Updated: Sep 11, 2019
At 3:30 AM on October 31, 2018, I finally laid down to sleep after an exhuasting day of office work followed by sewing, gluing, cutting, measuring, and painting. Even though I managed to get shreds of fabric all over my bedroom floor, I successfully created a decent Handmaid bonnet from scratch, thanks to a helpful DIY bonnet tutorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGquB9MnP7). It was not perfect, or at least not 100% Gilead-approved, but it was functional and not bad for my first try. I was thrilled!
At least I was until I walked out into the sunshine later that morming and discovered the ugly white paint streaks on the side where I tried to disguise the glue smudges. “Oh well,” I thought to myself. I spent too much time and money to let a few streaks dissuade me from rocking the hell out of that bonnet!
Ever since my very first Comic-Con in 2016, where I dressed as Alana from the Saga Comics, I have decided that cosplaying was a hobby that I wanted to pursue to the best of my ability. For me, cosplaying is more than just arts, crafts, and creativity. There is a sense of theater involved where you not only try to look like a certain character, but take on his/her/its mannerisms as well. (I guess that’s where the “play” in cosplay comes from.)
There is a story behind each item bought or stitched, which is the true essence of cosplaying: storytelling.
In The Handmaid’s Tale TV series (based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood), women in the Republic of Gilead are divided into groups based on social class, faith in fundamentalist Christianity, and “worthiness.” Aside from the banished unwomen shipped off to the treacherous Colonies, women are either considered Aunts, Wives, Econowives, Marthas, Jezebels, or Handmaids. Although all women in Gilead are granted no civil liberties, handmaids are forced to become surrogate maids for infertile upperlcass Wives. Each month during the Handmaid’s ovulation cycle, she is made to lay down on the bed between the legs of the Wife while the Commander (the Wife’s husband) haves sex with her, with the hope that the Handmaid will bear the couple’s child. Let’s not sugar-coat this: it’s institutionalized rape.
One may ask, with good reason, why somone would want to portray or emulate a character who is subjugated to rape and considered “a fallen woman.” Personally, I admire the insurmountable bravery the women in this story showed when faced with unimaginable challenges. If placed in similar circumstances, I can only hope to be as courageous and tenacious as Moira or June.
I decided to cosplay as a Handmaid because I identify with what these women stood for and who they were beneath the totalitarian oppression. In the book, Handmaids were considered the bad girls before the Sons of Jacob overthrew the US government. They were the nasty women. The unapologetic freaks who read books, had sex before marriage, took birth control, wore slutty clothes and makeup, got drunk in bars, had jobs and financial independence, used foul language, aspired for success and greatness, had abortions, challenged religious ideals, raised their children to be feminists, and dared to be individuals.
Because I too am an unapologetic freak, I walked out of my apartment building at 8:30 AM on Halloween morning dressed in flat tan ankle boots, a floor-length long-sleeved crimson dress, a bright red flannel long-sleeved shirt (for extra warmth), a bright red hooded cape, plum red gloves, a wine red scarf, a white mop cap, and my do-it-yourself white bonnet.
I wouldn’t say that I was spot-on with my cosplay, especially given that my full costume was not the exact same color. It was a nightmare trying to find the same shade of red for all of my costume pieces: gloves, cape, dress, scarf, and even an umbrella. It would have been best to sew each of them out of the the same length of fabric, but I did not have the time, energy, or resources for that kind of project. Therefore, I made due with amazon.com and local stores – it happens. However, I was overall satisfied with the outcome! As a plus size woman, it can be difficult finding outfits that fit your specific body type correctly, so I was pleased when I found a beautiful dress (with pockets!) that was perfect for this costume.
When I walked to the DC Metro, ironically the Red Line, I was in character. I had an old white satchel full of the essentials: my keys and wallet, a $4 red umbrella, my paperback copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a pen, a flashlight, my ticket to see LeVar Burton reading live later that night, and two small boxes of Fruit Loops. (Only people who have watched the Handmaid’s Tale TV series would understand why I carried a few of these items.)
With my hood up, I walked with my head bowed and hands folded in front of me, like a meek Handmaid is supposed to walk in public. Because I wanted to be as accurate as possible, I did not wear any kind of makeup and removed all traces of my purple fingernail polish. Handmaids are forbidden to have anything but the basic necessities and my motto with cosplaying has been go all out or not at all, even if that means sacrificing my own vanity. (Granted, Handmaids also aren't allowed to read books, carry pens or write, travel alone, or have employment...but one can only go so far during our modern work week!)
Under Their Eyes
There’s a thrill I get when I stroll around in public wearing a costume. It’s an adreneline rush tinged with fear, doubt, and excitement altogether. I always become slightly anxious that someone will stop and stare agog at me or point and laugh at my foolishness, but usually the opposite is true.
People, especially folks in large cities where outbursts of insanity are common, go out of their way to ignore you. Such was the case for me as I dragged myself onto the train headed towards downtown DC on that chilly Wednesday morning. Aside from a friend I ran into, people avoided making eye contact and minded their own business. It’s different when you’re at a convention; you expect to get attention and welcome it. When someone stops you at Comic-Con or BlerdCon and asks to take your picture, you pose proudly because it feels damn good to be recognized and admired. For me, there’s a sense of belonging at those events because I feel like I am among my tribesmen – weirdos like myself who maybe love Anime or sci-fi a bit too much. If you’re the only oddball dressed up like an overgrown Little Red Riding Hood on a train, well…beneath my bravado I felt vulnerable. I guess vulnerability comes with the territory, but it will never be enough to stop me! If I only get one day out of 365 in a year to be anything besides a normal boring adult, I refuse to miss my opportunity!
When I arrived at work that day, the adrenaline faded. I certainly turned a few heads, but even on Halloween there was work to be done. Thus, I removed my traveling cape and bonnet, sat in my office chair, and worked. Of course I greeted fellow colleagues cordially with appropriate phrases such as “blessed be the fruit,” “under his eye,” and “we’ve been sent good weather,” but it was business as usual until later that night.
You may have noticed I mentioned I had a ticket to see LeVar Burton (from Star Trek: Next Generation and Reading Rainbow if you’re unfamilar) read live. Well I did! He has a podcast called LeVar Burton Reads and he was in Washington, DC on Halloween night reading live on stage. Some of my original excitement returned as I walked in the theater and saw a few other people dressed up as Star Trek Starfleet Officers (appropriately so). I started to feel as if I was around some members of my tribe again. I sometimes feel more like myself when I’m cosplaying than I do when I’m pretending to be a normal adult. That may make me sound crazy, but I have learned to embrace that instead of shying away from it.
For those who may be new to cosplaying, I do highly recommend it! I know it’s not for everyone, but whether you want to be Black Panther or Sailor Moon for a day, it’s a great deal of fun and the community of cosplayers that I have met tend to be welcoming. Don’t worry about not having the “right“ skin complexion or body type to look like a certain character. Cosplaying is all about attitude, patience, and creativity.
While there are professional cosplayers who are able to pull off extravagant and beautifully detailed costumes, just finding the right red dress is good enough on any given Halloween day. Regardless if your character is a warrior god, has thirteen regenerations, or lives in an oppressive patriarchal regime, remember to bring your phone charger and take a lot of pictures!
Blessed be the fruit loops!