A Costuming Notebook

by Jessica Cail

The following is a journal of the creative process, trials (and errors!) in making various costumes over the years. Costumes range from sci-fi to fantasy, comic books to circus, and were all made for various events in the Los Angeles area, including the Labyrinth of Jareth (LOJ) Masquerade Ball, West Hollywood Halloween Carnival, and Burning Man.
My hope is that this site will give other costumers some ideas, or a tidbit of information that will save time and headaches...


For my first costume I wanted to do a full Venetian carnival costume, just in case we ever made it to Italy in February. We didn't, but it did get great usage for Halloween. This monochromatic white costume, combined with the white neutral mask, gives the impression of  a porcelain doll come to life.



Vampire the Masquerade

The next year we attended Anne Rice's Lestat Ball in New Orleans. I wanted a stylized costume, a bit vampiric, a bit period, to match the New Orleans atmosphere. I've always found the idea of "well-dressed evil" fairly disturbing (a la the H.R.Geiger designed demonic gentleman in Poltergeist 2).  Liking the effect of the white neutral mask, I ended up with a literal interpretation of "Vampire, the Masquerade".

Years later, the Buffy episode "Hush" absolutely perfected the look I was shooting for. It won numerous awards, and TV Guide called it, "the most frightening hour of television ever"...


The Joker

The next year Eliot wanted to go as the Joker, from DC's Batman. While I looked everywhere for a light colored pinstriped suit to dye, I couldn't find one. I finally decided to make a suit out of the most outrageously colored fabric we could find: purple and aqua/green baroque satin, to which we added a bright orange shirt, black string tie, and a big yellow water-squirting boutonniere. The buttons on the vest and jacket are actually little cards, aces of each suit.  The pattern was actually from an Abe Lincoln costume.

Eliot is shown below with the Mad Hatter, who showed up at the party along with Batman and Robin.



Another disturbing image in my mind (and probably millions of other folks with traumatic clown memories) is the idea of childhood innocence gone wrong. Think possessed teddy bears (that Snuggle ad still gives me nightmares)... So, the idea of a demonic jester was born. To my dismay, I've since noticed that its a popular idea - look at the masks at any good costume shop.  
Oh well, no matter.

With Eliot's input, I designed a costume with breeches (from a Colonial American pattern), a peplumed jacket with split sleeves (a la the Vatican's swiss guard uniforms), and the three point "donkey ears" hood with gold bells. He picked burgundy velvet, forest green suede and gold baroque satin, because they looked "old world".  Each piece of the costume is the opposite color of those next to it, and the mirror of the other side. Wow, did that take some planning.

These two photos were taken from parties in different years: the faceless version and the skull variant. Although this costume was originally designed for the Digital Domain halloween party in '99, any similarities to the character in a certain award-winning animated short were COMPLETELY accidental.



I had been toying around with the idea of doing a cyber costume for a couple years, and finally decided to go for it. Somewhere between Aeon Flux, Molly (Neuromancer), Trinity (Matrix), Feyd and a Stillsuit (Dune), I came up with this. The main difficulty was materials, as I hadn't yet discovered all the cool costuming shops in LA. I finally decided on foam contouring, covered by liquid latex.

The liquid latex was easy to find at the local fetish shop (this IS LA, after all...) The only problem was the costume had to be WORN while it was being painted with the latex, so that it would shrink and mold to the body. That meant a couple hours of being painted into an ever-hardening lycra shell, eminating happy happy ammonia fumes.

NOT SHOWN: The left arm had three 18" thin blue "glow sticks" running from elbow to wrist, where they "interfaced" with the gun, which also contained a blue glow stick. The reactions I got to the blue lights sold me on the worth of adding lighting to a costume. Eliot made the gun from cool-looking plumbing bits from Home Depot.  Although not a bad first draft, I'm sure this costume will be attempted again in the future.

(Forgive the pictures, I took them of myself, which isn't easy)



Rebel Pilot

This was actually the easiest of Eliot's costumes. The orange flightsuit was purchased at an army-navy surplus store. The vest was made from white vinyl, based on reference photos from Star Wars books and the Smithsonian exhibit, and the padded channels were filled with upholstery ribbing. The strapping was made from canvas or white elastic, except for the leg strap which was two pieces of black elastic with 8 channels sewn in for the flares.

The flares themselves were made from painted plumming tubing, and the controllers on the upper arm were based on plastic liquor pourers. The chest box was completely made by Eliot from styrene, electrical switches, and other custom-made bits.


With Steve Fedasz as TRON



Leeloo - The Fifth Element

My favorite supreme being would have been the simplest costume, were it not for that damned suspender/teddy contraption. I tried SO many different materials for that thing, ranging from nylon to felt to foam rubber, and none worked. Thick materials didn't cling enough, and stretchy ones ripped when the cutouts were made. They tore, they puckered, or they wedgied - 'Nuff  said.  Furthermore, as each fabric had its own stretch variables, each attempt required many many prototypes. Eventually I stopped cursing long enough to realize that the movie version HAD to have been cast onto Milla's body. Thus I resigned myself to a basic orange vinyl.  

These tribulations might explain the slightly insane look on my face. In any case, Jean Paul Gaultier has my undying respect.  I am holding the multipass <muuuul-teeee-pahss> modeled in plastic by Eliot, and photoshop-ed by myself.



The original Eiko Ishioka "absinthe" gown

Mina, from Coppola's Dracula

Designed by Eiko Ishioka (who won the academy award for these costumes) Mina Harker's "absinthe" dress (left) is based on the late Victorian bustle gowns, but is decidedly not period. Aside from the blood red color, the neckline is low, and the sleeves more reminescent of Vlad Dracul's "muscle armor" than the mutton-leg puffed sleeves of the day.

During preliminary testing on the pleated train I discovered that, in order to make the pleats as rich and striking as in the original, the fabric would have to be deeply folded -six inches of fabric for every one inch fold. It made the train enormously heavy. In fact, the entire gown was enormously heavy, containing nearly 20 yards of 60" fabric. It doesn't look it, but it broke my dress-form. Twice.

I think I had every reference shot of this gown ever taken, and I swear every one was different. It must have gone through several permutations before being used in the film. To keep from going insane, I took a few liberties with the design. First, I made the sleeves bat-wing style (reminiscent of Vlad Dracul's muscle armor), as Eiko drew them in her early sketches.  The film version (left) had bell sleeves, which I don't think are as cool. Second, I made the apron drape symmetrical, despite one obscure photo that showed it was really wrapped diagonally like a sarong. I just thought that looked too informal for the architectural Victorian look, so I used the drape from the 1887-9 day dress in Patterns of Fashion 2.

Note:  These photos were taken AFTER the costume ball - after my train had been stepped on about a million times, and the bustle collapsed while seated for dinner! While my version was designed to be a BIT more manageable in a crowded room than the original, it was not supposed to be this flat in the back! Until I get a full shot with my new STEEL boned bustle, you'll just have to imagine the silhouette with the 1873 bustle.

The bustle collapsed, so the train is not standing out as it should. But, check out the spooky white contact lenses!

The bustling was filled with stiff netting, which shifted over the evening. It started out symmetrical, but over the evening, I had to let this one slide (pun intended).

My reproduction: (sans bustle)

It seemed every step I tried to take I was pinned to the floor by someone nonchalantly mingling on my train. Amazing that the pleats survived.

Each leaf had to be sewn, ironed and glued by hand, then stitched into place. That alone took more than a week of nights.


1873 Bustle

I bought the "1873 Fishtail Bustle" from Patterns of History - The State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Their patterns are drafted from original Victorian pieces in their museum collections. It's a easy pattern, doesn't require steel hoops, and it's adjustable! (There are laces in the back which can be tightened for greater "poof")

The pattern called for featherweight boning, but I wanted a bit more strength to carry what would be a very aggressive bustle, so I used nylobone. It comes in its own casing, which is convenient in most ways save one: you cannot slide in the bones after the whole pattern is complete, so you end up wrestling a bit with the stiffly- boned back while you finish the sides.

The only problem was that you could see the harsh lines of the bones through the skirt. I made 3 more rows of ruffles and used them to cover ALL the bones, with a bustle pad for the top with a row of ruffle across the back edge and the problem has been eliminated. Preliminary testing (I flumphed onto the couch in it a few times!) has shown that it's sturdy - collapses when sat upon, yet bounces back into shape when standing again.

Addendum:  So much for sturdy. The bustle collapsed while sitting for dinner, never to spring back to life again!  I checked the boning, and it seemed fine. It appears that the failure was in the muslin, which stretched between each bone, no longer forcing the boning to bow outward, but rather sideways. I have since remade this with STEEL boning and a stronger cotton fabric. Pictures are coming.


El with Jeanine as Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Gentleman Death -
Victorian cutaway suit, waistcoat & ascot

An even more disturbing use of the same skeleton prosthetics used for the Jester a couple years ago, El won first prize for "scariest costume" at the Magic Castle this year. The suit is a Victorian era cutaway tux in a beautiful wool suiting, with a gold and copper print vest.

While the spider webs on his suit & top hat gave the impression that he's just ducked out of the crypt for a quick drink, in my opinion it was his skillful application of the prosthetics that made this costume.

The lower jaw moved independently of the rest of the prosthetic, allowing him to eat, talk and drink. 

It was very disturbing looking, and people noticed. All night he was bombarded by total strangers begging to have their picture taken with him while he was drinking something &

Bob shakin' his bones on the dance floor. Apparently the DJ loved his costume - he played "Hit the road Jack" every time we walked into the room...

Jack Skellington

As Bob is 6'5'', I was dying to use his height for a costume. He's the only one I know of that is tall and lanky enough to pull off Jack.

The suit is an Abraham Lincoln costume pattern, made in pinstriped suiting, with the tails "shredded" to give them that worn skeletal look.

The "bat tie"was made by Bob (Robert Chapin) out of suiting over wire-frame "wings". The bat face on the tie was made of leather with brass rivet eyes. In my opinion, that tie made the costume!

Bob won first prize in the Magic Castle costume contest! That's two years in a row my partner has won in one of my costumes. <sigh> Always the bridesmaid, never a bride...

Sally (above with Jack)

Actually, it was kinda a no-brainer. While the Sally costume was accurately reproduced from reference photos, it isn't a terribly difficult costume. She's a ragdoll - so it's a simple patchwork sack dress.  After looking in vain for the correct  patterned fabrics,  I ended up buying plain colored fabrics in the right shades and hand-drawing the patterns on. (This includes the "stitches" which join all the pieces together.)  NOTE: The only thing I'd do differently next time is to paint the stitches which run across my arms and legs permanently onto a body-stocking (rather than directly onto my skin ) -  they smeared when dancing.


Suki's Butterfly Gown -
2003 Labyrinth Ball

This fantasy gown was made for Suki Lammers for an evening with Brian Froud and company at the Labrynth Ball in Los Angeles. It was made from a peach/cream colored stretch velvet, with gold rickrack and tiny brass and purple enamel butterflies at the center front and hips.  The corset is fully boned and lined.  I'll be honest - cutting in poor lighting I completely forgot about the brushed nap of velvet (which can brush either up or down for it's "sheen")  But, as it turned out, I cut each opposing piece of dress, corset and sleeves out of the opposing nap. Thus, we ended up with a half-and-half harlequin-like texture to the velvet, which frankly I would have done on purpose had I thought of it!

The gold and red organza ribbons chosen by her as an accent can be tied in bows around each gather band on the sleeves, or can be left to hang loose as seen here. There are small gold and red butterflies where the straps attach in the front and 45 inch wide train of gold iridescent organza which drags 2 feet on the floor behind. To the center bottom of the train, I sewed a wrist loop of gold organza ribbon - so she could hold up the train to dance.


Tim Curry, in a publicity still from Legend

Darkness (from the movie Legend)

I'd wanted to make a Darkness & Dark Lilly set for a while, but once Bob got spring stilts - the idea was clinched.

For the mask, we knew that trying to go for the full horns was going to make it impossible to walk around at parties (he's already 6'5" - so he'd likely be knocking himself out in every doorway). For that reason, we went for a toned down version right off the bat.

Bob created the mask from a full-head devil mask we found at a costume shop, dissected for better facial articulation. First he cut the mask off below the cheekbones and the nose. He stuffed the now-removed chin with cotton batting and bought some ears are from Cinema Secrets Woochie. He then made a balaclava-style hood out of lycra, and glued the chin, ears and the upper section of the original mask to the lycra hood. We then painted him into the whole mask with red liquid latex (which you can find at fetish stores - ahhh LA), which both sealed the pieces into one unified mask, and shrunk it to fit his face. It ended up very articulate.

As for the costume, the torso is a long-sleeved lycra turtleneck into which I painted Bob with the rest of the liquid latex. The abdominal definition (he has it for real anyway!) was lowlighted with black greasepaint. The epaulets (attached to a cloak of a springy gauze which billowed well in the wind) were made of a fake leather with gems glued on like studs (you can see the gems better in the movie stills). The back of the cloak and the belt were adorned with tied lengths of rope (roughly spray painted black) and strips of various black fabrics (tulle, pleather, satin, lycra)

Bob made the pants out of black fake fur, which matched the fur covers for his stilts (think "leg warmers"). For added effect, he attached some long black LOOSE hair (for wig making?) to elastic bands, which he wore just below the knee - giving him the look of clydesdale fetlocks.

Finally, the hooves were cut from 1" foam, wrapped around the base of the stilts (which could be removed by twist-tie wire closures at the back) and then painted with tool rubber, which can be found at any Home Depot.

Overall, I have to say, this costume causes a stir wherever we take it. Wearing it at the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival is as close as we're probably ever going to get to being hounded by paparazzi. We can't take two steps without him being mobbed by photographers...pretty cool.

Close-up of Bob as Darkness


Joining 1/2 million people at the world's largest halloween street carnival in West Hollywood, CA.

So dark - I wish we'd gotten a better shot, but at least you can see the scale - awesome!

Dark Lilly

The costume for Dark Lilly was based on a basic vest pattern made of faux leather, to which I added cap sleeves and extended the lapel into the enormous collar that you see here.

Frustration #1: No amount of interlining or cardboard or boning would make that enormous sail of a collar stand up to the breeze generated by a brisk walk, let alone the great outdoors! So, after much trial and error, I finally inserted heavy wire into the leading edge of the collar (slipped into a channel formed by the seam allowance) and horizontal "crossbars" of nylon boning at several places across the back of the neck. Occasionally the whole collar would flap backwards (like an umbrella inverting) if a stiff gust came up, but it sprung right back up into place again.

As to the neckline, despite the general acceptance of naked body parts at the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival, I was not terribly interested in baring my breasts suddenly and unexpectedly mid-evening. To prevent this, a "V" of non-stretchy sheer nude tulle was attached as a protective panel in the center front. As you can see, the panel was completely invisible, and people kept asking me all night how I was staying in that bodice!

The skirt was made from an asymmetrical wrap of a fabric with built-in alternating black and sheer strips. The cape was made of a stretchy black evening fabric with silver glitter woven into it. Elastic wrist and elbow cuffs were sewn in for drape, and safety when waltzing with Darkness...

Questions? I have pattern references and nuggets of wisdom. Suggestions and advice?  I'd love to hear them.

Drop me a line!