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Costume College, or How I learned to stop worrying and have a fabulous time: advice and reflections for first timers.

This July/August I got to go to Costume College in LA for the first time.  It was amazing, and I had a fabulous time in every possible way.

Now that I’ve been, I desperately want to go back, and can’t believe I didn’t manage to get there sooner!

I also can’t believe how stressed I was about the thought of Costume College.  I’m a worrier, I fretted and built up huge obstacles in my mind, which prevented me from really attempting to go for years, and which also made the run-up to it much more emotionally fraught that it needed to be.

I think a lot of the things I worried about with Costume College are pretty common among first timers, so I thought I’d address my biggest fears, and how they turned out to be not at all a problem, which will hopefully reassure some future attendees!

Worry #1: I’m not good enough, and my work isn’t good enough.

Like many people in the arts, I’m hyper-critical of my own work. I know every tiny fault in everything I make, and to me they are glaringly obvious (except creases – there are lots of times when I don’t care at all that a garment is creased, or feel it actually adds to the authenticity). Showing items off in a setting with so many amazing, talented people creating costumes at a level way above mine is super scary.

However, even when wearing things that are 5 years old, and that don’t reflect my current skills, I never once felt inadequate, or lacking in accomplishments.

No matter how spectacular and fabulous a garment was, I found seeing it in person both incredibly inspiring, and incredibly reassuring. I’m used to seeing costumes in photos, and when costumers post photos they post their favourite ones, where they, and the costume, appears to the very best advantage. Not only do nice angles obscure awkwardness that is pretty obvious in real life, but good lighting and lovely locales enhance even the most exquisite of garments. Everything looks better with a pretty backdrop!

Even when I’m studying photos for the technical and construction details I find myself getting swept away in the romance of the image: the atmospheric light, and the fabulous setting. In the reality of a hotel hallway, a costume may still be a triumph of technical skill and aesthetic artistry, but it is still clearly a garment made by a person. No matter how perfectly an outfit was constructed, being able to see it in person, and to see how it moved and was made, made it accessible. Even when a garment was even MORE amazing in person than in photos, seeing it in real life turned it from something that you looked at as a still image and felt you could never possibly do, to something where you saw how it had been done, and could aspire to.

I look at all my photos from Costume College, and instead of thinking “I’ll never be that good” I think “Yeah! I saw that thing and it was AMAZING but now I’m that much closer to being that amazing myself.”

This was really one of the biggest things I’ve taken from CoCo. Everything was SO fabulous, but I don’t feel diminished by it, I feel inspired. I’m pretty sure you’re going to see a massive leap in the level of things I create over the next 12 months, thanks to the things I saw at CoCo.

How to have an awesome time at Costume College, thedreamstress.com2

Worry #2: Everyone will judge my work

As hard as I am on myself about my work, it still really hurts when others critique it. There is a huge difference between knowing and pointing out your own faults, to having someone else point them out. So I was scared about wearing things like Ninon that I love, but know could be so much better if I made it now (more experience + so much new research has been published).

Of all the hundreds of conversations about the outfits at CoCo that I participated in or overheard, not one was a critique about construction or historical accuracy, and only one of them was a comparison (“my X being better than similar Y” – and it was pretty clear that the listeners on that one were a bit shocked and felt that a judged comparison was quite unnecessary, and did the speaker no favours). Bar that one comment, everything was a rave review. The weekend was a sea of “Oh my goodness, did you see that dress! It’s amazing! And that one, and that one, and that one…” and “You look FABULOUS, do you mind if I take a picture?”*

How to have an awesome time at Costume College, thedreamstress.com

Photographing two awesome costumes, as one is photographed by the other

People were clearly not there to judge, and they weren’t there to compete, they were there to learn, admire, and enjoy. The only competition at Costume College is with yourself: how much better can you be than you were before?

Worry #3: I don’t know anyone.

There were only three people at CoCo that I had ever met in person before my trip, and with all three it was very briefly, at one event almost a decade ago. However, I did KNOW lots of people who were there. I’ve read their blog, and they have read mine, and I’m in costuming groups with them on Facebook.

The internet has made it really easy to know people, and to be part of the community even before you arrive. If you take an effort to participate in groups, and blogs, you’ll already have friends when you get there. You don’t even have to have a blog or make things: trust me as a blogger and group facilitator when I tell you we LOVE frequent supportive commenters, and are very excited about meeting them!

How to have an awesome time at Costume College, thedreamstress.com

Hanging out with fellow Historical Sew Fortnightlier Maria

You can also make instant friends by using patterns from the small independent costuming patternmakers, and tutorials from the bloggers, as most of them were at CoCo. I was incredibly delighted whenever someone recognised me from my blog, and even MORE delighted when someone was wearing pocket hoops or stockings or something else from one of my tutorials. I made so many amazing friends because someone came up to me and showed me their legs!

I highly recommend trying to be part of the community online before CoCo, but even without that I don’t think it would be hard to make friends as long as you are willing to try too. The costumes make it really easy for people to come up and talk to you and vice versa.

Worry #4: People will be cliquish and unfriendly.

I’d heard numerous rumours of cliques and drama at Costume College before I went. I did not experience ANYTHING remotely drama-filled or cliquish at CoCo. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming. People were a bit shy at the Thursday night mixer pool party, but by Friday morning everyone was just bouncing up to anyone in costume and telling them how great it was.

Friend-making and getting togethers were happening all the time: I made friends with people I sat next to in classes and shared excited asides of ‘ooh, I’ve been doing it right’ as the teachers explained things, had breakfast with Cynthia of Redthreaded because we were the only CoCoers in the restaurant (also, because she’s awesome!), got taken out to a dinner for anyone at loose ends the last night, and was invited to sit at three different pre-booked reserved tables on Gala night, because I was walking around trying to find the table I was supposed to be at.

Those examples aren’t because I’m particularly fabulous or people were that excited about meeting me – they are just what happens at Costume College if you’re a little bit friendly and bounce up to lots of people and tell them how wonderful their outfit is, and how much you’ve learned from their blog.

How to have an awesome time at Costume College, thedreamstress.com

Yes, there are a lot of clusters of small groups admiring and talking, and group costume projects that all ‘go’ together, which can look superficially clique-y, but I really don’t think they are because…

The thing to remember about Costume College is that:

  • This is the only time of year that many costumers from across the country and around the world get to see each other, so of course everyone wants to spend time with friends they haven’t seen in a year. That doesn’t mean they aren’t excited about meeting new ones too, simply that they want to catch up with everyone they already know, and already knowing them can be a bit easier for lots of people because…
  • MANY historical costumers are introverts. I think this is particularly true of costuming bloggers (i.e. the ones who you will recognise and know about beforehand). Blogs allow us to be social and outgoing in very calm, controlled environments. CoCo is wonderful, but a little scary in person, because of all the persons. There were so many costumers who seem outgoing on their blog, and at CoCo I’d find them escaping to back corners, trying to get away from the crowd. This is great because it meant it was really easy to have proper conversations with people in small groups, but I did notice people getting a little shy and quiet when a group got too big, no matter how well they knew every individual member of the group. Be understanding of the introverts. We aren’t quiet because we don’t like you, or don’t want to know you, we’re quiet because there is already too much noise for us.  We hang out in small groups because big groups are too hard, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still excited about meeting lots of new people, just not all at once.Before Costume College someone posted a meme about fabric and hoopskirts etc.  and ‘these are my people’.  That’s true.  But when I realised how much of the rest of Costume College was escaping back to their rooms for a few hours a day to decompress I though ‘Aha, these are my people!’
  • From chatting to people in themed costume groups, and from watching them develop in blogs and Facebook for years, the themed groups aren’t about ‘Let’s do something so that we’re an exclusive group’, they are ‘I love X thing and think it would be fantastic if lots of people did X thing!’  Most of these groups are publicly mentioned/advertised beforehand on FB and in blogs (I know of four being planned for next Costume College, and all are delighted to let you join if you want), and everyone in them is happy to have anyone else in them.  And if you happen to be there an outfit that fits the theme, without planning, the groups will include you with even more enthusiasm – the Star Wars group was very sad to find out I hadn’t brought my 1950s Jedi Knight/La Pieta with Stormtrooper outfit!

Worry #5: It will be hot and horrible

One of the biggest things that held me back from going to Costume College for years is the fact that it’s held in LA in August. I’m not very good at heat. And I’m even worse at dry heat. And I have perfume and chemical allergies. So a conference in LA, in August, in a hotel, with lots of people, when you’re expected to wear costumes, was scary.

LA was VERY hot this year, but the hotel has very good air conditioning. It not only made super elaborate costumes comfortable, but also did a good job of filtering a lot of the pollutants I’d usually have problems with. I actually didn’t even go outside for two full days, and was fine. Don’t worry about the heat!

How to have an awesome time at Costume College, thedreamstress.com

Perfume was still a problem (if I didn’t come up to you on Gala night and tell you your outfit was amazing, it was either because there were so many amazing outfits I didn’t manage to see them all, or because you were wearing perfume), and I had to leave one class because someone wearing lots sat near me, but if you’re a normal person who hasn’t ended up in the ER because someone drenched in scent sat next to you on a bus, you’ll be fine.

So that’s it – my biggest worries not at all an issue.  If you’ve thought about Costume College, but have held back because some of these worried you, I really encourage you not to.  Everyone is lovely.  The event is fabulous.  You’ll have a wonderful time, and you’ll learn so much.

Now that all my worries about Costume College have been laid to rest, I have a new worry:

#6:  How on earth am I going to be able to afford to do this every year, because it’s SO FANTASTIC!  

How to have an awesome time at Costume College, thedreamstress.com

* I actually found it hilarious how often someone said to me “Oh, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been sneaking pictures of you from across the room.”  It’s super sweet that people were so polite and asked, but I also felt that by dressing up at Costume College I had entered into an agreement that it was fine to photograph me!

44 Comments

  1. Basically the same worries I would have had if I were going. Glad to hear it’s not likely to be a problem, and especially nice to know how many of you are fellow introverts 😀

    • I was really amazed how many people were introverts, some openly, and others you noticed just by watching for the tells. I’ve definitely not been to another conference where it was so obvious. I would LOVE it if you came!

  2. HAHAHA It’s like you’re inside my head… I haven’t even been to CoCo yet (maybe next year!) and my train of thought was literally “I want to go and meet the people and do the things! … what if (anxiety-ridden monologue)?” NO I WANT TO GO MEET THE PEOPLE AND DO THE THINGS and I won’t let anxiety stop me! (Plus my track record of EVERY Big Scary Thing turning out JUST FINE when I go do it. So.)

    This was really great to read. Thank you 🙂

  3. Thank you for writing this! It’s very encouraging to me – I don’t know if/when I’ll get the chance to go, but this makes it much less daunting.

  4. You’re in my head too–I can relate to most of it (even the perfume to a much lesser degree).

    I rather like the point you raised about many of us historical costuming bloggers tend to be introverted.
    Personally, as a Apprentice in the SCA, I am more or less required to teach; I use the blog to do so while getting around the fear of public speaking (and to get to a much broader audience)–especially less hands on topics.

    • It’s funny, but I’ve never personally thought about a fear of public speaking as being an introvert thing. I know I’m quite unusual in not having it at all, but know extreme extroverts who still hate public speaking, and people who are far more introverted than me who don’t mind it. For me, it’s a very ‘safe’ activity, because you know exactly what you’re supposed to do and say, and while there may be hundreds of people, they are supposed to just shut up and let you talk 😉

  5. That’s great to read. It sounds very familiar, the worrying and introvert part, and I’m always very glad to read that 1. that’s not just me, and 2. that it doesn’t stop people from going to places and meeting new people. I don’t know if I ever make it to CoCo (something about living on a different continent, which will sound familiar), but at least I know that if it does happen it’s a great place and one you can go to on your own!

    Also, it’s a very good nudge to start commenting more on posts and images. I tend to just read and/or admire, not really thinking I’ve anything new or useful to say, but I need to remember that even the 6th comment in a row of ‘That’s lovely’ will be appreciated. You’ve been a great inspiration for me to get started in historical costuming, and it’s really nice to read that you’ve had so many good experiences with meeting people who read your blog, it’s well deserved.

    • It’s definitely not just you, and it shouldn’t keep you from going places and meeting people (though obviously, the different continent thing is a problem for this one!). It’s awesome fun!

      Do comment on posts and images! We put them out there to interact with people, and trust me when I say no blogger has every resented the 6th ‘that’s lovely’ in a row 😉

      And thank you <3 I'm so glad I've inspired people, and so grateful for all the people who inspired me - some of whom I got to meet at CoCo this year!

  6. Such a great article!
    Thanks for the nod to us introverts. Even though we have blogs or Facebook pages or Facebook groups or businesses (or all of those things), SO MANY of us are people shy. It’s a lot easier online! The times I’ve given classes at Costume College I’ve been absolutely terrified. I really admired how well composed you are when giving lectures. Maybe there’s hope for me after all!
    So glad you were able to come out, and so glad we were roomies and had a nice visit afterward.

  7. Thank you for this post! So inspiring and encouraging! 🙂 CoCo is on my “would love to go there”-list, but then again… worries#1-5. Hope I will make it one day (worry #6), lots of regards from Germany, Kris

  8. I feel you hit the introvert and non clique but seems like it is perfectly on the head!
    I am super shy and awkward, especially when I insert my foot into my mouth and mistake you for another online blogger (still feel dumb and bad about that) but 98% of the time I’ve had a blast and people have always been super welcoming, introvert awkward me and all.

    • Considering which blogger you mistook me for, I can only be intensely flattered 😉 And you’re not the only one, because when I met Cynthia she told me that someone had mistaken her for me! Don’t feel at all bad about it!

  9. Great article! I’m so glad you finally came and had a good time. 🙂

    Thanks too for specifically mentioning that coco is the only many of us see each other. While I love meeting new people, there are costumers I’ve met on Live Journal (TEN years ago now!) and have become good friends with, but we only get to see each other one weekend a year — that’s a lot of catching up to do!

  10. Elise says

    Word to introverts. Martial arts world sounds similar–how cool! Great article, great boost about the kindness of people.

  11. Lyndle says

    Lovely post. And I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much.
    And that dress of yours is still fabulous. Every time someone mentions needing to look elegant, I whip out my phone and show them your photo. The way you’ve draped the lace is perfect.
    Maybe you can find a group of costumers who’d like to do a Down Under Coco one year?? Or Hawaii? Who wouldn’t want to go to Hawaii?

  12. Helen Christie says

    I was also a first timer at Costume College this year (along with a friend) and I had a wonderful time! There were definitely pre-event nerves though, but we had so much fun and learned so much that we’re planning to be back in 2018.

    It’s funny that you mention the dry heat though – I found LA to be really humid, compared to what I’m used to in Adelaide (Australia).

    Your talk on the Sunday morning was fascinating – I would happily have listened to you talk for another hour.

  13. Gosh! I could have wrote this! I was at CoCo for the first time too. I decided to have a room to myself and I am glad I did. I’m an introvert with extrovert tendencies and when I hit the social “wall” I could retreat to my room by myself. And there was also no worries about my snoring bugging people! Or worries about keeping everyone’s stuff separate. BUT, when I wanted people, I just went where they were and within seconds someone asked me to join them. I feared standing at one of the events all alone like a sad little rejected wall flower. I didn’t have one meal alone, (except for the one I ate in my room). When I needed help doing up the back of my gown, I stood in the hall and waited for someone to come out of their room and I just asked. A lovely girl in a blue kimono did me up and didn’t seem at all put out. I asked someone in the elevator to undo me. Risqué wasn’t it! I didn’t catch myself thinking my stuff sucks. I was so busy looking at everyone elses stuff I didn’t have time to sort out who was better and who was worse. All I saw was experience and personal taste…. I can’t wait to go again and I have no worries this time. The goal is 2018!

  14. I enjoyed your article very much and thought you gave very good advice. However, I do think that your experience was influenced by the fact that many people knew about and read your blog. I have gone and people are great during the day but I have seen those who are on their own or didn’t have costumes not embraced in the same way. I absolutely do not want to discourage anyone but I think its important to say.
    Thank you for the article and advice. I do hope it encourages others to take the plunge.

    • Yeah, costumes and connecting really do help, which is why I’ve emphasised how important it is to join groups and communicate and network in point 3 🙂

      I don’t have a solution to the not-in-a-costume thing, because for me, as an introvert, I wear a costume to advertise I want people to talk to me, and if I’m not in one, it’s a way of decreasing the chances of being talked to, so I kinda assume that is how other people do it.

    • I should also add that I met a TON of people who didn’t recognise me, or only sort-of recognised me once I gave them a business card, and realised that they’d read my blog once or twice. So, while it helps, it’s definitely not about being that well known.

  15. Kylla says

    “MANY historical costumers are introverts.”

    That’s a relief. I feel less of a weirdo for following blogs for years and never commenting because I’m that much of an introvert.

    • That kind of introvert I don’t know so much about – I’m familiar with the ones who blog to reach out in a very controlled way, and of course, we only know if people are interested and appreciate our blogging if they comment and interact. 🙂

  16. Mary C. says

    Very interesting as I have only recently learned of Costume College and would have many of these fears. I once lived in Mobile, AL for many years and visited pre-Katrina New Orleans many times. The heat doesn’t worry me, but I like the New Orleans in my memory.

    But, I came to say thank you for mentioning the perfume. Nothing is worse than a perfume allergy! I can’t deal with them, I don’t care how much they cost, natural ingredients, only essential oils, etc. I am allergic and can’t be around perfume. I really get upset when I have paid a lot of money for tickets to, say, a concert, with assigned seating and someone sits near me who smells like they dumpd the bottle on themselvs. I’ll be sure to be wheezng before the night is through. I also get a runny nose. And on particularly special occasions, I get so nauseated that, well. . .

    • People just don’t realise about perfume. It’s so weird that it’s considered pretty and special, but there are so many people that have bad reactions to it, or simply hate the smell. I dream of a time when people would never think of wearing it at large public events, because it would be just terribly socially unacceptable…

      I’m lucky that I’m not sensitive to all scents, or all the chemicals that are used in perfumes (just most of them), so I can be around most essential oils, and some (but not most) standard perfumes. I’m unlucky in that my reaction is a LOT worse than wheezing and occasionally getting nauseated.

  17. Robbie says

    I only wish we had such a thing here in Melbourne (perhaps we do and I’ve yet to find it!) Sounds wonderful.

    • Well, we certainly don’t have it in Wellington NZ, so I had to go all the way to LA for it! I’d be dead keen for an Antipodean Costumers Symposium if there was enough interest here in the Southern Hemisphere. Would you fly to Welly for one?

      • This would be wonderful! I’d have to make more outfits though, I’ve only got 2 that would be ok and I’ve lost weight since I made them. There’s not much in Christchurch, nothing for 18th century at all unfortunately. There’s Regency and there’s SCA and Steampunk, but I had to pick the one that’s not in any of those groups. I could possibly get to Wellington if I saved my pocket money.

  18. Leslee says

    Thank you so much for this article! I don’t tend to follow bloggers much, though I do read posts from a lot of them that cover something I’m interested in recreating when I find them in a google search. Now that you mention it, knowing that these people would be at Costume College that would be a wonderful opportunity to meet them and thank them for all their hard work. I can’t wait to see your blog now! (PS: what are those other groups focusing on and how can I find one doing Star Wars? I’m already in one group doing Mad Men outfits for next year but the more the merrier!)

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad that you found it interesting and helpful.

      The Costume College groups that I’m aware of are focusing on really frilly 1860s dresses, the 1660s, and terrible Kiera Knightley costumes. Join the Costume College groups on FB, and they will get mentioned, with links. I don’t know of any groups doing Star Wars, as that was done last year, but you can always start one yourself!

  19. I’m so glad you had a great time! Point 3 is the one that would worry me. I’m an introvert too, and really don’t like going places where there are large numbers of people I don’t know.

    • Thank you!

      The amount of people I didn’t know was scary, but because I was always able to encounter and meet them in small groups, it helped a lot!

  20. I was reading this and then yelled at my empty office, “Wait you have a pocket hoops tutorial,” and had to exercise self-control to not immediately search for it rather than finish reading. Why did you not link to that post?

  21. sewcharacteristicallyyou.comFrom all that I have heard, I would love to be able to go to Costume College some day. It is also good to know that there is a rather large quantity of introverts, being one myself. It is sometimes enough to stand listening to someone else’s conversation and not be involved in it myself. I can have just enough involvement that way. Although, get me talking to someone about sewing……… 🙂

    Sarah
    http://www.sewcharacteristicallyyou.com/blog

  22. Thank you for writing this!
    I’m not in any position to go to costume college at the moment, but I really want to someday, and these are all things I would worry about. Especially the heat.
    I’m so glad to hear that people are friendly and that you had a good time!

  23. Your post could not have come at a more appropriate time. A friend and myself are heading to Costume College next year and perfectly understand the concept of tyranny of distance – although Brisbane to LA is probably a smidgey bit closer than Wellington to LA! It’s great that you had a terrific time.

    To echo everyone else who commented, I too don’t comment much on blogs and I am quite the introvert. So, I’m glad that that won’t be an impediment at CoCo.

    Also, I’d probably be one of many who would show you her legs. You’re tutorial on hose, and pretty much everything else on your blog, was fantastic!

    • Karen Lavoie says

      Gillian, you would meet so many people and be so inspired! Costume Colleges purpose–although there are many social events–is teaching and sharing. Although I just retired from the Costume College Committee after 12 years, I will be working Check In next year as a volunteer. I hope you will be there and please introduce yourself if you are. We’d love to have you there.
      P.S.–I’ll be in Brisbane over Christmas–if you have any questions or anything I’d be happy to talk with you.

  24. Susan Haseltine says

    I am so glad you had a great time and found most of the things you were stressing about not as daunting as you imagined. Your outfits were delightful to see in person.

    But lest every one believe they have to have any costumes at all to enjoy and benefit from Costume College, I have to assert that one only has to love costuming and hopefully costumers to have a complete rush of a time there. I am much more of a costume fan than a costumer though I spend 12-20 weekends a year in costume and don’t even aspire to the level of some of the young women and I go every year I can manage, though it is a local event for me. This event is about broadening and deepening your costuming knowledge and spending time with like minded people.

    As for other costume venue, Costume Con exists as a highly competitive event and draws many of the same people. Most years the costumes that wow during the Gala runway debuted at Costume Con. Except for the first couple, I’ve never made an effort to go to Costume Con.

    I was wonderful to see you!

  25. Diane says

    This is my first year, and fortunately because I have met so many on facebook, I am less shy at this point than I might have been 4 years ago when I came for the 1st time as a visitor. That being said, your point about costumers being introverted feels true for me, too. I don’t do well in big crowds. I’m an English Country Dancer, and even at balls, I sometimes feel shy during the breaks and I know everyone. I am glad you had a good experience. I am looking forward to my first student experience, and I have a wonderful person I am staying with who knows all the ropes and is looking forward to introducing me to new things. I feel lucky.

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