J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
J. Brad Hicks

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My SF Convention Masquerade Judging Gripe

Since not all of you are science fiction fans, a super-brief capsule history first: Going at least as far back as the first Star Trek convention in the late 1960s, 40 years ago more or less, some of the people who've been showing up at science fiction conventions have used the event as an opportunity to play dress-up, or beyond that into let's-pretend, as if they were their favorite characters or at least as if they were characters in some kind of a fantasy or science fiction story. And barely had this idea started to catch on when some clever person came up with the idea of having all of the people who made their own costumes parade across a stage and giving out awards to the best costumes.

For about 25 years, the awards were given by a panel of (seldom sober) guests of honor, plus maybe two members of the convention committee and maybe one random attendee. And frankly, the results of that judging system stank on ice. You could show up with a carefully researched, intricately armatured, beautifully designed, painstakingly stitched costume and wear it with total flair and panache, and it didn't matter, because the cutest girl wearing the least was going to win at least half of the contests. I saw several contests in a row where just amazing pieces of hand-crafted art and theater lost to some barely-legal girl in a chain-mail bikini she bought in the dealer's room the same day. So eventually the costumers who did want to compete on actual costuming, and who wanted to do science fiction and fantasy costumes instead of stripper outfits, staged a nationwide revolt. City by city over the space of maybe 10 years, they persuaded almost every (non-media, non-anime) science fiction convention's masquerade staff to outsource costume contest judging to the newly formed International Costumer's Guild. And in most ways, the results have been plainly and clearly seen to be vastly superior.

But only in "most ways." Remember one of the things I said yesterday about this year's Archon? About how nice it was that "there was actual science fiction related content in my science fiction convention"? Let's talk about a trend in ICG master-class presentations and in ICG contest judging that has been bothering me for a couple of years, and that I think peaked on the far side of intolerable this year. At this point, I feel like I could make a pretty clear case that just about the whole master level in the ICG has "jumped the shark" because of this one big trend. And it's a special case of a more general case that infects all of the arts in the late 20th and early 21st century: art made only for other artists then foisted off on an audience who were promised something else. But in this special case, the short-hand reference I use for my complaint is the tag line from a bitter complaint from a past Worldcon, one that I didn't even attend but only heard about: imagine the sound of someone saying, disgustedly, "We got beaten by a dress."

That particular year, a group of St. Louis costumers (over half of whom have since gone on to do professional art in the movie and television industry out in Hollywood) put together a marvelous spot-on parody of old B-movie monsters. One of them, their blob-stand-in, was deliberately cheesy looking, but the rest were amazingly well engineered, constructed, and worn sculptures of sheet foam and other materials; their presentation was a short theater piece parodying the old afternoon-movie rerun festivals where most of us in the audience saw our first science fiction movies. It took second place. But that wasn't what they were complaining about. What they were complaining about was that they took second place to a costume that they felt had no business even being in that competition. Yes, it was a beautiful designer gown, of original design, with over 5,000 hand-sewn sequins. But this wasn't a fashion contest, it was a science fiction costume contest, and the best of show winner that year had nothing perceptible to do with science fiction. Hence their complaint that their second place winner obviously was the best actual science fiction costume of the event, their complaint that they got cheated out of best of show by a mere dress, however fancy.

Now, I'm told that at that convention the dress designer had some thing fig-leaf of justification for why her entry was at the World Science Fiction Convention's masquerade, that she was attempting to portray high couture from some alternate history or some future world or some such thing. OK. But it was the thin entering wedge of pretentious art, the first step on a slippery slope that led all the way down to this year's Archon masquerade, where the winning best of show entry didn't even pretend to have anything to do with science fiction and fantasy. And frankly, in my opinion as someone who has done the research into the style of costuming that they were portraying, it wasn't even any good at what it was claiming to try to do. The winning entry for best of show was entitled "One World, Many Treasures." It was introduced as nothing more, or less, than 18 people in a selection of costumes that were intended to duplicate the kinds of outfits worn at a Mardi Gras samba parade in Brazil -- for all that the costumes themselves had a lot more clear Caribbean influences than Brazilian. Yes, they were very pretty outfits. Yes, a lot of work went into them. Yes, some of the fabrics were very shiny. And they did put on a nice show, with some pleasant music to listen to, so the audience did enjoy it, which is more than can be said for about half of the master-class entries I've seen in recent years. But what in the hell was it doing on the National Science Fiction Convention's stage? Let alone winning best of show?

I had my own pick for best in show. In and of itself, that sentence is unremarkable; at any given masquerade, probably half the audience would disagree with the best in show winner. But I want to use the one I would have preferred as an example of what science fiction masquerades should be rewarding, instead of recreations however painstaking and fancy of the same clothes that are worn by ordinary mundanes in our own world and time. #17, in the novice class, was (if I'm reading my hand-outs right) by Susan Leabhart, and entitled, "Take That, Earl K. Bergey." It starts with the costumer in a painstakingly precise replica of a young girl's ordinary clothes circa 1950, carrying a cardboard box that, we're told, she just got in the mail: the last piece of her junior spacegirl space suit mail order costume. She strips off her skirt to reveal that she was already wearing the vinyl brass-colored shorts of the outfit underneath it. She digs out of somewhere a pair of weirdly repackaged plastic flashlights that are obviously supposed to be her hand-held rocket boosters. Then she opens the box to find a clearly age-inappropriate brass-colored vinyl bra. She thinks about it for a second, takes it apart, turns one of the bra cups into a passable imitation of a space helmet, and dances happily around the stage pretending to fly through space with her "rocket boosters." It was poignant, relevant, painstakingly researched, and from where I sat in the 2nd row looked extraordinarily well made. The audience loved it. It won best in the novice class. I think it should have won best in show. But even if it didn't win best of show, all the snooty pretentious "creative artists" looking down their noses at people who "re-create" costumes, who let themselves be "constrained by the audience," need to take a good look at that piece as a reminder of what the hell kind of events they're competing at.
Tags: science fiction, st louis
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