So here I am, dancing on the stage of the ICC auditorium at the Excel in London. It’s enormous. The biggest stage I’ve ever set foot on. A theatre that seats 4,000 people and I’m dancing. Or rather I’m wandering around the stage in a figure of eight pattern, waving my arms and trying to look seductively gothic. I’m wearing a costume of my own creation. A hastily put-together ensemble of black dress, tights, extraordinarily high boots and a wicker headdress that adds another foot to my height. It’s a struggle to keep it steady.
I try to remember the advice I had from Chris and Lori. ‘Bigger hand movements. Bigger gestures.’ And I flail my hands around like a demented demon. Whirling and twirling to the music and keeping in my character of Wickergirl. And then, disaster, my overly large crown falls from my head and bounces onto the stage. ‘Keep going,’ say Chris and Lori. And so I do. Dancing and flailing knowing that next day this would not be a rehearsal. Next day this would be the real thing, my debut in a fantasy masquerade contest.
To be honest my debut is something of a surprise even to me. It is August 15th, the weekend of the 72nd World Con at Excel in London. It is my first World Con and a chance for me to not only participate in some fantastic workshops and seminars but to dress up in something glamorous and attend the Sci-Fi themed ball. Except, as I discover on reading the programme that there isn’t a ball. However, there is a masquerade contest.
I speak to Giulia, the masquerade director who explains that I have to register in order to take part. The deadline for entries is just a few hours away. There are several categories to enter: Master, Journeyman, Novice and Junior. I don’t understand any of them but since there isn’t a category of Naïve I pick Novice instead.
I am not totally unprepared. When, a few days earlier, I thought I was going to attend a Sci-Fi themed ball, I had devised the concept for a crown and outfit with my friend and Make-Up Artist/Costume Maker Sammm Agnew. She had spent the whole night putting up with me going through my random clothing collection trying to piece something original together, and had come up with the make-up design for the night and Con days. Then after I searched the whole of London for 24-hour delivery on raffia, she made the Wickergirl headpiece the next day.
But what is my character to be on stage? Who am I? I’m Wickergirl, a blogger, filmmaker and occasional actress. I quickly scribble Wickergirl, Entity of the Darkness or something to that effect on the entry form. I know a stage performance is required but as to what I’ll be doing I have no idea. Until I speak to Chris and Lori, the masquerade’s den mums. They give me some performance tips including the crucial advice that no matter what happens keep on going. Technical support help me choose a background image for my appearance, a combination of red sunset and lightning bolts. They load up an introductory script that Sammm Agnew had helped me write and they handle the music that will help create some atmosphere for my performance.
At rehearsals I also speak with John O’Halloran from California. John had worked backstage at World Con since 1985 and judged other masquerades. ‘What I look for is consistency,’ he says. ‘Confidence and flow depending on your division. I look for your presentation to match your level. A simple and smooth presentation is enough for a novice, if they can make the standard figure eight, look smooth, look confident and show us the character and get off stage, I’m happy with that and if they can tell a story along the way, that’s even better. ‘
It is great advice from someone who has already won an award at the 2003 World Con.
More useful advice comes from masquerade director Giulia de Cesare. “Working at the masquerade is not a full time job”, she tells me. Originally from Tasmania, Giulia’s first convention was Syncon 1983 in Sydney where her favourite author and guest of honour Harlan Ellison attended the Australian National Convention. She continued to travel to the various cons, and attended the 1985 WorldCon in Melbourne where Anne McCaffrey was the guest of honour. Soon after she moved to the UK and started attending regular conventions and entering masquerades.
‘We’re all amateurs. This is nobody’s full time job. We all do this in our spare time. We liaise by Internet and Google sites. We’ve had two staff meetings this year and we’ve travelled to meet and stayed in hotels at our own expense. We do this at our own time and our own cost. You’ve got to commit to it.’
We speak about costuming and multi-time masquerade winner Miki Dennis who’s known for her veracious and extraordinary costumes.
‘There’s a saying that costumers have. You’ve got three choices, you can have it cheap, you can have it fast or you can have it good. But out of those three you only get to choose two. If it’s cheap and it’s fast it won’t be good, if it’s good and it’s cheap, you’ll take forever to make it. And that’s what Miki does, she does it good and she does it cheaply and she knows how to buy fabric but then she takes infinite pains over it. So that’s the challenge. ‘
Miki Dennis turns fantasy costuming into an art form. She makes a living creating cushions and curtains and uses those same skills to make her costumes. She’s been attending masquerades for over 30 years and she first won an award in Japan for the most beautiful dress. This has become a popular award for her as she has now won three in the most beautiful dress category, one from Costume Con in America and two from World Con. She also makes artefacts for re-enactment societies and has even costumed the entire pageant at her local church with historical attire from her attic. Her work is outstanding, the detail is breath-taking and incomprehensible. I gaze admiringly in awe wondering how long it took to make the dress she is wearing.
‘I tend to make my costumes when I don’t have any work on,’ Miki explains. ‘If I happen to have a couple of days before the next job arrives, I do a bit so it’s very hard to say how long it takes. I also use stuff I already have, this costume cost me about £20 to make because I bought the material online or at auctions, about 10 metres of fabric all together. I never spend a lot of money on a costume. I can’t afford it. I earn enough to get by. Some people make or buy a costume for £600. I wouldn’t make a costume for £600 myself. I just couldn’t do it. If someone gave me the money then maybe I’d make them a costume!’ What Miki does through hard work and talent makes me realise just how little effort I’d put into my own costume by comparison. I’ve made it cheap and fast. Not an award-winning combination. I make a mental note to try much harder next time. But all that is for later. Tomorrow I have a masquerade contest to enter.
It is two hours until show time and I make my way backstage to get ready. I’m approached by two members of the masquerade staff who introduced themselves and guide me to a vanity mirror. They tell me I can call them if I need anything. There’s something about vanity mirrors that can turn you into a diva. I already feel like a star.
I spend the entire time getting ready as other costumers start to fill the area backstage. There are suitcases, make-up, bits of costume, armoury, capes, hairpins and wigs all over the place. But despite being in competition with each other, the atmosphere is friendly, we are like an extended family of the weird embarked on some wonderful folly.
Just before I queue for my interview with the costume judges my eyes meet the most beautiful jacket I’ve ever seen. It is full of buttons, from top to tail. Each button intricately sewn on and laid symmetrically across the material. The owner of this fabulous jacket is Patti Keller. She hands me her card which reads Professional Retiree. She has travelled from the Arizona with her granddaughter who is also entering the masquerade.
Official convention photographs are taken. And then I undergo inspection by two judges who ask me how my outfit was made. They made notes vigorously whilst speaking quietly amongst one another.
Then the moment came. I am led into the crossover behind the actual stage. I can hear echoes of laughter from the audience and the MC announcing the next contestant. And that contestant is me.
My den mum helps me up the steps to the stage. My fellow costumers wish me luck and the previous performer walks off stage followed by applause. There is some comical banter from the MC and then my script begins. As soon as the music sounds, it is my cue to go on stage. My den mum gives me a hand signal and off I go.
I waltz on, spinning around with my arms high up in the air making sure to keep large hand movements. I perform a figure of eight before breaking into my dance routine and throwing pieces of raffia into the air. I make fierce movements, turning and twirling. And then, and God knows why, I decide to roll over on the floor as close to the front of the stage as possible. I remember the den mums telling me to come forward because I’d look small on the stage. At this point my crown starts falling off my head. But before it can fall I grab it and rip it off, launching it across the stage in an attempt to make it part of the act. I throw more raffia, catch it and dance into my final pose.
My heart is beating fast, my body shaking from nerves, adrenalin is pumping and I feel great. Quite what this creative tantrum looks like from the audience is another matter. I enjoyed it.
Calming down I go to the side of the auditorium with several other contestants and watch the remaining costumers who are, it has to be said, mesmerising. My favourite of the night is a group called Atari.
I don’t win any awards although the next day I got many people asking, ‘Were you the raffia girl who rolled around on the stage?’ Yes that was me. But my desire to take part in balls and masquerades has been whetted. And my admiration for those who take this seriously is raised tenfold. The costuming world is a beautiful one, full of fine arts, craft, real workmanship and passionate, skilled and talented people. I look forward to meeting you all again.