Friday, January 10, 2014

On costumes and that time someone thought I was a hooker.

Today, I dressed like Han Solo.

And you know what? I got sh*t done.

And that got me thinking.

See, one of my biggest personal dilemmas is, on the surface, a small one.

How do I dress for professional events?

On one hand, I want to be seen as a professional. I wish to project confidence, effectiveness, and assertiveness. I don't want to scare anyone away. I wouldn't want anyone to look at me and think, "That woman is as crazy as a bag of cats and probably can't hit deadlines." I am capable of writing in many genres and turning commissioned products around quickly, so I hope to look like I can handle anything and not pigeonhole myself into one area. I want to be respected for my work and also approachable to fans, colleagues, editors, and potential collaborators.

On the other hand, let's face it: I write steampunk vampire sexytimes books, books for young adults, and comics. I'm an avowed geek who can't help jumping up and down over my favorite books, movies, comics, and music. I love going to events and seeing friends and having fun. Although I'm very serious about my work and career, I'm not very serious about anything else.

And you know what? 
I love costumes.
I always have.

And that's why I torture myself whenever I pack for an event.

Because I want to wear my costumes. 

But I don't want to be punished for it.

Sometimes, I wear bright and tasteful versions of Victorian or steampunk attire with corsets, bustles, and skirts. They make me feel pretty and powerful and charismatic. Sometimes, I do one-offs, like my hipster Wonder Woman, gender-flipped Han Solo, or subtle Marceline the Vampire Queen. I am naturally introverted, so having a conversation starter is a big boon to me. It can also feel like putting on a persona, which gives me the strength to approach strangers, to smile bigger and invite interaction. And the costumes also give reticent readers a reason to approach me, because they always have something to talk about. Another bonus to dressing up is that it gives my fans a reason to dress up, too. My book launch parties are marvelous fun because people feel like they can be free to wear costumes, put on masks, and generally act weird in a publicly acceptable way.

And I love that!

But then, we get situations that look like this:

That's my first panel at Dragoncon last year, a roundtable of authors speaking on Pulp for the Alt History track. I was the only woman. There were four dudes scheduled, but seven showed up. And I was the only panelist in costume. As a woman, did that make me look silly or frivolous? Did my fellow panelists take me seriously? Did the audience look at me and look at them and decide that perhaps my work wasn't as legitimate or my voice wasn't as knowledgable? Did my costume give several of these dudes an extra incentive to try and talk over me-- emphasis on try? Which, yeah, they did.

Because gender issues as an author are unavoidable, and women have to be pretty tenacious to be heard on panels like this one. But of course, that opens another can of worms. What am I *supposed* to wear? Do I wear a geeky t-shirt and jeans? Because for most guys at a comic con, that's considered normal, but for a woman, it can be deemed sloppy. Do I wear business casual and feel fake and stuffy? Or do I wear a cute dress and run the risk of being propositioned for sex?

That's right. Someone at Dragoncon thought I was a HOOKER. Here's the outfit I was wearing at the time:

Yeah, I don't think Atlanta prostitutes spend that much on Polo dresses, handmade corsetry, and Sechelles heels.

So then I put on my favorite NERD shirt, and two different guys stopped me and told me that I wasn't, in fact, a nerd. Because I don't apparently don't look like a nerd.

So that's why I sometimes think it's best not to dress up or do anything geeky or interesting or fun at all. That I need to blend. To avoid standing out. Because it feels like no matter what I do, *someone* is going to say *something* that makes me feel like crap.

On the other hand, sometimes I dress up, and everyone dresses up, and we all have a marvelous time and feel fun and beautiful and clever and fantastically weird. Like at Princess Alethea's Traveling Sideshow hosted by author Alethea Kontis, also at last Dragoncon:

Same outfit as the first panel photo… but I look like I belong!

We were dressed up, the audience was dressed up, we threw candy at people and read from our books and performed. The room was lively and good-natured and not at all stiff and silent, as so many panels are. As if, once the doors closed, people could feel free to be themselves. Basically, when everyone dresses up, costumes are considered the norm. It's almost like, for that time, costumes are not actually costumes. They're just clothes. And being weird is totally normal, too.

Wouldn't that be a brilliant system?

I think it's very easy to forget that whatever you wear? Is your costume. If you wear a polo shirt and jeans every day, that's your costume. If you wear skirts and cardigans every day, that's your costume. If you wear full Victorian garb like my dear friend Leanna Renee Hieber or beautiful, sparkly corsets like Alethea Kontis, that's your costume

I made a New Year's Resolution that I wanted to be more myself this year, to be as weird as I want to be and dress as strangely as I like. And so far, I have. The big test will come when I'm packing for RT NOLA and Phoenix Comicon. 

Honestly, I'm not sure what I'm going to wear, then.

Does anyone else fight this fight? Do you feel like you wear your true costume-- or one of many costumes that express who you are? Do you have to hide your true self behind clothes you don't love to please other people or help your career?

I'd love to see more dialog on this topic from writers and readers regarding how an author's appearance affects your feelings toward their work, their thoughts, and what they have to say as a public speaker.

Will you share?



Y'all, I owe a big apology to two good friends of mine, James R. Tuck and John Hartness. They're both in that pic of the one-costumed-woman-and-seven-dudes panel at Dragoncon, but I failed to mention that they are true gentlemen who would put a smack down on anybody who spoke down to me, tried to hurt me, or otherwise was rude to me in any way. When I chose that picture, I was serving my own needs in showing an obvious image of the sort of challenges I feel I fight as a female author, but I neglected to serve the needs of men who stand for women like me, who believe that our voices are equally important. I'm 100% certain that they both offered me their chair just before the photo was taken, and as I was the last one to the panel, I didn't take it. I wasn't put on the end; I ended up there of my own volition.

When we talk about the problems of feminism in publishing, it can be easy to holler only about the negatives and just let the positives and victories go without saying. Having friends like Hartness and Tuck who would never treat a woman as anything less than an equal is one of the major victories, and I admire them and appreciate them both so much.

I'm sorry for not making that clear the first time, y'all. Thank you for always being there for me-- and all of us.

John Hartness is right next to me, and his books are here.
James R. Tuck is furthest away from me, and his books are here, and I get tattoos at his shop Forever Inked because it's awesome. Next time, I suspect he'll inflict even more hurtin' on me than that scarred tramp stamp  cover up over my spine, which he didn't actually do, but which I yelled at him for, anyway.


Dave Coventry said...

It's crazy how many assumptions we pack into snap judgments.

I do a fair amount of public speaking. Sometimes it is in casual: polo, sweater, jeans, whatever. Sometimes I wear a suit. And sometimes I wear my military uniform. And the responses are wildly different, even when the content of my presentation is exactly the same.

It's easy for me to say this since I'm on the sidelines, but I would hate for you to feel like you have to mute your plumage in order to be taken seriously. We are the ones who need to change, not you.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Just be you. Because in the end, if you let them, someone will always be on hand to say something that makes you feel like crap. Better to be the person you want to be, and have fun, and brush off as less than worthless the comments of people whose opinion is truly that, for example the person who thought you were a prostitute and the guys who felt it was their duty to comment on your nerd status.

Despite all the unfair stereotypes of SFF lovers, particularly convention attendees, there are those people who keep the stereotypes alive. But that lack of social graces is not charming, it is stupid, and should not be a determining factor for the way in which you choose to enjoy yourself.

Brian J. White said...

For me, it's not so much the clothes, working on a newspaper copy desk is kind of a choose your own costume kind of thing. The thing I can't do, that I really would like to, is dye my hair. Like, a primary color. Bright red, I think. I was working up toward that in high school (dying it a few times in almost unatural shades of red) but then I went to college and immediately started pursuing journalism, which meant internships and interviews and all sorts of things, and I just couldn't throw some Manic Panic in my hair. And it's been like that ever since. I am thinking I may do it this year, maybe with the excuse of making it a fundraising goal for the 5k I am going to run in the spring. Kind of like, hey, I have an excuse I am raising money for things. I dunno. But I want to do it before my hair all falls out, which it is already doing. Meh.

Kimberly Pauley said...

I tend to dress up a bit odd (since I'm with you...I *am* a bit odd and weird and I *like* being odd and weird) when I've done events but haven't actually gone with full on costumes (though I did wear very realistic vampire fangs for ALA one year).

Mostly, I think people rather expect authors to be a bit "different," especially teens and librarians. They get it. They enjoy it. BUT I confess that I generally go just middle of the road...something a bit splashy, but not so out there that I'd get a lot of strange looks if I wore it out grocery shopping (actually, now that I think about it, moving to London and living near Portobello has helped with fitting's really not at all unusual to see a dude with a fancy handlebar mustache sporting a purple velvet frock coat here...his name is Robbie, he's in a band and he also makes clothes and teaches music classes).

Also, I haven't done any of those kind of panels where everyone's sitting behind a table and passing the microphone around...if I'm honest, I know I'd probably go a more conservative route on one of those if I were on one because I know what they can be like. BUT. Costumes do rock. ;)

Sorry, I'm kind of all over the place here but what I'm really trying to say is that a) I know what you mean and b) ultimately you have to be yourself as much as you can but c) there are always "those" people who will judge. The best we can do is speak with our actions and work, I suppose. It's always a fight. Heck, I'm female, half-Asian, and just stand 4' 10" tall. There are times when I've been in a room with a bunch of writer dudes and you'd think I wasn't there at all and it doesn't matter a bit what I'm wearing.

Melanie Meadors said...

I have seen hookers. I know hookers. You, Miss Delilah, are no hooker.

I wear costumish stuff to some degree to ever con I go to. Like I said on Facebook, even to RWA National, which…well, no one wears costumes except to the after parties. Something about donning a corset or pretty stockings empowers me. I am dressed the way I want to be dressed, in a way that reflects who I am. I heard that not many people dress up to go to Boskone next month…well, too bad. They are getting a dragonslayer there this year, bitches! People who don't like it can stuff it. I didn't become a writer so I could wear a damn suit.

Anonymous said...

I have this dillema every time I go to a convention!
Since I'm often put on the pulp panels I'm usually the one woman on a panel and the number of times what I'm wearing has been commented on makes me insane.
Wear a sort of professional skirt outfit and I still get wolf whistles and 'I'll buy books from anyone with legs like that hon!' Dress in costume and I can feel the eye rolls from some of the audience members. Dress in geek casual and I get accused of not really belonging at the convention.
I haven't found a win yet and I fret and panic over it every single time. How do I look fun, pretty, nerdy and professional???

Seleste deLaney/Julie Particka said...

I can say with confidence that you will be embraced at RT. People LOVE when we dress up there.

I'm running into this same dilemma for ConFusion next weekend. None of my panels are specifically on steampunk--they're all general writing panels. But I WANT to dress up because I LIKE to dress up. So I think my plan is jeans, t-shirt, jacket for daytime (because that's me too) and then after dinner, I put on the steampunk. But…if people show up to my first panel Friday all decked out, screw it, I'm dressing all day Saturday.

Maureen said...

I've been thinking about this recently, wondering if I should make an effort to NOT dress with pirate flair at my next round of conventions...

Yet, it is that hat and those clothing that makes it easy to start a conversation, to promote myself and the books I write, which are romantic adventure, featuring pirates.

I started this way, with the first book and now that I have over eight seems like I would be betraying myself to abandon the garb.

And, let's face it, I love dressing like a pirate. Whether is full out, complete pirate, or just pirate-lite, or pirate themed.

I am known at RT a the pirate hat wearing author. Last scifi con I went to, the hat won a hall ribbon.

I admit, I don't really care what other authors think, editors and agents. I'm there for readers. Who want to be entertained, enticed, courted.

The hat stays.

John G. Hartness said...

It's tough, and to be honest, I've always thought that you look amazing in your costumes. And my costume for that panel was just that - my costume. Believe it or not, my con clothes are chosen specifically for cons, and most of them don't get worn anywhere else. Because we are creating a persona at these events, and for me at least my dress is an extension of my writer persona, which is an extension of my books. And my characters don't wear Birkenstocks and hoodies, which is my standard daily wear. So I feel you, I'm just in a different place on the objectification scale, since I'm a big hairy dude and not an attractive young woman.

But I think you gotta be you. It's all part of what makes you awesome. The internet fun, the internet rants, the costumes, the nerd shirts, it's all a part of you. And you is awesome. So let your freak flag fly! Now I gotta go put on my Magic the Gathering hoodie and go to the local card shop. :)

Steph from said...

You always looked fine and f-i-n-e at AAD. When I think of unprofessional dress, it would be gym or clothes relegated to the work pile.

If you are dressed with care, costume or whatever, it tells me you take me, my time and your work seriously. I don't think it is a snap judgement. So your costumes are cool. They are carefully chosen, clean, appropriate to the function.

If clothes and our choices didn't matter we'd all be walking around naked or in the same thing.

tiakall said...

The thing is, even if you were dressed differently, they would just find a different excuse to be a douchebag. Don't enjoy yourself less just to reduce chances of encounters with douchebags - they will disappoint you.

Anonymous said...

I have spent my whole life combatting dress codes. This began for me when, as a girl-child born in 1949, the only accepted attire for any and every occasion was a dress or skirt. Those dress codes ruled my life all the way through college (I was sent home for wearing culottes at Georgia State University in 1968).I was probably the most militant and angry tomboy to ever stomp this earth(in cowboy boots, of course). Number one, I didn't like being told I HAD to do something; number two, I wanted to wear clothes that I thought looked good on me, but you wouldn't see on everyone else. In other words, I craved to be INDIVIDUAL. In 1969, I was fortunate enough to be able to change to a different college, and thrilled beyond belief to see that, for the first time in my life, I could wear anything I wanted!
As an adult, I still abhor many social conventions. I understand civility and respect for others to a point, but will always question the importance attached to "proper" clothing. I have always felt that presenting myself honestly (and clothed comfortably) was the most important "thing". I will NEVER understand the reason for the old adage, "Clothes make the man/woman."

Jessica @ a GREAT read said...

Honestly, when I go to signings and conventions and see authors dressing up...I LOVE IT! I think it's just so awesome! Whether it fits in with their genre or not, I think they always look incredible!

Perhaps it might matter based on what kind of convention you go to that will say dress fun or professional, but most conventions are for readers--as well as aspiring authors and etc--and those kind, to me, say dress as you want! I think its fun to express yourself, especially if it relates to your book/genre.

Hope to be seeing you and your snazzy costumes at RT this year! :)

Richard Shealy said...

I've never understood the need to judge others based on appearance in any venue other than a fashion show. I mean, what does it have to do with anything of real import?

Stephsco said...

Thank you for posting this. I've (sadly) read a lot of posts and tweets and heard at conferences from other women presenters that they are judged for their appearance over the content of their work, they are told they aren't geeks or geek enough because they are hot, or if they dress in cosplay, it's not hot enough, or they are doing it wrong blah blah blah.

Why women have to explain themselves all the time is really irritating. The same reason an African-American cosplaying a white superhero has to explain themselves (which is BS). It sucks that you have to weigh your fashion choices as heavily as what you will say on a panel, but I totally get that it's a legit concern.

This tends to happen in predominantly male-oriented activities; when women encroach on "their" territory, some men use demeaning comments to belittle your right to be there in a power move. It's really juvenile, but it's so freaking commonplace. It's in gamer culture too, and I am really tired of it. Slowly, really slowly, it's changing, but only because 1.) women are fighting back 2.) guys who get are speaking up and also fighting back.

I hope you end up showing more YOU this year too. You've got a bunch of people rooting for you!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

If I had started attending cons 15 years ago, as a writer or otherwise, I would have done costumes, no question. But at this stage in my life, it's harder for me to justify the time and money it takes for me to end up with the costume that I want (I'm a perfectionist when it comes to that kind of thing). So far, I've gone the quirky business casual.

Like last year for a ScBWI conference, I found a truly hideous corduroy blazer in a consignment store. Was all set to tweet "I'm in the world's ugliest jacket, say hi if you see me!" until I thought it through.

As in, what if some other woman wears her favorite jacket that happens to be hideous, and people are coming up to her all day saying, "That is the world's ugliest jacket! You must be Angelica." So instead, I shared that story on our SCBWI FB group and said, "I guess it'll be my zebra-striped dress instead--look for someone who makes you think 'Fran Drescher's let herself go!'"

It turned into a great conversation starter, and made it easier for people who I only knew online to find me. I also volunteer there, and it made it convenient for other volunteers to point me out.

This year, I'm either wearing "the dress that Grandma's afghan died for" or one that I haven't found yet. The gist of this is, these outfits are still very much me, but if I have to do more "business" things during the day, I don't feel out of place.

Anonymous said...

There is an excellent and entertaining documentary on the BBC (full thing on youtube) called Fabulous Fashionistas about older women wearing what they like, not dressing to please someone else. I will still be wearing my Doc Martens at 80, probably with a snarky t-shirt and faded blue jeans. Try the documentary,it's inspiring.
You said it best when you mentioned that you were going to try to be more yourself this year. That struck a chord, that we have to TRY to be ourselves, that it has been so ingrained within us to not stand out, to not call attention to ourselves, to be like everyone else.
I think it's about owning what you wear, who you are, what you do. It's the only way to be happy and carry off whatever look you're going for. Don't apologize for it and don't let stupid people get in your head about it.
I get more compliments on my hair when it's purple, so many in fact that my husband asked me in amazement if it happened multiple times a day (it did). Same with a huge furry full-head hat/scarf (with ears) that I look forward to wearing every winter, too many compliments to count. I'm sure for every compliment there are ten people who think I look stupid, but I don't care, I like it, it's who I am.

Misty Massey said...

Delilah, I will absolutely dress up with you next time we're appearing at the same con. Corsets and bustles rule!

Misty Massey