I grew up without Halloween. Brazilians have their share of wearing costumes (Carnaval) and passing out candy (Saint Cosme and Saint Damião Celebration), but it was only in the past two decades that Halloween has become popular and celebrated in Brazil thanks to the Internet. As a kid, I enjoyed Carnaval, but as I got older, I developed a serious aversion to samba music—the very reason why Carnaval exists—and at around 12, I quit the Carnaval scene.
My first Halloween celebration happened when I moved to the US. My roommate had introduced me to Perversion, at the time the largest goth club in Los Angeles, and the place became our Thursday night haunt. Halloween 1996 happened to be on a Thursday, and Perversion celebrated it in all of its goth glory. I was in awe of everyone and everything. The costumes, the music, the decorations, the packed club…this was one of the best nights of my life. I knew that from that night on, Halloween would become my most favorite holiday of all.
When I started to sew, I never considered that sewing would impact how I experience Halloween. Before sewing, my costumes were mostly variations of my goth wardrobe (like the year I was a gothic bride or the one when I was a dominatrix) or store-bought selections (the Little Red Riding Hood costume that smelled like a dead person). I started to get more sophisticated and planned my costumes in advance, purchasing each piece to create the perfect ensemble, but it was only a few years ago when I sewed my very first Halloween costume, Wednesday Addams. It was a simple black dress with oversized white collar and cuffs, and I was beaming as I took my creation to Bar Sinister’s Halloween bash.
As my sewing confident grew, so did the complexities of my costumes. This year, I decided that whatever costume I chose, I would sew or make every piece of it. I had no idea of what the costume would be, but I knew that I had agreed to one of the greatest challenges of my sewing life. I somehow came across someone’s beautiful She-Ra costume, and immediately my brain went, “Hey, remember the villain in the cartoon? What was her name again?” I had to do some research as I only remembered her Brazilian name (Felina), but I finally found Catra. And it was love at first sight. And then the realization that, to accomplish this self-imposed challenge, I was going to have to rack my brain and search the Internet for inspiration, help, and solutions to the many puzzles that lie ahead.
Costume decided, I searched the Internet in hopes of finding some guidance or help. Maybe someone had already gone through the trouble of creating a Catra costume and could provide me with valuable information—who knows, maybe a kind soul had created a tutorial, and all I would have to do is follow the steps. But no such luck. I was able to find pictures of Catra costumes, a tutorial on how to create the mask (using Worbla!), and…that was it. No amazing step-by-step on how to create each piece of the costume; no mind-blowing insight into the construction of the dress or cape or details. I was going in on my own. I decided to attack the costume piece by piece.
Catra’s outfit is a dress, but I figured I would make things easier by turning the dress into two pieces, and then to make things more difficult, I decided to sew the top as a fully boned corset. Why, you ask? I do not know. I have always wanted to sew a corset, but I have never felt confident enough to do so. Making a corset for a costume somehow, in my mind, brought the stakes down. From like, really, really high up there to high up there. I looked for a pattern that would be flexible enough so that I could change it to match Catra’s pointy details of the upper dress. Because I have more patterns than any human being should be allowed to hoard, I found something I could work with: Simplicity 5006. The pattern is for lingerie, not a real, fully boned corset, but I knew that I could easily add more channels and use real boning instead of plastic. The best part of 5006 is that it does not have a front opening—so no busk necessary! Can I say how happy that made me feel? Of course, I cannot get into this thing without assistance, but I always count on my significant other for matters like this.
To sew a muslin, I bought some duck canvas at Joann. I know, I know, coutil is THE fabric for corsetry, but spending anywhere from $20 to $40 on a yard without knowing what I am doing just made no sense. I am quite pleased with how the canvas worked. It is sturdy, it did not stretch, and, well, it was cheap—I was able to use one of Joann’s 50% off coupons, and I bought two yards of red canvas and two yards of black canvas for less than I would have paid for a yard of coutil.
I went with the size of the package based on my chest measurement, and the first muslin was HUUUUUUUUUGE. I could have fit four boobs in that thing, and there was no back gap at all—actually, the back panels overlapped. I did the very scientific thing of shaving off a ¼ inch from each panel, then ½ inch, then ¾… and to tell the truth, I have no idea how much I removed. I know that of all the curve from the front panels making the bust area, I eliminated almost all of it. The panels ended quite straight, and that allowed for that squished boob look that comes from a Victorian corset. I changed the top of panels 1 and 2 to create the pointy silhouette from Catra’s dress.
Once I settled on a pattern, I had to decide on how to construct the corset. Because, of course, I had to make things the most challenging, I chose PVC to be the fashion layer. Side note about PVC (and I do not know if all PVC fabric is created the same, but it was true of all three cuts I purchase): it smelled awful. Really, REALLY awful. Like something died in the middle of my living room on the hottest day of summer. I had to soak the main red fabric not once but twice, and I could still smell a faint corpse odor in the thing. So, here is a tip: Smell your PVC fabric, and if it has a horrible smell, let it soak in some soapy water for a loooooong time. Make sure that you give yourself extra time to soak the fabric. Your nose will thank you! To give the corset a neat, finished look, I decided on a third layer, some nice cotton fabric, also from Joann.
My game plan was: fashion layer, red PVC; middle, structural layer with channels, red canvas; final, lining layer, red cotton. To provide the fashion layer with more stability, I interfaced it with woven interfacing, also from Joann. I doubled the number of channels by adding a new channel next to each original one. Once all layers were sewed, I matched the tops and used Wonder clips to keep the whole thing together. Sewing through four layers of fabric was not fun; I replacing my regular needle with a 90/14. All the boning and the lace for the corset came from Richard the Thread. I love this place! When it was time to install the grommets, I was able to use the press at the shop. How amazingly kind is that?
When you are sewing your corset, make sure to measure each channel BEFORE you buy your bones. You will not be able to adjust the size of the bones because, well metal, so measure carefully, and buy your bones shorter than the length of your channels—I bought mine 1 inch shorter than the length of each channel. I used white bones for the back channels and spiral ones for all the other channels. Finding lace that is five yards long can be difficult. I purchased white lace and dyed it red. The best corset making resource I found is Alison Smith’s Sewing Corsets: Essential Techniques on Craftsy. The class is worth every penny, and Craftsy seems to have promotions quite often.
I have to confess that the reason why I decided not to add channels to the fashion fabric is that sewing with PVC is a bitch. I tried to make bias tape with the red PVC, and that was a disaster! PVC cannot be ironed, and finger-pressing was a failure, so I had to come up with a plan B. Adding the channels to the structural layer was a smart choice, and it kept the fashion layer very neat. Adding the binding on top and at the bottom was another hurdle. I had to search high and low through the Internet to find tutorials to help with binding the pointy tops and the concave center of the corset. I found this amazing video tutorial by expert quilter Marci Baker, and I would like to thank her profusely for preventing any more frustration in my life.
I added three sew-on snap fasteners to the lining in anticipation of attaching the collar to the corset. The original design of Catra’s dress has the collar as an extension of the dress. Since I wanted to make sure that I would be able to wear the corset for other occasions (yeah, that was before I realized that the corset was too big…), I had to come up with a solution. I cut a triangle out of PVC and bonded it to the lining fabric using Wonder-Web from Joann. I sewed the snap-on fasteners to the back of the triangle—the top one to connect to the collar, the bottom ones to snap to the corset. Had the triangle solution failed me, I would have had to consider sewing a second corset. Good thing that it worked so well.
The final corset ended up fitting perfectly…which is an issue for a corset since it should have a 2-inch gap in the back. It was tight enough to stay put, and since the cape was going to hide the back anyway, I was okay with the result. And I am in love with my Teflon foot. That thing is magic! What kind of sorcery allows it to glide on PVC I do not know, but I will never ever (if I ever again) sew PVC without it.
Catra’s corset has a front detail that looks like the wings of a bat. I tried free-hand drawing to create the shape, and I realized that it would not work. My boyfriend suggested that I find a good image and print it large enough to make a pattern. He is not only good looks, this one. I found this image, and I enlarged it to make the details the exact size I wanted. I then cut the shape and turned it into a pattern. I could not decide which color the details are, and in other costumes, people seem to lean towards a darker shade of red, but I think that the orange I chose made the corset pop.
Here is the truly ingenious part: I attached the orange details to the corset with double-sided tape. I had spent hours trying to figure out how to add the “bat wings” to the PVC, and every single solution would have permanently damaged the corset. The double-sided tape, however, comes off so easily, but it provided a very sturdy bond. I was very glad to have found a solution that did not include more sewing or a glue gun.
Oh, the skirt. This was supposed to be the easiest part of the costume—a mini skirt with a hem that is cut to resemble a ragged edge. How hard could this be? Hard, if you choose the wrong type of PVC. The first fabric I purchased had a white back, so when I cut into the hem, the white back was visible. My great idea to fix the problem? Bond some of the red cotton fabric I bought for the lining to the PVC. Do NOT do this. Just don’t. The pliable PVC turned into a stiff mess, and when I tried the corset with the skirt, it looked terrible. The stiffness of the skirt combined with the many layers of the corset made for a most unflattering belly. And the skirt was just uncomfortable. I wanted to be able to dance, and that skirt was not going to let me.
The only solution was to buy another fabric, this one with a red back, and sew another skirt. The saving grace was that the skirt was so simple and easy to sew that it took less than 30 minutes (cutting, assembling, sewing, cutting the ragged hem) to make another one. I added darts to the front side to give the skirt more shape. I am really happy with the second version of the skirt—no bulk, no stiffness, and very dance-friendly.
Collar and Cape
The cape was an easy sew. I bought two yards of black stretch satin and two yards of purple stretch satin, and the fabric was perfect. Such beautiful drape! I initially wanted to use all fabric, but two years of fabric made for a very long cape, so I went with a yard and a half. I sewed the two fabrics right sides together, clipped the seam allowances, turned the cape inside out so that the right side was facing out, and topstitched the seams. I serged the top edge to make things easier when attaching it to the collar. And then…
That damn collar. I wasted so much time and drafting paper on the thing. I could not get the shape right. Everything looked weird. I tried an oversized triangle with one very pointy point to connect to the corset. That looked awful. I tried approaching it as a vampire collar. That did not work. Every time the paper pattern did not work, I crumpled it into a ball angrily and tossed it into the trash can. The trash can was full of rejects by the end of the afternoon. The breakthrough came when I cut a very large piece of paper, cut a hole in the middle for the head to slide in, and shaped the paper while I was wearing it. It was a bit scary holding a pair of scissors pointing to my face while I stared at my reflection, but it worked (DISCLAIMER: If you are trying to recreate the costume, skip this step—or try it at your own peril).
The collar ended up being a three-layer structure. Since I had decided to make another skirt, I used the bonded PVC to cut the outside layers of my collar sandwich. Yay for repurposing stuff! In the middle, I placed a piece made out of leftover duck canvas bonded to the lining fabric. I sewed the cape to the middle layer, then sewed the outside layers to the middle one. My sewing machine sewed through the many layers like a champ. The final collar-cape combo attached to the triangle piece that connected to the corset. If I were to make the collar again, I would make a bigger hole for my head—it got a little tight getting my head through when I had the wig on, but it all worked out in the end.
I found a Simplicity pattern that had the perfect bracelet piece. Could I have created a pattern on my own? Yes. But why? Had I not go through too much work? Let me make it easy on myself! I cut a layer of PVC and one of the lining and sewed them right sides together, leaving the bottom open. I turned the piece right sides out and folded the bottom edges in to finish the bottom. I was bummed out that the grommets I bought online were too small for a corset, so I used them on the bracelets. I had some leftover thin red lace, and even though it was a tight fit, I made it work. Yay for repurposing stuff, part 2!
I found the best picture of Catra’s face I could find, enlarged it, and cut the mask. I knew that I wanted the mask to be light so that I could, you know, move my head around. I chose to use craft foam—it is cheap, easy to work with, and readily available, unlike Worbla! Because I wanted the mask to be recognizable and to cover the black hair next to my ears left exposed by the wig, I made the mask almost comically big. I added the eyes by cutting them out of green construction paper and layering it with green cellophane and gluing them to the foam. I used the same red lace that I used for the bracelets for the ties. The mask was light and flexible and it hid my hair, so I declared it a success.
My sad drawing skills actually worked here for a change. I drew the shape of the belt on pattern paper and cut two pieces out of the orange PVC. I bonded the two pieces and, yeah, that went well…there were bubbles everywhere: I ironed the belt to almost melting plastic and had to accept that this would be a bumpy belt. As a finishing touch, I added a metal buckle I bought at Joann. The belt looked amazing from afar, but at close inspection, oh, boy! But I knew that the really bubble-ridden side of it would be hidden by the cape, so I let it be. And really, who is going to inspect my belt? That just sounds creepy.
What I bought
I purchased the blue wig and the red boots from Amazon. Yes, I know, Amazon will swallow us whole, but it also delivers in two days with Prime. They were really cheap, and I was surprised at how well they served their purpose. The wig was not perfect—I could not get the high ponytail going, but I was able to rock a low ponytail, and I think the cascading effect of it looked quite nice. The red boots are surprisingly comfortable; for less than $30, they were perfect. I considered cutting into them to give the top the V look, but, really? Why would I do that, right? I was able to walk around and dance without foot pain. I cannot say the same about some of my “real” boots.
I am so proud of what I have accomplished. I made a corset! I researched every aspect of the costume, and I was able to piece together enough resources to complete this project. I got frustrated at times (and may have cried once or twice), but I finished the costume with time to consider changes…and then resist the urge to mess with stuff. Three people recognized my costume—that’s really amazing as The Morrigan (2016) and Batwoman (2017) got one nod each. I have said before, and I will say it again: I do not care if people do not recognize what I am. Making a costume that for me represents the character I have chosen, being successful at it, and pushing the boundaries of what I know, these are the rewards I get. It is time to take a break from Halloween and focus on more practical sewing—I will go ahead and make a real Victorian corset, and I know it will not be the scary thing I have always imagine it to be.