The Dragon

The Dragon Costume

Posted by Natalie RathlePosted ago

October 30th, 11:55pm. The house was silent besides my father snoring loudly in the room next door and my dog breathing quietly besides me. I lay awake in my bed, my eyes closed but my brain circling continuously as it had been for the past fifty five minutes. I couldn’t sleep. How coud anyone sleep with Halloween in five minutes? In five minutes it would be the one day I had been waiting twelve months to arrive. Twelve months of deep thinking, of in depth sketching, of analytic research and of material construction. Twelve months of costume mayhem. Twelve months that would be over in less then five minutes. Just like any child the night of Christmas eve, I lay restlessly, trying to count flying witches instead of sheep.

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, really because if its proximity with my birthday. However, my true creative passion for this holiday did not start until the end of middle school. For the past 5 years, I have found myself diving deeper and deeper into the realm of what Halloween truly can be. Starting since 8th grade, I have passionately committed myself to this holiday, creating completely homemade costumes that try and top last years’ costume, year after year.
As the Halloweens went on, I began to acquire a fanbase of supporters both in and outside of school, all of which expressed their eagerness to see my halloween costume each year. As any designer would do, I started keeping my costumes a secret, not telling anyone what I would be until the big reveal the day of Halloween. This created even more interest and excited among peers as they impatiently awaited the sneak peaks I would post in the weeks leading up to the big event. I loved all the attention people gave my costumes not because I needed praise for my work but because I felt it gave Halloween the attention it deserved. Over the years, Halloween has become known as a holiday exclusively beneficial to kids. Through my dedication to and passion for my creations, I was and am able to bring back the excitement of halloween that was lost both in my teachers as well as in my classmates.

Here I was, November 1st, 2017, thinking of possible ideas for next years Halloween costume. I had learned over the years that starting early was the only way to produce an epic costume that I would be happy sharing. Usually my next costume ideas flowed fairly quickly after Halloween, and I was able to solidify an idea within a month. But, for some odd reason, November 2017 was not like the rest. I was stuck. I had several dozen ideas but none of them seemed to top the full body Avatar paint I did in 2016 or the giant octopus I had just completed. It was my senior year of high school. I wanted to do something so mind blowing, so impossibly creative that there would be no doubt that Natalie had gone out with a bang.

I was putting so much pressure on myself to find an idea for this extraordinary piece that I caused my creative engines to temporarily shut down. I couldn’t get passed this one haunting idea that involved millions of pearler beads and a final product that would not impress.

I was stuck in this creative rut, until one day my mom says to me: “Just simplify it. Go back to your roots”. Although the simplifying part did not resonate with me, going back to my roots definitely did. What were my Halloween roots molded in I asked myself? What was it that started this crazy obsession? Where does it all go back to?
My mind raced around these questions until one image final settles in my head: WINGS! It all started with my music sheet, angel of death wings in 8th grade.
And just like that I had an idea. My 2018 Halloween costume extravaganza would be…a dragon.

I didn’t solidify this idea until mid May, so I had a lot of missed time to catch up. With college applications and internships filling up my summer, I knew I was going to have to be highly strategic in the planning and scheduling of this costume. I knew I was going to have to create a detailed schedule and stick to it relentless. I knew this very well. And yet, me knowing it and me being reminded of it still wasn’t enough to motivate me to carve out the time to start the costume before end of July. As my father loves to remind me, if it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.

Now, I am sure you might be thinking, end of July? That is plenty of time to finish a dragon costume. Yes, for some, it absolutely is. But for a highly academic senior in high school who likes to take on as many activities as humanly possible, time was running out.

Without a moment to spare, I used August as my month of planning. I sketched out and painted a detailed rendering of what I wanted each element of my costume to look like. Based on the lack of functionality of last year’s skirt, I knew I wanted comfortable pants that still were perfectly incorporated into the costume. I spent hours researching dragons, understanding the way their bodies moved, finding possible ways to make articulating wings, and discovering the best foam for the tail, the best scales for the body, and the best skin for wings. I was not going to leave anything to the unknown.

With sketches and research behind me, by end of August, I was able to start collecting materials. I had come up with a clear vision of what each element would be. On top I would have my red and black foam based horns, attached to a plastic headband that would hide under my hair. My hair would be dyed orange and would be tightly curled the night before to poof out into a nice dragon main the following day. My face, neck, and arms would be painted in shades of red, black and bronze to ressemble the scales of a dragon. My eye makeup would do the same. The corset I would wear would reflect the leathery texture of dragon skin and the sleekness of their bodies. The pants I would have would be covered with approximately 1200 individually sewn on metal scales, varying in size from large scales at the bottom of my legs, shrinking to small as they went up. My wings would cover a twelve foot wing span and my tail would drag nicely behind me as I prowled through my dragon den.

As we neared the end of August, and school begin to start, I could see that the hardest element would be the creation of the wings. I knew I wanted them to be proportional to me, as wings of a real dragon are. With my height nearing six feet, this meant they had to be huge. A twelve foot wing span seemed appropriate. Besides the size, I knew I needed them to be able to move up and down for two key reasons. One, because there is no way I can fit through classroom doors with a twelve foot wing span, and two, because who the hell wants giant wings that they can’t flap like a real dragon?

This is where I enlisted the help of my trusted engineer and general contractor who I have been working alongside for years: my father. He was indeed the parent I inherited my creative gene from. Our creativity combined with his engineering skills had, for the past couple years, always resulted in epic costumes that lasted all Halloween, day and night. There was no reason to doubt our combined skills now.

But, this costume definitely proved to be a larger challenge than previous years. In order to have giant moving wings, I had to take into consideration numerous factors including weight of the wing frame, weight of the skin fabric, and how it would attach to my body. After several trail and error systems, I came up with an idea we knew would last me at least the entire day of Halloween.

Using quarter inch plywood, I started by tracing the wing frame base. This base was a large piece of wood, cut to shape that would be attached to a thick windsurfing belt with velcro across my waist. In tracing this frame, I made sure to follow the exact proportions I had made in my to-scale sketch, knowing I had little room for error. After tracing and cutting out the three pieces of wood, I attached the wing tips to the base tips with washers and bolts for moving functionality. In order to avoid having to reach up every time I wanted to pull the wings open, a pully system was installed. Two thin ropes were attached at the wing tips to the upper right and left of my head. These ropes extended the length of the base to slid into cleats near my hands so that I could grab them, pull down, notch them in the cleats and have open wings and free hands. It took some effort to create a perfect string/wing/cleat balance where everything stayed. Perfection was eventually achieved about twenty four hours before the big day. After the wood wing base was completely, we still had to cover the monstrosity that lay on my deck before me.
A couple weeks prior to Halloween, I had asked my dad to contact some of his beach friends knowing a kite sailing kite might be the perfect skin for my wings. Sure enough, one of his buddies had an old kite and donated it to the Halloween cause. After strategically cutting off heavy parts of the sail, and tracing the shape we wanted of the wings, we cut them out and attached them to the wing base using staple guns and glue.
There was only one thing left to do; paint them. To cover the previous colors of the sail, we spray painted a black and brown base to the wings and then covered that base in reds, bronzes, and golds, paying attention to the areas that were the lightest and the darkest on dragon wings. Once the paint was dried, the final touch I gave to my articulating wings were battle scars. Using scissors and knives, I created claw marks and scratches in the wings, giving a history and a past to a character I was so ready to embody.

From September until end of October I had put away 10 minutes a day to sew one row of scales onto the pants. But before I started sewing, I made sure to have a clear vision of how I wanted the scale pattern to play out. I had three different sizes of scales and four different colors. By early September I had decided where and how I wanted them to fade into each other on the pant. Using a invisible nylon thread, I began sewing them on individually, starting slow and eventually coming up with a faster system, until I had covered all of the front of the pants and the non sitting parts of the back.

Next came the tail. The base of this was made using foam blocks and ribbons. I first traced out on paper the shape and size of tail I wanted. Then I traced out the paper and made horizontal cut lines all through the paper tail, marking the areas that would give flow and movement to the tail. With 22 individual tail pieces, I traced the shapes of each one over about six inches of foam. With all the shapes traced out on the foam, I used a hot wire cutter to cut the pieces out of the foam. Once all the pieces were cut, I slid a ribbon between the middle of the foam as if the ribbon were to make a parallel cut in the foam. Placing the pieces of foam in the correct order, I was then able to attach the ribbon and give the tail movement. Covering the tail with fabric that I had previously sewn to its shape, I added scales and color to the spine of the tail so that it was cohesive with the rest of the costume.

In terms of the horns, I started out with two basic foam cones. I shaved them down to pointed tips using, again, the hot wire. Cutting about 5 alternating diagonal lines in the horns, I was able to pivot the pieces of horns on each other, creating a semi spiral effect. The horns were than spray painted black and red and attached to a plastic head band.

Between, the wings, the horns, the hair, the top, the pants, and the tail, I estimate the whole costume took about 400 hours of pure hand work and research. 400 hours of work in the span of 3 months, all while keeping up a perfect gpa and submitting college applications. For me, that right there was an accomplishment in itself. Even if everyone decided they hated it, I was proud of myself for sticking to it and committing myself yet again to a holiday I so dearly loved.

The day had finally arrived. 5:15am and my alarm starts to go off. I snooze for 8 more minutes before dragging myself out of bed to the bathroom to start my makeup. Sure it felt like Christmas five hours ago when I was laying awake in bed, but all I wanted to do now was sleep. It wasn’t until I started painting on those scales that I began to get excited about the crazy day that awaited me.

Everyone was blown away by the creature I had turned myself into. From the moment I stepped out of the car, put the wings on, and spread them in the crosswalk in front of the school, all the way until when I won the Halloween costume contest later that day, people could not stop showing their appreciation. Students who hadn’t experienced a Halloween with Natalie came up to me in shock and the people who did know my costumes well were just as blown away. Teachers alike expressed their amazement as I went from class to class and as I swooshed down the hallway, dragon tail dragging behind, dragon wings swooping in the breeze.

My favorite moments of the whole day ended up being when someone saw me—either a student in the hallway or a stranger on the street—with my wings closed. I was able to tell by their facial expressions that they were amazed by what I looked like even with my wings closed! Image the shock they had when I slowly started to open them, and become the twelve foot beast I knew I could be.

Although I did anticipate people around me to be at least mildly impressed by the whole costume, I did not anticipate the shock they would have upon finding out the wings opened. It made this already exciting day even more thrilling. Although people now knew what I was, they did not know the extent of my costume until I spread my wings and shared it with them.
After successfully presenting my costume all day at school, I came home to take a quick break from the wings before the trick-or-treaters started trickling in. By 6 o’clock I was outside in front of my house handing out candy to the brave children who dared to approach the mighty dragon.

Although my neighborhood had a fair amount of trick-or-treaters, there was no way I was going to let this costume be done with, without going to an even more popular location. My dad put on his annual pilot costume and took to the streets with me as the holder of my trick-or-treating bag and as the photographer of the night. It was thanks to him that I was able to capture the reactions and fright of people as I slowly creeped in behind them, whipping my wings up and letting out a giant dragon roar. The streets were crowded with kids and parents alike, and although the houses were booming with candy, they all seemed to want to take a picture with me. Many parents would lead there kids over to me to grab a video, or they themselves would want to be photographed with the mighty dragon. It became easy for me to slip into character, answering there questions about if I made the costume with responses such us: “If by made you mean grew why yes, I did make these wings, they are my flesh and bones!” And whenever I saw I child who did not seem too frightened to be scared by my character, I would approach them telling them how fresh their human flesh smelled and how nicely it might taste.

All in all, I have to say I truly went out with a bang. The day was a huge success because of how many opportunities I had to share my work. From being at school surrounded by people, to going out into a busy neighborhood during lunch, to exploring the busy streets of halloween at night I felt I had shared my work with all of San Francisco!
Ok fine maybe not each one of the million residence, but I definitely covered some good ground.
Although my arms and the rest of my body was sore and bruised the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile thinking about the masterpiece I had managed to pull off and wondering were my years of college Halloween would take me.
Aside from making a dragonfly costume for a bug theme group costume with my friends the weekend after halloween (yes I was indeed a downsized version of my main costume), I will be stepping back from the world of costume building until at least after this crazy thing called college is solved.

For now, my dragon wings lay, sleeping restlessly in my work shop, waiting for Burning Man to come around so that they might be spread out once more, sharing their beauty and their monstrosity with the world.

The Dragon

Submitted by: Natalie Rathle

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