What I Learned by Not Wearing a “Costume” to Costume College

2019 Costume College has come and gone. If you’re not aware what Costume College is, it’s an annual costuming convention-of-sorts in Southern California. Hundreds of costumers- usually mostly historical, sci-fi, or cosplay, come together for a four-day weekend of all costume related socials and classes.

First, let me preface with this. I have been going to Costume College since the early 2000s. I don’t remember if it was 2003 or 2004 that was my first year. It was MUCH smaller, has since moved hotels, and the costuming hobby *in general* was smaller and not so visible. Social media like we know it today did not exist. There was Livejournal. There were Yahoo Groups. It was like the internet dark ages. To know about Costume College you pretty much had to be a local or know people who were locals who had attended. I found out about it by going to vintage fashion shows, where the book dealer told me about it. Finally, while in college for Fashion Design, I went, and found my people. But the hobby has changed a lot since then.

Back then I think there may have been around 150 attendees. Someone can probably correct me. It was mostly historical based. I remember Renaissance, SCA, and Victorian costuming being the big-wigs. I remember the year it seemed like all of us discovered 18th century, thanks in part to the Marie Antoinette movie and had a slew of sacque back dresses. I remember when I was drug into Regency costuming while kicking and screaming because I thought it was *so unflattering*. Now it’s one of my favorite ones. I remember when several of us did Wives and Daughters 1830s dresses. But this was all word of mouth, mostly typed because digital photos were pretty rotten, and we showed up and got to ooh and aah over things we had been mostly reading about.

The classes were incredible, because the internet like we know it today, did not exist. There weren’t blog posts showing you how to do things. There were no instagram close ups. Even museum sites had pretty shoddy photos.

I know I’m sounding like an old windbag here, waving my cane and telling you guys “I remember walking uphill in the snow both ways.” But MAN has the costuming online community changed. For the better, in a lot of ways. We have SO MUCH information now at our fingertips. Making friendships is so much easier now that sharing information is so much easier.

But, last weekend, I realized that social media had a huge difference in how the event has changed over the years for me. If you ask someone else their experience could be completely different. But, as our world becomes more and more visual online, the visual arts- like costuming- have progressed as a whole.

I was not going to go this year. Last year I was burned out. I was a relatively new mom. We were on a limited income. I felt like my post-baby costume projects were massive flops. I felt burned out be socializing. I attended too many classes, and taught a long workshop. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted by the end of Costume College 2018. So I said I would not go in 2019, and if I did it was only to visit. I thought I might rehash my dress I made for 2018 and perfect the fit. I thought I could make a new Edwardian. In the end, life happened. I wasn’t motivated. I didn’t feel like costuming. Honestly, it felt more like a chore than a joy to do a hobby that was so similar to what I do for actual work.

Then I heard a few people were coming who I really wanted to hang out with and meet in person. And I told myself it really is important to go and do some networking and talking about patterns. It really is very good to go and meet people and have feedback about what I make in person, and even see a few things that were made from my patterns. And so… I went. I booked my train ticket, arranged to bunk up for two nights with some buddies, and went.

The train ride up was absolutely lovely. I adored the beautiful ocean scenery from San Diego area until Orange County. After San Clemente the view is *eh* but that first part of the ride was great. The Chatsworth station is only 15-20 minutes from the hotel and a very generous friend picked me up AND dropped me off. If I go again, that’s totally how I’m going.

But once there, I walked through the doors and I saw no one I knew well. As previously podcasted, I’m a huge introvert. Not seeing a well-known familiar face, but seeing people who might have known who I was but didn’t meet me with a smile made me nervous. Regardless, I checked in, threw my stuff in the room, and went to go downstairs where I waited with an attendee who didn’t know if I was a costumer or just a person in funny clothes. To be fair, my modern vintage/hipster vibe is *pretty* regular for Southern California, and I don’t have a high enough opinion to think people should automatically know who I am. We don’t live in that tiny costuming world anymore where you know who you’ll see and what to expect at events like Costume College.

Two of my outfits for the weekend. On left my train travel/Friday afternoon outfit. On right, my Friday evening outfit.

I walked down the hallways and passed many people, but no one I really knew terribly well. I said a quick “hi” to a few acquaintances and friends, but with everyone rushing to and from classes, I didn’t expect a bunch of conversation. I finally ended up outside the vendor room and found some good friends. Katherine very kindly accompanied to the early marketplace buying.http://koshka-the-cat.blogspot.com/. It was one of the best parts of the weekend, even though I’m very easily distracted by the shinies so not the best conversationalist while shopping. I got one $6 vintage pattern- my only purchase of the weekend.

Saturday evening I was very excited to have dinner with Caroline of Dressed in Time (http://dressedintime.blogspot.com/ )and her husband and mom. I was great to spend some time getting to know each other in person, and I really admire her costuming work. They’re great people, and it was nice to have dinner buddies. We rushed upstairs and changed, then I headed back down.

This is when the weekend started having a sort of pattern for me. Since I did not have any big costumes to wear (pregnancy greatly expanded my ribcage, and I hadn’t had time or inclination to make big costumes), I only packed me-made vintage clothing. It made for light packing, but it made for very little conversation. I admired many great dresses, took photos, but… no one really noticed me. Which is totally fine. As an introvert, I enjoy admiring others. I didn’t take many photos, had a few quick conversations, and called it an early night.

After all the years I’ve been going, NOT having a big costume to help spark conversation or be recognizable at events did have a social impact for me.

For others, this may be totally different. In fact, Costume College says the emphasis is on the learning. But honestly, there’s a lot of people I know who have been going for years and years and the classes take a backseat to the social aspect. Many want to go to connect in real-life with their friends they’ve met on the internet. Some really want to meet their personal costuming heros. I didn’t register for classes, so I didn’t take classes- and since I’ve been doing this for donkey’s years, I didn’t see many classes I felt like I *needed* to take.

But because I chose to bring easy-to-wear vintage I already had in my closet, things that may have never made it on the blog or instagram- and- let’s be honest- I look different at 37 than I did at 31 when I was blogging more actively- I didn’t meet too many people. I did have some people who recognized me from my patterns, which was very exciting and flattering. But as a costumer? The world moves quickly and my blog is somewhat old. I’ve been told I was “one of the first blogs I followed” by several people in the past. I’m the old guard. I’m TOTALLY cool with that. But between life, motherhood, and business- I’m not blogging or instagramming as much as I used to- not making the big dresses- and as a result I was not noticed.

Now, let me say this. I admit I am an introvert. check. I admit I did not bring a big costume. check. I am fine with both things. check.

I did not ONCE feel excluded from any group. I didn’t feel like there were “cliques”. I didn’t feel like I was not welcome. If I felt mopey, or sorry for myself, or uncomfortable standing by myself and not sure who to talk with- that was on ME. Only me. Because if I had more gumption I could have gone up to anyone in that room and complimented their costume and taken photos. And I wish I HAD! But because that big costume wasn’t there, like armour protecting me by giving me a ready conversation topic, I wasn’t always feeling like I could be *on*. I think a lot of us costumers have the “us” that’s in pjs eating cookies on the couch while watching period movies, and the “us” that’s got on the hair and makeup and big dress and playing movie star. I left that second “us” at home in my closet. But both of those people are equally me.

Beth and I (together Bon Voyage Sewing) in what we wore to the fancy Gala night.

So why the huge blog post?

Firstly, as encouragement to people. Don’t worry- there’s not some big clique you’re going to be excluded from. It seemed like there were a LOT of first time or new attendees who had not yet found their “tribe”. There’s lots of friends to be met. And I bet there were a lot of people just like me- feeling understated in their outfit but still perfectly proud of their work, who need a bit of a cattle prod to get them to be chatty.

Secondly- not going with a costume is TOTALLY ok. Go for classes. Go to meet people. Go to experience it.

Third- if you know your “Tribe” isn’t going to be there en force or you’ll have an alone night- message a buddy and ask beforehand if you can have dinner. This is what I did with Caroline for friday night and it totally was one of the best things of the entire weekend.

Fourth- There are not all super high fancy expert costumers. There’s LOTS of different skill levels, and don’t worry about being “good enough.” There’s no such thing.

Fifth- We need to take responsibly for how the event makes us feel. If you go expecting to be excluded you will feel excluded. If you go expecting to be adored, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. If you go expecting to be lonely, you may be lonely. Go because you want to go. Go because you have something to share, or want to learn, or want to meet those people. But sometimes, especially if you’re not wearing a big costume that’s a conversation starter, you may need to take that first step to get it started, and that’s ok.

Will I be back in 2020? That’s yet to be determined.

14 Comments on What I Learned by Not Wearing a “Costume” to Costume College

  1. Katherine C-G
    August 7, 2019 at 5:37 pm (5 years ago)

    I’m so glad we were able to spend that time together!

    I definitely understand what you mean by costume as armor. I’d have to make a huge effort to talk to anyone if I was in normal clothes! Costume is like a strange special permission to talk.

  2. Kelley
    August 7, 2019 at 6:13 pm (5 years ago)

    I appreciate every word you shared with us, Lauren. Being a fellow introvert, I needed to hear all of what you said. I wish I could have gone this year to share tea and scones with you one afternoon or evening. You being you and being good with that is all you need to be! That is always enough. And that wisdom will be something you can share with your lovely daughter in the future. I appreciate you!

  3. Laura McNaughton
    August 7, 2019 at 6:31 pm (5 years ago)

    You were there! Yeah! Sorry, I missed seeing you. I was keeping my eye out, but I am often stuck in the dealers room, which makes it difficult to see everyone. Next year, you MUST come by and say hello and share family photos.

  4. Ellen
    August 7, 2019 at 8:52 pm (5 years ago)

    Great post – as an fellow introvert new to this stuff, it’s nice to see someone as famous as you posting about this. I think I’ve said this before, but I’m pretty sure you spoke to me in the concession line at the Assembly Rooms in Bath last year. I was in an burnt orange dress and brown spencer and I was wearing Dames a lacMode jewelry. Of course I could be wrong but I think it was you. I enjoy tour posts and admire your patterns. Edwardian is next for me after another trip to the JA Festival in Bath this September so I’m eyeing some of your patterns!

  5. eimear greaney
    August 8, 2019 at 12:38 am (5 years ago)

    I am glad you went, it sounds lovely and your travel wardrobe looks perfect (i adore your travelling outfit) – and like you I am introverted. personally the idea of big parties exhaust me. I do find the sewing community so inspiring and supportive, and as I live in the west of Ireland and know so few makers, the online sewing groups/blogs/community are a brilliant link for me. I am glad you enjoyed your weekend and your post made for thoughtful reading

  6. Lynn Stevens
    August 8, 2019 at 7:20 am (5 years ago)

    You’re so right to highlight the ease of talking with total strangers at CC. I had less than half an hour because my son reluctantly dropped me off for a bit and waited in the parking lot. In the car. Fuming. In that half an hour I met at least half a dozen wonderful people who were welcoming, happy to talk about what they do, and totally oblivious to any shortcomings I might have. They made CC feel as if it were a tribe encompassing everyone interested in the hobby.

  7. ZipZip
    August 9, 2019 at 12:27 pm (5 years ago)

    Dear Lauren,

    Your post read somewhat like the old “You Are There” radio show, with interior thoughts added, and I sure did appreciate it.

    Costuming since 2005, I’ve read about CC nearly every year since, but have never attended, though have wanted to. Having children is one part — it’s rather a deal in both time and money to leave your spouse for a long weekend on the opposite coast — and the worries that plague shy people is the other. Will I say something truly stupid, will my costumes look ill-prepared, and on and on.

    Your assessment, clear-eyed and frank, makes me think that someday I might get there, after all. For classes, of course, but most of all to admire the creativity, research, skill and love that people pour into their creations.

    Many thanks, and very best,
    Natalie in KY

  8. Meredith
    August 10, 2019 at 7:54 am (5 years ago)

    Thank you for opening up and sharing your experience! I’ve been in Los Angeles for five years now, and have shied away from Costume Con because I don’t know anyone in the community and my costuming has taken a back seat to other life and career events. I *almost* went this year, but ended up out of state for a job, and kinda used that as an excuse to myself as how it was better for me in the end to not go.

    Your words have given me more encouragement to go next year, sign up for classes the moment they come up, and see the event for myself! And, if you *are* there, I will definitely find you and introduce myself and thank you for the years of helpful tips and information that I have learned from your site. <3

  9. Marie
    August 12, 2019 at 5:36 am (5 years ago)

    Great article.. You have given me inspiration to restart my interest and hobby in costumes :-)

  10. Mela Hoyt-Heydon
    August 17, 2019 at 5:00 pm (5 years ago)

    Well written article with a lot of heart in it. As one of the founding members of Costume College and still attending, I am seldom gone up to even when I have a “fancy costume on” . There are so many people who think I know them but I do only by sight as they too are to afraid to come up and strike a conversation. I am just the same as they are. I have no trouble teaching or lecturing but put me in a room to socialize and I find the dark corners. Luckily I have long time friends who occasionally see me and pull me out into the light. The last couple years have been harder as the event has grown so much that it is easier to get lost at. Still welcoming, friendly and open but easy to just stay invisible. I know you from your patterns and have never had the courage to go up and talk to you. Maybe next year I will.

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  12. Sarah
    August 31, 2019 at 3:59 am (5 years ago)

    A wonderful post! Thank you for sharing. I’ve loved seeing pictures of costume college from sewers that I follow. I enjoy sewing and cut my teeth on Civil War dresses as a teen, but I never thought I “qualified” to go to costume college because I wasn’t professional enough or super accomplished. I had no idea that people of all skills even went! So, thank you! It would be a dream to go and learn from so many amazing people. I think I’ll put it on my list of things I’d like to do and make it a goal, but without the worry of needing to have some hugely fancy costume!

  13. JP Choquette
    December 15, 2019 at 7:52 am (4 years ago)

    Loved this post and your honesty. Even though I’m not a costume maker or period perfectionist, I could relate to so much of what you wrote here. I’ve had similar feelings and situations as an introvert and author at book-related events.

    I appreciate your candid recap of this event and look forward to reading more here soon.

  14. Mary Gobet
    February 18, 2020 at 8:16 am (4 years ago)

    Such insight, thank you. I learned about CoCo long before that was the name. And long before the Internet surge. I had always wished I could go but career was paramount. I have costumed since the 1960’s, I know my skills were up to it just not my time.

    CoCo 2020 will be my first time. I have devoured all blogs and YT info. Your’s was the first one that showed me that it is ok to not be in costume all the time. Or at least not a “Big” costume.

    I am an extrovert. . . .I will certainly look for you and start a conversation. Your bravery is to be commended.

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