The Complicated Fun of Being Into Historical Costume & Not White

side by side images of Catherine Fung in a black dress and the famous portrait of Madame X in a similar dress and pose
Catherine Fung as John Singer Sargent's infamous Madame X (1884). Photo courtesy of the author.

When I was a kid, my favorite Disney princess was Snow White. Not because Snow White was my favorite Disney movie or because I found her to be a remotely inspiring heroine, but for one simple reason: She was the one princess with black hair. She was also petite, had a round face, and since this was before Disney decided to adapt the story of Mulan, Snow White was the closest thing I got to a Disney character that “looked like me.” 

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that for my second year attending Costume College in Los Angeles, California, that I decided to fulfill a childhood wish and dress up as Snow White. To explain: Costume College® is an annual three-day costuming arts conference produced by Costumer’s Guild West, Inc. that’s been held since 2001. The conference offers lectures, workshops, and demonstrations on things like general sewing (pattern grading, setting sleeves, etc.), historical construction methods (corsetry, petticoats, etc.), and science fiction/fantasy costume construction. There are also social events in which attendees don outfits that they put together through the year leading up to the conference, the big showcase being the Saturday night gala. The level of craftsmanship on display is seriously breathtaking. I am not nearly as committed or experienced as most of the attendees, including my good friend who introduced me to Costume College, and whose projects are truly awe-inspiring. I devoted three weeks to putting together my outfits and did what I could with my limited skills. 

side by side pictures of Snow White from the 1939 film and Catherine Fung in costume
The Snow White costume. Photo courtesy of the author.

For my version of Snow White, I decided to make it as three pieces as opposed to a single dress. I started with making a dark blue velvet corset-style vest from Yaya Han’s pattern M7555. (Yaya Han is a Chinese American cosplayer and costume designer. She’s my age, and like me, she’s a petite and busty Asian woman. It’s perhaps no accident that I love using her patterns.) I found a beautiful gold brocade fabric with a vaguely Asian pattern on it and made a simple ball skirt (basically a rectangular panel gathered at the waist). For the blouse, I dug up Simplicity pattern 3618, which I had used years ago for a Strawberry Shortcake Halloween costume. I figured out from tutorials on the internet how to add the red pleats to the sleeves. I made the collar by cutting out the semicircle shape from interfacing, covering that with white fabric, and then sewing rows of lace to give it a more ruffled texture. I attached the collar to the vest with snaps. Finally, after hair and makeup done and bird and apple in tote, my transformation was complete. I had a glorious time practicing my best cartoon face and posing for pictures. 

The irony of making such an effort to emulate a character that “looks like me” in a space dedicated to making things like Regency bonnets and Victorian bustles isn’t lost on me, especially given the fact that I am also an Asian American Studies scholar who makes a living teaching my students to critically examine representations of race in literature and popular culture. My enthusiasm for European costumes, which coincide with my love for Renaissance Faire and Dickens Fair, both of which I regularly attend, has prompted some of my friends and colleagues to remark, “Wow, Cat, you have some surprisingly white hobbies.” 

And they are not wrong—Costume College is largely attended by white women. I am viscerally aware of my being one of the few people of color there when I see one of the white male instructors there dressed in a fake Native American costume, or when one of the white women wears a qipao to the gala. In these moments, I run through an internal monologue to figure out whether it’s worth it to strike up a conversation about cultural appropriation. This year, I confronted my uneasy feelings about the Friday night showcase event, which had the theme, “Presented by the USO.” While I share a fondness for the fashion of the 1940s, and did have fun trying to put my hair into victory rolls, I didn’t much care to perform nostalgia for a war in which 130,000 Japanese Americans—citizens who, indeed, looked like me—were put into internment camps, a war that, due to the Japanese occupation of China, directly resulted in the displacement of members of my family. Sitting with that discomfort clarified for me the limits of playing dress-up when we have to navigate these spaces in the bodies that we have. When a vendor selling an 1860s dress pattern I was eyeing asked if I was a Civil War reenactor, I answered, “Um, no,” but wondered what that question would have meant to one of the few African American women who attended the conference.

One would think that I would feel just as uncomfortable about participating in Renaissance Faire or Dickens Fair, both events that celebrate an imaginary vision of the past without acknowledging, say, the colonialism, genocide, and slavery that were the hallmarks of the Elizabethan and Victorian eras. As an Asian American, those periods do seem like a bygone time to me, largely because I didn’t grow up seeing myself in those histories. I learned about the internment of Japanese Americans in grade school, but I did not learn about the Opium Wars until I was an adult. When the history is less immediate, less visceral, less imprinted in the body, I can treat the game of dress-up as cosplay as opposed to historical reenactment. Walking around in Victorian ballgown at Dickens Fair feels not so different from pretending to be Snow White; pretending I’m in World War II feels like conjuring the ghost of my grandmother. 

Perhaps, too, it is precisely the invisibility of Asian people in the representation of these earlier historical periods that I am also combatting. Perhaps a part of me is asserting, “Yes, we were there, too.” As an adolescent, I was obsessed with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as the film adaptations of these books. Their spirited heroines were so formative in my self-development, and yet they felt so far away from my understanding of where I came from. As much as I identified with Jo March (like Jo, I became a writer and teacher), I could never imagine myself as part of her story. It wasn’t until discovering Asian American Studies in college that I started to see Asian people in early American and European history. To this day, I am fascinated by old pictures of Asian women in Western clothing because we simply don’t ever see them in film, television, and art museums. I think of the term “racial drag,” in the way that Anne Anlin Cheng uses it, to describe the “psychological euphoria” that comes with claiming for oneself a “racial body that would look good in just about anything.” Indeed, I get a certain thrill in dressing as a merveilleuse (women of the French aristocracy who used fashion to subversively comment on the Reign of Terror), in replicating John Singer Sargent’s “Portrait of Madame X.” There is something victorious about being able to pull off these looks.  

side by side images of Catherine Fung in historical costume a long white dress with low neckline and an 18th century image of a merveilleuse
The merveilleuse! Photo courtesy of the author.

But, as Cheng would also remind us, there is a psychic cost to this kind of passing, and the attempt to is melancholic, can never be satisfied. I am aware of how much effort this takes, the countless hours and dollars I could spend learning heirloom sewing techniques, how to make chain maille, fitting a bodice to the right corset—all things that I love going to Costume College for. And because I live in the United States, the cost is the awareness of the fact that I’m not learning about Chinese fashion of any era, that I couldn’t tell you anything about what fabrics were used during the Tang dynasty, or how the qipao developed as a garment. I mourn this gap in my knowledge base, just as I mourn the fact that I possess a PhD in English but am illiterate in Chinese, that it seems to always take more effort for me to learn the history of my ancestors than it is for me to recite the English monarchs. 

I search for ways to express my conflicted feelings and understandings of my own history. I am absolutely in love with the work of Haitian born, New York raised artist Fabiola Jean-Louis, whose portraits of Black women dressed to mimic European nobility of the 15th to 19th centuries offer poignant statements about the violences and trauma inflicted on the bodies of Black women throughout history. In “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting,” for example, the model, regally dressed in a gown of gold silk, gazes at a painting of a man whose back is scarred with lashings. (The painting is a reproduction of the famous photograph of a slave called “Gordon,” taken in 1863 by William D. McPherson and his partner Mr. Oliver.) The scars mirror the intricate embroidery on the model’s dress, prompting the viewer to think about how we carry history on our bodies, how the suffering of our ancestors pave the way for our own lives. The images are gorgeous, and it is precisely through the graceful and incandescent aesthetic that they draw the viewer in to the horrific and painful history they reference. As Jean-Louis says, “I chose to let beauty be the vehicle that I would carry those ugly truths in.”

I’d like to draw inspiration from Jean-Louis’s work as I continue my costuming hobby. I’d like to dare to develop an Asian American version of Jean-Louis’s portrait series, one that can allow me to make Asian women visible in narratives they’re usually rendered absent, that speak against the exoticization of Asian women’s bodies. Maybe, given that I’ve now started dabbling in leather and armor, I can do my own interpretation of Mulan as a place to start. 

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