The first thing you need in dressing a character is a character.
Actually, no. The first thing you need is a venue–i.e. a place to wear this costume. A venue can be any, all, or none of the following: a renaissance festival at which you are working; a renaissance festival at which you are visiting; a costume contest at a bar; the office Halloween party; the grocery store; the bedroom of your Special Someone(s); or any of seven thousand other things. Wherever you’re going to wear this thing, I’m not going to judge you. Others might, but I won’t!
Your venue is going to inform a lot of your choices. It may have rules, or a bizarre climate, or stairs you have to climb 75 times an hour, or a creepy boss, or that one bitch whom you are determined to outshine, or a million other little things you’ll want to take into account. Furthermore, your venue is more than likely going to inform your first and most major choice: what character are you going to be?
This brings us back to where we began: Choosing a character!
Sometimes your character is going to be handed to you. Someone will say, for instance, “A bunch of us are doing The Neverending Story at Dragon*Con next year, and you and I should be the Southern Oracle!” and you will clutch your beer to your breast in joyous rapture and say “Yes! Of course we should!” Then all you have to do is lay off the Cinnamon Toast Crunch for a year so you won’t feel self-conscious when you put on a blue body suit.
Other times you may have guidance from Management (e.g. “you cannot play a Minotaur at our renaissance festival,” “a space suit is not appropriate for a Victorian caroling company,” or more probably, “we really need you to be X, Y, or Z characters, please pick one”), or suggestions from other people you’re collaborating with (see again re: “We should be the Southern Oracle!”, joyous rapture, etc). And then sometimes you’ll have to/get to pick a character all on your own!
Some things I think you ought to consider when selecting a character:
- What is appropriate to the venue?
You probably don’t want to dress as Lady Godiva for your office Halloween party (unless you have an awesome job, in which case can I get a reference?). This is pretty self-explanatory, I think, so let’s just move on.
- Do I look like this character/am I willing to make myself look like this character?
I think actors portraying Elizabeth I or Henry VIII should be tall redheads (or tall people willing to go red), and Anne Boleyn should be dark-haired and dark-eyed. Going as Melisandre from A Song of Ice and Fire? Get ye some red contacts. Obviously everyone is different here–something absolutely non-negotiable for one person or company may be perfectly OK for another–but I think some attention to history and/or canon is important. In general, though, if it’s a defining characteristic, make it happen. That means no blonde Supermans. Supermen. WTF is the plural of “Superman”?
Of course, with this we run into the sensitive questions of race and gender. And frankly, I love seeing underrepresented groups moving into mainstream characters. So while I get all pissed over the idea of a blonde, white Superman, a black, female Superman strikes me as an awesome “fuck you” to the people responsible for the under-representation of women and especially women of color in US pop culture. Is this hypocritical? Maybe, but let’s be honest: blonde white men have no shortage of pop culture icons that look like them.
As a general rule, I don’t like men dressed as women for no other purpose than comedy (I have a story about this that I may share some day), and I don’t like whitewash casting. I am largely in favor of racial-and-gender-blind casting, but at the same time I realize that in some instances/venues it doesn’t make sense. Of course, I’m saying this from the relatively privileged view of a middle class white girl, so get your salt shaker. Anyway, this blog is probably not the best place to tackle this (at least not right now; I do feel another post in the making), so let’s move on.
Please note: if you’re only going to be wearing this for Halloween or in your bedroom, or if you don’t care and neither does anyone else you’re working with/for, then do what you want. I’m still going to judge you, blonde Superman, but why do you care?
- Can I afford to dress this character?
Armor, weapons, prosthetics, velvet, silk, boots, makeup, period undergarments–these things, and many others, do not come cheap. More often than not, finances are going to be a defining factor in costuming. This is tragic, but it’s true (unless you’re sitting on a pile of money a la Scrooge McDuck, in which case please send me a couple of hundred dollars for the silks and velvets I so desperately desire).
- Do I want to wear any of this shit?
Do you really want to deal with a wingspan twelve feet wide, or stilts, or gigantic tusks, or twenty pounds of makeup, or [insert other irritating and potentially life-threatening costume piece here]? If you do, great, I hope you knock yourself out in a strictly metaphoric sense. If not, maybe you ought to think of some other character.
I, for instance, hate full wigs, and don’t wear them unless forced, because I think they’re uncomfortable and often look terrible; therefore, I pick characters who share my natural hair color or could be reasonably expected to do so, which is handy, since I’m a brunette. That means no She-Ra until I get over this, and yes, seven year old me is v. disappointed