We are excited to launch a new regular feature of our blog called Costume Talk, where we get really serious with local designers and costume enthusiasts about the obsession that fuels us and the crazy costume culture of New Orleans. We will probe the inner depths of costuming in search of the true meaning of life. An epic exploration of what it means to never stop loving to play dress up.
Alright, that may be a bit of an oversell. It’s actually just 20 questions. 20 chances to get to know the people who make, wear, and love the awe-inspiring, inconceivable, fantastical, hysterical, clever, and creative costumes that can appear at any given moment on any given day in our strangely beloved city.
First up on the Costume Talk couch is The Paralian (more on what that means later). When she isn’t busting her butt in school or working as a legal professional this designer, otherwise known as Elizabeth Christiansen, is a compulsive crafter with a never ending list of on-going projects.
Elizabeth came to Nola in 2004 from the Florida panhandle in search of “more art, public transportation and open minds.” We caught her at the end of a killer semester (that she rocked) as she was getting to ready to go on a costume making spree. Let’s talk costumes…
1. Who taught you to sew? My mother. My late mother, Sharon, was an amazing fiber artist who could quilt, sew any garment, embroider, crochet, knit and more. She had been involved in musical theatre growing up, so costuming was something she loved. My sister, Terri, and I both learned to love dressing up. I always had homemade Halloween costumes every year, and my mother and I collaborated on them as soon as I was old enough to handle fabric scissors responsibly. I adored the designing part, but I’m sure I was impatient pupil when it came to learning the techniques of sewing. I’m still improving those techniques and learning new costuming skills to this day! I inherited much of her fabric and sewing stash when she passed away last year, and am just full of ideas for new projects.
2. What do you listen to/watch when you are making costumes? I like to play a movie with a good soundtrack and inspirational costumes in the background. Top 5 fashion films in my movie collection:
3. What was the most challenging costume you have ever made? Probably this past year’s Mardi Gras costume. It involved many different techniques: wig making, pattern drafting, draping, corsetry, crochet, machine and hand sewing. The 18th century style costume consisted of a petticoat, hoop paniers, a set of pockets, an overskirt, a fully boned bodice and wig with a ship, and I am very proud of it.
4. What was your first costume? I’m pretty sure the first costume I wore as a child was a small pumpkin suit made by my mom. The first big costume I did on my own though was in the late 90s. I was a typical broke college student and got DIY. I dressed as Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and strife. The outfit involved my junior prom dress (which I still have!), and a hoop skirt worn over it made of clear aquarium tubing with hanger wire inside as support and duct tape holding the tubing closed. Small silvertone chains from a hardware store connected the hoops together. I couldn’t afford a silver wig, so I just spray painted my actual hair silver, and it stayed that way for days. Sadly, I don’t think I have any pictures.
5. What was your worst costume fail? Too many to count! Items that were rushed at the end because I ran out of time, items that fit poorly because I (or a client) was not real about body measurements, catastrophic glue failure due to humidity… I haven’t had anything completely fall apart on me or give anyone a rash, but there are many costumes I’ve looked back at like “What was I thinking?!?” or just “Yikes.”
6. What is your no.1 costume pet peeve? The default “sexy” costume is probably my biggest pet costuming peeve: sexy nurse, sexy Freddy Krueger, sexy teddy bear. But I guess that some people only feel like they can be sensual beings while they are dressed as someone else, which I find super-sad. Be sexy everyday, if you want to, not just on Halloween! There is no good reason in this world for a sexy Freddy Krueger.
7. What is the best costume you have ever seen on Mardi Gras day? Haha, my memories of Mardi Gras days are usually hazy from excess celebrating. This year’s stand out was definitely David White’s tribute to David Bowie and Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. He did an amazing, sculptural ensemble out of black vinyl that blew me away. And Dave even shaved his eyebrows to complete the look – that’s commitment!!
8. How far in advance do you start on your Mardi Gras day costume? Sometimes years (if it involves one of the unfinished items lurking in my sewing room). Other times I will get an inspiration a month out and work feverishly to get in done in time.
9. What does your name, The Paralian, mean and why did you adopt it? A “paralian” is someone who lives by the sea. I was born in the Bay Area in CA, and have always been attracted to cities by large bodies of water. I think port cities are the best because they absorb all the cultures of the people that come into the harbor, and this variety can lead to exciting things. I’m also a Pisces, so the name appealed to my arty water sign soul. AND, as far as branding goes, there isn’t another costumer/clothier/major business/band with that name. Unique is good!
10. What costume event in any other part of the world would you like to go to if you could? Carnival in Venice – hands down! I’m kind of paranoid I won’t get to visit before it sinks into the sea. Living in NOLA had made me extra nervous about subsidence and global warming trends.
11. Do you have a dream costume you would love to make if time and money were no limitation? There was a Thierry Mugler gown like iridescent insect armor from the Fall/Winter ’97-’98 couture collection. It is my favorite dress of all time and I can only dream of making it/having one made for myself.
12. What is your creative process from inspiration to execution? I usually start with some online research. If I have an idea for a costume, I like to look around online for similar things…I don’t want to make an outfit only to find that someone else has already done that same thing (and possibly better or cheaper!). That’s also a good way to see if there are hacks to working with specialty materials or getting certain effects (aging fabric, cartridge pleating or whatever). There are a lot of great costuming and sewing blogs out there.Then I’ll sketch out my idea on a croquis. If I’m working on a project for myself, I have one I customized to represent my body type and current hair so I’ll have a better idea of what it will look like in real life. Then I figure out what materials I need, what I have in storage versus what I need to buy. I determine a timeline and budget (or budgetary restraints!). Then, when I’m not at work or at school or doing housework or taking care of my pets, I work on the project. I look forward to a day when I can make costuming a priority!
13. What is the no. 1 mistake you see inexperienced costumers make? Too much hot glue! It’s fine for a quick fix, but it doesn’t hold up well in storage and is definitely not a permanent attachment solution.
14. What are five items or types of costumes that every New Orleans costumer should have in their costume closet?
(1) 70s disco or glam – dancing is good for you and we should all do it more!
(2) Invest in a good wig AND take care of it. An ill-fitting, or itchy wig can ruin your day/night and make an otherwise lovely costume look tacky. Being able to pop on an already groomed hairdo, and not having to fix your real hair, makes costuming easier. And don’t just shove it back in the bag when the night is over. A good wig can last a long time if you take care of it.
(3) At least one superhero costume. Empower yourself! I always feels like a total bada** in a cape.
(4) One ball-worthy ensemble should be in everyone’s closet. Shine, sequins, feathers or whatever suits your personality, but big glamor or go home! That way you’ll always be prepared when someone has a free ticket to a fancy event.
(5) A good 40s vibe costume. NOLA has a fantastic WWII museum that hosts events, and great local shops like Trashy Diva and Dollz & Dames who stock historic reproduction items. Or search for vintage in second-hand stores. I just picked up a beautiful vintage Dior hat in an antique mall on Magazine Street.
15. Can you give us a tip for storing costumes? Invest in foam display heads for styled wigs and fancy headwear! I order them by the dozen on Amazon.
16. Who is your favorite cosplay/sci fi/whatever character? Wonder Woman for cosplay or Marquise de Montespan for historic costuming. I have done multiple variations of looks for them both. I idealize woman who are strong, smart, beautiful and unusual.
17. What super hero’s costume would you most like to redesign? All female comic book characters who wear bikini bottoms instead of pants. I imagine that thigh chafe would make fighting crime or defeating an alien menace even more difficult. Give the ladies some trousers please!
18. Got any advice for someone new to costuming in New Orleans? Don’t have too many accessories with your costume. You’ll get tired or too drunk to keep up with the matching pail, barbell, lunch tray, or whatever costume accent you start the evening carrying, and you’ll be sad the next day to realize you left something behind along the way.
19. Can you give us a good costume making tip? Make sure to include pockets or a matching cross body bag when planning your ensemble. Something secure enough for a phone, keys, credit cards/money, and any touch up supplies you’ll require. Storing stuff in your socks or you cleavage is NOT ideal.
20. What is your favorite non craft or costume store to find interesting things to use for making costumes in Nola? The dollar store. I love incorporating non-traditional materials into my costumes. If you want to experiment with a new technique you can practice on an inexpensive version from a discount store, and they are a great source for costume base pieces or sheets/curtains for costume making.
Lagniappe: What is your favorite Instagram/Facebook page/Pinterest/blog that you like to follow involving anything costume related? I can always find something beautiful and inspiring on these five pages:
American Duchess http://americanduchess.blogspot.com/
The Dreamstress http://thedreamstress.com/
Haute Macabre http://hautemacabre.com/
Thanks Elizabeth for taking the time to share. You can find out more about The Paralian and see some of her work at The New Orleans Costume Center: https://thenolacostumecenter.com/guild/the-paralian/ or on her website: http://theparaliannola.tumblr.com.