The Genesis and Evolution of Costume-Con

Revised and updated by Betsy R. Marks Delaney
Originally written for the Costume-Con 7 Program Book
by Karen Schnaubelt
(with kibbitzing from Kelly Turner)



It all started with a quarter page ad in the Fall/Winter 1979 issue of a magazine called MEGAMART:

[COSTUME-MANIA advertisement from MegaMart]
COSTUME-MANIA was the brainchild of Adrienne Martine-Barnes, a costumer of long-standing both in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and at science fiction conventions. Her idea of a costumed weekend was a good one, and it should have happened…

But it didn’t.

There could have been a number of reasons why COSTUME-MANIA didn’t succeed. Not enough people wrote in and showed interest. Adrienne had a hard time finding enough local people to help her run the event. [I was at the height of my own costume mania at the time, and I subscribed to MEGAMART, yet somehow I managed to read right over her ad — go figure! – KS]

The genesis of Costume-Con as we know it today took place at the 1981 World Science Fiction Convention in Denver. This convention turned out to be something of a landmark for science fiction costumers. First, attendees at Denvention saw the inauguration of the now-legendary multiple-tier (Master-Journeyman-Novice-Young Fan) Division System for the costume competitions known as masquerades. Secondly, many costumers, who had been competing against each other for years, actually attempted to talk to each other for the first time in a friendly way after the masquerade. Third, the demand for costume programming was demonstrated when the “How I Made My Masquerade Costume” panel ran over its time limit and continued informally in the hotel hallways after another panel took over the room. As Bjo Trimble put it, “Costume fandom became sentient at Denvention 2.”

Adrienne, and what was to become the core of the Costume-Con 1 committee, met for the first time the day after the masquerade at that Worldcon in Denver. She had taken one of the Master awards the night before, making a triumphant re-entry into competition after an extended absence from the Worldcon stage. The group of ten people including Karen and Kelly Turner had taken their first-ever Worldcon masquerade award and were “thrilled to death at their good fortune.”

In Karen’s words:

We were having lunch in the coffee shop of the main convention hotel when Adrienne approached us with her congratulations…and a proposition:

“It’s obvious that if you can manage to put this many people on stage in the caliber of costumes I saw last night, then you must have some reasonable degree of organizational ability,” she said. “It’s also obvious that you work well together as a group, and there are enough of you to serve as a committee for a convention.”

She then began to outline her ideas about holding a convention exclusively for costumers. “Just think of it. You can change clothes nine times a day and show off all your best stuff. You can trade techniques with other costumers. There won’t be anyone around to point their fingers at you and laugh at you for ‘dressing funny,’ because everyone there will be interested in the same thing you are: Costume.”

As she talked, we found ourselves nodding our heads. Yes, we’d like to attend such a convention.

“But I need your help,” Adrienne continued. “I’m a good idea person, but I don’t have the manpower to pull this off. I need someone to run this convention.” And she told us the woeful tale of COSTUME-MANIA.

“Well, what can I say? Adrienne is a very persuasive speaker. And we were feeling so good about winning in the Worldcon masquerade that running a costuming convention seemed like a logical next step, an interesting challenge. We said we’d do it.

And thus, Costume-Con 1 was born.

The Evolution of Costume-Con

In the months that followed, the fledgling committee, headed by Karen and Kelly, discussed ideas for Costume-Con. First, they chose a new name.

Karen explains it this way:

COSTUME-MANIA had a certain cute appeal, but we were trying to interest a broad audience that consisted of serious costume scholars as well as hobbyists. Adrienne suggested that we might sound more legitimate if we called ourselves a “conference” instead of a “convention.” Thus, we became “Costume-Con, the first annual conference for science fiction, fantasy and historical costumers.” The committee never expected Costume-Con to be more than a one-shot conference, but it sounded official.

Then came hotel negotiations, which proved a greater challenge. Karen noted:

This was the most difficult part of the whole process. None of us had dealt with hotels before. We eventually struck a deal with the Bahia hotel on Mission Bay for Martin Luther King weekend, 1983. For being a small hotel, the Bahia had a lot of conference space, and we intended to use most of it. Unfortunately, the Bahia was a spread-out complex of buildings with no covered walkways in between. We had nightmares about people’s costumes getting ruined if it rained. Luckily for us, the weather was beautiful the weekend of the conference.

The committee consisted of a mix of experienced and inexperienced people. Some, like Astrid Anderson Bear and Adrienne, had been attending and working on science fiction convention committees since the 60’s. Others had been on the scene less than a year. Most covered double and triple committee positions.

[Fred and Ginger]Greg Bear drew a logo of a robot and a dressmaker’s dummy (dubbed “Fred” and “Ginger”) which was printed on their flyers and stationery. They also invented a “mother” organization, the Fantasy Costumer’s Guild, to “sponsor” Costume-Con and make it look even more legitimate. The FCG answered a lot of mail over the coming years, but it was only a paper entity until Costume-Con 3 (more on this later).

They bombarded the local fabric stores, science fiction clubs and colleges with flyers, traded ads with the local branch of the SCA, bought ads in convention newsletters and program books. They sent stacks of flyers to every convention they could think of, asking the committees to put them on their “freebie” tables. They wrote to prominent costumers, asking them to come and speak as panelists. Other people contacted them with photos of their creations and volunteered their services.

They decided early on that they would not have a Fan Guest of Honor (a tradition at science fiction conventions) but it was too hard to make a choice! They did try to have a Pro Guest of Honor. Karen wrote:

Our #1 choice was Bob Mackie (who designed wonderful fantasy things for Cher and Streisand and got paid for it, too!), but his schedule was too busy and his speaking fees too high. So we opted for a home-grown talent named William Barbe, whose claim to fame was designing the costumes for Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and a movie called Eleanor and Franklin. We planned several large programming items around him, including a talk on what it was like to work as a costume designer for Hollywood, and a fashion show of his costumes. Unfortunately, about a month before our conference, Mr. Barbe was hired to do the costumes for several stage shows on the east coast, precluding his attending Costume-Con. We didn’t hold the professional commitment against him, but we really had to scramble to fill the holes he left in the programming!

A Costume-Con is Born

Finally, the January weekend came and Costume-Con happened. It had about 180 members, of which 140 came to the conference. The conference turned out to be pretty much like what Adrienne had described in that coffee shop in Denver 18 months before. People met and communicated who had previously only seen each other during high stress competitions. New people were introduced to a fascinating hobby, and old-timers revealed their “tricks of the trade.” Panelists learned new techniques from other panelists (“I do it this way, but your way works, too!”) An amazing amount of information was exchanged that weekend.

Of course, Costume-Con 1 was not without its share of problems. The shuttle van from the airport was $14 one-way (it was a “courtesy” shuttle, not “complimentary”). One of the larger meeting rooms had a loud air-conditioner that drowned out the panelists. They shared their ballroom space with several other groups, including a 4H meeting, a wedding reception (the bane of Costume-Cons), and a religious group that didn’t approve of their costumes. The dealer’s room overflowed into the exhibit room. The staff was spread too thin. [NEVER try to schedule programming and be on it at the same time!!! – KS] But the attendees seemed to realize it was a first attempt, and tried to overlook the rough places and flaws.

Costume-Con 1 would not have happened without a lot of time and resources from a lot of people. Astrid compiled the very first Whole Costumer’s Catalogue. Jodi Woodard let them borrow her collection of mannequins for the exhibit room. Costumers from both coasts agreed to exhibit their work and be on panels to share their expertise. As a result, costuming has taken a quantum leap forward since the lines of communication were opened. Karen wrote:

A few special memories: Author Julian May, playing the grand piano in one of her elegant, glitzy gowns; William Rostler’s doodle on the towel dispenser in the con suite (it was one of the continuous cloth roll types — he drew a funny face on it and added the caption: “My tongue tastes like flannel!”); Sally Fink and Kathy Sanders wearing omigosh costumes in the F&S/F masquerade (and thereby setting the high standards for subsequent Costume-Con masquerades); Marjii Ellers attending the Social as Father Guido Sarducci and fooling us all!

The committee held a “post-mortem” on the final day of the con to find out what went wrong and what went right. [Every Costume-Con should do this, not to crucify the current committee, but to educate the next committee regarding potential pitfalls. – KS] They had intended the con to be a one-shot, but people insisted they wanted another. They said they didn’t care what time of year it was held or where it was located. Just pick a weekend, and they’d be there. The response was so positive that Costume-Con 2 was scheduled for President’s Day weekend, and would have been headed again by the Turners, had they not had to move north to San Jose, just south of San Francisco during the coming year.

In 1985, Costume-Con came east for the first time, and established both Costume-Cons and the Greater Columbia Fantasy Costumer’s Guild, now known as the International Costumer’s Guild (a tip of the hat to the paper-organization the Fantasy Costumer’s Guild) as fixtures in today’s costuming community. And in doing so, Adrienne, Karen and Kelly, Marty Gear, Janet Wilson Anderson, and a whole host of others were instrumental in bringing to a new and more prominent level, transcending both science fiction masquerades and historic re-enactments. To find out more about the individual Costume-Cons (including the ones that have been scheduled but haven’t happened yet), visit the Costume-Con Visual Archive.«»

Karen Schnaubelt was the first Costume-Con Chair, and was the original Programming coordinator for CC-2, and the Programming Director for CC 6. She co-edited Costumer’s Quarterly from 1987 until 1990, and the Whole Costumer’s Catalogue.

Kelly Turner served as the coordinator for Registration, Publicity, and Publications for Costume-Con 1, was originally the Chairman for CC-2, Chaired CC-6, and served as the editor for the Whole Costumer’s Catalogue and Costumer’s Quarterly from 1987 until 1990.

Betsy R. Marks Delaney, first Costume-Con Archivist, served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors for the ICG from 1987 through 1995, and chaired Costume-Con Fifteen. She maintained the Costume-Connections website and the Costume-Con Archives until she stepped down at Costume-Con 25.