Sewing is not for the faint of heart, or any other body part.
There's an incredible potential in fabric. It's easy to dream up beautiful possibilities for a few yards of alluring fabric. But, as soon as you press the foot pedal on the sewing machine, an irrevocable commitment has been made. At that point you can easily ruin the fabric and all that potential. And you can injure yourself doing it.
In total, I started with 22 yards of fabric and a pile of rabbit fur scraps that I was going to turn into the outfit of a Heian-era Japanese fox demon. And anything could go wrong.
In the frenzy of stitching together long swaths of the costume's robes, I could accidentally catch my finger in the path of the sewing machine's needle (something of an ultimate fear for every person I know who sews). Or the sewing needle could hit one of the hundreds of straight pins holding yards and yards of fabric together, break and fly off God-knows-where, poking someone's eye out. There was a good chance I could end up bleeding all over this costume.
Luckily, the worst thing to happen was stepped on a pin. It hurt, and now I have a small, bruised battle scar near the arch of my left foot to remind me of Dragon*Con 2012 and Tamamo no Mae.
As I started working on my costume, I made no assumptions about my ability to actually create the version of the costume that exists in my head: A Heian era (the period of Japanese history that lasted from 794 – 1185AD) court lady with nine red-tipped fox tails emerging from the train of her robes.
I know how to use a sewing machine and follow a pattern, but I am far from a seamstress. I know what historic Japanese fabrics look like, but I also know there are no modern recreations of those silks and linens available at the local Hancock Fabrics. I know that an accurate version of a Heian era outfit consists of 12 large robes, layered on top of each other, with an undergarment robe and pants, to boot; but I also know that Atlanta, Georgia, is not the best place to wear 12 robes in the summer.
There were bound to be people on the internet who've been in similar circumstances, I hoped. So I took to Google to find their stories and figure out how to maximize my comfort and the finished product.
A quick image search showed me that other (far more talented) women have cosplayed as kitsune and Heian Era women. Further digging led me to an online schematic for the construction of the "junihitoe" or the layered robes women wore in those times, as well as the "hakama," or flowing split pants that are more recognizable to Westerners as part of a male samurai's formal attire.
That pattern led me to Jennifer Munson, a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) who adopted a Heian era persona in previous SCA events. If anyone could tell me where to draw the line between authenticity and practicality with this costume, it was her. And lucky for me, it turns out the ancient Japanese had the same kinds of weather concerns as I did.
"They actually made a robe that only had layers on the sleeves and the collar," she said. "So it would have many layers in the sleeves, but the robe itself would be one layer of silk." Munson researched Heian era robes to a great degree, even acquiring historic sewing patterns from a like-minded contact in Japan. These patterns aren't widely available in the United States, Munson said, but her search led her to a fellow SCA seamstress's pattern, as well as the Reconstructing History brand of sewing patterns.
So I set my sights on sewing this modified, summer-weight junihitoe.
To find out how the average 21st century nerd could effectively recreate a mythological fox demon, I sought the sewing and textile expertise of Rachel Stone, a professor at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design.
The best prices for authentic Japanese silks can be found on the internet, she said. "Look for Thai Silks, in California," she said, which is a fabric story that sells rayon and silk blend brocades which look like Japanese silks.
I was considering buying silks that mimicked the color pattern of a museum exhibit junihitoe I'd seen in a flickr photo and use stenciling as an alternative to finding an authentic brocade. But Stone advised against it, pointing out that modern brocades are still suitable replacements for historic embroidery patterns. So I chose a silver, white and gold chrysanthemum brocade from the nearest fabric store for my costume.
For the pink layer of the junihitoe, I decided to use silver acrylic ink to paint a divided diamond pattern onto the fabric. It was fairly easy, as the cutting mat on my craft table is a measured grid, and I could see the lines of the mat through the fabric. I used a bamboo brush similar to a Japanese calligraphy brush, which turned out to be an efficient tool for painting small, uniform squares on a 45 degree angle.
Then there is the matter of the fox part of the costume. Even though Stone is a animal rights supporter, she suggested I use real fur to recreate fox demon tails. If it's already used in a coat or can be recycled, then the incorporation of real fur in a costume can be considered a sustainable practice, she said.
Besides, "Real fur looks better," she said.
A quick ebay search revealed actual fox tails for sale, but I opted for rabbit fur from Hobby Lobby. It was white, like the kitsune of Inari shrines, which felt right to me. Red permanent markers and spray-on fabric dye would provide the traditional tip detail on the tails and ears.
The finishing touches for this costume involved more research. Heian women wore their hair dramatically long and straight, often tying it elegantly with paper. Wig sculpting tutorials on niche websites give detailed instructions on how to build "wefts," which are binded layers of hair fibers that wig sculptors use to add volume to existing wigs, or when creating wigs from scratch.
I had enough work to do sewing a robe that looked like it had 12 layers, pants and tails, so I was looking for an easier solution to these historical locks. My local Party City store had plenty of straight, black witch wigs, but none were so dramatically long as to create a convincing Heian 'do. I bought the longest I could find - 36 inches - and figured it would be a good starting point. In a stroke of luck, the fabric store had already put out a sampling of Halloween merchandise, including a 60 inch witch wig. It was perfect except for a jarring white blaze, smack in the middle of the wig's crown.
But thanks to the idea planted in my head from online tutorials that you could sew wigs together, I decided to keep both wigs. I would cut out the white hairs from the long wig, sew it to the front portion of the shorter wig, and end up with a fairly accurate recreation of Heian-style hair.
Lastly, I had to get the makeup right. Japanese women of the Heian era had a stylized standard of beauty. They used rice powder to lighten their complexion and shaved off their eyebrows, choosing instead to wear ashen smudges high on their foreheads. The bee-stung pout of the modern Geisha was in vogue way in the Heian era and was essentially the only bright color in an otherwise natural palette.
I decided that matte white eye shadow, applied with a kabuki-style brush would do an efficient job at approximating the Heian technique. But the most inexpensive eye shadow I could find all had a pearl finish, which ends up looking very strange and oily when applied to the face like a foundation.
After this discovery, I went back on the hunt for matte-finish eye shadow. I hit the jackpot at Walgreens. A small container of Jordana brand eyeshadow (the most affordable makeup in the store) yielded the perfect matte white powder, along with a tidy pot of black that would do nicely for the dramatic eyebrows.
In the end, it actually did take a small amount blood and some sweat to make this costume, but also a heavy load of fabric, rabbit fur, red markers, two wigs, some tabi socks (what are tabi socks?), and a rare bit of eye shadow to bring Tamamo no Mae to life.
Up next: her Dragon*Con debut.