This article originally appeared in Connotations 15.1 and Cactus Needles 11.10
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The Costume Closet

Some thoughts on Stage Costumes

by Randall Whitlock

I began the Costume Closet column two years ago with a discussion of “Hall Costumes,” which are those worn by con-goers to any and all convention events for their own fun and amusement. The reciprocal of the hall costume is the “Stage Costume.” Stage costumes are worn for presentation at a convention masquerade.

What is a Masquerade?  

To the SF convention culture, the masquerade is a costume competition, usually held on Saturday evening of a convention, on a stage in the hotel ballroom. The stage is surrounded on one or more sides by the audience. The layout is not unlike a fashion show. Competitors enter the stage, show their costume, and exit. The presentations are introduced by a master of ceremonies and accompanied by as much technical support as the convention can provide, which may include music and lighting effects. The costume presentations are rated by a panel of judges, with the best in various categories awarded ribbons or other prizes. At smaller cons, the masquerade may be combined with a dance or other evening events. At the largest cons, the masquerade can last all evening.

The 20-Foot Rule

A stage costume will be seen by a seated audience at some distance. Few, if any, of them will be close enough to see the fine details of your costume. To make a good impression, your costume should have bolder, broader lines and features than most hall costumes. This is called the “20-foot rule.” Anything that can’t be seen clearly from 20 feet will not register with the audience. The bigger the masquerade, the more this rule of thumb applies. For a huge masquerade, like Worldcon, your whole body may not be big enough. Many presentations at giant masquerades compensate by making the costume outlines broader and taller with wings or other features. Other presentations include many persons performing together. Lots of motion in your presentation can help to fill a large stage.

Just because your first audience will not see the details is not a reason to skimp on them. Most masquerades give awards for workmanship. You’ll have your chance to show fine features of your costume to the judges in a close-up interview. A retired stage costume often becomes a hall costume, where your friends will see it one-on-one.

Competing Up

Once you have put all that time and effort into building a first-rate stage costume, it would be a pity to show it only once. Hence masquerade competitors follow a tradition called, “Competing Up.” A successful costume that has been presented at a local convention (like Coppercon) might be shown again at a regional convention (like Westercon) and thence at a national or worldwide convention (like Worldcon), much as plays can be tried out in regional theaters before going to Broadway. 

Costumes that have won awards at larger conventions are not generally entered in competition at smaller conventions. This is more a matter of sportsmanship than an actual, written rule. Costumes from large masquerades, however, are often shown out of competition (also called “For Display Only”) at smaller masquerades.

Stage Presence

The most successful masquerade presentations are those where the contestants plays a character, rather than simply acts as a walking coat rack. This can be very, very subtle. You don’t need a lavish sketch or dance to show your costume on the stage – a fashion show walk-across across is plenty – but  the audience and judges will pick up your body language. Practice moving in your costume until it feels natural. Let the costume help you project the air of being an entirely different person!

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