Friday, March 16, 2012

Concerning the Conceptualisation of Costumes...

It's a shame that the nature of this blog leaves it dormant for much of the year. During those months between finishing one costume and the frenzy of starting the next, subject matter is thin on the ground. This year, my aim is to augment the usual August(ish) to November activity with a bit of extra content; by articulating some of the brainstorming activity that typically goes into new a costume idea. 

Last year such an exercise would have been superfluous. The idea of portraying The Nightmare Before Christmas' Mayor of Halloweentown had carried over from 2010 when I had started but prematurely ended the project (or rather postponed, as it turned out) in favour of Toy Story 2 figure Emporer Zurg. That the Mayor costume was a culmination of some two years' work (with a temporary hiatus to focus on Zurg) ultimately made it a more satisfying piece of work. However, having it designated as the next costume after Halloween 2010 meant that there was no blank canvas on which to paint a new idea. That type of clean slate, where the only limitation is the extent of pop culture icons in existence, feels extremely liberating after spending months pouring your heart and soul into one character. 

I have never really had to formalise my thought processes behind picking a costume idea (that I have such a process in itself is probably enough to make many despair) but the following are some attributes which I pay attention to: 

1) Advantages/Disadvantages

Not a whole lot of elaboration needs to be made here. Typical advantages might include practicality (an advantage seldom enjoyed) - if the costume is easy to move in, if it is easily transportable, if it doesn't obscure any important faculties (peripheral vision is invariably the first to be sacrificed). Disadvantages typically include the reverse of those advantages outlined above; with additions like vulnerability (water resistance is a big plus in Ireland) and the extent of costume obscurity (see #4).

2) Ridiculousness

Depending on how far you go, this can represent potential advantages and disadvantages. I've learned that bigger = better in the eyes of judges, and it is quite hard to get yourself noticed unless you pose at least a minor fire hazard (see #8). In 2006 I was extremely chuffed and quite humbled by peoples' reaction to my Ash costume; but a mini cult following wasn't enough to secure a place on the final shortlist. Of course, going too far in the other direction may garner plenty of recognition but stunt your capacity to enjoy the social element of the night. My 2008 Xenomorph costume was accompanied by a Power Loader costume donned by a friend whose mobility was quite a bit more confined than my own. The same friend followed up this effort with a portrayal of the Discworld series' Luggage; and subsequently didn't hear his name being announced as competition winner because the pub bouncers kept him confined to the most remote of corners in the building. A delicate balancing act is thus crucial.

3) Costume precedence

I have yet to come up with an idea that hasn't been done and documented on the Web. Of course, a certain level of precedence is important to serve as reference material (see #5) but too much of a precedent can make you feel like you're flogging a well-beaten horse. There is also the likelihood of 'costume surplus' in any given year to consider; source materials which were particularly prominent in the public eye throughout the year are likely to be targeted excessively for costume ideas (see costumes of The Joker on Halloween 2008, when venues all over the world became giant clown cars).

4) Relevance of theme/Pop culture significance

For the first couple of years of my Halloween-celebrating renaissance I lived by one fundamental rule: Halloween costumes should be derived from horror-related source material. I felt that the spirit of Halloween wasn't quite captured by the usual excess of pirates, sexy cops, and slutty nurses. I was even slightly judgemental of the more unique ideas that weren't at least vaguely horror-themed (my Predator, Alien, and T-1000 portrayals may have been more sci-fi oriented but I defy anyone to say that they weren't fear-inspiring antagonists in their respective films). This principle was first challenged in 2010 when the idea of Emporer Zurg was pitched to me by my girlfriend and, as far from horror-themed as it was, the idea was too captivating to resist. The Mayor of Halloweentown may not have boasted the scary element either, but the Halloween relevance was abundantly evident (and extremely satisfactory as Danny Elfman's film score boomed throughout the venue several times on the night). 

As distinct from Halloween relevance, the pop culture significance of a costume is an important consideration. Obscure costumes can be somewhat advantageous if they challenge onlookers to decode exactly 'what it is'. However, representing a character from source material which is too far into the realm of cult following can result in a deficiency of recognition. While that might not bother some (and I genuinely applaud those to whom this applies) I cannot pretend that I don't enjoy every second of fanfare that a well-executed costume can bring. If a well-executed costume doesn't garner fanfare, this is one potential cause.

5) Ease of access to reference material

The pervasiveness of blogs, content aggregators, search engines, and the internets in general make this a minor concern. As noted under costume precedence, there aren't many costumes that haven't been conceptualised and documented somewhere else online. Such a presence is important in those early stages when an idea is being contemplated; its feasibility, the likelihood that it will look any good, the different approaches people have taken in fashioning the costume, and so on. As for source material access, all of my ideas so far have been derived from popular film franchises which have made this somewhat of a non-issue. Pouring over film scenes on DVD and Blu-ray has proven to be an invaluable source of instruction, and the more significant pop-culture icons have a greater presence across image searches online (important when you need to find images of inocuous body parts or ancillary materials).

6) Suitability of required skill sets

Crafting a Halloween costume tends to call on a variety of aptitudes and knowledge/skill sets. Often, ideas conceptualised are too ambitious to be followed through on. Both my Predator and Alien costumes, for example, carried details which strenuously pushed the boundaries of my own skill; the laser-sighted cannon on Predator, and the mechanical inner mouth of the Alien. Thankfully I was able to call on those around me with a greater aptitude in these areas, and with some invaluable help I was able to negotiate the discrepancies between my ambition and technical limitations. Similarly, a significant portion of both Zurg and the Mayor's constructions required the skills of a seamstress, and neither costume would have been a possibility without those given to the project by my dedicated girlfriend. Calling on those around me to contribute skills outside of my own has proven to be an invaluable part of costume construction; but it is important that the bulk of the project is within your own sphere of skills and knowledge so that you can work to your own devices more than having to depend on others.

7) Overall projected difficulty

This piece of criteria is largely derived from those described above. Costumes which attain a healthy level of ridiculousness (as outlined in #2) are naturally associated with more complicated and intricate constructions, and therefore greater difficulty. In addition to building challenges, logistical difficulties can arise if the ridiculousness is a function of the costume's size. Difficulty is also conditioned by the skill/knowledge prerequisites involved in making a given costume, as explored in #6. If several design aspects take you out of your comfort zone it naturally creates difficulties. Finally, the level of difficulty can be amplified or minimised by the amount of free time you have in the months building up to Halloween. Looking retrospectively at my T-1000 costume I've always felt that I could have made a stronger attempt; until I remind myself that construction-season was timed inopportunely as I started to arrive at the business-end of my Masters degree.

8) Competition winning credentials 

Sure, I try to always enjoy the occasion for what it is: a chance to dress up obscenely and have an all-round good night with friends. But when the crafting element of Halloween is your hobby, it is hard not to let costume construction become the main event and let the social side become incidental. Moreover, it is hard not to become competitive when you have spent innumerable hours working on your costume. In my eyes, competition-winning credentials stem primarily from two other considerations which have been explored in this article: the level of ridiculousness that your costume represents (see #2), and its pop-culture significance (see #4).

With these criteria in mind I have already begun to think in earnest of what costume I will be donning this year. I felt rather burned out towards the latter stages of the Mayor's construction, and November 1st felt like a sweet release when it arrived. However, on those days where the creativity bone starts to itch, I start to miss those days as if I were a former hostage experiencing a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome. Indeed, the time taken to create this post reflects that disposition as I begin to look enthusiastically at the horizon ahead. I hope to make time to dedicate further entries to some of the stronger candidates for Halloween 2012; before the first length of wire is snipped in anger and the fun, frenzy, and heartache of construction is upon us again.

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