Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Foundations Revealed Contest 2021: The Process

Read part 1 of this series here to learn more about my inspiration for this costume.

I was constrained by the 250-word max allowed on the FR competition entry form in how much I could say about my process, but here's what I submitted: "With my limited color palette, I wanted to use different fabric textures to bring some visual depth to the costume. I also wanted to use repurposed fabrics where possible, both for sustainability and because it shouldn't cost a fortune in fancy fabrics to make a beautiful outfit. The corset is made from fabrics leftover from theater costuming jobs, and the underskirt is made from an old net curtain and a bedsheet. The bolero fabric is a thrifted velvet tablecloth, and the cape's feathers cut from the skirt and corset fabric scraps. Many of the beads and chains are from deconstructed jewelry from my coworkers' destashes, and the hairpieces made by heatforming old plastic milk jugs. The biggest challenge was fitting my corset, since I had originally patterned it when I was still breastfeeding; I ended up trying to pad out the bust to accommodate my body changes. This is only the second overbust corset I've made, so I was trying to figure out the best method of construction with the help of internet tutorials. I knew I wanted to hide the messy underside of the beading, so I ended up making a boned "lining" layer under the beaded fashion fabric. My favorite parts are the beaded bird appliques, done on silk organza; I experimented with many different types of bead, ribbon, and fabric layouts to get a recognizable magpie look. Because of all the individually hand-stitched beads and feathers, time and hand-health management were an important consideration." 

Here's a visual to go along with my blurb! This was just a quick snap of the back and front views when I was trying to explain to my photographer friend what we were working with when trying to pick a shoot location. 

I'm mostly satisfied with my summary, but for a more detailed account, let's rewind (imagine the cast of Hamilton singing "rewind...rewind!")...

I knew magpies would be a focal point on my piece, and I had just treated myself to the Game of Thrones costuming book, which featured gorgeous pictures of Michelle Carragher's beading and embroidery, so I decided to make beaded magpie appliques. Of course, I don't actually know anything about proper beading, so I just stretched some black silk organza over an embroidery hoop and started sewing. I used embroidery thread, ribbon, and random beads from my stash and just sort of kept going and hoping it would turn out well. My first bird was definitely a #birb in its delightful mishmash of materials and styles, but I think as a whole it gives the right impression. 

You can tell I was just sort of trying whatever for each of the wing feathers. 

On the second magpie, I had a better idea of what I was doing and actually planned where to put each kind of bead (I also went out and purchased some more coordinated black/white/silver/iridescent beads from a local mom-and-pop bead shop that I'm frankly shocked has still survived), resulting in a less haphazard-looking bird. I used Fabri-Tac glue all over the back to secure the threads, then cut out the silk organza so I could eventually sew each bird in place.

Much more stylistically cohesive! 

Even though I had yet to finalize the embellishment design, I knew I wanted a black corset with alternating satin and velveteen panels, so I started working on that first. The satin is more of the lining from my Loki-bounding bolero, and the velveteen is leftover from the doublet I made for The Actor's Nightmare. I underlined all the pieces with flannel from an inherited destash to provide a bit more body and cushioning for the beading to come. I then made the boned "strength" layer from two layers of muslin; I justify not using something heftier like coutil by reasoning that this corset doesn't actually provide any reduction, so it's more of a boned bodice than a true corset. 

Outer layer: poly satin and cotton velveteen panels. I had to hand baste each panel to the flannel underlining, then hand baste the panels together because of the the shiftiness of slippery satin against napped velveteen.

After sewing all the panels together, I then catchstitched all the seam allowances down. Also by hand. 

I started throwing fabrics onto Cecily and pinning on ideas for embellishment. At this point I was still thinking about feathers in different fabrics, but I didn't like how it looked. 

Once I decided on the Milky Way as my inspiration for the front of the corset, I was excited to just dive in after reading this tutorial. Beading the outer layer was exceedingly relaxing and a nice way to cope with the ongoing pandemic and inability to see friends; I could get into a groove every night where all I had to do was listen to podcasts or watch Netflix/Costube and focus on selecting and placing the next "random" bead in order to get a casual "Oh, I just sprinkled some star dust over this old thing!" sort of look. I also added some layers of batting on the inside to pad out the bust a bit, since I originally finalized this pattern back when I was still breastfeeding and had not yet deflated. Then it was just a matter of basting the outer and inner layers together and then binding the top and bottom. Since I didn't know how much the circumference would change with the addition of all the layers and boning, I finished the back edge by folding in the edges and then topstitching after I held the bodice up to my body to figure out how much space I needed. Even so, I still misjudged because the finished corset laces almost closed, when I had been planning for a two-inch lacing gap. Setting in the grommets was made easy and painless with the help of AJ's tabletop grommet setter, reminding me once again how grateful I am for the help and generosity of my costuming community. 

You can see all the stitching on the back from the beading, plus my little batting bust pads. 

At this point, the magpies were only pinned on. I don't love all the wrinkles that are especially visible on the satin, but this is what comes from only learning about roll-pinning after finishing up this piece. *facepalm*

To make the feathered bottom edge, I toyed with the idea of sewing them directly to the corset, but ultimately decided that I wanted to be able to remove them if I wanted a slightly cleaner look when wearing this corset in the future. To that end, I sewed them to a bias strip, then hand-stitched a series of snaps to the strip and the inside of the corset. 

I could even theoretically attach this to something else in the future! 

For the skirt, I knew I wanted lots of layers, but also didn't want to buy lots of extra fabric. I took the elastic waistband off of a skirt I had made for the #postapocalypticantigone production, since I liked the look of the gauzy net curtain over the white sheet skirt, plus reuse is always a plus. It already featured a long train since it was supposed to be part of a wedding outfit, so to continue the lines I decided to layer this textured polyester fabric in a high-lo circle skirt over it. The resulting cascading waves of fabric pleased me greatly, and made for really dramatic photos. 

Poorly lit shots but you get the idea. 

To make the bolero/feather cloak, I wanted more black fabrics, but they had to be both complementary and different. I still had some pieces of this embossed velvet tablecloth (already used for this justaucorps, pair of breeches, and collar), and was just able to eke out two tiny fronts and backs and a collar. Just....don't look too closely at all the directions that the nap is going... For the cape and sleeves, I caved and purchased three yards of black netting so that I could keep a visual tie-in with the underskirt and also not totally obscure the back of the corset. I draped one yard across the back until I was happy with how it hung, and then cut two full sleeves roughly following this diagram. Then it was several nights of cutting out, experimentally pinning, and hand-sewing individual fabric feathers until my hands were blistered and cramping. Worth it, though, for how cool the cape looks, like the feathers are just flowing off.

This is also one of the only times I can think of where I was close to running out of pins, as I had to do so much fussing around with the feather layout. 

Because of the sheer nature of the fabric, figuring out how to finish everything was a little tricky. I sewed the shoulder seams and side seams for both layers and attached the collar, leaving the armholes and bottom edges open. Then I basted the sleeves and netting to the lining of the bolero, folded in the seam allowances for both the lining and the velvet, and hand felled everything shut, going through the netting for each stitch. 

At this point, I put all the pieces on Cecily for the first time in the whole process, and was horrified to see that with the corset underneath, the accidental asymmetry of my bolero (thanks for nothing, stretching of the bias edge) was very evident. That led to some panicked picking and resewing, then the horrified realization that I hadn't left enough seam allowance to fix it, and finally the idea to camouflage the worst of it by attaching more bling. Thankfully, I had just picked up a dark silver necklace from my school's "free pile," where people can leave items they're trying to get rid of in case other people want them. Usually it's just a bunch of tchotchkes and old magazines, but occasionally there's costume jewelry! I strategically deconstructed and reassembled the chain and beads to cover the wonky neck seam and front opening, and, like my Loki evening gown, this ended up being a happy accident since I love the finished look and don't think I would have arrived at this design otherwise. 

I love how the dark silver chain and beads look against the embossed velvet. The front closes with a single hook and eye at the base of the collar. 

I already talked a little bit about my milk jug hair accessories, but here's an IG reel showing a bit of what the process of heating and shaping them looked like. The comb was vaguely inspired by the ATLA Fire Nation crown. The flowers are glued to an old chopstick (painted silver and varnished) and some of SHB#2's least favorite hair clips. Unfortunately, the "hair pins" ended up being too heavy to really hold in my hair, so at AJ's suggestion, I used a hair piece to help anchor it. There are actual pre-styled hanfu hair pieces you can buy, but I ended up using the hairpiece I got for my Princess Jasmine cosplay and using some careful placement of hair ties and bobby pins to fake the giant blob of hair on top that seems to be so popular among ancient Chinese women. The rest of my hair I just tied and twisted up and pinned, but there are wispy bits galore escaping. Oh well. Overall it gets the idea across, and it's not like this was ever going to be a historically accurate cosplay anyway!

See that giant blob of hair on my head? That's a fake ponytail that's had the ends looped under and sewn to the clip. Best thing is I can still clip the threads and take out the pins to return it to its ponytail state for other cosplays!

I really do love the dangly bits best.
These last two photos are from my shoot with @captured.by.shirelle.

At the last minute, I considered trying to add some iridescent beads to the skirt because it seemed a little plain, but when that occurred to me, it was about half an hour before I was supposed to start getting ready for the photoshoot. Oops. Oh well, if I ever wear this to...I'm not even sure where I would ever wear this...I'll consider adding some beads. I also thought about making some milk jug feather pauldrons, but we could not drink milk fast enough for me to amass enough raw material for that. I'm still pretty satisfied with what I have to turn in, even if the imposter syndrome struggle is real. Looking through the #foundationsrevealedcontest2021 hashtag is dangerous; on one hand it's super inspirational and exciting to see how others are interpreting the brief, but on the other hand since others may not specify the skill level they're entering at, I don't know if I'm expected to have the same level of design and fit. I know comparison is the thief of joy and all that, but another consequence of the introspection I've been doing about my childhood and upbringing is realizing that I have been ingrained with a scarcity mindset. Because of all the comparing that my parents did of my achievements with those of their friends' kids, and the general immigrant background, I get inordinately anxious when I feel like other people are doing well. I've needed to work on consciously putting aside thoughts of resentment and fear and jealousy, and replacing those with an attitude of celebration of others also creating beautiful things at different levels than me. As the contest organizers wrote, this is less of a competition and more of an exhibition that happens to have prizes. 

Next up: the professional photos of all of it together!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Foundations Revealed Contest 2021: The Inspiration

I've been lurking on Foundations Revealed/Your Wardrobe Unlock'd for years, since way before I had a sewing machine. I remember being a bone-tired, overworked teacher, looking through all the helpful articles and inspirational costumes that were posted, and thinking wow, someday I want to be able to make and wear beautiful things like that. Even after I taught myself to sew and discovered historical costuming and cosplay, I always felt like the FR/YWU yearly competition was beyond my skill level. And then when I finally felt like I could maybe enter, I had kids, a side gig doing theater costuming, and had started taking classes at Canada College, which meant I had no time to think about making something to enter. This past year, with older, more self-sufficient kids, no theater costuming work because no theater productions, and more experience in designing my own costumes, I finally felt like I could maybe do this. 

The theme this year, "Once Upon A Time...,"designing an outfit for a character from literature, was the push I needed to enter. Reading and imagining fantastic costumes for literary characters was so important to me as a child, and here was the perfect excuse to indulge myself and actually bring to life one of my imagined designs! So many classics of children's lit have evocative descriptions of outfits; how could I choose one? I have a soft spot in my heart for the Little House series, as LIW's little details probably played a huge part in my love for historical dress (come on, who doesn't remember Aunt Docia's dress with the buttons that look just like juicy blackberries, or the lovely triangular fichu that Laura's friend gives her as a wedding present? Or is that just me?). And of course Tolkien is a quintessential fantasy inspiration (I've always wanted to do Goldberry or Luthien), and if you're into villains like I am, there's always Jadis or the Lady of the Green Kirtle from the Chronicles of Narnia. Then there's my middle school comfort read, The Song of the Lioness, featuring the first canonically "Asian" character I ever encountered in a fantasy book, Thayet jian Wilima, whom I already cosplayed when I met author Tamora Pierce at a con. 

But ultimately what helped me decide was looking at the Pinterest board posted by the competition organizers: almost all of the inspirational literature they included comes from the Western literary tradition. The West does not have a monopoly on great literature, and considering the relative age of some ancient Chinese poetry, it could be considered even more historical. I understand, of course, that FR is based in England and run by Europeans, but in 2021 I would hope that there would at least be a bit more diversity in their mood board. To that end, I decided to design a costume for a character from Chinese mythology, the Weaver Girl. Because how fitting is it that I choose a heroine characterized by her association with textile creation, for a fabric-based competition? It's also perfect for this year, as we all hold off on seeing our loved ones and learn to wait for a (hopefully) joyous reunion.

The legend of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl is all about waiting for a year to see a loved one. As we come up on ten months of purposeful distancing to keep our community safe, this story seems especially apt. Image source, which also tells one version of the story.

As I wrote in my inspiration description for my entry, "The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl is an ancient Chinese story/poem of a celestial maiden who fell in love with a mortal man. The Queen of Heaven forbade their union and used her silver hairpin to carve a rift between heaven and earth: the Milky Way. Once a year, on Chinese Valentine's Day, magpies form a bridge to allow the lovers to meet again. I've always loved this version of the (literally) star-crossed lovers and wanted to capture the beautiful poignancy of the Weaver Girl, Zhinü, waiting to be reunited with her husband. The image of a flock of kind-hearted magpies bridging the Milky Way is so evocative of the importance of community support. I kept the color palette limited to mostly black and white in homage to the yin-yang concept as a reflection of duality and balance in both the patience and the passion of waiting, especially in this pandemic year as we wait to hug our loved ones again. The silver and iridescent accents echo the sparkle of the stars, and the feathers are magpie mementos that Zhinü might have saved and woven into her outfit for the next year's meeting. The shorter overskirt, trailing gown, and gauzy fabrics are modernized versions of style elements typical in Chinese paintings of celestial maidens; the traditionally styled hair accessories and the qipao-esque collar and bolero shape bring to mind both historical and more recent Chinese fashion, emphasizing the timelessness of the story."

To give you an idea of what celestial maidens like Zhinü usually look like in traditional Chinese art:

Lots of wispy fabric drifting about! Image source.

So I definitely wanted to incorporate light, flowy, ethereal fabrics, and I wanted to have lots of starry sparkle, and I wanted magpies. I toyed with the idea of having a magpie leaving a trail of feathers across the dress, but it didn't feel right. One of my best friend's husband, who is a photographer, posted his photo of the Milky Way and the design inspiration just clicked: I would do a Milky-Way-esque sprinkling of beads on a bed of velvety black "night sky," and the magpies would be "holding" this bridge between their beaks. While I didn't want to make a historic Chinese hanfu, I did want some nods to Chinese fashion elements in my costume, so I decided on a little bolero with a qipao-style mandarin collar and lines that echoed the double-sided round-ba front that's seen on some qipao, especially ones worn by famous Chinese politician and fashion icon, Madam Soong Mei-ling, aka Madam Chiang Kai-shek. The qipao, while seen in many Westerner's eyes as a classic Chinese style, is actually a fairly recent fashion, relatively speaking (it originated in the 1920s, which is practically modern in light of China's thousands of years of history...I wrote a whole paper about this for my History of Fashion class), so I wanted to incorporate some more traditional historic elements in the costume. I went with a mid-length overskirt to mimic the look of a qiyao ruqun (齐腰襦裙) and full sleeves, similar to the look seen here:

Impractically full sleeves, and a shorter overskirt that even has a vague hi-lo thing going on!
Image source.

While historic Chinese clothing did not include corsets per se, there are periods where very wide belts/sashes kind of give a vague underbust corset look. I was also inspired by the feather-looking bits that can be seen sticking out of the front tabard in statues like this Tang dynasty female figurine: 

I decided to add fabric feathers to the bottom of my corset as a nod to this design.

Another aspect I wanted to incorporate was an actual feather cloak; in some versions of the story, the Weaver Girl leaves her magical feather cloak while bathing on earth and the Cowherd discovers the magical garment which allows her to fly back to heaven. I wanted to keep that aspect while not using any actual feathers, and also not totally obscuring the lacing on the back of the corset, thus netting to echo the gauzy underskirt fabric, repeated in the sleeves, and the fabric feathers were cut from the scraps leftover from making the corset and overskirt. 

Here was my initial sketch. Pretty sketchy.

And here's what I actually made! Professional photos coming...

The final touch on this costume was the hair styling. To be honest, I was the most concerned about how this would turn out, because I absolutely suck at doing my own hair. If I had an Achilles heel in cosplaying, hair would be it. I can style other people's hair just fine, but the combination of not being able to see the back of my head, plus my fine, thin, wispy hair that doesn't want to stay, means that I'm limited in what I can do. Thankfully, AJ of Confused Kitty Sewing was able to direct me to some helpful hanfu hair styling tutorials, or else I would probably have just done a mom-bun and called it a day! Even though I wasn't able to replicate any exact style, I learned how to loop my hair up and use a hairpiece to approximate the historical look. I did two practice runs of hairstyles and even then my final style was entirely different from the tests because I'm also incapable of replicating anything twice. Thankfully, my milk jug hair clips and hair stick helped to disguise a lot of that. Yup, that's right, milk jugs! I know people melt down milk jugs to reuse the plastic, and I've used candles to singe and curl poly-organza flowers before, so from there it was a short leap to using my heat gun to lightly melt and reshape flower shapes cut from old plastic gallon jugs. I love being able to repurpose trash, so this was seriously thrilling to me. The best thing about making flowers is they're meant to be organically irregular, so it works well with this method of crafting. I finished them off with bead and wire stamens/pistils and hot glued them to clips and chopsticks to approximate the look of traditional hanfu-style hair accessories. I was very, very pleased with how they turned out and they way they help visually communicate an ancient Chinese aesthetic. 

The chains and beads dangling down give +2 to perception of Chinese-ness rolls. 

In some versions of the story, the Milky-Way-creating-antagonist is the Queen of Heaven, while some say that it's Zhinü's father, the Jade Emperor, who is angry that his daughter neglects her duty of weaving brocade robes for him because of her romance with the cowherd. I feel more strongly about the latter version, since one thing I've been working through emotionally this past year is my dad's insistence on my not pursuing the arts throughout my childhood/teen years. Even though he was instrumental in teaching me creative reuse and giving me a general DIY attitude, he was very clear that he expected me to go into some kind of STEM career. While I do love teaching science and am good at it, it's still hard not to play the coulda-shoulda-woulda game and wonder what my life would be like had I not waited until my thirties to really lean into costuming. The pandemic and resulting sheltering in place has meant that I had more time for introspection; I've been having a lot of angst about how best to use my talents, feeling less-than because of my lack of perceived success according to traditional Chinese standards, and wishing that I had had more freedom to really tap into my creative side. Feeling the tension between wanting to respect my parents' wishes but also forge my own path, along with the image of waiting to see a loved one in this pandemic year, really makes Zhinü's story hit home for me. 

Entering this contest with such an intensely personal creation has been a surprisingly emotionally fraught, but ultimately healing and therapeutic process. I used to never do things unless I was assured of success, as I'm pretty risk-averse (#notagryffindoratall #selfpreservingslytherinthroughandthrough), but preparing for this competition has been a good exercise in simultaneously doing a thing anyway (even when there's no assurance of winning, which has led to lots of great conversations with SHB#1) and also believing that I'm good enough to go for it. I like how the entry form makes you check a box agreeing to the competition conditions and also certify that "I confirm that I am a creative badass, and will never again doubt myself or my talent and capability." So here goes!