Sunday, May 16, 2021

Curious Weather Chapter One



St. Louis, Missouri
August 1880


The mulish expression on Mr. Tracy’s face told me he was about to bolt again.

He still did not look well—he’d lost weight over the summer, which his rawboned frame could ill-afford to lose, and his skin still had the bloodless tinge of fever and exhaustion. But he was dressed and his “plunder,” as his roughneck brethren call it, was packed and piled on the Turkish rug of my library. It had been a scant two days since he’d appeared on my doorstep, pale and harried as if Mereck’s wolves were literally nipping at his heels, and he had accepted my hospitality then with such grace I knew his reserves must be low indeed, to prevent his masculine pride—and general dislike of me—from refusing.

But after twenty hours of sleep and enough food to choke a horse, the pride was again in ascendance.

“Min Chan tells me you secured a boarding room this morning,” I said without preamble, and Mr. Tracy’s eyes shifted accusingly beyond me to where Min Chan himself stood, silent and disapproving. My cohort had indeed followed Mr. Tracy from the house when he slipped out at daybreak (Min Chan does not sleep, or at least not all of him does at one time) and followed my erstwhile employee down into the working-class neighbourhoods of St. Louis, from whence I had plucked him.

“I must insist you continue to reside here,” I said, cool and high-handed though my heart was threatening to pound out of my chest. I could not afford to lose him and we both knew why: I observed Mr. Tracy remembering those reasons, and felt my own frisson of fear as I recalled his account of Mereck’s abominations yipping and howling outside the ranch-house door, and Mereck’s voice speaking through the latch-hole, silky and reasonable as the Devil wheedling a child.

Mr. Tracy is an intelligent man, but stubborn, and still under the yoke of a bourgeois moral code. He ducked his head, so that a shock of sun-lightened, overgrown hair fell into his eyes, obscuring his thoughts from me. He scratched at his right palm through the bandage, absently, so I knew the wound must be itching as it healed. I still was not convinced the werewolf bite would not prove troublesome, but we could worry about that complication when and if it arose.

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble, ma’am,” Mr. Tracy began, in his throaty American drawl, because he was too polite to tell me to go to blazes.

“Do not be absurd,” I snapped, too anxious to be diplomatic. “You are being hunted, Mr. Tracy. Mereck already tracked you to Wyoming only to have you slip through his grasp. It will not take a great leap of logic for him to suppose you would return here.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am, but I don’t see how I have to live here to learn from you—”

“When you were a young man, you went away to seminary, did you not? In cloister with like-minded students, with access to the necessary texts and under supervision of your tutors?”

“Ma’am, I take the point, but I’m not a boy anymore and I’m used to comin and goin as I please—”

“And I will not attempt to curtail your movements beyond sense and safety.” I had managed him badly in the past, and now had to contend with it. “But you must have realised, there is no place on this continent where you will be more safe than this house— at least until I teach you how to conceal yourself. Clearly you have been cultivating your psychic power while you were away, and at the moment you are blazoning your whereabouts like a baboon in oestrus.”

Mr. Tracy’s neck turned visibly red with embarrassment. My words were intended to shock, but I have never known a grown man who blushed so readily. He really was an overgrown schoolboy.

But he knew I was telling the truth. When he first came to me in the spring—following the lure of easy work, in the off-season of his regular employment as trail-guide—he had been as jumpy as a cat, his power ruthlessly but inadequately suppressed. He’d believed his seeing ghosts was some divine curse laid on him—the consequence of defying his Abolitionist father and leaving Seminary to fight for the Confederacy. It took me months, and no little blood, sweat, and tears, to convince him his powers were a fluke, a random combination of hereditary gifts no more sinister than his height or his blue eyes… except that his gifts were exceptionally potent and rare, like mathematical genius or the musical ability of a young Mozart, which made him dangerously attractive to a predator like Mereck. I had provided him with opportunities to test and explore his powers—risky, I will admit, but in my defence he insisted on taking that ridiculous rescue-mission to Idaho—but he performed with flying colours, and came back eagerly for more, and would not listen when I told him he was pushing too far, too fast. I put him in contact with one of Mereck’s former minions, thinking the man would be an object lesson, but Herr Kieler proved to be more devious and more powerful than I anticipated, and Mr. Tracy blamed me for his own failure to take sensible advice.

But at least he’d been practicing what I’d taught him, during the summer. Min Chan told me, and I could perceive for myself, how Mr. Tracy had gotten full rein on his power while he was away. He didn’t yet know how to steer it nor half what it could do, and was still a little afraid of it—I could see that in his face when he looked at me, half defiant and half imploring. It was why he had come back to St. Louis in the first place. He certainly had no fondness for me personally.

“I realise this living arrangement is not ideal,” I said, conciliatory now. “The offer I made before still stands—you may take up residence in the carriage house, if you like, and tell people you are employed as my groom. But if you truly intend to avail yourself of my… protection and my teaching, it’s neither safe nor convenient to have you living off the grounds. We will probably be working late hours for the next several weeks and I do not want to send Min Chan halfway across town to fetch you when I need you.”

Mr. Tracy and Min Chan looked at each other with dislike. That Min Chan had once drawn a knife on Mr. Tracy, after the latter struck me, had something to do with it. But that was water under the bridge, I told Min Chan—if I could overlook it, he could too. Min Chan retorted that Mereck had conditioned me to be attracted to overbearing men, and I didn’t speak to him for two days.

“And what might you need me for, at late hours?” Mr. Tracy inquired, which caused me to throw my own glare of distaste in his direction. His face was a study in guilty pleasure. He had not meant the remark to be salacious, but he didn’t mind my being offended.

“As I said, you will need to learn control,” I said coldly, “and toward that end I mean to conduct a series of tests, to allow me to gauge the nature and extent of your psychic abilities.”

“What kinds of tests?”

“Clairvoyance and spirit-summonings to start. After that, apportments and telekinesis—“

“Tele-kinesis?” He repeated, like a semi-literate sounding out an unfamiliar word. I knew he had studied Greek at the Benedictine seminary, but I doubted he’d kept up with it. “Distance-movement?”

Of course, he kept surprising me. It was one of the reasons I’d settled on him as my agent for this sordid work. “Quite so, Mr. Tracy. I sometimes forget there is an educated mind behind that American drawl. I wish to test both methods, to determine whether your powers are dependent upon spirit familiars, or if they are self-generating.”

He huffed. “And it behooves us to do these tests, so we can learn how to kill Mereck?”

“That is our ultimate purpose, yes. I believe you will come to see the logic of my methods as we proceed.”

We eyed each other for a moment. He was no fool; he undoubtedly realised there was a great deal I had not yet told him and had no intention of doing so. But he had found enough reasons of his own to hate Mereck, and knew he needed my help to fight him.

“All right,” he said at last. “You been in this two-step with the Russian a lot longer than I have. I reckon I can follow your lead. But I’ll tell you one thing, lady—you ever again try a trick like that séance, drivin me into a nasty situation without tellin me first, I’m gone. You understand? I expect you to be straight with me from here on out, and I mean to keep askin questions til I get an answer I like.”

More masculine posturing. I was immune to it by now. I raised an eyebrow and inclined my head slightly, conveying skepticism and scorn without resorting to anything so vulgar as a shrug. “Are we in agreement, then?”

Mr. Tracy scratched at the stitches in his palm again. He had a way of looking at me as if he thought I might not be real—another one of the spirits that had plagued him for the last eighteen years. But I had seen that look before, on the faces of men—doctors, administrators, business opponents—who have never been addressed so strongly by a woman or run into a feminine force of will such as mine. Mr. Tracy looked as if he would like to pluck my head off my shoulders and search for the clockwork within.

“I reckon so,” he said eventually.

“Very well, then.” I swept up my skirts to leave, glanced at his bedroll and saddlebags on the floor. “Truthfully, there is no reason you ought not choose a room on the second floor, at the north end. This house is big enough we can each have our privacy, and you’ll be out of earshot of the laboratory down there…”

“It’s not my ears that pick up the racket,” he protested.

Min Chan and I exchanged a glance. He’d warned me that Mr. Tracy had already been exploring the ward-lines throughout the house, that served as both protection and telegraph between rooms. In fact before I came down to the library, Min Chan was helping me dress, as he often did after I’d been ill, and we’d both perceived a clumsy, masculine presence tiptoeing along the ward-lines outside my room, like a bull trying to be stealthy through the flower-garden. It had withdrawn hastily, and I did not doubt Mr. Tracy had drawn all kinds of salacious conclusions about the nature of my association with Min Chan.

Well, he was welcome to speculate. I couldn’t afford to lose him but I had no intention of letting him into my private affairs any more than necessary. Mereck had taught me the folly of that, more than once.

But back to the disturbances in the laboratory: Mr. Tracy’s psychic sense was strong and it was sensitive, to a greater degree than anyone I had met, and he seemed particularly tuned toward aethereal disturbances, whether ghosts or demons. Min Chan and I had been communing with a particularly fractious minion the night before, and Mr. Tracy must have been awoken by it. No wonder he was set to flee this morning—his poor Catholic sensibilities must be worn to rags.

“Yes. Well, I will try to minimise the disturbance for you,” I said. “At least until we begin our training in earnest. And I must ask you to refrain from entering the laboratory unless accompanied by me. You may make free with the rest of the house and grounds, but I have delicate experiments in progress which must not be disturbed.”

“Suits me,” Mr. Tracy said.

“In that case I will leave you to your own devices this afternoon. Shall we meet for an early supper—say, six o’clock? An informal repast, as I would like to begin your tutoring immediately.”

“Fine,” he said.

“Good.” I replied.

Though I did not, in truth, feel at all good about it.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Sergeant Pugh

On Friday I ventured out to the kitchen gardens to freshen up one of the pa-kua ideograms I had put there. My protection spell had developed thin spots, more quickly than I should have expected. So I was not entirely surprised when I arrived at the south garden wall and encountered Sergeant Pugh sitting on that wall, his crutch leant to one side and his hoe the other.

"Morning ta ya, Miss," he said amiably, and when I had returned his greeting, "I 'spect yer here ta put back that heathen figure I scrubbed off the wall."

"Heathen figure?" I repeated, innocently.

"Aye. Tsing Ping says it's the sign for 'fire' in his language, and it were devillin' him something terrible, kept him out of the garden from here to the manse." Pugh paused to take a swig from his bottle, utterly unconcerned about my seeing him break the rules. I supposed he thought we were even on that score, and he was not wrong. "Are ye troubled with ghosts, Miss, that ye seek ta keep 'em out of the grounds?"

"We have had some complaints about ghosts in the ward, yes," I told him. "It wasn’t my intent to keep your friend out, however." I had painted the ideogram with glue, knowing that it would gradually wash away, but knowing also it would be invisible to the naked eye. "Did Tsing Ping show you where to scrub?"

"That he did, Miss."

"I see. And, has Tsing Ping mentioned any unusual spirits about the grounds, causing trouble? Have you noticed any new spirits loitering about the place?"

Pugh’s watery blue eyes were shrewd. "Other than what the young lady’s been playing with in the wards? Lighting fires an all?"

"Yes," I said. "Other than those."

"Nah," Pugh said, and took a pull from his bottle.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

psychogenic

September 12, 1876 
Edinburgh, Scotland 
Queen’s Care Charity Hospital

 New patient admitted today. 23 yo female committed to custody by husband after >6 months of hallucinations, vivid nightmares, delusions of being watched, touched, etc. Patient has history of “religiosity” and involvement with Spiritualism but delusions amplified during the spring, after loss of 3rd pregnancy in late trimester. 

Dr. Douglass asked me to conduct initial assessment. 




Mrs. Leonora Piper appeared well composed and rational at our first meeting. She had been allowed to retain her own dress and shoes; her hair was clean and neatly arranged. When I entered her room she stood at the window, head leaning against the wall, looking out the narrow window in some reverie.


“Mrs. Piper?” I said, when she did not turn at the sound of my entry. “I am Miss Fairweather. I assist the doctors in their treatment of female patients. Would you like to talk with me about the events that brought you here?”

Monday, August 10, 2020

A New Lucky Strike?

 Cheyenne Evening Star—Thursday, August X, 1880 

A New Lucky Strike?


According to a reliable source, this reporter has learned that a party or parties unknown delivered a sizable sample of pure gold quartz ore to Heinzler & Heinzler Assayers last week. While Heinzler Sr. would not confirm or deny the existence of such a sample, nor less its purity of weight, the unnamed source intimated the sample tested at the highest percentage Heinzler had ever personally seen, indicating a strike that, if accessible, could rival the Homestake in Dakota Territory. 


But where did it come from? None of the usual geologists or front-men for the great investors were known to be in town. Certainly Mssr. Heinzler would not break professional confidentiality by disclosing the name of his customer. So we are left to speculate…


Union Pacific Seeks Workers


Meanwhile, in Joss Houses, gambling dens, and laundries from Cheyenne to San Francisco, agents have been recruiting Celestials with mining or explosives experience. But for what operation? Not for Rock Springs or Carbon—  


To this reporter’s best knowledge, the U.P. has not actively recruited American labor for the past two years, being largely intent on driving out the labor unions by importing hoards of Celestials. Typically, Chinese do not apply via recruiters, being more often rounded up and imported in via steamer ship and cattle-car by their own better-connected countrymen. That someone is recruiting Chinese miners already located in America, and doing it without going through the usual Chinese Bosses, may indicate a need for secrecy?


At any rate, whoever is recruiting these workers and assaying this gold ore, obviously wishes to keep their venture a secret, to the extent that the average newsman has a Chinaman’s chance of uncovering their identity. But this reporter being no average newsman, stay in touch for further developments…

Monday, April 20, 2020

noir fiction vs gothic romance

Is there a rule or convention or expectation that every installment in a series of novels has to be the same type of story? I mean what trope is the determining factor? As long as each book in the series has the same setting and mostly the same characters, does it matter if one volume leans more toward action and the hero's journey, and the next is a romance, and the third is a dystopic allegory, and the forth a war story?

I was told once by a beta reader that Curious Weather had "too much romance" for the type of book it was. This assessment, I must assume, was based on the fact that The Curse of Jacob Tracy was a weird western—a boy's adventure book, to be blunt—with no sex and only the barest allusion to romance.

So, naturally, I doubled down on the love story in Curious Weather because the whole point of that book was that it IS a romance, albeit a gothic one.

What are the tropes of the gothic romance? Well, Barbara Michaels is/was my favorite of the modern writers, and she did a batch of supernatural-flavored ones in the 80s, so I take her as my guide.

1. Told from the POV of the heroine, who's out of her usual milieu due to a family shake-up of some kind—or in the modern stories, a professional change.

2. The heroine's new milieu is hostile or threatening in some way, because of isolation, locals, or roommates—or all three.

3. There is at least one love interest, usually two. These two heroes are foils for each other; one seemingly, the other unsuitable in some way, both attractive and/or menacing by turns.

4. Usually the charming love interest turns out to be the villain.

5. There's a mystery afoot, or some deep dark secret.

6. The heroine's efforts to solve the mystery or uncover the secret lead her further into danger.

In many ways it's the same plot as a hard-boiled detective story, just with the gender roles reversed.

I'm pleased to say that Curious Weather alternately embraces and subverts all of these tropes, sometimes both, and you could make an argument that it brings in elements of the noir novel as well. As for the idea that there might be "too much" romance in a noir story... have you read any Mickey Spillane? or Robert B. Parker?

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Review: Sacred Lies on Facebook Watch

There's a line early in Facebook Watch's Sacred Lies when the FBI shrink says to the traumatized and distrustful heroine, "I'm interested in why people do terrible things to each other in the name of religion."

If you pick up on that statement as the show's whole premise, you'll be a lot happier than if you come to it expecting a teen drama or a horror story, although it uses tropes from both those genres to tell its story.

I binge-watched the whole show over the past few days. I know, I'm as shocked as you are. Initially I thought the hook was somewhat gratuitous (handless girl arrested for murder!) until I learned that the series was based on a book which was a retelling of the Grimms' tale 'The Handless Maiden."

I'm always on board for a Grimms' retelling because they are so relentlessly dark, even beneath the slather of Christian piety. This one has a miller (accidentally) bargaining his daughter away to the devil, and then hacking off her hands rather than take her place as the devil's victim. But she's so pious and forgiving God makes her hands grow back after seven years.

So far the only happy ending in sight for the show is Minnow's own search for self-actualization. Incredibly, the show seems to be aiming for a PG-13 rating despite the horrific things going on off-screen—sexual abuse, animal abuse, forced marriage, self-harm, torture and manipulation in the name of religion—these things are discussed or alluded to with glancing matter-of-factness and no one using language stronger than "crap." Frankly, the subject matter is sensational enough that any attempts to make it "grittier" would push it into exploitation.

I mean you've got girls in prison, many of whom have been sexually abused, most of them with physical scars, and our heroine is in shock from having her world burnt down and adapting to a challenging new disability. I've read at least one review condemning the handling of that disability—the camera lingering over all the everyday objects that are designed for five-finger use, the jokes and questions by the other inmates, Minnow's rage over what was done to her. To those critics I say, leave your agenda at the door, dude—the girl's in shock; her reactions and those of the people around her are nothing less than accurate and worthy of attention.

And while we're on the subject of representation, I kept noticing the diversity in this show. The FBI shrink is black, the local sheriff appears to be a First Nations woman (and gay), Minnow's cell mate is an indeterminate shade of not-white (?)with probable lesbian-leanings, and all the secondary characters in the prison are a Russell Stover assortment of races, sexualities, and religions. And although Minnow makes the remark that she's not used to being around "so many different people" it's merely a facet of her world expanding; she's long suspected that the world she grew up in was a false one, and she's eager to broaden her horizons.

What is a plot point (slight spoiler here, although you see it coming way early) is that Minnow's cult is racist—they claim black people have dark skin because God burnt out their souls—and when she falls in love with Jude, a young black man, the cultists lose their shit. But I like the way this plot point is handled: the discovery of their relationship moves the plot forward, but it also furthers everyone's character development; nobody makes any big speeches about it or "learns" anything from it, there's no "very special" episode, it's just a thread woven into the whole. Other critics have harped on this lack of "learning moments," as it were—for instance wanting more "exploration" about how low-income white folk tend to be racist—but I really didn't see a need. The writers treat their audience as intelligent enough to infer and keep up.

It's not perfect. The dialogue is a touch didactic at times, although this is clearly for the audience's benefit because the show has a lot of psychological concepts to unpack; frequently the FBI psychologist serves as the narrative voice of this dark fairy tale but actor Kevin Carroll carries off the dialogue so naturally that I found myself intrigued in much the same way as when I was watching Mindhunter.

The show is plugged as drama/horror on IMDB, which is accurate enough if you consider human evil horrific, as I do. But as I watched this the horror was mixed with sadness and anger, mostly at the self-servingness of institutions and structures that consume women and girls. I've seen enough religious fanaticism to believe I could all-too-easily find myself in the same situation as Minnow, especially with the direction the country has taken lately.

For a deeper exploration of the themes of the story, this review of the book is excellent, and from what I can tell applies to the TV series as well.






Sunday, August 12, 2018

reading: Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Took me a few tries to get into it, because I wasn't in love with Oryx and Crake. While that one was an undeniably strong piece of work it also came across as William Gibson lite, with a couple of absolutely toxic male lead characters that I could hardly stand to let in my head.

Much easier for me to read about about Toby and Ren, partly because they're women and partly because they're just nicer people, although the cyberpunk lite aspects are still there, and Atwood's cutesy corporate names (pigoon, rakunk, ANooYoo) are even more grating the longer I'm familiar with them. I appreciate this is supposed to be satire but I don't feel it's particularly successful.

I'm deep enough in now (about 60%) that the political machinations of the Gardeners are starting to be revealed, the intrigue is getting intriguier and the stakes proportionately higher. The mastery of scene and character are, as always, superb. Even though I know what's going to happen the sense of impending doom keeps ratcheting up my anxiety level so that I keep having to put the book down, and then dash back to it a few minutes later.

I've been talking with my friend Rob lately about tone and theme in sci-fi, trends over the decades, what makes a book seem dated vs the current style. Again comparing Gibson and Atwood it seems that the former is more idea-driven sf and the latter more psychological, although I'm not sure that's exactly true. Gibson's work is highly psychological (Neuromancer is a tale of addiction and self-loathing hung on a fairly pedestrian neo-noir framework) and I'll add him to my very short list of male writers who write convincing female characters. However, Gibson's early work seems decidedly more full of masculine energy than Atwood's. Or am I projecting? Pattern Recognition is one of my favorite books ever, and it's written from the POV of a single chick.

Do we assess the masculine/feminine energy of a book slanted heavily toward which and how many pronouns are used?

One very useful thing about my reading this book right now is its structure. Alternating but restricted POV's between two characters, with lots of flashbacks. I'm doing something similar in Curious Weather, between Boz & Trace's plotlines, with Miss Fairweather's flashbacks sprinkled in-between. I've been worried about how it reads, but reading Year of the Flood I quickly got used to the changeovers and I'm having no problem keeping up. Reassuring.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Review of A Stupid Place


Just watched A Quiet Place, and despite the undeniable quality of production and the acting, there are so many gaffes and gaps in common sense that by halfway through I was completely disengaged and pissed off.


For instance and in no particular order: THERE'S NO REASON FOR A NAIL TO BE STICKING UP IN THAT LOCATION ON THE STAIRS. NONE. FUCKING CONVENIENT PLOTTING, ASSHOLES.

HERE'S A SOLUTION: PLANT LAND MINES. GUNPOWDER. DEADFALLS IN THE FOREST. ANYTHING. IF YOU CAN HOTWIRE A HEARING AID YOU CAN BUILD BOMBS, DAD. LURE ONE OF THEM TO A MINE WITH SOUND; THE REST WILL COME RUNNING WHEN IT BLOWS UP. KABOOM.

AND BY THE WAY WHAT FUEL ARE THEY BAKING THAT BREAD WITH? THEY AIN'T CHOPPING FIREWOOD THAT'S FOR DAMN SURE.

AND NO ONE IN THE WIDE WORLD OF SCIENTISTS, MILITARY TACTICIANS AND NEWS BROADCASTERS FIGURED OUT THAT THESE THINGS DON'T LIKE FEEDBACK? GIMME A BREAK.

Writers take note: never get so enamored with a McGuffin that you allow it to blind you to all common sense.

Monday, May 14, 2018

thoughts while watching American Mary for the eighth time

If this Soska sisters had wanted to be really subversive they would have ended the movie with Billy and Mary living happily in Berlin or Argentina as legit club owners at the heart of the underground scene. Sure, some aspects of the movie could have been better fleshed out—Mary's sense of betrayal when she catches Billy getting a blowjob, for instance, or Ruby's husband's controlling streak, or the question of whether Billy actually understood where Mary was coming from in terms of her damage or if he merely had a death wish. Letting Mary come out the other side of her trauma and find some balance—even if it meant she got away with her crimes—would have been more disturbing and satisfying than killing the monster at the end. The ending was the only cheap move in the film.

Friday, May 11, 2018

in case you were wondering

I have deactivated my Facebook account. I had become fed up with what a friend of mine called "the constant horrible buzzing." It was making me ugly.

I haven't deleted the account, I've just been turning it off for a week at a time. I might try checking back once a week unless that gets out of control. Those of you who are actual friends know how to reach me, and a couple have, which is why I'm writing this. I don't want anyone to worry.

I'm making myself read more. Even writing a bit. Trying to reestablish good habits. I might even start blogging again.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

actual costs of historical costuming

I'm feeling the need to tell on myself a bit here, because once again it's convention season, and every year, every con worth its salt proposes a "costuming on a budget" panel, and I'm always strung out between wanting to help and a fatalistic sense that it's a lost cause.

One CAN do great costumes cheaply. It takes patience and ingenuity and maker skills and a lot of hunting, but we have the Internet these days so it's easier than it used to be. I LOVE thrift-store costumes, partly because I love costumes that can pass as street clothes—people walking around dressed like Velma and Daphne, for instance, or Sam and Dean (hipster or Winchester?).
But it works because the costume itself IS modern streetwear. So right away the scope of such a panel is deceptively ill-defined. I don't believe one can replicate my style of costuming—that is, compile a convincing 1860's gown or bustle dress—from found clothing. The silhouette is too extreme, the underwear too essential. By the Jazz Era the corset goes away and it becomes a lot easier, and of course for men, styles haven't changed much in 180 years, give or take a few zippers.
For me, found-costuming is never going to be my jam. I'm more like a model-railroad builder. I like the designing and the workmanship and getting the details "right," although I'm not a stitch-counter by any means. Furthermore, to me costuming is as much tactile as visual; I was drawn to it because I like the sense of putting on an older style of clothing and stepping away from the 21st century for a while, as much as anyone can. And I like the way good fabrics feel. Cotton, silk, and wool are so much nicer to work with than synthetics, and are generally more comfortable to wear and last longer. I try to buy organic fibers for my everyday wardrobe, too.
But organic fabrics are expensive, and getting more so. The price of quality cotton goods has doubled in the last five years, and some types of silk have tripled. True, you can buy cheaper synthetics or cheap cottons but then you've put all this effort into a garment that is going to fade, bag, and pill after a single wearing. In my lifetime, in America, I've seen sewing go from a skill that could stretch the family budget to a rich woman's hobby. When I sew, I'm practicing skills that have traditionally been drudge work for women, and at the same time, indulging in a mode of dressing with a quality of materials that a skilled laborer would not have been able to afford at any other point in history. Hell, a lot of people can't afford them now. And then you start getting into the issues of sweat shops and arable land and water consumption for cotton farming and waste chemicals for polyester production and animal rights for wool production and all those poor workers have to eat somehow and it just all becomes one impossible Existential black hole.
But I digress.
In preparation for this post, I started calculating the cost of my latest "quick and cheap" Victorian striped polonaise. I knew it wasn't "cheap," but the actual hard numbers made me wince. So I share them now in the spirit of disclosure.
The polonaise (overdress) alone cost a little less than $200 in new (purchased in Feb/March 2018) materials.
  • Striped poly/cotton fabric: $55
  • Black velvet belt/trim: $10 (about 1/4 yard of scrap cotton velveteen)
  • Buttons: $60
  • Lace: $25
  • Earrings: $40 (no I didn't need them—birthday present to myself.)
  • Thread, ribbon, needles, pins, etc... 
And of course I wore it with stuff I already had:
  • Black cotton faille underskirt: ~$80, made 3 years ago
  • Cotton organdy petticoat: ~$50, made 3 years ago
  • Chemise: ~$70, made 2-3 years ago
  • Bustle pad: $25, made 3 years ago
  • Corset: ~$80—I make one every year, more or less, and I recycle the boning & lacing when an old one wears out. Boning is most of the expense.
  • Shoes: $150—the shoes are more than 10 years old and have been repaired more than once, so that cost is factored in.
  • Hat: ~$35-50— made 6-7 years ago from scraps. It is however silk satin built on a buckram frame, so it would probably be closer to $80 if I made it now.
  • Belt-pouch ~$60 picked up 2-3 years ago. 
Throw in makeup, hair pins, stockings, the old costume necklace I acquired in high school, and you're closing in on $800 for that outfit. And we haven't even talked about the three sewing machines, the iron and ironing board, the file cabinet full of patterns, the reference books, the cutting mat, the roll of patterning paper, etc., etc.,

Those are costs spread over months, years, decades. Back when I made my very first corset in 2002, I saw that the cost would be considerable and I wanted my pieces to last for many seasons. So I always get a bit flummoxed when people ask me, "How long did it take you to make that?" because they're not asking the right question.

"Thirty-some years of practice at sewing and patterning, twenty of hoarding fabric and learning where to find the good stuff, the last ten collecting passable shoes and accessories (I also collect old medical equipment, which is equally useless, but doesn't it look cute in my booth? No it's not for sale) and let's not ignore that those skills, that time to practice, the expendable income to buy the good fabrics, are the product of luck and privilege, being a white American with a college education which she probably could have paid off by now if she'd quit spending money making damn costumes."

So. This is why I hesitate to do a "how to costume on a budget" panel. Because it's all too dishonest and depressing. But hey, I look pretty doing it.

Also, the perennial first and last word on the subject: Cheap, Quick, or Accurate, via The Costumer's Guide.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Me, too.


Look, I don't do memes. I've turned my nose up at going with the crowd since I was eight or ten, at least. And that, I suspect, has protected me from a lot of the shit that women put up with.