By RITA FEINSTEIN
Erica Smith hasn’t slept in three days.
Tonight is the sexual health fashion show, and Erica’s design is finally runway-ready. She’s been stitching condoms to a dress for the past 72 hours, but only the manic brightness in her eyes betrays her fatigue. She looks edgy and elegant, almost vampire-chic, with her black lace and dramatic eye shadow. Her unwashed hair, swirled with a braided blonde extension, is pinned up in a lavish bun.
She knew there was a good reason for keeping so much fake hair in her closet.
Erica is a first-year Apparel Design student at Oregon State University. She’s been creating costumes since her freshman year of high school, when she took up cosplay as an outlet for her lifelong love of sewing. Cosplay (or “costume play”) is the practice of dressing up as—and inhabiting the role of—a specific character. As an art form and subculture, it is particularly appealing to fans of manga and anime. Erica knows a lot about a lot of things, and she knows her Japanese media.
Nearest to her heart is Hetalia, an anime series she describes as “world history on speed.” She role-plays as Matthew Williams, a personification of Canada as a sensitive, maple-syrup-obsessed young boy with a pet polar bear. This is the character that launched her cosplay hobby, not to mention her celebrity status within the Northwest cosplay convention community. “Matthew is my darling sweet darling,” she says. Anyone coming into the conversation would think she’s referring to a boyfriend, or a beloved pet.
Like Erica, I form attachments to characters. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t still be revising a novel I wrote when I was twelve. But while I’m preoccupied with making characters from scratch, Erica takes existing characters and makes them her own. “Connecting with specific characters,” she says, “comes pretty naturally to anyone who enjoys literature, I think. You may identify with them personally due to their life experience in the narrative, or feel for them because of a character trait that you admire or enjoy.”
Before committing to a costume, Erica runs the character design through two criteria: “One: personifying that character will be fun for me. Two: Creating the costume of that character will be an engaging challenge for me.”
Though there are comprehensive clothing patterns available for many characters, Erica prefers adding her own creative flair to costumes with no “official” design.She relishes the challenge of transforming herself into real-life cartoon characters with richly hued, gravity-defying hair, impossibly large eyes, and all manner of wings, tails, and scales. She is fluent in the language of fabrics—crinoline, brocade, organza, chiffon—how they pucker, snag, and wrinkle, how to transform a bolt of material into shimmering mermaid fins.
To pay for her degree, Erica puts in 20 hours a week working at Oregon State’s writing center. We work together on Thursday nights, side-by-side at the front desk. Theoretically, I assist student athletes in performing critical analysis on cultural artifacts, but most nights I get paid to listen to Erica talk. When she’s not talking to me, she’s talking to herself, or to the financial calculator she uses for her Business homework. When she is talking to me, she’s usually filling in gaps I didn’t know existed in my pop cultural knowledge.
It starts innocently enough. I ask about the scar on her inner wrist—all that remains of a ganglion cyst—and she says that it looks like Clara. Then, realizing I don’t get the reference (I never get the references), she provides an exhaustive plot synopsis for a show called Jellyfish Princess, illustrating her narration with Google Image Search as if giving a PowerPoint presentation. She tops off the synopsis with a brief discussion of jellyfish eating habits, and then directs me to her Facebook photo archives, where I can find pictures of her jellyfish-inspired dresses.
After our first shift together, I stop bringing busy work.
Erica’s Costume Design class has read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is designing costumes using Elizabethan fashion for inspiration. Before they begin sketching, they have to assemble miniature art installations representing their initial emotional impression of the play. This exercise, ideally, sparks the color scheme they’ll use in their final designs.
The week before her installation is due, I meet Erica at the Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store on Circle Boulevard. As always I arrive too early, before Erica and before business hours have begun. When I get there, a crowd of one is waiting for the doors to open, and though I don’t intend to strike up a conversation, I soon find myself privy to her scheme of returning needles she bought last week so she could repurchase them with a coupon on her phone. She’s got a homey country kindness about her, but also a touch more weirdness than I’m prepared to deal with before 9 am. As I’m considering the kind of person who receives the Jo-Ann newsletter, the doors slide open. My new friend takes an appreciative breath and says, “Ahhh! That Jo-Ann smell.”
Erica’s timing is impeccable. She ambles up to me in a gauzy, moss-colored dress, a black leather jacket, and neon green sunglasses. I hang onto her confident quirkiness as we enter the bleakly fluorescent Jo-Ann, which is stuffed to the gills with “junk.” Staring at a jumbo bag of camo-print pompoms, I’m suddenly awed by people like Erica who see art in all these odds and ends. What about the cashiers? When they look at a shopping basket full of oven-bake clay, floral wire, bags of moss, and an Easter egg wreath, do they see the final product? And is this exercise in imagination exhausting by the end of their shift?
The next time I see Erica, in her Costume Design class, she has transformed this peculiar assortment of items into a glittering fairy village. She places it beside her friend Emily’s installation, which appears to be just a bowl packed with dirt. As she and her classmates present their pieces while simultaneously rolling around on the floor, sharing pictures on phones, tap-dancing, and talking animatedly, I feel like I’m in the middle of Cirque du Soleil (Erica’s Plan B career, after Disney World), or a small zoo. It suddenly makes sense to me why both the Theater and Animal Sciences departments are situated in Withycombe Hall.
Having just come from my graduate-level poetry workshop, where our idea of a good joke is referring to couplets as “duotrains,” I’m stunned by these underclassmen’s spectacular avoidance of substantial conversation. I would never let my freshman composition class get away with saying, “Then I did pink flowers. Then I did orange flowers. Then I just did some glitter.” I’d red-pen What is the significance!? all over that presentation. But Barb, the instructor, is generous with her feedback. When it’s her turn to present her meaningless flower arrangement, Victoria—the loudest and most expressive student—presses her hands to her heart and says, “I know you’ll love it because I love it!”
Barb loves it.
I’m nearly catatonic by the time Erica presents, at which point I feel life returning to my limbs. Erica speaks as colorfully as she dresses. “Everybody’s trippin’ acid,” she says, regarding A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It’s very Lewis Carroll.” Like the outfit she wore to Jo-Ann, Erica’s speech has both grit and grace. She seems to see the world through overlapping lenses of pop culture and literary analysis. Her AA in English Literature, she says, serves her well as she pursues her second degree. Indeed, she is one of the only students able to speak symbolically about her art installation, leading us through how she made the intangible tangible. I’m particularly impressed by her explanation of the Easter egg wreath, which seemed at the time like an impulse purchase, and has since been deconstructed and repurposed as a symbol of “the folly of youth and juvenile behavior in matters of ‘love.’”
By the end of Erica’s presentation, Emily has stuck a synthetic rose and a bunch of wooden pushpins into her bowl of dirt and tied the pushpins together with red string. “The rose is fake because love is frivolous,” she says in a way that seems like she’s talking about more than her art. She goes on discuss the intentions behind every seemingly arbitrary detail of her dirt bowl, and by the time she’s finished, I understand why Erica holds such respect for her.
It’s not always easy for Erica to work in a team. Her all-female cosplay group, Talking Teacups of Doom, frequents events like KumoriCon and SakuraCon, and has won multiple awards for their skits and costuming. Not without some internal conflict, though. Erica has “a bad habit of doing everyone else’s work,” particularly when it comes to her roommate and cosplay partner Ashley, who can’t match Erica’s high-intensity commitment to costuming. “Ashley literally has nothing to do with theater arts except cosplay,” Erica tells me over coffee. “She wants to run a foster home for teenagers and dogs, and work with whale diseases.”
The two have been best friends since childhood, but it seems as though sharing the same space and interests has rubbed their relationship raw. Though Erica is frustrated by the disparity in their technical skills, she’s also concerned that Ashley is held back by her own artistic insecurities. “Notice her installation was a little pair of wings,” she whispers.
I had noticed. Ashley’s “fairy wings” looked more like a twist-tie contorted into a figure-eight and wrapped with dental floss. “I can’t do art for shit!” she said cheerily, criticizing herself before anyone else had the chance. Barb handled the situation gracefully, saying, “It’s not that you can or can’t do art. The more primitive, the better.”
Erica does not agree with this statement. She values technical skill, dedication to craft, and off-the-clock self-study. She also values punctuality, and might never forgive Ashley for the time she waited until the day of a convention to assemble her costume. More recently, Ashley impressed Erica with her record-time construction of a Tyrannosaurus Rex poodle skirt. Motivated by the upcoming Jurassic World premiere, she completed the garment in under six hours. “She’s improving and she’s having fun,” Erica says. “And the skirt was very cute!”
Erica underscores the importance of having a supportive cosplay community—not just because the-more-the-merrier holds true, but also because it’s safer that way. An uncomfortable stereotype about cosplay is that it’s meant to be sexually provocative. According to Erica, Female cosplayers in particular have been victims of the dehumanizing mentally that “sexual harassment becomes ‘okay’ because the person is in cosplay.” Though many conventions have signs reminding their attendees that “Cosplay ≠ Consent,” it remains an unsettling truth that this form of artistic expression is frequently misinterpreted as an open invitation to touch.
Erica wasn’t always sure she wanted to make a career of costuming. She went to Lane Community College to major in English, something she enjoyed and recognized as a solid foundational degree for many other disciplines. For a while, she wanted to go into ornithology (“Because birds, man!”), and if prompted, she will speak quite fondly about Edgar Allen Crow, a permanent resident of the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene. Around the same time, she toyed with the idea of doing sketches for biology textbooks, but near the end of her degree, she realized her cosplay hobby was her true love.
“That’s what cosplay is,” she says. “It’s something you do on the side. I just happen to get way more into it than I should.”
Erica’s mother supported her decision to pursue costuming, provided she was able to find a program that supported her. OSU was close to home and a perfect fit. Their Apparel Design program, sitting at a comfortable #16 in the national rankings, is a business-based degree with a product development focus, which Erica says will open up her marketability and internship opportunities. It means a hefty amount of math homework, but I think she actually enjoys having shouting matches with her financial calculator.
The week after the fashion show, Erica and I meet for coffee. She has finally managed to sleep, but now she seems to have stopped eating. It’s after 2 pm, and she has not yet had breakfast. Apparently, she spent the morning washing dishes—an activity I can’t imagine lasting longer than 20 minutes—and the early afternoon doing finance homework. While I sip water, she devours a cup of instant beans and rice, a colossal frosted cinnamon roll, and a coffee with lots of cream and sugar.
Later this afternoon, I’m meeting with my critique partner to discuss the current draft of my novel, so it’s no surprise I have creative crises on the brain. Erica wants to talk about “her future husband” (an anime pirate with rubber limbs), but I want to talk about her dark night of the soul. By way of response, she recommends Sweet Cheeks Winery’s Dry Riesling, the bottle of wine she recently curled up with while crying in her closet.
Once, she says, she had messed up on an art project three times in a row and was running out of materials and time, and ultimately had a breakdown that led her to a counselor’s office. “They gave me tools that have been helpful in learning to walk away from things,” she says. She’s a problem-solver by nature and has found the best way to overcome creative blocks is to start new projects, even if she never completes them. When in need of inspiration, she surrounds herself with people who make better costumes. “Then I want to make mine again,” she says, “because I want to be on their level.”
One challenge Erica consistently encounters—her 3D designs never look exactly like the sketches they’re based on. The condom dress, for example, was supposed to be floor-length with a train, but the finished product—a black-and-blue flapper number—has an asymmetrical hemline that hits at mid-thigh. A lot gets lost in translation between 2D and 3D, which Erica says normally bugs the hell out of her, but she’s pleased with the way this particular piece surprised her.
It strikes me that I could learn a lot from Erica’s incredible resilience. She thrives off of adversity and the unknown. She keeps sewing and sketching no matter what, and, if necessary, she does it without food or sleep. What’s more, she’s confident in her own skill level but is often humbled by master division costumers.
She’s also a firm believer that the focus of cosplay needs to be having fun—a philosophy I’ll keep in mind if my own creative crises ever drive me into a closet with a bottle of Riesling.