Popaganda Episode: Dress Up
Costumes have an undeniable power. In this show we examine tomboy fashion with founders of upstart company Wildfang, head to Geek Girl Con to talk with cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch, and dig into sexy Halloween costumes with Portland fashion designer Adam Arnold and designer/retailer Cassie Ridgway.
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BITCH MEDIA POPAGANDA EPISODE:
SARAH: This is Sarah Mirk of Bitch Media, and this is Popaganda: Feminist Response to Pop Culture Podcast. Thanks to our sponsor She Bop, a woman-owned sex toy boutique specializing in body safe products and education. Check them out at sheboptheshop.com.
There’s a power to putting on a costume. Wonder Woman knows it, Rogue knows it. We all put on some variety of costume when we head out for the day. Today for example I’m wearing my “professional costume,” complete with very serious black oxfords and a collared shirt. This episode of Popaganda is all about dressing up, with perspectives from three different worlds of dress up. First off, we talk about the industry of Tomboy fashion, and what it means to dress like a tomboy anyway. Then we head to Seattle’s Geek Girl Con, to meet up with cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch. Finally, we bring in fashion designer Adam Arnold and retailer Cassie Ridgeway to talk about everyone’s favorite dress up topic: Halloween.
First off, Bitch Editorial Intern Ari Yarwood talks about Tomboy Fashion with the owners of Portland clothing company Wildfang.
ARI: Not everyone likes shopping from the boys clothing section or the girls clothing section. Several tomboy fashion companies have sprung up in recent years across the United States to cater to people who like to wear clothes that blur gender boundaries. Julia Parsley and Emma McGilroy quit salaried jobs at Nike to start up Portland-based tomboy fashion company Wildfang a few years ago. They describe themselves not as a brand, but as a band: specifically, a band of thieves. Modern day female Robin Hood’s raiding men’s closets and maniacally dispensing blazers, cardigans, wingtips, and bowlers. Wildfang was started because Julia and her friends wanted men’s clothes to fit a woman’s body, which they couldn’t find at mainstream clothing stores. I asked the pair who they looked to as tomboy fashion role models growing up.
WILDFANG FOUNDER 1: When I was growing up and my mom would take me shopping as a kid I always wanted to go into the boy’s section because I wanted to dress a certain way but I guess as I got older I still look to somebody like an Agyness Dean and take huge inspiration from her. Talk about somebody who just feels like an original. Somebody who’s really creating her look on a daily basis, and that feels really freeing to me.
WILDFANG FOUNDER 2: Yeah I’m probably more of the Rock n’ Roll Girl. I’m probably halfway between I don’t give a shit and I want to provoke a reaction. That’s probably my spectrum, so I’m probably somewhere between Blondie and Patti Smith. I definitely want to cause some sort of provocative reaction with my look, but at the same time I want to feel really comfortable in what I’m wearing.
ARI: So what does Tomboy actually mean as a clothing aesthetic? Is it crossing the department store line to take traditionally designed men’s clothing and make it your own? Or is it an identity? Or an attitude? I talked to Julia and Emma about their definition of tomboy fashion as they were setting up for a talk during Design Week Portland.
FOUNDER 2: It’s an attitude in terms of—there are certain personality types, we think that tomboys are very positive. They’re very bold, they’re very adventurous. They don’t always play by the rules because the rules don’t really make sense to them. But they’re also really out to have fun. They don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s probably the girl that you want to go for beers with, it’s probably the girl that you want to catch your next gig with. I think part of it’s an attitude and part of it’s a style. We define it as anything that’s originated in a man’s closet, and we try to build it up in our collection and offer it to her in a way that’s really aspirationional and looks good on her.
ARI: Wildfang has promoted its styles with lesbian celebrities like Tegan and Sara. For generations the queer community has pioneered fashion that crosses gender lines, often with heavy social cost. But Wildfang doesn’t see itself as a brand specifically for queer women. Instead the founders see the sexuality of their customers as a non-issue. They just care what attitude the clothes express and how they actually look. And present an aesthetic aimed at the general public.
FOUNDER 2: When we talk about the tomboy we don’t specifically label sexuality in any way shape or form. We like to think we’re creating a really inclusive brand and a home for anybody that wants to be a part of it. So for sure we hope that the LGBTQ community loves us, we also hope that there’s tons of straight girls that love us. With my friends I don’t necessarily care what their sexuality is, I’m happy as long as they’re happy. And that’s how we try to run our brand.
ARI: Of course, everyone has a different definition of tomboy and fashion and gendered presentation are highly personal. This is just one fashion company’s perspective. But it’s interesting to see how this transgressive aesthetic is now becoming a high fashion brand.
COSPLAY AT GEEK GIRL CON
SARAH: Every October Geek Girl Con takes over Seattle, filling the downtown convention center with hundreds of proud nerds, some of who are cosplayers decked out in fabulous costumes. Amid the crowd, Bitch editorial and creative director Andi Zeisler caught up with Chaka Cumberbatch, a well-known cosplayer who often speaks out about race and dressing up.
ANDI: I’m sitting on a couch at Seattle’s Geek Girl Con, watching a parade of Captain Marvels, Unicorns, Sailor Moons, and Harley Quinns walk by. For cosplayers, conventions like this one are the ultimate in dress up opportunities. There are individual cosplayers who work only with what they already have in their closets, and troops of cosplayers who work together to create intricately detailed homages to the fandom of their choice.
LAUREN: My name is Lauren. I’ve been in cosplay since 2002. Today I’m dressed as Kaylee from Firefly who’s one of my favorite characters ever—she’s so happy. The reason that I’ve been doing this for so long is that I love it so much, it’s so much fun and I get to meet so many amazing people.
ERIN: My name is Erin, I’m a member of house of flying needles cosplay, I’m dressed as Daisy from Mario today with my husband dressed as Luigi. I just always liked the Mario cart games and think they’re really fun cute costumes, so it was fun putting them together.
KATIE: Hi, my name is Katie I’m a part of the house of flying needles. I’m currently dressed as Yasuho Hirose from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, a long-running manga that I fell in love with years ago. I’m pretty much dressed like this because I want to, it’s so much fun and exciting and I get to show other people how much I love what I’m doing.
CHRIS: Hi, my name is Chris and I am dressed as Guy Sensei. He is from Naruto. I loved his character because he aspires people around him to always be stronger, always do better. I like that about anime in general it’s all about trying to prove who you are. That’s what I like about anime, it’s all about trying to be someone better or do things better with your life.
ANDI: I’m here to talk to Chaka Cumberbatch, a rising star in the world of cosplay about the power of becoming your favorite characters. So you’ve been cosplaying since 2008. Tell us about your first time doing cosplay. Who were you, what was it like, what was the con?
CHAKA: My first cosplay was at a con in 2008. I was Misa Misa from the manga and the anime Death Note. I went to that con with my anime club and I didn’t really know what to expect. And I walked in and there were all the different costumes—it was like Halloween in the middle of June, or May, or whenever it was. And I was just super impressed with everything and just really wanted to be a part of it.
ANDI: So what makes you decide what characters to be? Do you look around and say “I see a distinct lack of X character” or is it just characters that you personally love a lot?
CHAKA: It’s really characters that I just love a lot. We talked about this a little in my panel yesterday. I try to go for characters that I have a personal attachment to, like maybe my favorite character from a show, or a character that I really like, or a character that looks like me, or I really like the design. Usually, I just pick a character that I personally feel really passionate about because it’s hard to dedicate all that time and energy to working on a costume if you don’t really have that much attachment to the character. When you really like a show and you really like a character and you’re going to get into it and be really intricate and go for all the little tiny details. But if you don’t really like the show then you’re like “I don’t know this character very well I don’t know why they wear this, I don’t know why this is this color.” Then it’s not the same.
ANDI: So you’ve written, especially recently about the dearth of black women and women of color more generally in cosplay. Is this something that you noticed right away, or did it just sort of build up over time to where you were like “this needs to be addressed and I’m the one to do it?”
CHAKA: Well being a black female in nerd circles I was kind of used to being the only one, or used to not seeing a lot of people that looked like me. It was something I sort of resigned myself to, and after a while I said “Why aren’t there more of us?” I know several black female cosplayers and we all joke about how whenever we have a new one join the group we all immediately want to be friends with her and bring her in because there are so few of us that we all want to know each other. I really feel that it’s harder for us to get into cosplay because we don’t see a lot of characters who look like us in our comics and our videogames and our cartoons. So that’s the larger problem that needs to be addressed, because it’s related to why there aren’t as many cosplayers. Even if there are young black girl nerds that aren’t into cosplay they still have a right to see characters that look like them in their comic books. It’s really important that someone can have a superhero to look up to and identify with.
ANDI: So there are a lot of younger kids who come to these conventions and get really into it and do cosplay themselves, what’s the best and worst reactions you’ve gotten from younger fans?
CHAKA: The little ones are so sweet. Yesterday I had a girl who was Raven from Team Titans who I guess had told her mom that she wanted a picture with me but she was too shy to ask me so her mom brings her over and she’s essentially hiding behind her. And her mom was like “It’s okay come take a picture, and I said “Yeah girl, come on!” You’ve got to remember that these kids when they’re walking around a con, they don’t know that they’re not in Disneyworld. You look at the way they’re looking around at all these characters and it really reminds you of being five or six at Disneyworld and you saw Snow White face character and you thought it was Snow White. It’s almost like there’s a responsibility there to really be that superhero for those kids. So I try when I’m walking around the con floor, especially when I’m in my costume, to always be smiling and welcoming and willing to interact and take pictures with kids. Because I know that you really are that superhero to them.
I haven’t really had any bad reactions from kids. I did have a girl at Dragon Con this year take my picture and then tell me about how excited she was because she didn’t know that black girls did cosplay and that there were a lot of black superheroes. She was so excited because she was looking at everything and she wanted to be a part of it but she didn’t know that she could be. And so looking at it and seeing someone that looked like her doing this made it feel like it was okay, that she would be welcomed, and that she could join it. It just made me really sad to hear that.
ANDI: Yeah, and to that there is this somewhat erased or obscured history of black female superheroes. Do you see yourself as kind of an ambassador to help people open up that gate and find those historic figures?
CHAKA: I don’t know if I would call myself an ambassador. People tell me all these things and all I really do is just talk about things that matter to me personally. I’m really starting to understand that it comes with a responsibility. Even if I’m just writing a blog post for xojane and I’m just talking to myself or my friends I had no idea that it was going to great spread around and start all these conversations. So I’m really starting to understand that there’s a responsibility there. It’s a little bit intimidating at first, but if it’s a need there than I’m happy to help fill it.
ANDI: So this is for our podcast that’s titled “Dress Up.” So one of the things I’m interested in and one of the things we’ve been talking about is how dressing up and becoming characters is often a way to sort of access different parts of ourselves. So I’m curious about your background. Have you always liked dressing up? Or has cosplay been something that you didn’t really expect to get into? How has it affected your non-dressed up life?
CHAKA: I always knew I would fall into cosplay eventually—it was pretty much inevitable. I was always a nerd and I always really liked dressing up. I would always get in trouble when I was little for taking my parents stuff and getting dressed up in my dad’s military things and stuff like that. Spirit days at school—I was all over it. Loved Halloween, it was my favorite holiday. But I grew up in a really conservative Christian household and so I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. So every year I’d watch my friends get super into their costumes and get to dress up and I wasn’t allowed to. So cosplay to me is just like Christmas a couple times a year—I get to dress up, I get to dress up when it’s not Halloween, I get to be my favorite characters. And it’s so much fun. Really, it has almost a transformational aspect of it to me. It’s fun because you get to tap into all these different aspects of yourself. Even when you’re working on a costume, you get to learn all these different skills, the achievement level that comes from learning how to sew a garment or learning how to sculpt a weapon or learning how to paint something the way it needs to look is really empowering and helps you in real life. It gives you the confidence to say “Okay, maybe I can tackle this extra problem at work.” Or “Maybe I can tackle buying a house” or whatever because I can break it down like it was a costume and build up “How do I get to this point?” So it helps me in that area, it helps me because cosplay involves being really budget minded as far as money and times goes as far as being at work and being a grown up. There are aspects of this hobby that I think are really positive and that you can use in your everyday life. And that’s something I’ve always really appreciated about it.
SEXY HALLOWEEN DISCUSSION
In this 20-minute conversation, Bitch Creative and Editorial Director Andi Zeisler and Online Editor Sarah Mirk talk with independent fashion designer Adam Arnold and Portland fashion designer-manufacturer Cassie Ridgway about why people love to dress up sexy for Halloween.
SARAH: We're here to talk about costumes. Halloween is next week and we wanted to start out talking about sexy costumes and the idea of dressing up sexy for Halloween. We did a shout out on our Facebook to readers asking what they think of dressing up sexy on Halloween, asking: Do you dress up sexy or not? Why? Rosemary Hollands said, "Isn't it part of the feminist mission to stop this bullshit of judging us for what we wear? I don't see how dressing up on Halloween is any different than dressing up on a Friday night." A couple people said they're planning on dressing up absurdly sexy: as sexy Dwight Schrute, from The Office, as a sexy circuit board, because they radiate magnetism, or as a sexy ghost, which is just a person wearing a sheet with lingerie on the outside.
ADAM: Wouldn't that be kind of bunchy?
ANDI: I think what's worth talking about with regard to that first comment is it's different choosing to dress up sexy for Halloween and this whole industry that has sprung up in just the past decade for manufacturing these sexy costumes just for women—we don't see sexy costumes for men—they're making these costumes usually cheaply and really unethically and marketing them as, you know, like sexy hamburger and sexy elephant. i think it's worth talking about the whole industry that's sprung up to codify this idea of Halloween's sexiness.
ADAM: What makes a costume sexy?
ANDI: Well, right, what makes it sexy in these store bought Halloween sexy costumes is they're spandex, the skirts are really short, and they have some kind of weird anthropomorphic element, like ears—
ADAM: It's like cute-sexy.
ANDI: Right, it's not scary sexy, it's cutesyified.
ADAM: Like frightening sexy meaning like a vampire?
ANDI: The store bought sexy vampire costume would be a short skirt and a low neck, it's not like terrifyingly long curly fingernails that would occur if you're actually a vampire. That's too much.
CASSIE: It's definitely not something I want to personally feel like I want discourage in people, if this is their opportunity to express their sexuality for a night with the guys and the anonymity of a costume. But definitely, to be clear, some of those costumes are shoddily made.
SARAH: What you're touching on there is how some people feel, when they put on a costume, the freedom to act in a way that they normally wouldn't. So for people who don't feel comfortable being sexy, Halloween can be their night to dress up sexy and be a little bit more ridiculous or silly and not be judged in the way they would if they were being that way at, say, work.
ADAM: I feel that's kind of the whole point of Halloween. It's the one day of the year that every person has the permission to express something that is inside of them that they cannot express in their daily life. Obviously, you can express yourself in what you wear every day. But it's almost like there's this permission on Halloween. It is too bad that a lot of the options that are available, if you're not handy with your hands, seem trashy. There are a lot of people that feel there's a part of themselves in this society that is, for a lack of a better word, sexy and sensual. Our society as a whole downplays that and makes it seem unnatural when I believe it's a completely natural feeling to feel sexy. It's a great feeling, being comfortable in your body. On Halloween, maybe that becomes kind of stretched in a way in a person's mind and they're able to think of themselves as a crazy sexy animal, piece of toast, or circuit board.
SARAH: Has anyone here used a costume to express a different part of themselves?
CASSIE: I'm not entirely sure why, but every since I was a teenager, I've always cross-dressed on Halloween. So I was Dawg the Bounty Hunter, I'm going to be Sonny Bono this year. I'm not entirely sure why I do that. I think part of it has to do that we're in the Pacific Northwest and I refuse to be cold on Halloween. The scantily clad route is just uncomfortable. I like a lot of padding. I wear fat suits as much as possible and stay warm.
ADAM: So if they turned up the heat at the Halloween party, you'd be an Olympic swimmer?
ANDI: From a media and culture perspective, I hate to be all "what about the children?" but there is this trend of these costumes scaling downward for kids. This idea of Halloween as the day when you get to be sexy is kind of uncomfortable when you're thinking about like a seven or eight-year-old girl absorbing that message. It's true for boy's costumes, too. I have a five-year-old son and if you go to any store, you'll see all the boy's costumes have these nutty giant muscles built in. I think we can all agree that the Halloween industry is responsible for creating this idea that there are very specific ways for genders to be.
ADAM: I was brought up that the best thing you could do was be nice and please everyone. I was always struggling with darker aspects of myself, feelings like, "i don't like you." On the surface, I was this happy smiling person all the time, but I didn't allow this other part of myself to come out. At the height of this, I was the Prince of Darkness, I had this little tail and these little teeth and everything was black. Since then, when I'm trying to tell people that I have a problem with—when I was first starting to wrestle with that idea in my late twenties, I thought maybe if I had a mask or some way to cover my face to become a character, it would be easier to tell them that. But that would probably be freakier, right? Being like, "I don't like it when you leave the dishes in the sink…" and you've got on a mask of an old, mean lady or an old man with no teeth. Sometimes a costume, just putting it on, will transform who you are and allow you access to characters who are facets of your personality.
SARAH: It was especially powerful as a kid—we were talking about the way costumes are marketed to kids and how it feels like the range of what's an acceptable costume for a kid is getting narrower and more commercialized. That's sad because when I was growing up, I loved putting on different costumes to take on different characters. I loved dressing up as Huck Finn, and then I could be a tomboy adventurer. It was okay, because it wasn't me. It was Huck Finn.
ADAM: My grandmother was really supportive of me. I was pretty much dressed in drag until I was like nine years old, when I thought I should probably cut down on it because it was distracting in a public school. I would dress up like Snow White and go up to this family on the end of the street who were Mormon and just help them plant corn in my Snow White costume. I have no idea what they were thinking, but I felt perfectly awesome. I liked how that reader said, "Why isn't it every day?" Dressing up should be every day.
ANDI: I actually feel like lately there is more emphasis on dressing up every day. Like with street style blogs and fashion bloggers, if feels like there is more focus on dressing up to harness and express different dimensions of yourself.
CASSIE: My boutique is on Hawthorne and I can definitely say that people take risks with their fashion sense. I adore it. People are very expressive in Portland and while they influence each other, I think there's something about our city that gives people a bit of carte blanche to express artistic impulses through fashion. I definitely see that on a day to day basis.
ADAM: We're visual creatures. I mean, unless you're blind, your first input from a person is what you see. What you see can symbolize so many things. You see a sweatshirt and you see baggy pants, immediately, there are no words, you have a whole range of ideas about this person before they even open their mouth.
CASSIE: Your daily costume, so to speak, is a shorthand for your cultural context and the things that you lean toward. I suppose I always notice when people are always wearing well-made American-made clothing or used clothing—I can see some of the choices that they've made.
SARAH: And that's what can be exciting about Halloween, it can be a chance to pretend you're part of another group. I can be a punk, I can pretend I'm part of the totally-comfortable-being-feminine-and-sexy crowd. But that can be a problem when you get into costumes that are culturally appropriative. We had a couple people on our Facebook group point out that it's really annoying when they go to a party and there's inevitably someone there dressed as Pocahontas or a cholo. At that point, it's not okay to pretend you're part of a group for an evening. That comes off as really racist.
CASSIE: It's interesting that we're at this moment in time when we're discussing cultural appropriation and slut shaming and those are both things that have been brought on by the larger pop culture climate. These icons that teenagers are looking up to and adults are talking about, too, and using as a sounding board—Halloween is a great opportunity to talk about those topics because it's just such a prevalent thing in Halloween costumes. Slut shaming, I guess that's why I'm trying to be so sensitive about saying the sexy hamburger costume is okay with me because I don't want to be found guilty of slut shaming, but, to be honest, I think it's silly—it's not the path I would take.
ANDI: I don't think it's slut shaming to say—
ADAM: What is slut shaming?
ANDI: It's the idea that you're waggling your finger and clutching your pearls over the way a woman is dressed because you're worried she's going to attract "the wrong kind of attention." It's a way to express concern over what a woman is wearing when really you're passing judgement. But I think there's a different between saying that the store-bought sexy hamburger costume that someone decided to market to women because women can't dress any anything but sexy and saying that, full stop, women and girls can't dress sexy. I think it's a comment on the marketing and the crassness of it, of the whole Halloween-industrial complex. The cultural appropriation, too, that it's become a selling point of store-bought costumes. Like "Poca-hotness" or —
ADAM: Did you say Poca-hotness?
ANDI: Poca-hotness, or, like, "Geisha Girl" with a tiny skirt and hair in chopsticks. It's offensive already and it becomes doubly offensive when it's subsumed into the whole marketing complex. It's packaged and sold to people with no questioning of whether that's an appropriate costume.
CASSIE: I happen to be one of those people who, every year, Halloween creeps up on me and I don't have a costume together. I'm the first person to get on Google and type in "Halloween costumes." It's amazing how current the Halloween costume emporiums keep things. You can get a Miley Cyrus costume right now, with the big finger, because she's so current.
ADAM: I mean, how many people were Madonna in 1984?
ANDI: I'm pretty sure I was Madonna.
ADAM: One of my friends, always at the last minute, invites me to a party. Surprisingly, I don't have a lot of costumes lying around. But this one year, I had a clown wig and I had just eaten a burrito, so I had bad gas and I was just going to turn that into a costume. I'm just going to be a stinky clown. My whole body is the costume. I'm not sexy, I'm stinky.
CASSIE: It's just so current.
ADAM: It's so right now! But it's always like, what do I have in front of me right now? It's like going into your kitchen and making dinner with what's in your refrigerator. It's using that part of your mind and developing that part of your imagination to create a costume that's appropriate for you.
SARAH: I think the top costumes of 2014 are definitely going to be Miley Cyrus and stinky clown.
ADAM: And the burrito places are going to be sold out.
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