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Crafting an Identity Through Costumes

Jul 28, 2015

by Lisa Butterworth

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

In July, more than 130,000 people crowded the halls of San Diego’s Convention Center for what’s become one of the entertainment world’s most talked-about events: Comic Con. While the star-studded panels and world-premiere trailers are undeniable draws, the reason people really show up in droves year after year is to see and be seen…in their costumes. And those costumes — the majority of which are handmade — are no joke. They range from simple to elaborate, obvious to esoteric, classic to contemporary. This year it wasn’t uncommon to see a shorn Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron’s character from Mad Max: Fury Road) standing in line next to a pink-haired Manga pixie and a very convincing Spiderman in a full-body suit. These ultra-fans, self-proclaimed nerds, and enthusiastic cosplayers spend all weekend embodying their favorite characters — and swapping construction tips and supplies recommendations for next year’s getups.

Comic Con is no doubt one of the largest and most accessible places for costume lovers to gather in real life, but it’s a mere stitch in the spandex compared to the communities that proliferate online, where costume lovers from all over the world connect in forums, fan sites, and, of course, on Etsy. Because it’s here where artists and makers can truly bring imaginary worlds to life, and then share them with like-minded people. It’s where the perfect leather goggles can be found to complete a steampunk look or the ultimate archer’s hood to impress the maidens at the next Renaissance Faire. It’s where fantasy lovers can find pearly polymer unicorn horns and partiers heading to the Playa can satisfy all their sartorial Burning Man needs. Here, we take a closer look at these costuming communities and the crafters who are making their dress-up dreams come true.

Renaissance Faires and Medieval Reenactment 

If the phrase “Ren Faire” makes you think of mead, turkey legs, and corseted bosoms — well, you’re not entirely off-base. But the medieval community is so much more than that. Catherine Glowacka became interested in medieval history as a kid, and later studied archeology at the University of Warsaw because of her fascination. There, she found kindred spirits within the reenactment community and was inspired to begin creating her own authentic medieval garb, including wool tunics and Viking capes based on historical representations that she researches. “Trying to retrace how people actually lived in the Early Middle Ages — that seemed very interesting to me,” she says. “Not the kings or nobility, but common people — craftsmen or farmers, who made everything with their own hands. They sewed their clothes, built houses, and made food on their own.”

Like Catherine, an appreciation for ancient history is what first drew Noriel, the woman behind the Bulgaria-based shop Zmey Costumes, into the medieval clothing market; and her love for LARPing (Live Action Role Playing, for those unfamiliar with the acronym) spurred her on. “Maybe what captures me most about doing this is the opportunity to recreate one small part of what has been lost,” Noriel says, “to clean from it the dust of time, breathe new life into it, and put it in the hands of someone who will use it again.” In researching and rebuilding these everyday items from the past, Catherine and Noriel don’t just make connections with history, they forge bonds with individuals they’d never otherwise meet — like the Colorado couple that commissioned Catherine to design historically accurate wedding attire for their big day. “Being in the medieval community gives me connection with my ancestors and with the fascinating history of my country and all of Europe,” Catherine says. “But Etsy gives me a connection with literally the whole world.”

Fairies and Fantasy

If medieval enthusiasts get a kick out of nailing authentic details, there’s an entirely different appeal for aficionados of fairy and fantasy culture: the creative freedom that comes with not having to adhere to any concrete reality at all. “It’s always fun to pretend to be someone or something else,” says Jackie, aka the Nimble Nymph, who creates polymer clay horns and iridescent fairy wings for her Etsy shop. “Especially in the fantasy realm, I love to see the excitement and joy that people get from fantastical ideas and creations.” That joy and creative freedom is available to both the wearers of the costumes and to the people who make them. Candace, a New Jersey artist whose shop Steam Wolf specializes in fanciful headdresses and glittery unicorn horns, crafts narratives as she assembles her accessories. “I like to tell a story in each piece that I create,” she says. “For example, if a headdress is for a faun that lives in a swamp, I’ll add elements of moss and long grass. Perhaps the faun has been there for so long that moss grows on its horns now, or perhaps it would use the grass to stay camouflaged with its surroundings.”

For Jackie, donning the equivalent of a mossy faun costume never seemed out of the ordinary. She grew up in a household where her parents threw Mad Max parties and took her to Renaissance Faires, creating new, elaborate costumes every year. Now, her love of fantasy isn’t only a source of fun, it’s a way to connect to her late father, who shared — and helped inspire — her love for make believe. “I will always remember the year before he died, looking for him at a festival and seeing him all alone sitting on a hill, dressed in full wizard attire, and smoking a wizard pipe,” Jackie says. “I think he would really love my shop and the fact that I still go to the same festival every year and think of him!”

Burning Man

Those who attend the desert’s biggest dance party know that Burning Man is truly a world of its own. And proper attire — whether it be a faux-fur vest, a sequined bikini, or neon feathered headdress — is required. But the community and its weeklong culmination — which involves music, dancing, camping, and insane art installations on “the Playa” — runs on far more than mere hedonism. “Burning Man is all about helping each other to have the most magical experience possible — whether that’s through gifting, playing games, or deeply connecting with folks,” says Katie, who sells other-worldly printed leggings, booty shorts, and other Playa-ready pieces in her shop Painted Fabrix. “Magic begets magic, and I love seeing how, when huge numbers of people set out to raise each other up, the magic is palpable. It gives me a lot of hope for society as a whole.”

Lauryn, who makes Hula-Hoops and other Burning Man must-haves for her shop Snowflake Hoops, fell into the eclectic community in 2009 after realizing that her new obsession, Hula-Hooping, had a big presence on that scene. Establishing an Etsy shop has only strengthened her bonds with the creative community she has since come to love so much. “I’ve met friends through Etsy that I’ve later worked on projects with, and have also gotten a few vending opportunities at Burner events from people finding my Etsy shop,” she says. “It’s funny to be at parties or festivals now and every so often someone will come up and say, ‘OMG you’re Snowflake Hoops — I love your Etsy shop!’”

Steampunk

Like Katie and her Burner family, California-based Tom Banwell could certainly attest that sometimes you don’t find your niche — your niche finds you. When the longtime leatherworker dove headfirst into mask-making and opened his Etsy shop in 2008, his high-end leather masks were so steampunk he didn’t even realize they were steampunk. But it didn’t take long for him to acclimate to the community that fosters a devotion to industrial revolution–inspired sci-fi and all the accoutrements that go with it. “I love history, costuming, and fantasy, and when I discovered steampunk I felt that my leatherwork could fit right in,” he says.

Now his creations spin off stories of their own. “With every new design, I attempt to photograph the piece in a way that will tell a bit about how it would be worn by a steampunk character,” he says. His latest piece is the Miasma, a steampunk plague doctor mask complete with aluminum eyepieces, a beak, and ventilators, which is studded with steel dome rivets and brass buckles. “Creating the images to showcase my work is as important to me as designing and constructing the actual pieces,”  he says. Since joining the steampunk community, Banwell has seen demand for his designs skyrocket — he was commissioned to make five leather steampunk masks for the Los Angeles Opera Company, and he’s currently working on a donkey head to be worn by Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a British film.

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