Decked out in full Tamamo no Mae regalia, I drove from my home back to downtown Atlanta, Georgia, where Dragon*Con was being held. And I was already uncomfortable.
Not because - as I overheard in many conversations over the four days of Dragon*Con - costumers are often stressed and working down to the wire, sometimes finishing their grand creations in their hotel rooms while the con is happening. I'll cop to being a procrastinator, and having my costume done just in the nick of time. And yes, that was stressful.
No, I was uncomfortable because I was sitting on the bottom half of my 60-inch straight black haired wig, which was pulling the other half (and my neck) back into a very difficult position for driving a car. That turned out to be a constant issue as I met friends and strangers throughout the night. It's hard to sit down with hair that long, and it quickly dawned on me why Heian era women were always depicted either standing or kneeling.
I also had to bunch up my entire costume just to get into the car. My mobility was absolutely compromised in this cocoon of brocade and satin. I worried one of the costume's fox tails might get torn off when I finally extracted myself from the driver's seat.
Once into the muggy, mid-seventies Atlanta evening air, I knew right away: it's going to get worse.
I've interviewed a handful of professional cosplayers over the last year, and they all say the same thing. Costuming can be incredibly taxing on the body. Combine large wigs, fabrics that may be heavy or not breathable with the densely packed crowds of the Marriott Marquee, Dragon*Con's main cosplay spot, and you have a recipe for heat stroke. Chris and Miracole Burns (of Avengers Assemble) and Yaya Han told me they have worn costumes that only allowed them to walk around for a few hours at a time because of the heat.
Those costumers who choose to emulate characters with wildly-colored skin often choose to be airbrushed with alcohol-based body paint, because it's possible to sweat without washing away the details.
Without exception, the costumers I've spoken to swear the discomfort is worth it - with the same kind of emphatic gush a proselytizing "Battlestar Galactica" fan uses when they find out you've never watched the show.
As I walked the few blocks from the CNN Center parking deck to the Dragon*Con hotels, I was relieved to be wearing socks and sandals. At least my feet would be comfortable. I was grateful whenever a slight breeze caught the draping sleeves of my robes, a quick little rest from what was becoming akin to wearing a sweatsuit. Ancient-style Japanese robes are historically made of all weights of silk, are free-flowing andeasy to wear, but the fabrics I used trapped the heat. Where my long wig covered the back of the robes was getting especially humid.
Along the way to the Hilton, where CNN's iReport was having a meet-and-greet the Saturday night of Dragon*Con, I found myself walking behind a casual-looking "samurai" with an Australian accent. There were women dressed in a variety of kimono-inspired outfits, and I saw what seemed to be Captain Aisen from "Bleach." I yelled out, "Hey, Taichou!" (the Japanese word for Captian) but the cosplayer might not have heard me or had only watched the English-dubbed episodes of the anime show.
By the time I entered the hotel, I was worried the makeup around my forehead and temples starting to sweat off. The wig was surprisingly hot on my head, as if I were wearing a took. The hair fibers seemed to stick to everything, even though I had them tied neatly in the back with a bit of rice paper. I was constantly picking stray hairs out of my eyes and pulling them out of my lip gloss.
But as I rode the elevator down to the Trader Vic's restaurant to have some dinner with colleagues and friends, the costume paid off.
A pair of Japanese men were in the elevator, too, and they struck up a conversation.
"I like your eyebrows," one of them said, pointing out the authenticity of the charcoal smudges. "But you're not wearing enough layers."
We laughed about how hot it was inside the hotel, and the elevator reached its destination. We snapped a quick picture as we stepped off, a memento of finding another person out of the ballpark 70,000 people attending Dragon*Con that year who "gets it." (According to Dragon*Con spokesperson Dan Carroll, we won't know for sure how many people were there in 2012 until the Atlanta police tell convention organizers their count.)
By the end of the night, my tabi socks were filthy. There were bits of vegetation and some impressively black grime on the hem of the robes where they trailed the ground. When I reached my car, I tore off my wig, not caring how messy my hair was in the aftermath.
And I was bit by the costuming bug, because all I could think about was the Lolita aristocrat concoction I would wear the next night. Which turned out to be every bit as sweat-inducing as the Tamamo no Mae ensemble.