To look at Paige Gardner, in her secret identity, safely ensconced in her Trussville home, you would never know that she’s sometimes a bird-lady, known for being a mysterious stained glass steampunk avatar or the woman underneath the elaborate insect head.
But she’s all of those things and more, a costume-maker with an avid following, even though she makes costumes only she can wear, and prefers not to be photographed showing her true face. Instead, she’d rather be seen as Stained Glass “Abbey” or “Siri” or, this year, “Aunt Merry McQueen.”
That’s what Gardner will be at this year’s Dragon Con in Atlanta where she is a guest, an “invited attending professional,” and director of a fashion show featuring vintage costumes done up with the trappings of science fiction, fantasy and wild creativity.
In her day job, when she’s not in costume, Gardner works at Home Depot and as a syndicated book reviewer. But it’s in between when she’s creating elaborate fantasy costumes from scraps and found objects, and things she collects from various places that her creativity shows.
“Everything I make I treat it like art, like costume art,” she said.
Her costumes have won the admiration of a growing fan base. Some have been exhibited in galleries among other costume-centric spaces. “Paige Gardner is an award-winning costume designer whose eccentric masks, bizarre props and original costumes make her art recognizable worldwide,” said the Dragon Con website. “Her work has been featured in multiple media channels and bestselling books on Steampunk and cosplay.”
As this story is published, Gardner is on her way to Dragon Con, her pilgrimage since 2008. For those who don’t know, Dragon Con, the Southeast’s answer to Comic-Con, is a showplace for costumers and cosplayers, artists, writers, producers, models, and celebrities doling out details of their upcoming science fiction, comic-themed, horror, or fantasy television shows, movies or comics. Not to mention would be celebrities of all kinds. More than 50,000 people attend the convention that bills itself as “the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction & fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe!”
Gardner is, in her various costumed guises, right at home among the thronging fandom that comes from far and wide to see and be seen as Batman or Yoda, the Doctor or Lara Croft or any of a myriad of other characters. Some, like Gardner, invent new characters every year. It’s not cosplay. It’s costuming.
“The terms ‘cosplay’ and ‘costuming’ are sometimes interchangeable,” she said, “but in my mind, cosplay is you’re making a costume to duplicate or reference something specific and you kind of play in that costume. Costuming, in my case, I have to make up what I’m doing. It’s not duplicating anything specific. It’s not referencing any TV show or movie or comic because I’m having to use found items and thrifted items and that dictates what I’m able to build.”
She started making costumes in the late 1980s for herself and her kids. She learned to do it inexpensively and artistically and to have fun doing it. “I don’t have the skill set or the funds, or the inclination, really to be so serious about it. I like for it to be more of a journey and let the materials direct me a little bit and let me see what I can do.”
Back in the mid-80s, when Dragon Con was in its infancy, Gardner was a self-described “closeted” geek who played games and watched the same genre television shows and movies as anyone else who might turn up at a comics, sci-fi or fantasy convention. But as a member of a sorority, “I wouldn’t be caught dead with my friends with their Star Trek ears at a convention. It was just not the done thing,” she said.
She started going to Dragon Con when she lost a bet with her oldest son in 2008. That’s where he wanted to go. “I drove us over, we MARTA-ed in from the Hyatt and when we came up from the train station below the Hyatt into Dragon Con in the Food Court, and there were Klingons at Chick-Fil-A and stormtroopers waiting in line at McDonalds and we both just stood there and said, ‘This is our tribe. This is our tribe and we need costumes, too.’”
The next year they went back in costumes. They didn’t have money, but had to figure out how to make them on the cheap. “He went as an alien from the Ridley Scott movies. And I went as a steampunk nanny. I had cobbled together bits and bobs from the thrift store and I went through my silverware drawer and found old tea strainers and made some really interesting eyes and a clock key and made this kind of steampunk bronze, black, and brown with a top hat sort of thing. And I was an automaton. I imagined that I am an automated nanny.”
“It was a big hit. It was unexpected,” she said.
How she works
Gardner builds her costumes mainly to please Gardner, bringing her own artistic sensibilities to bear on her outfits, often sculpting them out of found bits and pieces until what they are shows up.
She frequents thrift stores and other emporia of inexpensive goods, finds something that might be worn – whether or not the manufacturer intended for it to be – and brings it home and puts it on her worktable, a desk in her basement surrounded by curiosities, some of them waiting to be turned into something else, some of them already something else.
“If it’s really cool I’ll leave it on a table so I can walk by it every day so I can look at it, think about it. And after a few months of passing by these pieces it starts to come together. That looks like an arm. That looks like a chin. That looks like an elbow. These things are starting to look sort of anthropomorphic to me, and so maybe I’m going to get to the point where I’m going to hang it all together and make the costume.
“The costume, it kind of dictates itself,” she said. When the eureka moment arrives, she gives the costume and the persona who will inhabit it, a name.
That brings her around to the current character she was working on for DragonCon. As she worked on the headpiece, it began to resemble an ant. “So I kind of rolled with that. I was using a box of Christmas ornaments I had forgotten I had and the ant’s head dictated the dress.”
Her headpiece, her thrift store gown, and lots of additions become… “I don’t know what to call it, but at this stage, she’s an ant,” said Gardner, who was toying with the idea of calling the character “Aunt McQueen,” an homage to costume designer Alexander McQueen, known for making ‘things that are unsettling to look at.”
She ended up, as revealed to her followers on Facebook, calling the costume “Aunt Merry McQueen.”
One of Gardner’s more recognizable costumes – Abbey — was an accident. She had found a stack of children’s coloring books made like stained glass, brought them home and figured out how to get light behind them. That turned into “an illuminated costume with fake stained glass,” she said.
“She started to evolve and she seemed like a church. She looked a little bit like a pope with this big tall headpiece that’s illuminated. She became Abby.”
Gardner also invented a character with a Mohawk called “Siri,” named after the iPhone personal assistant. “She has a smart mouth, sometimes,” Gardner said. “And in my mind, I’ve always seen her as this kind of punk rock woman answering my questions. And when I found some old phone cords … it looked like dreads, it looked like hair to me.”
She created her Siri from the pieces of telephones she busted up with a hammer.
Gardner works without a sewing machine, or power tools – she has a Dremel but is reluctant to use it – and has to wait for glue to dry. With the amount of detail that goes into her costumes, it might not be surprising that she might work for weeks at a time to get the look just right.
“It’s a learning process. I’ve learned with every costume a little more about what doesn’t work,” she said, “And what’s flammable.”
One costume taught her the kinds of chemicals not to mix with certain kinds of glue. Gardner really has to tell that story herself – but the experience also taught her how baking soda can put out flames and add a uniquely dusty-weathered look to a costume.
Such happy accidents are the kind of thing that make people marvel at the inventive details in her costume, like a leather bird costume with what appeared to be bird-skin texture. Really, that was just an accident involving tulle.
Gardner, by the way, doesn’t enter contests, despite the acclaim her costumes get. “I don’t want to be judged. They’re poorly constructed, if I’m honest. They’re not well-constructed. They’re shabbily-stitched, zip-tied together, glued together, just whatever it takes for me to make it all hang together, that’s what I did. It’s not masterwork. It’s not elegant. But I’m after the overall effect. And I think it’s good.”
Back to the Dragon …
Unlike some Dragon Con attendees, who carry five or six costumes with them, Gardner will be content each year with one or two.
She wouldn’t have time for more changes than that. “I also work for Dragon Con as a panelist and a guest and a director of one big event there,” she said. “I don’t have the energy at 51 to do all those costume changes, so I just take one or two things that I will take out and wear. They’ll be photographed, and I’ll use them for demonstrations and panels and show people how to use trash and found things to make their own costumes.”
At the con she will speak to groups about embellishing costumes and creating personas on the cheap, with imagination as the most readily available currency.
One such panel might be termed “Desperate Steampunk” she said, when 600 to 700 people seek advice on how to craft their own characters. “They all want to know how to make a steampunk, kind of Victorian, science fiction themed costume with very little money and very few skills and that would be me,” Gardner said. “I do just some very rudimentary leatherworking. It’s all about finding the workarounds, finding the things you can use. Figuring how they’re going to look with paint or with pieces cut off. So I teach people how to do that.”
For the past two years Gardner has directed Dragon Con’s Vintage Faux Fashion Show “That’s a standing-room only, huge event,” she said. “We’ll see Marie Antoinette gowns and Regency gowns and flapper dresses from the 20s, but it’s interjected with alternate history visions because we may see a Scottish soldier, but he’s got steampunk armor added to his costume and a steampunk weapon that he made from a candlestick and a gunstock or something.”
That event might draw 1,000 eager participants and spectators.
Fantasy in Alabama
Lest you think Gardner only dresses up when she goes out of town, she also puts in appearances as various local events, as part of a substantial costuming community.
They see each other at the Halloween-timed fund raiser for the Lymphoma Society called “Boo!” Around the same time, she said, “’The Witches’ Ball’ which is a free event every year, is ground zero for the highest quality and variety of costumes and that’s down on Second Avenue North usually around Das Haus. It’s kind of the best kept secret for costumers. That’s where all of the year round costumers bring their A-game.”
Gardner is now a member of the Central Alabama Costumers Guild, a loosely organized club of likeminded folks learning, from each other, the tricks of the trade. The force is apparently strong among costumers in the Birmingham metro, some of them masters of their form, some with pedigrees that reach into a galaxy far, far away.
“We thought we would all know each other. Half of those people in that room – I’ve never seen those people before,” Gardner said. “And I know a lot of people. And everyone had the same comment: ‘I didn’t know there were so many that I didn’t know.’”
The best thing about the costuming community is their willingness to share their time, talent and tools with other folks who like her, are “happy to wear it, happy to share it, happy to teach others how to do it,” Gardner said.
Ultimately, it’s less about the accolades than it is about unleashing the creativity and the satisfaction of bringing something new to reality. ‘I’ve done things I’m proud of,” she said. “I make these costumes to please me first and then I put them on and wear them out and if other people think it’s interesting, that’s extra awesome.”
Dragon Con happens this weekend in Atlanta. For more information visit dragoncon.org. Beware, the website might be down due to high traffic.