goals. Much of this material (pasted further down) is from Cunningham’s, The Magic Garment. We didn’t add too much to it, as her summaries are pretty comprehensive. The overlap in purpose for research seems to be equally important for both verbal and visual designers!


3.     We talked briefly about how critics and theorists define genres in fiction that features costume. Hopefully, a big takeaway for you here is György Lukács’ eventual assessment that the “historical novel” doesn’t actually belong in its own genre, but instead in the genre of “realism.” Perhaps knowing this can alleviate some anxiety whenever you encounter those heated debates about facile, poorly-researched “costume dramas” or “bodice rippers” vs. more esteemed “historical fiction.” Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how to present your book to publishers and/or your public, (though they may take issue with your definition).


4.    You created some new sample paragraphs by combining a few (randomly chosen) costume periods and terms from sections in Wilcox’ book with descriptions of visual and psychological costume attributes in Cunningham’s book. Your sample paragraphs were so creative and awesome in response to the prompts!


Each paragraph was a great new synthesis of visual content and meaning, shall we say, things from column A plus things from column B, driven by an both an emotional perspective and an action. Our first one was “surprise,” when you had your character from the French Revolutionary period surprise a group of others. The second asked you to work with the emotion of “jealousy,” using some clothes from 1930’s France that names designers who created them (in Wilcox’ book). Really fun and productive.


5.     We discussed some strengths and weaknesses of analogy, the operating principle underlying many of the choices writers make when building their characters’ worlds as well as their wardrobe. We read an excerpt about caricature and analogies from Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. In your writing, you, too, are also borrowing existing systems of wearables, technology and culture, as well as perhaps inventing new systems that will have analogues with objects and systems already in existence. Your whole mental process requires equal amounts of creativity and consistency.


6.     Finally, you generated a list of ten new fantasy/alien words which we used to fill out a mad-lib that I made for us. This was to underscore the importance of analogy- – in getting around to getting the words you really want in your work. If the fast technique works for you, you can write your ideas out fast, then later edit and swap placeholder words with new ones you invent, or specific terms you discover while researching specific historical periods!



First, the Research: What is it that you’re actually searching for?



Factual info: History, current events, science, craft. Diligent effort required.




Evocative info: You need to have an open mind so you can free associate among sources that share, illuminate and project the essence of your plot, characters and theme.


Cunningham lists the following in The Magic Garment: Principles of Costume Design, 49-51. We didn’t add much to this list.



Social mores of the time and how these affect dress and manners.

Views on courtship and roles of men and women.

Erogenous zones of the body and areas considered sexually provocative.

What colors were used and why?

What materials and dyes were available?

What kinds of work were performed?

What leisure activities were enjoyed? Permitted?

Were special garments worn for work or play?

What differences were established between age groups, married and unmarried, rich and poor?

What was the political system under which the characters lived?

What religious beliefs were held?

How did these beliefs affect dress and manners?

What assumptions were made about people based on their dress?

How did they view themselves in relationship to the world?


My Thoughts on Fruitful Sources for Fiction Writers (in some ways, this reverses the typical hierarchy, or prioritization of “sources”that designers usually draw from when they create live, staged or visual performances).


1.     Illustrations based on period paintings.

The ones in costume history books and textbooks, etc. These books generally include good basic historical outlines of wearables, great starting points for period research, plus definitions of clothing parts and pieces. Often in black and white drawings (these won’t prejudice you with any use of color because ultimately YOU are the definer of color). Gives you some basic vocabulary and a great lexicon of terms you can play around with as you write. (I’ve brought along R. Turner Wilcox’ The Mode in Costume and James Peacock’s The Chronicle of Western Fashion to show.)

2.     Writers discussing what people are wearing in their own time periods.

Especially opinion-pieces, editorial style writing and political cartoons! These give you interesting insights into partisan points-of view plus how language and terms get used rhetorically, especially when a writer has an ax to grind. We looked at a political cartoon from the late Victorian era in which tightly corseted women appeared in caricature as ‘silly geese.”

3.     Actual costumes in archival or museum collections.

(costume designers often consider period paintings to belong to this “primary source” category, too). Find yourself stunned and awestruck at the beauty and history in front of you when you’re looking at real period costumes. Great for evocative inspiration.

4.     Specific histories written by real scholars about particular subjects.

(I’ve brought along Charles Henry Ashdown’s History of Arms & Armour, Reay Tannahill’s Sex in History, and Valerie Smith’s The Corset: A Cultural History as examples of these).  Important features of books like these include historians’ disagreements about terminolgy and/or how and why certain fashions prevailed, how items were worn, by whom and why.  Also important to note is that these types of reliable authors always historicize their subjects. In other words, they don’t (or at least try not to) impose current sensibilities, customs or opinions on their historical subjects or periods of interest.





Some charts from Cunningham’s The Magic Garment.


In our workshop, we had you experiment with a few of these charts in several writing prompts. We asked you to initiate an emotion and an action using several costume pieces and parts you selected (ones we pulled at random from Wilcox’ The Mode in Costume). The workshop idea here is that sources such as these, used together, can give you great ingredients and ideas for invention.


Cunningham: Expressing personality and character traits with costume




Cunningham: Major color associations of western European and American Cultures



Cunningham: Historical color symbolism



Cunningham: Effects of texture


Cunningham: Expressing age and rank in costume features



Cunningham: Advancing and receding effects of design elements and principles


Try them all- use your delicious wordsmithing!


Describe how the light and its direction illuminates your characters and makes them emotionally “look” to others. Use shapes and textures of clothing and its parts to define your characters’ personalities, motives and inner conflicts. Use colors to make groups of your characters aware of the ‘otherness’ of other groups! Use all these and have fun playing with them (Don’t forget, there are many more interesting charts in Cunningham’s book and you can pick up a copy through Amazon for about eight dollars…. It didn’t seem proper to scan tooo many of her pages, even though we are using them for educational purposes here!).




Don’t. Forget. Your. Synonyms.


If you’re drawn to a word or concept in Cunningham’s charts, consider expressing it with analogous words! For example, check out all these synonyms for the word, ‘silky’.


Next, we’re talking more about analogies.



If your characters are hominid-like, they’ll likely need clothing to fit two arms, two legs, etc.  If their biology is more alien, you’re going to need to create a new system of clothing for them and their world.  This next excerpt from Surfaces and Essences is funny and demonstrates the use of analogy in caricature or in its extreme forms.  You can use this method along whatever exaggerated sliding-scale you wish when you apply borrowed historical systems you’re researching, or inventing some brand new ones for your characters and their worlds:



Next, I’ve written us a little mad lib.  

We’re going to play with analogies some more by swapping words with new ones you invent for us:


    1. Swear word or curse phrase in an alien or fantasy language


    1. Alien or fantasy male first name


    1. Male clothing item in an alien or fantasy language


    1. Name of an alien or fantasy tribe


    1. Name of another alien or fantasy tribe


    1. Alien or fantasy female first name


    1. Alien or fantasy female article of clothing


    1. Name of alien or fantasy female’s tribe


    1. Name of alien or fantasy deity


  1. Name of an alien or fantasy yearly holiday


(I’ll search for the one we filled out in class- it’s great. If I can find it I will definitely update this post).







     “__________!”, ________ spat in pain and disgust.


     His newly bartered for _____________ was completely ruined. Blood, inextricably mixed with some sort of mysterious looking green slime oozed fast from his cut, then kept right on bleeding through the jagged rip in his clothing.


     “I’ll never pass for a ___________ now,” he moaned.


     Sweating and cursing more, he unfastened and took it off as quickly as he could, then scrabbled through his napsack for something to stop the bleeding. Looking around wildly, he ducked at a sudden noise. The ___________ might still be in this area, and they were hungry for revenge. They’d shoot more arrows at him again, enjoying any occasion they had to do so. He kept his head down. Hastily, grabbing ____________’s __________ out of his bag, he pressed it, wincing, hard against his wound.


     “Oh the levels of irony,” he muttered to himself. “This hurts like hell, but nothing’s ever hurt me like that stupid ___________ female. I was an idiot to think she’d ever stay true. Or that she’d ever even tell the truth about one single damn subject. I nicked her lacy girl thing once when she wasn’t looking and have been carrying it around for two years ever since, for this?? This?? I’m an idiot.”


     He sighed as he remembered how her naked skin looked without it on, luminescent but still somehow rather like a shark’s under the moonlight . Tying it, finally, around his wounded limb, he knew he needed to move. He knew he’d better get back to the outpost quickly and find a good tailor. And probably a doctor. He’d bled before, that’s for certain, from minor skirmish wounds and clumsy accidents, but this greenish-oozy blood put the fear of _________ in him and his deadline for passing as a _______________ at the  ________________  was approaching fast.






We’re getting near the end, so What are some of YOUR costume writing challenges, triumphs and payoffs? Would love you to share these by keeping in touch with me and posting comments!


Below are four different writing samples (truncated ones) that we read at the beginning of the session. The idea was for you to get your mind working to identify operations and principles the writers used in creating their systems of wearables. In most of these cases, there’s an analogous Earth antecedent or origin.






Here’s the first one: It’s

Hartmann, Gregor. “What the Hands Know.” Fantasy & Science Fiction.  May/June 2017, pp. 145-162.

This was on the Free Stuff Table downstairs at FyreCon registration! I love free stuff. I picked it up, started thumbing through it, and found this part containing wearables that seemed quite interesting to talk about. Makes me want to run this by a physics professor and ask how a non-Newtonian thing could operate in another context.




This next exerpt is from Starship Troopers and you can read this whole novel online! In fact, I URGE you read it. An important, important book and NOTHING like Verhoeven’s film (even though the movie is kinda fun in its own way). This book is actually a study in civics and moral philosophy, and I wonder if it’s more relevant than ever, given our current political and social climate. If you like, let’s read it together and discuss! It’s been a long time since I’ve really sat down and read the whole thing.


The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the “Fourth”), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War” if we call it anything, which we usually don’t, and in any case the historians date the beginning of “war” after the time I joined my first outfit and ship. Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy a farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war.


But, to tell the truth, a soldier doesn’t notice a war much more than a civilian does, except his own tiny piece of it and that just on the days it is happening. The rest of the time he is much more concerned with sack time, the vagaries of sergeants, and the chances of wheedling the cook between meals. However, when Kitten Smith and Al Jenkins and I joined them at Luna Base, each of Willie’s Wildcats had made more than one combat drop; they were soldiers and we were not. We weren’t hazed for it — at least I was not — and the sergeants and corporals were amazingly easy to deal with after the calculated frightfulness of instructors.


It took a little while to discover that this comparatively gentle treatment simply meant that we were nobody, hardly worth chewing out, until we had proved in a drop — a real drop — that we might possibly replace real Wildcats who had fought and bought it and whose bunks we now occupied.


Let me tell you how green I was. While the Valley Forge was still at Luna Base, I happened to come across my section leader just as he was about to hit dirt, all slicked up in dress uniform. He was wearing in his left ear lobe a rather small earring, a tiny gold skull beautifully made and under it, instead of the conventional crossed bones of the ancient Jolly Roger design, was a whole bundle of little gold bones, almost too small to see.


Back home, I had always worn earrings and other jewelry when I went out on a date — I had some beautiful ear clips, rubies as big as the end of my little finger which had belonged to my mother’s grandfather. I like jewelry and had rather resented being required to leave it all behind when I went to Basic… but here was a type of jewelry which was apparently okay to wear with uniform. My ears weren’t pierced — my mother didn’t approve of it, for boys — but I could have the jeweler mount it on a clip… and I still had some money left from pay call at graduation and was anxious to spend it before it mildewed. “Unh, Sergeant? Where do you get earrings like that one? Pretty neat.”


He didn’t look scornful, he didn’t even smile. He just said, “You like it?”


“I certainly do!” The plain raw gold pointed up the gold braid and piping of the uniform even better than gems would have done. I was thinking that a pair would be still handsomer, with just crossbones instead of all that confusion at the bottom. “Does the base PX carry them?”


“No, the PX here never sells them.” He added, “At least I don’t think you’ll ever be able to buy one here — I hope. But I tell you what — when we reach a place where you can buy one of your own, I’ll see to it you know about it. That’s a promise.”


“Uh, thanks!”


“Don’t mention it.”


I saw several of the tiny skulls thereafter, some with more “bones,” some with fewer; my guess had been correct, this was jewelry permitted with uniform, when on pass at least. Then I got my own chance to “buy” one almost immediately thereafter and discovered that the prices were unreasonably high, for such plain ornaments.


It was Operation Bughouse, the First Battle of Klendathu in the history books, soon after Buenos Aires was smeared. It took the loss of B. A. to make the groundhogs realize that anything was going on, because people who haven’t been out don’t really believe in other planets, not down deep where it counts. I know I hadn’t and I had been space-happy since I was a pup.




The next text is from “Custom Fitting” by James White (a novella I’ve been grappling with for a long, long time now in my life as well as in my profession as a tailor and costume designer. I have a lengthy essay about it– and related things– a text that’s been through many changes and might even get published somewhere, someday). I’m somewhat stuck at the moment.

But I scanned the whole text of White’s novella and it’s here:


It is the ONLY assigned reading I ever give our costume shop interns. I’ll discuss this with you if you contact me and want to have a serious chat about it:)






This next one is from Stephen R. Lawhead’s Taliesin (The Pendragon Cycle, Book 1). New York, EOS, 1987. Print.

It’s from one of our shop’s interns, Nathan. In prepping for this workshop, I asked him, “Hey so what are you reading right now, and does it have parts detailing what characters are wearing?”  He was kind enough to make these scans for me!






Ashdown, Charles Henry. An Illustrated History of Arms & Armour. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1988. Print.


Cunningham, Rebecca. The Magic Garment: Principles of Costume Design. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press Inc., 1989. Print.


Hartmann, Gregor. “What the Hands Know.” Fantasy & Science Fiction.  May/June 2017, pp. 145-162.


Hofstadter, Douglas R, and Emmanuel Sander. Surfaces And Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2013. Print.

Lawhead, Stephen R. Taliesin (The Pendragon Cycle, Book 1). New York, EOS, 1987. Print.


Peacock, John. The Chronicle of Western Fashion from Ancient Times to the Present Day. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. Print.


Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 2007. Print.


Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980. Print.


Vincent, W.D.F, and R.L Shep. Tailoring Of The Belle Epoque. 1st ed. Mendocino: R.L. Shep, 1991. Print.


White, James. “Custom Fitting.” 1976 in Stellar #2, a science fiction anthology published by Random House division Ballantine Books.


Wilcox, R. Turner. The Mode in Costume. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958. Print.


Williamson, Gordon, and Darko Pavlovic. German U-Boat Crews 1914-45. 1st ed. London: Osprey, 1999. Print.


NOTES and Outtakes


-mostly notes to myself in prepping for this workshop-


Remind attendees about György Lukács’ views regarding the “historical novel” actually not being its own genre, but belonging to “realism.” Should make them heave a sigh of relief. Maybe?


Soooo much anxiety about “historical fiction” vs “costume romances” or “bodice rippers”. Do we talk about this?


Novel vs. the short story form. The latter more archetypal in nature. Theory and criticism re: these forms. Probably more interesting to me because of what I’m grappling with at the moment. Save discussion of this for another time.


LOTS of interesting articles about genre, critical theory, costume and apeshit hair-splitting. These are indeed interesting but it seems a better choice to abstain from too much academic stuff and just really focus on workshopping some useful tools instead. Yes. Do not include all these links. Too esoteric for this setting.


Workshop Overview


In this interactive workshop we’ll be analyzing excerpts from several pieces of fiction, discussing strategies and challenges involved in doing costume research, summarizing how critics and theorists define genres in fiction that features costume, plus we’ll discuss some strengths and weaknesses of analogy, the operating principle underlying many of the choices writers make when building their characters’ worlds as well as their wardrobe. If you’re creating fiction, you can use many of the same costume research strategies used by performing arts designers when you develop your characters and what they’re wearing. To encapsulate all these topics in our final conversation, we want to talk about your specific questions, challenges and triumphs with your own fictional characters and their wearables.

early mad-lib draft


“Dammit!”, Horatio spat in pain and disgust. His pants leg was completely ruined. Blood, inextricably mixed with some sort of mysterious looking green slime oozed fast from his cut, then kept on bleeding through the jagged rip in his clothing. “I’ll never pass for a scroundling now,” he moaned. Sweating and cursing more, he unfastened and took it off as quickly as he could then scrabbled through his napsack for something to stop the bleeding. Looking around wildly, he ducked at a sudden noise. The armadillos might still be in this area, and they were hungry for revenge. They’d shoot more arrows at him again, on any occasion they had. He kept his head down. Hastily, grabbing Svetlana’s blouse out of his bag, he pressed it hard against his wound.  “Oh the levels of irony,” he muttered to himself. “This fucking hurts like hell, but no one’s ever hurt me like that stupid Tanzanian female. I was an idiot to think she’d ever stay true. Or that she’d even tell the truth about one single thing, ever. I stole her lacy girl thing and have been carrying it around for two years for this?? This”?  Looking at the weird blood now clotting it and tying it finally around his limb, he knew he should move, and fast. Determined, he knew he needed to get back to the outpost and find a good tailor. And probably a doctor, too. He’d bled before, from minor skirmish wounds and stupid accidents, but this greenish-oozy blood put the fear of Ralph in him and his deadline for showing up at the christmas party was approaching fast.




My pic and bio- from



Crotch Maintenance and Repair (NSFW?)



Here’s a jeans repair process that help soooo many people!


It’s not always glamour projects and new wardrobe in the costume studio! Favorite jeans and thunder thighs eventually lead to maintenance and repair situations. We perform quite a few of these procedures here!


I’m using my own jeans here to show you (this is Jen). And my jeans here are women’s 515 Levis. The butt area fabric is worn pretty dang thin and there are already some holes in the inner thigh areas.


These repairs always remind me of making riding breeches and jodpurs with extra fabric on purpose in the seat and inner thigh, in advance of someone needing it.


First,  turn the jeans inside out. Stick a tailor’s ham underneath the crotch/butt area so it’s elevated and you’re staring straight down at it.  Flatten out each area at a time, then drape and trace some muslin pattern pieces for areas that need coverage and reinforcement. You can create your pattern piece’s mirror-image by folding the muslin in half, then cut.


Keep your new patch pieces as flat as you can, as well as the jeans’ crotch area.




Be thrifty. Make your patches from legs of other recycled jeans that are a good color/texture match.


Below, I’ve already cut my first patch piece from recycled black denim and have glued it in place. I used barge cement because it was on the table and handy.  Almost any fabric glue will work. If you glue your pieces, it’s easier to stitch them on than if you’ve pinned them. Put some weights on them and let them set and dry before sew.




To reinforce this butt area I’m making two of these pieces and I’m avoiding the jeans’ existing flat-felled seam areas here so the layers won’t be too bulky for my sewing machine.


You can feel the seams underneath the areas you’re tracing.  You get better results with multiple pattern pieces. They’ll lay flatter and you’ll achieve a better overall result.  A pants crotch/butt is a curvy area and there’s no way to do this with just one pattern piece!








Below: All my patch pieces are cut out and glued down. You can see my chalk lines defining the shape and borders. I’m attempting perfect butt symmetry here.




Now get your free-arm sewing machine threaded up in a matching color and stitch your patches on. Keep all your fabrics flat and pucker-free. It’s why you are applying two or more patches rather than one big patch.




I straight-stitched them on, then went around a few times with a zig zag stitch. I want the patch edges to not curl up or fray. If your machine has a low gear like this great old Viking does, use your low gear in the bulkiest areas for more control, power and less chance of needle breakage.


Enjoy your repaired, reinforced jeans! This process is good for those old favorites where you (or your client) don’t mind a bit of frankenstein-ing.






I’ve had these jeans for years and they’ve already been through some previous alterations.  I lowered the back pockets (which were too high on the booty) plus shortened and tapered the legs (which were too long and too wide).


When I removed my jeans’ back pockets to reattach them, I did this when they were new, so it’s almost impossible to see the previous stitching marks.




When it comes to jeans, women seem to be pretty picky about what works for us and what doesn’t. I think it’s a universal refusal to unquestioningly accept whatever manufacturers put out there!


Maybe sometime in the future I’ll re-dye these jeans with some nice, intense intense fiber-reactive dye. That’ll get them nice and black again like when they were new!
My old faves…. sigh.

Production Designers Can and Should Help You Develop Your Script: (What I mean when I say I work in script development).


Writers and producers bring scripts to my colleagues and me so we can write bids for costume design, production design and line production. We do this for a fee because we ask that our clients be serious, plus our time and expertise is valuable. You’re probably familiar by now with Josh Olson’s famous I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script, and we, too, usually say no to doing too much work for free. If you’re paying us and treating us as serious associates, though, we are very interested in helping clients develop their scripts, and we take this job very seriously.

However, we may not be able to do our best pre-emptive work by the time someone finally arranges to come in and talk to us about costumes, locations, sets, props, miniatures and practical effects. Our shop is sometimes a script’s final destination, instead of its first. And this is not always a good thing for two reasons: If made with the script as-is, the final film product may really suffer from low production values. You should have seen us sooner. Plus, our responses to scripts are sometimes not what writers and producers want to hear. In a sense, the buck may stop with us.

This is neither funny nor punny because our work is sometimes negatively categorized as “below the line” of the usual “executive” production team. But we are your necessary eyes, scholars, hands and co-creators. As artists and art directors, we are materialists, bringing your script to life. The things we create for the world of your film need to be as beautiful and as credible as your script is. We are super-nerdy like that and are passionate about splitting hairs over historical facts, arcane subjects and technical terms. Because like you, we are consumers who love and appreciate good film, we will always play the devil’s advocate about your script’s content. We’re artists, and we owe it to the medium we love, so we won’t mince words.

Here’s how the script development process usually rolls inside our production design studio:


I am interviewing you!  I have to believe in you and your product.


I’ll first ask you where your script is in its development.

Have other eyes seen it, how many, and whose? What were some responses those readers had? How many rewrites has this script been through? How many issues or problems with your script do you already think you’ve resolved and how did you do it?  Who else is already attached- meaning other producers, director, crew and talent? Who is your distributor and what are the specifics of how this film will be released and viewed? Where are you at with your budget?


If you think it sounds like I’m interviewing you for a job, you are exactly right!

If I agree to sign my shop on to your production and design items for your film, it means I’m investing in your film. I’m attaching my name as a producer or costume designer to your project.  The stakes are high for me, my colleagues and my staff. So your script needs to have a good story and must actually be produce-able.

But since everything’s negotiable, too, we might be willing to produce the physical assets your film needs at a lower price-point if you already have a marketable director or actor attached. I might also agree to take some of our payment on deferment.


Sometimes we work as mercenaries in the production design business.

If you already have a decent budget, our shop might agree to create your film’s physical assets just for the work, regardless what we think of your script. We’ll do this sometimes during slow months or in-between big projects.  We may stipulate through an agreement that you will show us a rough, then a final cut, and we reserve the right to omit our association in the credits if the end product’s a real dud.

Those things being said, as production designers and art directors, we want to create a quality product, so we’re never going falsely praise a script that has issues!

Before I’ll even write you a bid or consider breaking down your script into my spreadsheet that includes head-counts for character and extras, their costume changes and costume multiples for continuity, I may confront you about some of the following common issues and I will ask if you’ll consider rewriting before you go into pre-production


The “common issues” include some of these:


Your script is too wordy.

Your story’s not being told with enough visuals. Film is a visual medium and your story should be told that way. As designers, we are film consumers, too, and we know overwriting when we see it or read it. I’ll go see theater if I’m craving a story told predominantly through dialogue. There’s always a Shakespeare or Sam Shepard production playing somewhere. I want to see that you know how your shots and cinematography are going to tell your story.

Your script contains awkward anachronisms.

Your script has anachronistic technology references, dialogue, attitudes or enculturated behaviors that don’t fit. A Harvard-educated scientist with redneck speech leaves me scratching my head unless your character is behaving ironically. And cell phones don’t belong in films about the 1980’s any more than feminism and political correctness belong in the 1880’s. Unless your story involves time-travel, these are distracting and your product may suffer from the old Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman problem. Revise your script. Don’t be a historical revisionist just because you want to further a personal agenda. We see this a lot in scripts from Utah, actually. Please. We want to be moved by your story, not preached to.

Your script is too populated with supernumeraries.

Your script has superfluous characters whom you drop in as bit players but don’t include later. As is said in so many creative or expository writing workshops, “don’t drop the thread.” If it’s a speaking role, make a decision about that small town store owner who exchanges philosophical barbs with your main character. Or that frat-boy bully who runs interference in your protagonist’s goal to get the girl. Their interactions are dropping hints for your audience, so don’t abandon the inclusion of these character in your story’s resolution. If you can’t do it, cut them. Wrap up all your loose ends.

Your main characters’ motivations aren’t clear and aren’t resolved.

After reading your script, I might code switch into my old theater director’s persona and flatly ask you, “What does character X need?” And how does your script further  resolve (or not resolve) that character’s needs and desires? If you’re not sure and can’t verbally sum this up succinctly, and if your script is also unclear about these motivators, how will I know how to design the right costumes for this character as he or she proceeds through his/her journey? How will our production designer know if the props or set pieces are correctly designed and chosen?

My design and producing colleagues and I love great film and collaborating with great artists and writers.
In a part II of this thread, I’ll talk more about the process of designing for film projects once I have a firm handle on (as well as belief in) your script.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Cosplay and the Problem of Marxism But Were Afraid to Ask (The Idea of A Cosplay- History, Portability, Artisanship and Commodity)


     I watched in admiration as our technical cosplay judges at this year’s Salt Lake Comic Con actually got up out of their chairs and walked around to the front of their table to touch and get a closer look at the costume details of Hiccup and Astrid, made by Jeremy L. Bird and worn in the competition by her (yep, her name is Jeremy) son Ryan and his girlfriend Janessa. Their costumes were definitely amazing, taking 1st place in the Intermediate category.


Cosplayers Ryan and Janessa as Hiccup and Astrid. Salt Lake Comic Con, September 2014. Costumes made by Jeremy L. Bird. First place: Intermediate Category. Photograph courtesy Robert Hirschi, official cosplay competition photographer.

Cosplayers Ryan and Janessa as Hiccup and Astrid.
Salt Lake Comic Con, September 2014.
Costumes made by Jeremy L. Bird. First place: Intermediate Category.
Photograph courtesy Robert Hirschi, official cosplay competition photographer.


     It had been a long stretch that day, overseeing the preliminary cosplay adjudication, the cosplay first aid station, the stage show and competition, and watching our judges’ polite and helpful interactions with sooo many contestants- most of these interactions made from from behind their table, in seated positions. The materials used in Hiccup’s costume, Jeremy said, only cost $150, but as all the judges agreed, the work featured the use of some expertly cut and assembled bleach bottles, sculpey and an assortment of repurposed fabrics and household materials she’d expertly put together in a faithful, realistic replication of the character.


Salt Lake Comic Con technical judges Kamui Cosplay, Aaron Forrester and Daniel Falconer checking out the details of a contestant's costume and giving personal feedback. Photograph courtesy Robert Hirschi, official cosplay competition photographer.

Salt Lake Comic Con technical judges Kamui Cosplay, Aaron Forrester and Daniel Falconer checking out the details of a contestant’s costume and giving personal feedback. Photograph courtesy Robert Hirschi, official cosplay competition photographer.


     Raw materials in our current era of personal cosplay can be costly sometimes, but the cosplay artisanship itself tends to be more rewarded or appreciated than the value of materials used. If someone uses pure gold in a costume’s armor or a skin that’s inexpertly crafted or rendered, who cares? But if someone fashions a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and it has gorgeous workmanship, the item gets great kudos and big attention from admirers and cosplay judges alike. What we’re presently witnessing parallels the historic economy of materials and artisanship plus raises that timeless “art vs. craft” question as well as the question of value. Consider what young Juan says in one of my favorite novels, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, about Mr. Dubois, his high school ethics instructor:


He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

These kitchen illustrations demolish the Marxian theory of value – the fallacy from which the entire magnificent fraud of communism derives – and illustrate the truth of the common-sense definition as measured in terms of use.”

Dubois had waved his stump at us. “nevertheless – wake up, back there! – nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx, nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value … and this planet might have been saved endless grief.”


     I sometimes use that quote above during public presentations when I talk to producers and corporate people about what’s actually involved in designing and building costumes for films and events, but I can’t claim it’s something most people really get, unless they are also skilled- very skilled and accomplished at some sort of trade. They probably didn’t get the same level of indoctrination as I did with Marxism in college. – Yeech.


     Anyhow, artisanship didn’t always outweigh the value of raw materials in all trades, though, and the idea of a painting is, historically, a newer one. Arguably, our contemporary idea of a cosplay has evolved on a somewhat parallel path in terms of how a costume is situated in public or private space, as well as the materials, expenses and talents behind these works. M. Anna Fariello details the shift in perception and commodification of art and artisanship during the renaissance in an excellent essay, “Regarding the History of Objects,” in which she reminds us that painting evolved in response to specific economic social forces. In the renaissance, Fariello says, those not born into aristocratic families could now buy class.


The development of a merchant class, combined with a wider acceptance of secular humanism, allowed individual wealthy patrons to commission personal portraits, which, in turn, became tangible symbols of their wealth. To accommodate a patron’s desire for a personalized and portable status symbol, artists adapted methods used to create traditional wood altar-pieces to a smaller format, the painted panel. Thus, the idea of a painting was born. (10)


     The expansion of the merchant class changed everything.

The exploding popularity of cosplay in our highly mobile, commodity-hungry population mirrors this now.

The idea of portability is key and one can purchase or make the trappings of class for him/herself. A costumed person is a self-contained, mobile unit, and any painting on a wood panel travels better than a permanent fresco or painted ceiling. A renaissance family who buys that painting on a board can still display its status, even if it moves across town to another villa. Even if it’s a religious triptych of three images hinged together, the message is mobile.



Example of a hinged triptych by Hans Memling. A triptych is mobile propaganda, designed for a community’s learning and moral edification. It could travel to poorer churches way out in the boonies – to churches that maybe couldn’t afford to commisison artwork of their own.

     Historically, costumes, too, have stepped off the traditionally more stationary, pious, elevated stages of church steps and naves into secular theater spaces, public arenas and streets. We may be enjoying a renaissance now of 1960’s “happenings,” given the spontaneous performances you witness at any convention. Dramas communicated through costume, though, are still largely propagandistic from the top-down but they also work from the bottom-up, meant for the social programming and moral conditioning of whole populations. Now costumes are out there on secular occasions and convention floors and the individual cosplayer or costumed performer has become the buyer as well as the salesman. Cosplay artisans purchase their own class and status while simultaneously pitching the intellectual property belonging to corporations ranging from DC to Disney.


     Fariello describes how prior to the 15th century, materials were typically more expensive than the artist’s time, talent, or the painting process itself. Substances such as gold, lapis, rare pigments and chemicals could be hard to come by, plus they were expensive and difficult to process. Guilds heavily guarded their secret formulas and manufacturing processes for making things like pigments and glazes (8).  In the 14th or 15th century, a patron commissioning a new painting might indeed pay by the square foot, much like we’d pay for expensive slate flooring at the Home Depot today. The selection of which tile-layer should do the job might sometimes be a secondary consideration. Thus, many paintings created prior to increased availability of materials were typically commissioned only for permanent structures, churches, civic buildings, and public places. Places– that had most often held significant religious and cultural value.

Hiccup & Astrid, Salt Lake Comic Con 2014. Photo courtesy of Robert Hirschi

Hiccup & Astrid, Salt Lake Comic Con 2014.
Photo courtesy Robert Hirschi


     Similarly, value placed on theatrical costume by guilds who staged elaborate mystery plays, religious in nature, followed these trends. The fierce nature of guilds’ competition with other guilds fostered a keen artisan eye and rigor related to dramatic staging and accouterments. One could say we’re seeing history repeat itself in the form of group cosplay, skits and multiple characters who compete together. Robert Huntington Fletcher’s account of medieval theater contains some interesting reflection about how simple, symbolic and suggestive most of the set pieces were compared to the costumes that were given great details, elevated priority, and they were even stored from year to year in expensive caches. He provides some bookeeping evidence:


In partial compensation the costumes were often elaborate, with all the finery of the church wardrobe and much of those of the wealthy citizens. The expense accounts of the guilds, sometimes luckily preserved, furnish many picturesque and amusing items, such as these: ‘Four pair of angels’ wings, 2 shillings and 8 pence.’ ‘For mending of hell head, 6 pence.’ ‘Item, link for setting the world on fire.’ (110).


Here’s a great example of a group or “Mini Guild” entry: Galaxy Quest group.
Salt Lake Comic Con, 2014.
Photo courtesy Robert Hirschi



     In performance parlance, we could say that the idea of a cosplay has fully evolved along with our current era of democratized technology, availability of inexpensive materials, but the message of the dramas are no longer super relegated to Christian themes or characters. We do publicly celebrate ingenuity and frugality- those great American values. An awesome Iron Man costume made from cardboard is impressive, but it’s even more impressive when the maker has skillfully used time-consuming techniques with bondo or woodfiller putty plus endless hours of sanding and expert painting to create seamless, reflective beauty so that the cardboard resembles shining chrome.


     No longer in service to only religious dramas or even Hollywood icons, costumes have now and forever entered public space and now everyone can participate, purchasing or fashioning their own, even if what is usually being sold (the branded character) merely feeds back into the larger economic food chain. Guilds still form, compete and re-enact a new set of stories designed to teach our communities valuable moral lessons. But we are still being conditioned to display our status or talents while actively consuming and selling each other messages that during medieval theater used to come to us from scripture (and still come up in student essays about Spiderman’s big challenge to reconcile “great power with great responsibility”). And so it goes.

Adjudicating cosplay. Salt Lake Comic Con cosplay technical judges Melissa Spencer, Aaron Forrester and Tia Dworshak, with administrative help from Lynsey Marie Mitchell. Technical Cosplay Adjudicators, hard at work and taking their job very seriously. Photo, courtesy of Robert Hirschi

Adjudicating cosplay. Salt Lake Comic Con cosplay technical judges Melissa Spencer, Aaron Forrester and Tia Dworshak, with administrative help from Lynsey Marie Mitchell. Technical Cosplay Adjudicators, hard at work and taking their job very seriously. Photo, courtesy Robert Hirschi



Works Cited


Fariello, M. Anna and Paula Owen, ed. “Regarding the History of Objects” Objects and Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft. Ed. Anna M. Fariello and Paula Owen. Rowman & Littlefield. Plymouth, UK 2004.


Fletcher, Robert Huntington. A History of English Literature. Boston, Richard G. Badger/The Gorham Press, 1913.,


Heinlein, Robert. Starship Troopers.


Check out more of Robert Hirschi’s photos on facebook or on the hotvisual website


The Bastards of Wrestling: Salt Lake’s Most Intelligible Spectacle


Saturday afternoon TV wrestling broadcasts always made us girl children yawn and groan.

But as an adult (and recent convert) I’m urging you to go experience wrestling, especially if you claim there’s nothing new or fun to do in Salt Lake City. It’s the best extant form of commedia dell’arte around, and if you’re a kinesthetic learner like me, you’ll appreciate the fact that this league, the UCW- ZERO is local and is smallish in scale, and you’ll also hope in some small way that it never gets any larger.

To better wrap my head around the social text that I experienced live last night, I revisited another one from my checkered past and I’m recommending Roland Barthes’ 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling” here as a primer for our full sensory and learning immersion.



Who Cares About Fakery? It’s All Theater

Barthes explains how wrestling is a theatrical act. It’s what everybody already knows, but I felt compelled to re-read him because what I’d most remembered him doing was arguing back at wrestling’s detractors (among them, probably whiny little girls like me who ‘hated’ wrestling and who no doubt complained, “I don’t understand it”). It’s quite the contrary, in fact, as Barthes argues. Wrestling is sublimely understandable, because every single element in wrestling has an “absolute clarity, since [the spectator] must always understand everything on the spot” (20). Everything at a wrestling event is based on understood signs within a system of signs. “In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is not symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively” (25). He’s called wrestling an Intelligible Spectacle.

A perfect introduction for a newcomer ought to include something like my own neophyte experience at the local league event last night, on the front row of folding chairs barely eight feet away from the ropes. At this distance and degree of liveness, the sheer athleticism, endurance, fantasy, melodrama and showmanship finally manifested for me. Both television and cheap seats at the opera fail to show audiences just how well-choreographed, rehearsed, skillful and dedicated these true entertainers are. The sweat drips and flies. These wrestlers and their audience shills fight and get dangerously close to the spectators- plus their faces, close-up– are completely hilarious as they sometimes nearly break character, all making the the case for your necessary proximity.

Even the Jumbotron would fall short of showing you what is really happening. For a beginning wrestling spectator to “get it”, you need to initially get as close to the action as you can, so you’re in on all the jokes and tropes. Awestruck by this local league of muscle-y, spandex-clad athletes performing, punching, leaping and body-slamming for each other as well as their audience of about 100, in a converted warehouse just off of west Redwood Road, I clapped, air-punched and shouted right along with the crowd, many of them costumed for the Halloween weekend, or perhaps just organically emulating the stock characters of Duck Dynasty, the trailer parks and other boroughs of American reality, mythology and commedia.


Theater? Yes. But Definitely Athletic Theater!

Fake fights? Maybe. But required athleticism and skill? Lots. Some of the moves and series of moves in any fight are agreed on in advance, as my client Martin Casaus has told me for months now. He’s the lead roster star with the UCW- ZERO league. Other moves are improvised during the match. I could almost make out, so I thought, which series of moves were staged and which were improv moves.

Martin Casaus, from

Martin Casaus, from

Even though as my promoter/producer friend Johathan King assured me, it’s all “stunt man stuff,” the unmistakably remaining fact is that it’s always dangerous. Sitting together on the front row, we found ourselves talking about careers in wrestling and how as stock characters go, he says the “villains’” careers never seem to last as long as those of the “good guys,” which seems puzzling and in need of further investigation because Barthes argues that unlike sports, wrestling, has no winner (19). It is not the function of the wrestler to win, says Barthes,“it is to go through the motions which are expected of him” (20). Jonathan, describing himself as a major fan, detailed some harrowing injuries that particular players in this league had experienced during their careers –and this had me statistically wondering about who gets injured more– the good guys or the bad guys.


It’s Never About Fair Fighting

Barthes argues that wrestling is NOT a sport. It is a spectacle. And he’s correct, in that this variety of performative, stagey stuff with its flamboyant costumes, bragging personae and their scripted insult-spewing, never involves a real or “fair” fight, like ‘real’ Greco-Roman style or Olympic-style wrestling (the sort that adolescent girls also largely ignore during high school). Case in point, my client Martin has long described for me how these fights are staged, and the personas (and often outcomes) are clearly underscored from minute one. I’m glad I finally took the opportunity to see a live event, as he’s urged me for months to do. I found myself marveling at the transformation taking place before my eyes.

A respectable guy with a day job as a stockbroker, Martin Casaus, nearly naked and muscles rippling, enters the space, parades around the audience, title belts slung over both his shoulders, monloguing loudly about his prowess, achievements and his titles, as the crowd heckles and chants “o-ver-rate-ed! O-ver-rate-ed!” As a “villain” of wrestling, akin to an Il Capitano from the classic forms of commedia dell’arte, Casaus is just full of himself, full of bravado, strutting and basking in his own glory, even while the crowd chants at him, “You’re an asshole!” “You’re an asshole!” It’s such great theater. The sort where the audience is not required to sit quietly in the dark with hands politely folded in their laps.


Bastards and Good Guys: Everyone Suffers, and It’s For Our BenefitNacho-Libre-p01

The bastard or villain is the one who usually suffers, says Barthes. His body itself reveals all his “actions, his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice” (23), however, in this local UCW- ZERO league, the sheer physiques of the “villains” seemed often mismatched with those of the “good guys” in terms of their muscle definition and mid-life tummies, or lack of them. They’ve plenty of pure physical variety to go around with all shapes and sizes.

Though according to Barthes, “the physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight” (23). I think he must be at least implying that the fighters are costumed accordingly. If we’d been watching a western, we would have seen white and black hats. In the case of last night’s matches, by far the funniest “villain,” Suede Thompson, stood out with his costume’s actual use of sueded panne’ velvet amidst a sea of clingy, shiny spandex worn by everyone else. “Persona” seemed far more communicated through postures, posing and speechifying. Overall, it was a feast for the eyes, this hyper-masculine ballet of both real and mock violence.


I Show You My Victory and I Show You My Defeat

Defeat and Justice go hand in hand, Barthes claims. Defeat is not an “outcome”, but a “display” (21). Defeat of the bastard “is a purely moral concept: that of justice” (21). The displays of suffering at the fights last night were equally distributed. Everyone winces, contorts and oomphs when their heads are grabbed in mock neck twisting or slammed into the ropes or onto the mat. The facial acting alone and feigned helplessness are priceless.


Cheating: It’s Morally OK

The most riveting was a blended-gender fight, something I never expected. It featured Lacey Ryan, one of the coolest, toughest girls I’ve ever seen. 

Lacey Ryan, Wrestler. From

Lacey Ryan, Wrestler. From

When she “won” in what presented itself as a fair fight against her male opponent, a “villain,” I was reminded that Barthes argues that the defeated must deserve the punishment (21) which is why the “crowd is jubilant at seeing the rules broken” (21) as long as it is just. This all had me wondering how “taboo” it might be and in what context if in a fight, a female actually lost against a male opponent. In other words, how PC is co-ed wrestling these days? I winced, watching that particular fight, in much the way I winced watching Hit Girl get the crap beat out of her in Kick Ass. In both cases, I know everything possible was being done to prevent real injury but I worried nonetheless. In wrestling, Barthes insists, the “Exhibition of Suffering” is what the fights are actually all about (22). Last night’s fights revealed everyone’s suffering, and Martin was hit pretty hard on the head with a folding chair during his final match. What we actually watch wrestling for is the “great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice,” says Barthes, and just like in theater, “wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks” (23). 

That chair itself told the true story of its own injury, its metal backrest bent and nearly unrecognizable. I flinched all evening at both the real as well as the simulated violence. One thing’s for certain, to be in wrestling you have to be fit, and tough. Asking Martin about what their gentlemen’s agreement is within the league and about how hard they can hit one another, he confided once that “it’s easier to hit guys harder the better you know them. You go easier on the new guys, because you haven’t become as good of friends yet.”  Villains or Good Guys, everybody’s a friend within the league, he tells me. Once again, Barthes has told us about the performance of wrestling –that defeat isn’t an “outcome.” It’s a “display” (21). Defeat of the bastard “is a purely moral concept: that of justice” (21).The defeated must deserve the punishment (21) which is why the “crowd is jubilant at seeing the rules broken” (21) as long as it is just. Will Martin seek personal revenge because his opponent “cheated” and hit him with a chair? No. But I’m told that the ensuing next round of fights will begin with this very premise.

The fights last night concluded with a costume contest, in which a young boy, clad in a China-made superhero costume complete with “muscles,” was awarded first prize. His opponents: Several adults. Talk about cheating or bending the rules.



Payment in Full: Congratulating Your Heroes

As the evening wrapped, spectators lingered and thronged around the doors, waiting for the fighters to emerge. Meanwhile, costumed kids took to the ring and practiced the “moves” they’d witnessed just prior. Watching in amazement, I saw them pull their punches, slapping themselves or stomping to make the loud “thuds” of stuntman legend. I’d asked Jonathan King if the league makes any money or if the roster members make any. He tells me that for the most part, the admissions charged and members’ dues and the school (yes, a wrestling academy- in case you’re interested and want to enroll!) make the league self-supporting. But, he also tells me, the fighters live for audience feedback at the end of a night.

vintage_wrestlerHe recounted some details of the recent 10-year anniversary event he’d produced for them, at a much larger venue in which they’d had an audience of about a thousand spectators. I asked if the league was truly ready to perform on this scale again or make the leap to mainstream tv broadcast or cable. I asked if the league’s reluctance to do this might be related to money, logistics, or maybe even ‘stagefright.” “Stagefright,” he answered.

Last night’s whole event reminded me of how a small group of friends and their extended comrades can enjoy a fun evening of karaoke together, yet only a small marginal few would feel truly comfortable at the crowd-level of, say, an American Idol competition. Indeed, some of the local “love” for the spectacle as well as the players might get lost in bigger venues or those far from home. As we waited for the fighters to emerge from backstage after last night’s event, Jonathan suggested I tell some of them what I admired about their particular moves or stunts, that that’s the feedback and reward they really cherished and lived for.

Not being well-versed in most or any of these moves, I gushed stupidly.
“Wow- amazing,” I stuttered as I met some of the wrestlers in person.
God, I’m such a dork.

I did ask Martin, though, “Hey, holy hell, where did you actually get hit with that chair?”  “Right on top of the head,” he said, pointing at his bean.  “Well at least it shouldn’t affect your tailoring,” I quipped back.

It’s actually nice to know and care about these performers in person, something a local league and small-scale community allow you to do.



Here’s Roland Barthes’ book, Mythologies, that you might find interesting. His essay, “The World of Wrestling” is here.

And check out UCW-ZERO’s facebook page  and come to the show dates with me

Vintage Treat: DUBBELWEAR Boy’s Clothing Fall-Winter catalog

Here’s a vintage “Dubbelwear” Boy’s Clothing Fall-Winter catalog. The individual store imprint on the front is for Monarch Trading Co., Monarch, WYO. Most likely 1916, though no date is given. Not in bad shape- just a few little nicks out of the front and back cover.

This catalog was a VERY thoughtful gift from a client last year, who thought we might appreciate it!

We do appreciate it- and wanted to share it for inspiration, especially now that fall-winter is upon us here in Utah and Wyoming.

The images I’ve uploaded here are low res- but am glad to share the big 600 dpi scans for download with fellow curators, collectors and costume history enthusiasts. Just let us know! What’s really remarkable about this catalog is its full color printing, especially the fabric swatches’ very detailed textures and weaves. Enjoy~ and dress warm this season like your mother told you.









Jackets Relined

We all know guys who have these kinds of coats they love, like old faithful friends.

Here’s a coat we just relined for our friend Steve, who teaches at West High School here in SLC.  The leather still looks great on the outside of the coat, but the lining had absolutely deteriorated and shredded after years of wear and tear.

We created his new lining in red nylon rip-stop and added four inside pockets (one with a zippered closure for wallet or money safekeeping). The fall weather is here, Steve, and we’re glad we could help rescue your jacket-









Pilgrims and Partiers: Removing the Sting of Class Differences Between Comic Con Cosplayers

Did security have to break up fistfights between battling Batmen?

Did mean-girl manners rule the day amongst the dozens of Wonder Women at Salt Lake’s first annual, record-breaking Comic Con?

Not that I heard much about or personally witnessed. Civilized good spirits largely prevailed all three days during this pantheistic, quasi-religious convention, one that has quickly overshadowed the Mecca-force pull of Salt Lake City’s LDS General Conference.


A Time to Set Aside Snobbery


Pilgrimages and Carnivale, as anthropologists and literary theorists have noted, create a special sense of “communitas” amongst the pilgrims who travel, worship or celebrate together. During pilgrimage (whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim or otherwise), the social playing field is temporarily leveled. Farmers can enjoy eating and worshiping alongside nobility, socially taboo at other times of the year.  At Comic Con, not only do the the geeks get to hang with the jocks, but the aesthetically challenged with their large girth, body odor, bad breath or bad costuming get to enjoy photo-ops with scantily-clad, professional cosplayers, plus may pose alongside true artisans who spare no expense or imaginative detail on their garb.


Medieval Carnival as well as modern Mardi-Gras are a time and place of sanctioned, permitted revelry. The usual strictness and division of social classes are shoved aside. Inverted power relationships are temporarily celebrated. Roles are reversed. Peasants dressed up as kings, and kings would dress up as peasants in ribald play (and often bawdy humor).


A couple of seminal books (the sort you get assigned to read in college and don’t think about on a daily basis until you’re staring straight down the barrel of Comic Con) are Victor Turner’s Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895-1975) 1968 book Rabelais and His World. Within Turner’s tome is a great essay I felt compelled to revisit, “Pilgrimages as Social Processes.” Turner discusses pilgrims’ acute awareness of class and caste differences, but how these are are set aside during pilgrimage, how pilgrimage is, in fact, actually a “solution” to the normal class distinctions perceived and exuded daily during “normal” life.


Pilgrims: Not Just an American Thang at Thanksgiving


While this could be hard for much of mainstream multicultural America to grasp, divisions in social rank prevailed in both America and Europe’s past, and continue to in plenty of subcultural pockets, plus in places where a caste system still defines and controls social conduct. Contemporary India as well as much of the middle east fall within this definition. Turner describes how

the Pandharpur pilgrimage, like the Muslim hadj, remains within an established religious system. It does not lower defenses between castes, just as Islam does not allow those beyond the Umma (the comity of Islam) to visit the holy places of Mecca and Medina.  Nevertheless, it may be said that, while the pilgrimage situation does not eliminate structural divisions, it attenuates them, removes their sting. Moreover, pilgrimage liberates the individual from the obligatory everyday constraints of status and role, defines him as an integral human being with a capacity for free choice, and within the limits of his religious orthodoxy presents for him a living model of human brotherhood and sisterhood. 207


Arguably, Salt Lake’s first Comic Con stands as a textbook model of this kind of “brotherhood,” even if pilgrims and partiers did receive some preliminary, mandatory reminding. Founder Dan Farr, as well as the local conservative commentators on the Comic Con website urged all attendees to dress and conduct themselves in a “family-friendly” manner. I neither saw nor heard about public incidences of drunken lunacy, fighting or sexual harassment, the sort so well described by Bryan Young in his outrageously funny Lost at the Con (which I heartily recommend).  Even the Salt Lake Comic Con’s “Cosplay Rules” section laid out strict weapons restrictions and also warned readers regarding their costume “modesty,” that “If you’re not within guidelines, you will be asked to cover up. We’ll have burlap bags available to help you comply.”


But There Will Still Be Snub


Nevertheless, perceptions of difference at Comic Con’s human zoo still educated the eye of every person who attended.  Participant observers quickly learn to discern the well-articulated costume or cosplayer from those in the amateur ranks. If you’ve ever survived a Renaissance art class, you’ll recall how many dozens of Mary and Baby Jesus paintings you had to remember.


In most cases of Cosplay, the iconic holy characters of fandom are also just as identifiable – just like every Wonder Woman, Superman or Sailor Moon is easy to spot, however, the aesthetic devil lives in the details, and it was these you had to somehow remember in order to pass the your test when asked about painter and year. The painterly devices of stroke, color, composition, symbols, props and articulation became your visual cues for parsing out differences.

The many noncommittal Comic Con attendees clad in shorts and t-shirts stood out as wide-eyed tourists this year, though I predict we will see at least a 70% increase in costumed self-adornment among attendees next year (wagers, anyone?) plus an even larger increase in years to come. An easy increase, given that the Con will expand to all three exhibition floors and the tourists (like that grumpy non-costumed guy who’s always at every Halloween party you’ve ever been to) catch the bug and are encouraged to get with the program.


Holier than Thou


Thinking lately about Cosplay, what strikes me as business person who engineers costumes for clients, at a quick pace and for a fee, is the almost holy devotion I see exhibited by cosplayers creating their own costumes, which can take many months. Reports of their 8-9 months of labor, huge expenses for fabric and accessories plus the analogies of gestation and birth are not lost on me. Nor is the etymology of the word “enthusiasm,” which defines an inordinate number of cosplayers devoted to their particular icons. In Greek, theos=god, enthous= possessed or inspired by a god.


The Mormon Mecca of Salt Lake’s downtown LDS Temple Square and its General Conference now has an equally devoted, if zealously pantheistic competitor in town. While the LDS Church Conference has its own stated as well as tacit dress guidelines, where infractions or deviations which are easily recognized by that community, the Comic Con pilgrims have a predominantly looser standard of measurement, usually an aesthetic one. If you’re a conservative person who’s able to see beyond any given nudity, you can then almost always tell who’s following the “rules” and who isn’t.  Why Comic Con is a great counterpart (or antidote?) to LDS General Conference rests in what Bakhtin describes as Carnivale’s “many” prevailing “dialogic voices” versus the single monologic voice of the king (or church leaders). The Carnival celebrates many voices at once.


Caste and Class Amongst Cosplayers?


Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matthew Piper sums up cosplay rules for the lay reader. “If there is a basic tenet that governs the broad spectrum of cosplay, it’s that you should be more serious about detail than, say, trick-or-treaters.”


Serious cosplayers, like the serious Renaissance art history students I remember, will wholly devote themselves to the autodidactic task of viewing and critiquing as many examples as possible in a sacred mission to educate their own eye.  Scrutinizing as many examples as possible in the broad spectrum of well-articulated to poorly-conceived and built costumes, they craft and assemble their own, either in an attempt to identically replicate original comic, anime or film artwork, or they may decide to mash it up.


The sacredness (or profanity) in terms of identical mimetic replication or derivation are paramount and fully considered, but things sometimes get thrown-together at the eleventh hour in cases where time and planning simply fail. Sometimes, youth and naked skin rule the day. Common detractors, including Chris Niznik (on my facebook thread about a cosplay panel I presented on) lamented about “professional cosplayers” such as Jessica Nigri. He writes, “I’m personally not a fan…they cosplay but they don’t really try to hold true to the character (typically) as far as professional (sic) goes i feel if you want that much fame you should put effort to make it more accurate instead of just trying to show off your body…”


Fundamentalism, Orthodoxy, Liberalism and Compromise in Cosplay


How Devout is Your Cosplay?


By many, faithfulness or adherence to the doxa or literal ‘text’ is viewed as most “honorable”. Like many religious people you know, literal rules are sometimes broken, with varying feelings of “guilt” or “shame” or neither, if we’re talking postmodern irony.  A code may be broken on a holy day if it’s inconvenient. A vegetarian might eat meat while a guest in someone else’s house so as not to show disrespect or create waves.


Such became apparent while working lately on both a “Vegeta” costume from Dragon Ball Z as well as a “Space Ghost” costume for two young male clients who had opted not to “make their own” in a notably do-it-yourself community. I was struck by the conversation of these two who met each other one day in my studio and they naturally began discussing the evolution of their characters’ artwork and their changes through time, opting for particular costume details over others based on what I can only assume is an instinct towards orthodoxy in both cases.  As for our Space Ghost client, his inclination was firmly fixed in the current DC Comics version, a recontextualization of the classic 1960s character though with a brand-new backstory, and he asked for costume details to match, even though the character’s silhouette, line and color hadn’t really changed at all.


The Vegeta client opted for the “original” version of his character, whose armour includes attached faulds, instead of a later version which has none at all. The issue of footwear for “Space Ghost,” interestingly, became a point of decision making. None of the historical versions of the character depict Space Ghost in any real footwear, and the cosplay rules at Comic Con are very strict. I suggested, “what if we got you some high-top white Converse?” His reaction was that it would be an alright, if unorthodox solution, because it might add levity to the costume and still comply with the convention rules.


If Christians are encouraged to “be” like Jesus, cosplayers seem similarly fueled to fully inhabit the persona of their god or icon, at least in terms of garb. Perusing the thousands of posted photos from Comic Con is a testament to full-body performances of favorite characters’ postures, their warrior moves and attitudes. Whether one steps into or out of character may depend on a need for the sense of safety and fantasy that can come from dressing up like someone cooler, braver and better looking than you personally think you are. Yet in a modern populous at a huge urban festival such as Comic Con, unless you personally know or recognized the mayor of Salt Lake City, his social rank or class would be completely invisible to you if you encountered him costumed as Thor. Unless you engaged him in extended conversation, you’d never know about his educational background in law and geography or anything else.


I’m Cooler Than You (Or You Don’t Fan Like I Fan)


On a Cosplay Panel that we both appeared on at this year’s Comic Con, Tanglwyst de Holloway had a pretty memorable line, “You don’t fan like I fan.” And by most accounts of human interaction at the Con this year, there was some pretty substantial social tolerance for deviations from the orthodox costume “texts” and/or forgiveness for the aestheticall-challenged or crudely made item. The dialogic nature of the event itself lends itself to magnificent diversity. It just isn’t life as we live it normally, – – though that might need some definition, because people normally perform themselves every single day simply by choosing what to wear.


I’ve always enjoyed Paul Fussel’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.  In one description of the American class “type” he’s identified what he calls “Category X” as a sort of cultural wildcard.  Simply, Category X individuals are traditionally the bohemians of any culture, mixing and matching their fashions and lifestyles at will, and they often confuse the “identifiables” — the preppies, yuppies and rednecks of any culture. Fussel argues that “when an X person, male or female, meets a member of an identifiable class, the costume, no matter what it is, conveys the message “I am freer and less terrified than you are…” (181).


The reluctant superhero or mainstream attendee at Comic Con, feeling less empowerment in his daily life, may be actually motivated by this urge in reverse.  As Oscar Wilde aptly put it, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” According to Manu Bennet, in Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matthew Piper’s article, “You want to bring out your inner hero,” he said. “You can generate a whole activity, running around as a superhero. Some people go to dress-up parties, but this is the dress-up party for your whole city.”


In toto, it’s hard to determine whether a Performance of Magnitude such as Comic Con shares more in common with Carnivale than it does with pilgrimage, in its loosening of social roles.  On pilgrimage, an individual in an indian subcaste has nothing really to fear or feel shameful about, for the caste system itself has defined that person’s status. There’s no American-style equivalent, really, of the self-consciousness or insecurity about not being brave enough, strong enough or cool enough.


Victor Turner relates the story of a woman, a professor of anthropology and sociology on pilgrimage, herself a member of the Brahmin caste.  Under everyday circumstances, someone of her caste would be forbidden from befriending members of the Maratha, a subcaste.  Pilgrimage relaxes those normal restrictions, however, and this scholar, Irawati Karve, had been befriended by the Maratha women, saying


I felt that they were more friendly. Many of them walked alongside of me, held my hand, and told me many things about their life. Towards the end, they called me “Tai,” meaning “sister.” A few of them said, Mark you, Tai, we shall visit you in Poona.” And then one young girl said, “But will you behave with us then as you are behaving now?” It was a simple question, but it touched me to the quick.  We have been living near each other for thousands of years, but they are still not of us, and we are not of them. (19)


Reading this, the Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” (that song made so famous by The Breakfast Club) rang through my brain. Urban Comic Con attendees would have far fewer caste intercourse restrictions than anyone, anywhere, on any kind of pilgrimage. Decisions to reunite with newly-made friends would be made, probably, according to simple affinity and mutual interests, making it unlikely (yet not completely inconceivable) that a Thor-clad mayor of Salt Lake City might invite a monster-truck-loving construction worker from West Valley City to a dinner party later. We await news of this happening.


rejecting cosplay