BlackSci-fi.com celebrates Women’s History Month! Join us in our month long celebration of the history makers past, present, and future.
As a part of our month long coverage of Women’s History Month, BlackSci-Fi.com caught up with costume creator, fan, and cosplay/ costuming participant Tanya Woods. She provided insight into creating awesome costumes, her time spent costuming, and how the cosplay/ costuming field has grown/ changed.
BlackSci-Fi.com: How long have you been a cosplayer?
Tanya Woods: I’ve worn costumes of some kind to cons since…well, a long, long time ago. I have staff badges from the early-90s, back when we just called it ‘wearing a costume.’ I’m rarely in character, so I usually refer to myself as a costumer. I don’t really get too much into the ‘play’ side and I’m honest about that.
BSF: What drew you to cosplay/ costuming?
TW: Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, so conventions gave me an outlet to continue playing dress up year round. I come from a pretty creative background and crafting costumes was just another extension of my desire to create. I love wearing them, but the actual time spent fabricating is my favorite part.
BSF: Do you find that the cosplay/ costuming field is an inclusive one? If so what would you say about cosplay/costuming makes the field a welcoming one for folks to participate?
TW: It is to an extent. Depending on your level of interest and capabilities there are plenty of ways in which to engage from purchasing costumes, using mass marketed patterns and crafting your own from scratch. Anyone can participate, but your reception and how you are allowed/encouraged to be a part can vary greatly. Making connections within the community can be difficult, even in so-called safe spaces.
Geekdom is one of those places where we all talk about inclusion, because we supposedly have this common thread that has isolated so many of us socially, but it doesn’t really work that way in practice. Unfortunately, just like other parts of society, cosplay is affected by a whole host of ugly -isms. Racism, sexism, elitism, etc. Most of us are dressing up as fictional characters, but people still find ways to try to make it into a divisive experience. There are those who will openly tell you that you are too <insert descriptor> to costume as a particular character or make commentary on your skills, interpretation, whatever. In particular, POC cosplayers are frequent cannon fodder for sites like 4Chan, reddit, Imgur, etc. with the keyboard trolls openly ridiculing based on racial stereotypes and biases.
We also struggle to find a place in many mainstream groups, but then have to deal with the backlash when we form our own. It’s the same messaging over and over again: “You aren’t welcome over here! We feel you are being divisive by having a group of your own over there!” I’ve seen and heard about everything from people being asked to step out of frame at photo shoots because they are brown, larger, whatever and therefore told they are not canon-compliant to, my favorite, just being invisible regardless of your craftsmanship. You’d be amazed at how people create truly fantastic pieces only to be overlooked. There are people reading this article who will insist it is all in our heads and a case of looking for trouble. I just point them at today’s stream of “she/he is the wrong whatever to be dressed as whatever” commentary on social media. I have friends with tales of what sometimes happens AFTER they take off a helmet and reveal themselves to be brown. All the backslapping, high fiving just evaporates. I’m not even gonna bother with the blackface/brown makeup discussion.
BSF: We’re kind of living in a golden age for the black nerd/ geek so to speak, where a lot of us are letting our geek flags fly proudly, and cosplay/ costuming is an extension of this. How does it feel to find more cosplayers/ costumers of color when attending various conventions and events, or even on the internet where you can find no shortage of groups, social media groups focused on cosplayers/ costumers of various races?
TW: I am still overwhelmed and excited to see the much larger presence at cons. When I first started going to cons in the 80s, there were maybe eight or nine African-Americans that showed up at Atlanta cons. Even if we weren’t friends, we knew each other on sight just because there were so few of us. I think the mainstreaming of fandom and the internet have been a tremendous factor in exposing more people to the material and events. I love that nerd core is more visible and that people feel comfortable in declaring their interest, but I do have some reservations about what the means in the long-term. One of the reasons I am so vocal about my interest in costuming is that I want to see more builders of color. Right now there’s definitely an increase in cosplayers of color, but many of them are purchasing mass produced items or seeking out commissioners. Which there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s important for people to see that there are POCs scratch-building armor, big builds, props, etc. Sometimes it’s even more difficult to envision yourself doing something, when you so rarely see images of people who look like you taking part.
BSF: Can you give an idea of what the process is like for putting together an outfit, from start to finish.
TW: A lot of cosplayers will insist that you have to be a fan of the material to cosplay something. Since fabrication is actually my favorite part, I sometimes ignore that line of thinking and choose my builds based on the challenge of the construction or an opportunity to try out a new technique. I usually start with collecting reference material, such as images of the character (rear views are hard to come by), video clips, storyboards, etc. From there, I figure out materials and a pattern. If it’s a soft-build aka fabric, I’ll hunt through old patterns to see if I can find similar parts that can be Frankenstein-ed into something resembling the desired finished piece. I’m not very good with formal pattern making, but I’m not above breaking out the tape and butcher paper or just free-cutting and pinning muslin until I get something viable. I’ll source fabric either online or at local wholesalers.
I know people that swear by the big-box craft places, but I’m a fan of the more specialized retailers and custom printing when needed. The right fabric can do some much for your final result, so I’ll spend the extra money or suffer the wait for online samples and the like. For armor or semi-rigid work, I search online for Pepakura files, first. Pepakura is a Japanese-created software that allows 3D objects to be rendered as flat files for printing and reconstruction from paper. It’s like reverse engineering origami. There’s a ton of free files out there for a lot of popular fandoms.
The Halo and Iron Man builders were early adopters and have really pushed the software to its limits. As with fabric patterns, sometimes I’ll start with parts cannibalized from other fandoms and then modify. In either case, if there’s nothing available, I create my own patterns using a mix of manual drawing and Adobe Illustrator. It’s a lot of hit and miss. On the materials front, I started out with foam like everyone else, and it’s still my go-to option, but I’ve also branched into thermal plastics, styrene and other materials. As always, different materials lend themselves to different applications.
BSF: Is there one particular fandom in which you find yourself cosplaying/ costuming in the most, or does it run the gamut?
TW: Pacific Rim is the fandom that really made me step my game up. Prior to that I really only worked with fabric. I saw the film and fell in love with the Jaegar pilot’s control pod armor. It was beautiful. I tried finding a commissioner without any luck. Everyone I asked was like “nah, if you want that, you’re gonna have to build it yourself.” I started poking around on the internet and discovered there was this whole other world I knew nothing about. There were plenty of tutorials, so I began a trial and error journey of building a suit. In hindsight, it was terrible and took me a good eight months to finish, but I wore it with pride. Since then, I’ve revised that suit and made several others. I try to make a list at the beginning of the year for what I want to wear at each con. But con list and the builds themselves never remain static. You add stuff, lose interest, almost always need more time, etc.
TW: Probably my Guild Wars 2 armor and the Pacific Rim drivesuit. My friend TaLynn Kel, also a cosplayer, was playing Guild Wars last winter and posted a screengrab of some of her characters on Facebook. I saw the armor for her Aleks Stryker and fell in love; I had to have it. It’s her actual character, so it’s a hodge podge mix of different armor styles from the game. I little Carapace, some Skalawag and a bit of Heavy Plat for good measure.
One of things we talked about, was how she mainly picked the Heavy Plate armor as a base, because it was one of the few that would allow a female character a more functional-looking cover for her lower body. Almost everything else was either skirt-like or a bikini with drapey bits. I started mapping out a plan and finally got it to place where I could wear it on Halloween. I’m finishing it for some good shots at Hair of the Dragon in April. Pacific Rim is the one that brought me to the dance, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also one of the few that I’ve worn more than once and the build is always evolving as I learn new techniques. I’ve been reading the Legendary prequels and will likely try to get together a little group thing for DragonCon.
BSF: It seems as if cosplay/ costuming has grown huge over the past decade with the rise of fandom, comic book movies/ television series, and even the growth of comic book conventions. Do you see this as a symbiotic relationship of sorts, or is cosplay growing separately outside of the proliferation of these other areas?
TW: It’s definitely symbiotic. I’m encountering a lot of what I call casual fans at cons and other events. Their only involvement or interest is due to mainstreamed characters on television and multi-installment film franchises. I’ll be honest, some part of me is resentful. Yes, it’s more consumable content for those of use who’ve been involved since this stuff was relegated to just nerd core, but I worry about the inevitable backlash when the casuals move on to the next fad or thing the internet told them is cool. Remember planking? Bitcoin? The Macarena? Cosplay has been simplified and monetized to facilitate the growth of the same arrive-in-the-middle-invest-very-little fanbase as the shows and movies. I blame the explosion in con attendance on the same thing. Many of them have become just another outing, like a trip to Great Adventure or Six Flags.
Just a few years ago, it was a struggle to find even a basic black unitard to use as a costume base. Now there’s a hundred sites that will let you order a pre-printed copy of your favorite character’s unionsuit. You can get sewing patterns for almost every major franchise plus appropriate fabrics at your local craft store. I’m not saying those people are lesser or that they shouldn’t be enjoying both fandom and cosplay. Some of them may even become lifelong fans, but I worry about the backlash when the tides turn. I am in no way saying there isn’t a place for casual or transient fans, just that supporting industries may be relying too heavily on them as consumers. If they leave, will it be “…no one is into that anymore” and the rest of us left with even less than before? Hollywood and retailers are notorious for misreading geek/nerd buying power.
BSF: For those wanting to get involved in cosplaying what advice (words of encouragement, honest/brutal insight) would you offer them? What would you say are the plusses and minuses for participating?
TW: [Laughs] The internets are your friend. Find something that you want to do and then Google it. If you Google the character plus ‘cosplay’ you’ll likely get back a ton of pictures, tutorials, etc. As I mentioned, there’s plenty of ways to get in on the fun, but I definitely encourage people to try building at least once. I am absolutely not saying there’s anything wrong with purchasing a full costume, going to a commissioner, etc., but I really enjoy that aspect of it. On the plus side, you’ll feel awesome in your costume and if you only get to put a smile on one person’s face, even if it’s just your own, that’s always a great feeling. On the negative side, it can be both costly and time consumptive. You’ll also find yourself eyeing EVERYTHING for its cosplay potential. Go to the store to get a colander, come home with two extras because you might be able to shape foam with them or use them as shoulder bells. Hording fabric and other materials is fairly common. The struggle is real.
BSF: What can our readers look forward to from you in the future?
TW: Con season is just getting underway, but I’m already booked to do some panels on construction and pattern making at the Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo and OnyxCon. I’m also working on a multimedia project which combines all my favorite things: fandom, costumes and music! Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some live shows booked over the summer. In the interim, you can follow my builds and adventures on my website www.thrillbuilds.com.
Robert Jeffrey II is an award winning journalist whose work has appeared in such publications as UVC Magazine, JaDore Magazine, BlackSci-Fi.com, and The Atlanta Voice Newspaper. He is a regular contributor for the Tessera Guild, and his comic book work includes client work for the Centers for Disease Control, and Nitto Tires. His comic book writing includes work on such award winning/ nominated series as his creator owned series Route 3, Radio Free Amerika, Terminus Team-Up, and Soul of Suw. He’s yet to fulfill his dream of pop-locking to save a community center.