Sunday, January 27, 2013

You know you're a costume geek when... go to the movies on opening day to see Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, take a good look at the green bodice Gemma Arterton is wearing for a large portion of the movie, and think, "Spiral lacing! Cool! Somebody finally got it right!"

Yes, really.

Allow me to explain: spiral lacing is the period-correct way to actually lace up bodices, corsets, gowns, and the like from the Middle Ages well into the 19th century; it gets its name due to looking like a spiral as it works its way up the front or back of the garment in question. (No, that criss-crossing effect most people think of when they think of laced-up garments is not at all accurate, and if you're running around a Renfaire in a freshly-purchased bodice and want your attire to be more historically correct than your stereotypical wannabe mead wench, you can start by seeing if you can re-lace yourself correctly. You may have to skip an eyelet or two to make it work--eyelets are worked offset for spiral lacing, as opposed to being directly across from each other--but it can be done. Oh, and pull the neckline of your chemise back up over your shoulders and take your damn tankard off your belt, will you?...OK, I feel better now. *sigh*)

See what I mean?

(There's a button at Nancybuttons that says "I'm not pompous, I'm pedantic. There's a difference--let me explain it to you." Yep, I neeeeed that button.)

I've always found clothing in general fascinating, and it's at least partially my mom's fault; when I was 2 years old, she made 24 different little dresses for me, all in different fabrics and trims, and I apparently got a big kick out of being Mommy's Pretty Pretty Princess, to the point that I'd insist on changing clothes two and three times a day, just to be able to flounce around the house in something different. (People who mainly know me as the woman who slouches around during cooler weather in jeans and scoop-neck, 3/4-sleeve knit tops--the latter usually in black--are no doubt scratching their heads right now over this, but don't feel too bad, guys; there's another whole segment of the population who's never seen me in anything but a dress, either because they've known me from before 2005, when that was pretty much all I wore, or because they only see me in warmer weather, when homemade cotton print dresses become my seasonal uniform.) As I was growing up, and indeed, until I finally graduated from college and left home for good, my mother was still sewing most of my clothes, and since I liked wearing certain styles that either weren't available at all or couldn't be found in my size or price range, I picked up the scissors and pincushion after she laid them down, started up pretty much where she left off, and haven't stopped since.

Getting back to my childhood: it didn't take long for me to realize that people wore clothes in olden times that were rather different from what I was seeing around me in the late '60s/early '70s, that these clothes tended to be much fancier, and more fanciful, than anything I usually wore, and that the local library had books with lots and lots of pictures of all these pretty dresses. (I swear, I must have been the only person during the 1970s to not only check out one particular book, but to do it multiple times--we're talking probably at least twice yearly or so, until I headed off to college.) I also took 4-H sewing classes along the way (making it to the State Dress Review one year, damn it!), and paid attention to my mom while she sewed, with all of this coming together my freshman year of college, when I decided to add a Medieval Studies minor to my English major. (Yes, I know; totally then, when would you like this letter typed?) Every spring, my alma mater would host an event devoted to medieval studies, bringing together scholars from around the Northeastern U.S. for seminars and discussions, and culminating in a supposedly authentic period feast, as prepared by the dining hall staff. (Overall, they did a pretty good job, but I suspect everyone at my table who had to deal with the whole poached and stuffed fish with a sliced olive, complete with pimento in the middle placed over its eye, is still recovering from that particular experience. But I digress...) Needless to say, those of us in the program were strongly encouraged to dress the part, and, also needless to say, I threw myself into doing so with my usual degree of enthusiasm (read: bouncing off the walls in manic glee).

In retrospect, I didn't do a very good job; while my mother helped with a lot of the actual sewing, the designs were all my doing, and while the overall silhouettes weren't too terribly bad, clearly I had no concept of all the necessary finishing details, or even some of the appropriate fabrics to use. (Cotton broadcloth for a 15th century overgown? What was I thinking? Oh, well, at least the antique satin collar and sleeves lined in red cotton sateen and trimmed with blue velvet weren't too terribly far off the mark...)

After graduation, I kept up with my amateur costume research, eventually amassing a number of books on the topic in my own personal library, and, while I was in fabric stores searching for my usual cotton prints, occasionally feeling up other types of fabric and wishing there was something I could actually make and wear with it, so that I'd have a good excuse to buy it. ("She who dies with the most fabric wins", but in the meantime, it's taking up way too much space in plastic storage bins all over my apartment.) My sewing skills became at least somewhat better over time, and I found myself noticing the detailing of other people's clothes much more, and checking out store and museum mannequins to figure out just how that particular item was put together, and was there anything I could do to copy it? (You also know you're a costume geek when you're admiring a photo of one of your favorite actors on the red carpet and find yourself thinking, "Damn, he looks good! Very spiffy suit...hey, wait a minute! Is that hand topstitching along the edge of the lapels? Cooool!" Not to mention the time I drove a former roommate crazy while watching Bram Stoker's Dracula by complaining about Winona Ryder's costumes--why the hell was a young woman in 1897 wearing clothes from 1885, pray tell? She certainly wasn't old enough to have been wearing them all along, and anyway, she would have had alterations done to make them fit the current mode; everyone did that back then! As for the actual performances, well...after Gary Oldman, Tony Hopkins, and Tom Waits finished chewing all the scenery down to teeny little nubs, there wasn't a whole lot left into which the rest of the cast could sink their teeth, although a different roommate's comment--"Jesus, girl, that accent! Pick a part of England and stick with it!"--isn't entirely inappropriate...)

Then, after 20+ years spent chasing bands around and trying to be the alt-music Annie Leibovitz/Betty Crocker combo platter (with varying degrees of success, but none of them ever boosting my attempts at a career), I became a mostly-retired Mad Photographer and decided to get back into medievalism, this time becoming a literal card-carrying member of the SCA, or Society for Creative Anachronism. Since the only real requirement for attending SCA events is an attempt at pre-17th Century costume, and since my college clothes not only didn't fit anymore, but were way too pathetic for even a SCAdian newbie such as myself, it was time to once again hit the books and websites, rev up the sewing machine, and storm the fabric stores for linen, wool twill, and other period-correct materials. (While cotton was certainly around in period, it was quite rare in Europe prior to the 18th century; not to mention that you'll be much more comfortable at events in linens and woolens due to their innate breatheability.) Hence my discovery of spiral lacing, which brings us back to the beginning...

(Oh, and did you think I was only researching medieval attire? Au contraire, mon ami! There's nothing like having access to the World's Biggest Library, aka the Internet, to make an obsessive researcher such as myself deliriously happy!)

So, believe it or not, that's pretty much the Cliffs Notes version of how I became a hardcore garb geek. (SCAdians don't refer to what they wear as "costumes"; it's "garb", aka "ordinary clothing from that particular period in time", and is wore with the attitude of it being everyday clothes. Do try to remember this, should you ever find yourself at an event, and want to talk with someone about what they're wearing...)

And the movie? It's certainly not Great Cinema by any stretch, but then it isn't trying to be, and shouldn't be judged on those grounds; it also isn't trying to be an accurate depiction of any one historical time (the place is clearly Germany, but as for the time frame, I'm not sure quite sure where a late Medieval/Steampunk mashup would fit, historically speaking), because--DING!DING!DING!--it's a freakin' fairy tale, and therefore "fantastic" in the original "of a fantasy" sense. (Ordinary moviegoers seem to grasp this concept far better than most critics, if the reviews are any indication. Now pardon me for a moment while I go bang my head against the wall for a spell...) Lots of highly anachronistic slang and profanity (personal favorite line: "Who the fuck is Edward?"), and lots and lots of gore splashed hither and yon, which surprisingly didn't bother me, even though I'm usually terribly squeamish; my lack of squick was probably due to the violence being so over-the-top and cartoonish that one just can't take it seriously. (Still, I wouldn't take younger kids to see it; so don't blame me if your kids keep waking you up at O'God Thirty because they're too scared to sleep...) Decent performances, with just the right degree of snark (really, people, no actor takes on a project like this for the prestige factor; they do it because they know they'll have a blast making it!); some damn good makeup (even if a couple of the main witches did have me thinking "hey, I've seen people who look like that at NIN shows...hell, I've known people who've looked like that at NIN shows!"); and yes, very spiffy costumes, complete with spiral lacing...oh, and good-looking lead actors, which IMNSHO never hurts. ;-) You could do a whole lot worse for 90 minutes and $10, plus it even passes the Bechdel Test, so hey, go for it! (I would recommend, though, that people at the IMAX/3-D showings might not want to sit in the first few rows, lest they end up feeling by the end that they've just survived a GWAR show...not quite as many bodily fluids, mind you, but the splatter effect would be about right...)