Diary of a Dandy Minion: Chapter 1 — Drowning in Sewing #TaylorMacMelb
In October I will be part of Melbourne Festival’s production of Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music, as a Dandy Minion and Burlesque Dancer. I’ll be chronicling my journey before, during, and after the show, so follow along!
I never felt like I was particularly crafty. I was always artistic, particularly with writing, but visual arts and crafts weren’t really my forte.
School had a major part to play in this. The Malaysian education system generally ran by the principle of “if you weren’t immediately good at something there’s no point in you continuing to try — and we’ll shame you for it”. For me, this played out in art class: every art teacher in my 11 years of primary and secondary school mocked me for “drawing worse than a six year old”, and one time the assistant headmistresses at my primary school gleefully told me one morning that my entry to a mandatory anti-drugs poster design competition was “so bad” that they tore it apart and threw it away. I was more obviously skilled at writing and English, so just stick to that, leave art to people that can actually draw.
School was also responsible for my distaste in sewing…well, sort of. Forms 1 to 3 of secondary schooling in Malaysia involved a Life Skills class, where we learned all kinds of skills and trades — basic accounting, cooking, carpentry, and much more. I’d enjoyed most of the Life Skills classes but balked at sewing, which our school taught in lieu of either plumbing or metalworking, possibly because we were in an all-girls school. I was starting to gain a feminist consciousness and felt it was Unfair that us girls had to learn Feminine Skills like Sewing! Bah! (I foisted all my sewing homework to my mum, which was clearly the more feminist choice, well done Teenage Tiara. 🙄)
As an adult I managed to get over enough of my femmephobia and internalised misogyny to try sewing and handcrafting. I was intrigued by t-shirt surgery and cosplay, was starting to get involved in performance art, and thought it’d be cool to create my own looks and cosutmes, especially out of already-existing clothing or repurposed materials. However, I still had major hangups about my lack of art skill. I had big visions but my abilities never seemed to match up. I got support and praise on occasion, but nothing ever seemed to look good enough. My sister and my mother were infinitely better than I would ever be: I just figured they’d absorbed all the crafting genes, and I might as well stick to my strengths.
Then I got accepted for the Dandy Minion role, which explicitly called for fantastic costuming. Anything we want, just make it fabulous and big. I’d given away or packed away a lot of my vaguely-costumey outfits over the years (due to multiple international moves) — so if I want fantasic costuming, I should make my own.
My first attempts…weren’t so great.
I made something work for the Melbourne Festival launch (and the debut of the Dandy Minions), mostly by combining items I already have:
I knew, though, that I’d have to step it up a few notches to be truly stage-ready — especially since all the other Dandy Minions had such amazing, top-notch costuming. No time for amateur hour here.
At first I just concentrated on two looks: the above Gold Star look (which was largely inspired by my wall planner; the gold stickers are planner stickers) and the Darren Hayes costume I mentioned in the prologue— whose development is such a rollercoaster of a story that it’ll have its own chapter. I had looked up Dandy Minions on Instagram and saw some people that came up with eight — EIGHT!! — costumes, but I figured they were just being overly ambitious. I could just skate by with two. Maybe one more if I have time. But two should do me fine.
Then about a month ago us Dandies got an email: please come up with eight looks, if possible.
Many of the Dandies I knew personally freaked out, even the ones that already had quite the wardrobe. EIGHT LOOKS! Two per night, which means we’ll have to possibly quick change! Oh and while “anything goes”, if we can represent something from that particular decade in our costume, that would be awesome.
My crafting self groaned: all my energy had gone into the Darren Hayes costume at that point and I didn’t know if I had it in me to make more. My (admittedly quiet) sensible self pointed out that I’d already spent a lot of money on that costume and didn’t really have a lot more to spare.
My Slytherin ambitious self and my fact-checking self? They were thrilled.
See, I love research — sometimes to the point of over-researching any project. I spent months debunking myths around Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, systematically looked up LGBTQ activists and organisations from every country in Asia for a massive article about Taiwan’s ruling on marriage equality, and even went out of my way to find accurate ‘fake news’ for a Global Game Jam game about Trump. (Yes, instead of just making stuff up I dug through conservative and alt-right websites & subreddits for material. Why.)
I don’t just ‘not do things by halves’, I go exponential. So of course I would do the same for the Dandy Minion role.
First I contacted every former Dandy Minion I could find on Instagram and asked for tips. Most of them were pretty friendly, though still vague: the general advice was “you’ll be fine, just wait for orientation” and “don’t spend too much money on costumes” (oops, too late). I did notice that they tended to keep their clothing simple and used accessories and makeup for the drama factor — good to know.
I then made up a YouTube playlist of beginner level videos related to American history and fashion: primarily Crash Course US History and Cut Video’s 100 Years of Beauty, but also some other goodies. That playlist became my soundtrack while working on many of my costumes.
I found The Curran San Francisco’s breakdown of each chapter in their run of the show, describing the topics Taylor Mac would cover. (It’s no longer up, but the Melbourne Festival event page has the same information.) I also read up on as many reviews and articles as possible to get an idea of how the show will run: my particular favourites were the HowlRound review that also served as a manifesto on queer art, and the New York Times review oft quoted as saying that the show was the “great experience of [his] life”.
Between this, the playlist, and a couple of hints from the crew, I had a fair bit to work with for costume planning — taking ideas and keywords from each historical section and combining it with items I already had to plan out possible semi-anachronistic highly-intriguing looks.
I also opened up my costume planning online, asking my friends and followers for suggestions and feedback while also maintaining public accountability. If they couldn’t come to the show I could bring them with me through my outfits. Indeed, some of them came through with loans and gifts of makeup, accessories, and materials.
Almost all my costumes, bar the Darren Hayes costume, were modifications of outfits I already had. The modifications were still quite the challenge — a constant series of problem-solving and Lincraft-shopping and flexibility.
I spent 6 hours recreating my pentagram harness with gold star elastic, tapping into past lessons from Sebastian on making braces:
Some Facebook discussions on representing the Statue of Liberty with my hands props-free led to a Miss America mashup, complete with beauty-pageant sash and fire sleeves (thank fucking God for Lain’s sewing machine and hot glue guns):
Having failed to find rose fascinators that weren’t super expensive, I cannibalised some fake flowers from a cheap gifts store and made my own headband. (I’d also picked up a few decorative rose strands from the Royal Melbourne Show and braided them into a choker/headband situation.)
And then there were the more mundane modifications: adding buttons, moving straps around, fixing zippers — well, I got my cosplayer friend Jenni to do that one, since I was already going cross-eyed from all the sewing.
To my surprise, as frustrating as some of the projects were, I found the crafting process gratifying. Indeed, even while I was on a short trip to New Zealand for a conference, I found myself wishing I had my sewing projects with me, looking forward to going home to finish up a few more buttons.
I realised though that, unlike the super crafty people I knew like Sebastian, Jenni, or my sister, I didn’t necessarily find crafting in and of itself the joyful, meditative process they found it to be. Instead, I was fulfilled by the end result: the realisation of my vision. An idea come to life. A look out of my brain and into the world, to share with other people, to share with an audience that will hopefully appreciate the references and effort. (Such a Slytherin.)
If that means poking holes in my fingers and spending hours fiddling with needles while watching John Green shock himself for getting the author of the Mystery Document wrong, then it’s all worth it.
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