Whitney who works with us at the Ohio Renaissance Festival made some amazing costumes from the 2016 season.  For Pirate Weekend, she decided to make a Renaissance Mermaid costume.  She was a big hit, and we did an interview with her about the costume.

Whitney and Sara working the Elf Ear booth at the Ohio Renaissance Festival. Photo by Paul Gregory.

What made you want to make a mermaid costume?

Well, I love mermaids. I’ve always wanted to be one. As a child growing up in Texas, the only summer activity you could do was swim because it was too hot to do anything else. My friends and I would put diving rings around our ankles and pretend to be mermaids.

 

I’d always thought a mermaid costume would be fun, but its difficult to do since, you know, you can’t walk…. Eventually, I came up with what I think is an abstract take on a mermaid, which would fall more under a couture gown than a costume I guess, technically speaking. 

What is your favorite way to brainstorm ideas?  For instance I use pinterest and sketches.  Are there any resources you recommend?

I do use Pinterest for inspiration and movies. I think most of my influence comes from fashion, though. Alexander McQueen and Zac Posen, specifically. McQueen has a knack for personifying garments, and he utilizes textures and unorthodox materials in unique ways. He was a genius, really. Posen, on the other hand, is clean and structurally based. They are really polar opposites, but I pull from each of them in different ways. 

What are your inspirations for this costume? Did you draw from any influences, i.e. movies, TV shows, artwork, to help shape the design?

I wanted this costume to clearly be a mermaid, but without being a literal interpretation. I sketched several ideas of how to make a mermaid or trumpet style gown also look like an actual mermaid rather than just the silhouette. Ultimately I decided on making 3 parts rather than 1 gown: a skirt, a blouse, and a corset.

Please describe the main pieces of your mermaid costume and how you made them.

Skirt – I needed the skirt to have a scale-like texture for the body, and look like fins at the base. I had seen a dress on Pinterest used for Daenerys in the show Game of Thrones that used smocking to create a “dragon scale” texture. I started to learn more about smocking and studied various techniques to find one that would have the look I wanted. Thankfully, I found a method that did not require hand-work. Although, it was still very tedious. The fins were easy. I knew I could use flounces at the base to give the illusion of fins. I also added a peplum at the hips because sometimes mermaids are seen with fins around their hips as well. A last minute addition to the skirt were sets of gills just below the peplums at the hips. They were created out of necessity of time, but wound up being an integral part of the whole look, I think. 

Blouse – I wanted the blouse portion to represent a “shell bra,” so I pleated it and essentially tied it in the middle. I made a key-hole opening just under the center so that once the corset is on, the only part of the blouse that shows is at the bosom, and it looks like shells. 

Corset – I needed a skin toned under-bust corset to finish the look. Since the skirt has a regular straight waistband, I wanted the corset to come to a point at the center front and back so the skirt/tail appears to come from a point in the center and up on the sides, if that makes sense. Mermaid’s tails are not straight across, you know. So, again, I created an illusion. I had no idea what kind of fabric I wanted, so I just popped over to Jo-ann Fabric and Craft Store to stroll around. I stumbled upon this upholstery fabric that reminded me of barnacles, and I thought that was perfect. I’ve always loved the way Davy Jone’s crew was covered in barnacles in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I wanted it to kind of have that feel. 

What was your favorite part to work on?

I think I kind of touched on this, but technically speaking, the most difficult and rewarding part to do was the skirt. I actually spent somewhere around 50 hours, I think, just making the scales. I made 2 panels (front and back) that were each around 15 inches from top to bottom, but each panel used a little over 3 yards of fabric. At one point I actually ran out of fabric only to find out it’d been discontinued. I had to call around, and thankfully one store near me had it. It was about an hour away, and I bought all that they had left. 

The technique I used for the scales was a form of fabric manipulation that I had seen used for decorative pillows. Probably because its insane to use it on anything else. I guess I’m just crazy enough. Essentially I would fold 1-1/4″ and run a stitch 1″ from the bottom of the fold. I cut slits up to the seam every 2.” I would then fold each slit up to the seam (one side to the right and the other to the left) so that every 2″ there was a point. I pressed each one, folded up the next 1-1/4,” and ran me stitch 1″ from the bottom of the fold. This stitch would secure the fold and also the “scales” from the previous row. I repeated that process about a thousand times or more until the panel was done. I then cut my pattern piece out of the panel, surging the edges, of course, to secure the partial scales along the sides. 

Where are your favorite places to shop for costume pieces, fabric, etc.?

Unfortunately, outside of San Fransisco and New York, fabric stores are terrible. However, I can generally make due with Jo-ann and Hobby Lobby. I have also recently discovered a great source for linen: fabrics-store.com. I try to always keep my eye out for unique items. You never know what you might stumble upon. However, I do not buy anything without a project in mind for which to use it. I refuse to hoard fabric. 

Do you have any helpful tips for someone else creating a mermaid costume?

Don’t. Haha! Just kidding. I think for any costume, the most important thing is to have fun with it. Take your time thinking about it and planning it. Never be afraid to scrap it and start over again. Sometimes it takes several terrible ideas before a reasonable one comes out…then it takes a few more tries to get to a really fantastic idea.  I think specifically for a mermaid costume it’s important to think beyond the literal. Utilize textures, colors, and structures that create an illusion of the literal rather than trying to fit into a box.