Common thread for designers: Winning Costume-Con
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where.”
Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
Alice: “… So long as I get SOMEWHERE.”
Nola Yergen and Sarah Levinson have marched into their somewhere. It’s the somewhere where the March Hare piddles about – somewhere down the rabbit hole, where, as it turns out, they’re not very late for that important date. Where, like Alice, they’re 10 feet tall – or at least, they feel like it – after some big wins at the recent Costume-Con in San Diego, the international convention for costume devotees.
Yergen, longtime costume designer in Grand Canyon University’s College of Fine Arts and Production (COFAP), and Levinson, assistant costume designer, won Best in Show in Presentation and Workmanship for their “Alice in Wonderland”-themed entry, “Taking Back Wonderland,” in the convention’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy Masquerade competition. They also sewed up the Best in Show Workmanship award in the Historical Masquerade competition, along with fellow designer Gail Wolfenden-Steib, for their entry of ornately bedazzled catacomb saints, called reliquaries.
It had been four years since the pair entered Costume-Con. Ever since then, they have been dreaming of taking on the challenge and testing their costuming mettle once again, outside of their campus duties.
For seemingly endless hours, they dive, willingly, into their own rabbit hole, the GCU Costume Shop, designing and bringing to life costumes for Ethington Theatre’s season of plays (such as the opulent 17th-century French artistocratic drapery for “Tartuffe” that was GCU’s 2017-18 entry into the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival).
Creating costumes is what they live for.
“We very foolishly decided to enter both of Costume-Con’s competitions,” Levinson said on a recent Thursday afternoon from the costume shop, nestled in the Media Arts Complex on the Promenade. The shop is girded with costume upon costume and dappled with packed boxes as the College of Fine Arts and Production readies for its much anticipated move to its new home in the old Colangelo College of Business Building in the next month or so.
“We were dumb,” Yergen said of daring to tackle both competitions.
“We were ambitious,” Levinson suggested with a smile.
The two started working on their entries about a year before Costume-Con and recruited six of their family and friends to help out.
The pair’s “Alice in Wonderland” entry marched boldly away from the storybook wonderment of the Disney film.
Yergen and Levinson’s Alice trades the sensible, schoolgirl blue dress and white apron for a steely-eyed, defiant warrior Alice that’s more “Game of Thrones” than traditional Alice. Her costume comes complete with combat boots, leather touches and a vorpal sword for her to slay the Jabberwock, a creature that terrorizes the villagers in author Lewis Carroll’s sequel to “Alice in Wonderland,” called “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.”
“Our concept was that Alice had already been to Wonderland, went home and decided to go and take back Wonderland,” Yergen said.
The character’s costume is heavy with all the things Alice needs in her mission to take back Wonderland: “She has the Eat Me Drink Me vials down the leg,” said Levinson, who portrayed Alice in the presentation – or skit — portion of the competition. “There’s a teacup holster for the Mad Hatter. There’s looking glasses and a sword holster for the vorpal sword.”
This combat-ready “Alice in Wonderland” fully embraces the Queen of Hearts, which Yergen said is “definitely more creepy” in her and Levinson’s version.
Yergen, who transformed into the beheading-happy queen for the competition, steadied a miniature guillotine in the Queen of Hearts’ crown, while fallen Disney princesses pepper the costume’s panniers, or side hoops.
Also part of the “Taking Back Wonderland” entry: the White Rabbit, who is represented as the shady trench coat-wearing salesman hawking the things Wonderland residents need, from Eat Me Drink Me vials to clocks, as well as the Mad Hatter, whose hat pops up (as a plus, a dormouse emerges from the hat).
There’s also the Jabberwock, a leviathan-sized dragon controlled by five people – two for the body, one for the head and one person in each wing.
“Our Jabberwock was pretty much a skeletal kind of character,” Yergen said. “We came up with the idea that he was this, almost, like a natural history display that was in the queen’s rose garden, and so roses started vining up over him and then he gets magic-ed back to life. At least that was our backstory.”
Yergen and Levinson, along with fellow designer Wolfenden-Steib, also dazzled Costume-Con judges with their gilded and bejeweled Historical Masquerade reliquary entry. Think skeletons dappled with rococo silver and gold hats and costumes, their rib bones encrusted with jewels, as if those jewels – pearls, sapphires, emeralds and the like – were sparkling, ornate barnacles secured to their saintly vessels.
These resplendent catacomb saints were the bodies of ancient Christians exhumed from the Roman catacombs, sumptuously decorated and sent abroad in towns throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland from the 1500s to 1800s to serve as relics of the saints. The catacomb saints served as a response by the Catholic Church to the destruction of religious relics and iconography during a time when Protestantism was on the rise.
“They took these bones and sent them to various churches across Germany, primarily. Then the priests, nuns and monks would dress up the bones and put them on display,” Yergen said.
“And bedazzle them, insanely,” Levinson added.
Yergen: “So we did that, too.”
Besides the Best in Show awards, the Yergen-Levinson costume team also landed the Cement Overshoes Award, given by the Chicago Chapter of the International Costumers’ Guild, the organization that puts on Costume-Con.
The Chicago Chapter is affectionately dubbed “The Mob,” and its award is called the Cement Overshoes Award because “they want to kill you and steal your stuff because it’s so cool,” Yergen said with a laugh.
What Yergen and Levinson love about entering a competition like Costume-Con is the challenge of learning new techniques.
“It’s the fun of doing costumes for us,” Levinson said.
“We get to experiment, so it expands our skills,” Yergen added. “For example, my chest piece (for one of the reliquary costumes) is made out of fiberglass, so I had to learn to do fiberglass for this project.”
One of Levinson’s costumes was made out of a thermoplastic called Wonderflex. It softens when soaked in hot water so it can be shaped, then hardens when it cools. For the skeletons’ bones and the Jabberwock, the team used a type of manufacturing foam that comes in blocks that the company can shape for you.
“There’s a lot of creativity and learning of new products and processes involved,” Yergen said.
The boon of the competition for the costume designers is being able to bring back those new techniques to GCU.
Many of those techniques Yergen has filmed for her YouTube Channel, CostumeTrek. Yergen interviews fellow costume designers and reports from costume events. She even got her body painted in one segment. It’s here where you can see how to make pool noodle wigs (wigs made from swimming pool noodles), watch a tutorial on how to make a steampunk pouch or see Yergen helping her Cosplay mom don her Wonder Woman costume in an episode called “Wonder Woman Cosplay Grandma Battles Dementia.”
The videos originally were filmed to provide tutorials for theatre students working in GCU’s costume shop.
“Before the tutorials, we had to stop what we were doing, teach them how to do it, make sure they were doing it right,” said Levinson, whose main job is to build costumes for COFAP. “This way, it’s like, ‘Go on YouTube, go to the tutorial. Come to me so I can see if you’re doing it right, and if you’re not, watch the tutorial again.’”
“It’s very useful for here at GCU, because when I teach costume design, they have all these resources they can go to,” Yergen said.
The two are back in the costume shop weeks before they usually arrive back on campus for the fall semester. They’re getting a jump on the theatre department’s first production for 2018-19, “Ring ‘Round the Moon,” a comedy set in the 1920s. Rehearsals start in late July.
COFAP’s move could come any day now, and Yergen and Levinson want to be ready.
“We’re pretty excited about it,” Yergen said.
They already have researched a design house mentioned in the play, Callot Soeurs.
“These outfits are just so ahhh. It’s very drooly,” Yergen said.
“I’m going, ‘Look at the shoes!’” Levinson added.
It looks as if it’s back to the rabbit hole.
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at email@example.com or at 602-639-7901.