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!


  1. That is simply gorgeous! And thank you for sharing the inspiration story as well, as Chinese mythology isn't something that I'm familiar with.

  2. I so enjoyed reading this post! (Former China-specialist academic.) Loved the walk through your inspiration and thinking process as you came up with your design. Beautiful work! I love the feathered look at the back, and the milk-bottle flowers are amazing! Thank you, too, for sharing so much of your thinking on your own situation, and good luck working through it.

  3. Lovely work and it's nice to see something non-European based for a change. Btw, I also fell hard for Tamora Pierce's books; I have all of the ones in that series and in her other linked series too.


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