In anticipation of the Granite State Comicon, I am pleased to be hosting an interview with veteran cosplayer (And costume contest judge! And 45th generation descendant of the last Ancient Roman Consul of Gaul! ) Syagria.
Q: For beginners, what are you hoping to do while at the Granite State Con? Anything in particular that you’re looking forward to? Will you be in costume?
SYAGRIA: I will definitely be in costume! It’s rare that I go to a con without being in costume, actually. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about GSC is that it is quite relaxed, and open to a very broad assortment of fandoms. Although it certainly seems to be the trend that most conventions are increasingly shifting to a pan-fandom interest range, when a convention has been previously very focused on one specific genre, there can be some negativity or growing pains associated with the broadening of the interest base – for example, it’s not uncommon for an uncertain newcomer to post on the message board of an anime con, “I’m dressing up as a character from this non-anime series. Will I get a lot of hate for that?”
In general, most people are very welcoming of other fandoms even at specifically-themed conventions, but I can understand how diverting from a con’s original focus can be a source of anxiety for newcomers to costuming or the convention. GSC, on the other hand, has been open and welcoming to all from the beginning, and that creates a very relaxed and fun atmosphere. It’s a con where I can really enjoy myself. And of course, I always look forward to seeing everyone else’s costumes.
Q Speaking of “The Granite State”, if you had to create a “state superhero” for New Hampshire, who would it be?
Q: Rumor has it that you will be one of the judges at this year’s costume competition. Give us an inside perspective. As a judge, what are you looking for? What are the hallmarks of a very good costume? And-conversely- what are some things that competitors should avoid?
I approach my own costume work from the standpoint of not wanting a costume to look “costumey,” and to try to make it look, behave, and wear like real-world functional clothing as possible – how is it practical, for example, that most superheroes would have to undress completely in order to go to the bathroom? Costumes can often work well on the printed page, but translate terribly to real life. There are a lot of challenges to bringing a flat design into the real-life world, and these can require careful research, advance planning, and meticulous attention to details. If you cut corners, it is definitely noticeable – fine materials can’t mask sloppy workmanship.
As for what not to do, I don’t have a piece of advice that relates specifically to competition, but as a general rule for costuming in general: don’t pass someone else’s work off as your own. It’s okay to have bought finished pieces, or to have commissioned work. Absolutely nothing wrong with it. Just don’t claim you made it yourself; that’s disrespectful to someone else’s work and skill, whether it’s another costumer living on the other side of the country, or a factory seamstress living on the other side of the ocean.
Q: How did you first get into making costumes? Your website mentions Renaissance faires, is that where you first started? How did you move from fairs/ faires to your first serious effort, Captain Jack (2006) ?
SY: I always loved Halloween as a kid, and my mom was a whiz at repurposing items for costumes for my sister and I each year. Once, she made these great monster masks out of the molded cardboard corners that were used to protect the edges of a cedar chest my parents bought. My mom taught me to sew, and the the biggest sewing job we did together was making my high school senior prom dress – but even then, I had no idea that costuming existed as a hobby.
That door unlocked for me when I joined my college’s fencing team. Most of the team were regular RenFaire goers, and I didn’t want to be the only one without an appropriate outfit! Soon, I was making RenFaire and pirate garb in the dorm lounge for my friends, and one requested a Captain Jack Sparrow costume for a Halloween vacation in New Orleans. That was when I began to discover that there was an entire hobby devoted to re-creating character costumes. I went to my first convention, Anime Boston 2006, and was immediately captivated by the idea of costuming for myself. I already knew how to sew, and had been making my own clothes in addition to the RenFaire garb for years, and I was eager to try something new. I made two costumes to debut at Anime Boston 2007, and have been costuming ever since.
Q: Based on your level of commitment and the detailed work displayed on your website, you obviously love working on costumes. Can you impart any sense of why? What is it about cosplay that appeals to your personality?
SY: I have enjoyed creating art and handicrafts my whole life. I spent a lot of time in high school and college working in 2D media, mostly graphite and chalk pastel. My mom taught me to knit when I was in 6th grade, and I knit my first sweater when I was 15 (I still have it in the back of my closet, but I’ll never wear it!). I enjoy doing landscape and travel photography. An elderly woman once stopped me as I was wandering through a bookstore, asking me incredulously, “Are you tatting lace? I had no idea anyone even knows what that is anymore!”
I still occasionally make my own jewelry. I spent a summer refinishing my bedroom furniture when I was 14, and made a quilt for my parents for Christmas a few years back. In short, my entire life, I’ve had this need to be always creating something, to be working on some project that will let me produce something beautiful (hopefully) with my own two hands, and I often find I move from one outlet to another to continue to keep learning new things or to keep up interest. Costuming is another piece of that desire to create, and when I got into it, I discovered that it drew on many of the hobbies I already had, prompting me to pull experience from many other areas to construct a costume. I found that the particular challenges inherent to costuming were just what I was looking for: a costumer has to produce an outfit that it fits well, flexes and moves with the body, is as comfortable as possible, and translates a 2D rendering to 3D wearable art while remaining faithful to the original design. These attributes all present different challenges to a costumer, and I really enjoy working out how I will meet those challenges.
Every choice a costumer makes during the creation and construction process will have an effect on one of those attributes, and I find that the costumers who I think are the most impressive are those who make sure to address each one.
Q: Do you spend a lot of time putting together your everyday (civilian) wardrobe. In other words, are you an everyday fashionista, or do you dress down and save your energy for your costumes?
SY: I’m not especially fashion-conscious. Since I work as a scientist, I spend 5 days a week wearing a lab coat, and occasionally handle some pretty nasty chemicals. There’s always a chance that I could spill bleach (or something worse) on my clothes and ruin them, plus I have to comply with OSHA requirements, so I wear jeans, casual button-down shirts, and closed-toed shoes every day of the week. And with the lab coat, most people wouldn’t even see if I were wearing fashionable clothing! On weekends, or when I go out, I’ll wear something nicer, but I don’t like to spend a lot of money on clothes, either, so I do a lot of shopping off clearance racks. I generally don’t shop for name brands, but I admit I’m developing a bit of an addiction to the dresses on ModCloth!
If I have time, I’ll make what I need if the original is too far out of my budget for my comfort: as a college student, I couldn’t drop $200 on a winter jacket, but I was able to make a wool peacoat for about 30 bucks, and I got a solid 3 years of wear out of it. When I needed an evening gown for my company’s holiday gala, I designed and made my own with some material I snagged on sale at a local discount fashion fabrics place.
Q: Your website does a fabulous job of documenting a series of wonderful and well-honed costumes. Do you have a personal favorite that you would like to tell us about?
SY: My favorite always tends to be what I’ve made most recently (in this case, Wonder Woman from DC Comics), but I think my all-time favorite would be Kyoshi Warrior Suki from “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Suki had a particular challenge (apart from the routine design and construction work) simply because I made the costume 4 times – for myself, and for three friends to do a Kyoshi Warrior squad at Anime Boston 2011. The amount of work, time, and necessary organization to pull it off was intense, but so worth it.
After Suki and Wonder Woman, I’d have to say my third favorite costume is one I have made twice, but have never worn: I have made two different Chewbacca suits in collaboration with a friend of mine. It involved hand-tying roughly 25,000 – 30,000 knots of loose wig hair into a mesh shirt and pants. The first suit was for my friend; the second suit we made for Adam Savage of Mythbusters, who wore it for a while at Dragon*Con 2009.
In truth, each of my costumes is a favorite in some way, even those that don’t get very much public attention, just because I tend to make costumes from characters I find personally compelling or inspiring. I often find myself drawn to costuming supporting or minor characters (I think Princess Eries gets about 10 minutes of total screen time out of all 26 episodes of “Vision of Escaflowne,” for example), or characters from less-famous series, so I’m never upset if a costume doesn’t get a lot of pictures. That’s not why I’m in this hobby. When I meet someone who recognizes a more obscure character that I’m costuming, and they say, “Oh awesome, I never thought I’d see this character! I can’t believe it; this made my day!” it means much more to me than getting a lot of attention and pictures for wearing a costume from something that is at the height of its popularity.
Q: Alternately, have you ever put together a dud or disaster? A costume that simply did not work out?
SY: Oh yeah. A group of friends and acquaintances were putting together a large costume group for a big convention, with the idea that we’d walk in the convention’s parade together. It sounded fun, so I agreed to join, although it wasn’t a fandom I followed. Unfortunately, I was already working on 3 or 4 other costumes for myself and other people, and just didn’t have the time or energy to really devote to this particular costume. I was also experimenting on different construction techniques, and many of them just didn’t pan out the way I expected. I should have backed out, but I worried I’d be letting people down. When I got to the convention, I found that the 40+ person group had dwindled at the last minute to about 7 or 8 people, including me, and the group dropped out of the parade completely. After a brief meetup and a handful of pictures, the group broke up and we went our separate ways and that was it. More disappointing than that, though, was that I knew I’d done a shoddy job.
It was a good lesson for me to not do a costume just because I felt obligated to do so, and I decided that I’d only join groups or create costumes if I were really personally drawn to the character or design – not to just fill a space. I realized that if I didn’t like the design enough to make a costume to wear by myself alone, then I probably shouldn’t commit to making the costume just to be part of a group.
Q: As a total aside, where does your cosplay moniker come from? My internet search found Afranius Syagrius to be the last Roman official of Gaul. Is that where Syagria comes from?
SY: Nice research! That is indeed the original source of the name. One of my family’s hobbies for years has been genealogy. We’ve driven all over New England, digging through town halls and libraries for vital records, searching through cemeteries for headstones we hope are still there and vandalism-free, and giving each other high-fives when we finally tracked down some elusive bit of evidence that connected one generation to the one that came before it. Amateur genealogists are pretty lucky nowadays, with census records and many vital records now being available online, plus many professional genealogists have published verified or authenticated histories of major families. If you are fortunate enough to find an ancestor that connects to one of these published histories, it’s like having a treasure trove of information open at your feet. We’ve been able to tap into these a few times, and by tracing our tree back through one of these published genealogies, we followed the line back to Afranius Syagrius, a Roman Consul of Gaul who was born about 330 AD. His daughter was named Syagria, making her my 44th great-grandmother. I originally used the name as the very first email address I ever had, back in the late 90’s, in high school, never imagining that I’d eventually adopt it as a nom-de-costume.
Q: For bonus points: If you were a supervillain, what would your powers be, and which hero would defeat you.
SY: My supervillain career would be a natural downward spiral from my beginnings as a vigilante who uses force fields to crush the engine blocks of the cars of bad drivers (Signal your lane changes, please. Everyone will be safer and happier for it.). I imagine it would likely be a tailgater or maybe a really bad parking job that finally pushed me into true villainhood. I’m not particularly physically tough, so just about any hero could take me out if they caught me by suprise or got close to me. I’d be too smalltime to catch the attention of the likes of the Justice League or the Avengers, but I’d put on a good show if I were up against Booster Gold (although I’d probably give up just from the sheer embarrassment of it), or The Tick. Ultimately, though? Squirrel Girl. She would easily exploit my weakness for adorable critters; I could never repel an army with cute of that magnitude.