Resting Witch Face

Greetings Dear Ones!

Halloween is one of those truly scary times of year for a seamstress. I’ve been feeling the Dread: IT’s on its way again…IT’s coming…AND THERE’S NO ESCAPE. (Cue the chilling organ music)  But tonight IT is all over and finally a small, festering portion of our seasonal work can be let go until next year.  We’re done (temporarily) making dresses fit grown men, vampire costumes for dogs, and altering any number of polyester inventions that came from China via Amazon to persons who had no idea how to interpret sizing charts on the internet.  

Traditionally, All Hallow’s Eve is the night the ancient Celts believed the veil between the worlds lifts and all of Hell is free to wander our realm dressed as their favorite T.V. or video personalities demanding candy.  Well, Hell comes to wander early in our dear little shop.  Adam and Eve come in together and stand in the corner bickering quietly.  They are newlyweds who have been invited to a costumed barn dance. I ask how I can help.  Eve turns shyly to Adam and refuses to speak to me.  Adam greets me with a “Surprise! Everything is grand” look on his broad, suddenly-smiling face and insists that his costume suits him just fine but Eve is a tad unhappy with hers.  I ask her to try it on and show me the problem.  Mutely, she follows me to the dressing room.  When she opens the door, I can see the difficulty immediately.  I have no idea who made this costume originally, but whoever did either needed a lesson on female anatomy or was considerably aged and used herself as a model.  Two large, green felt “fig leaves” are dangling upside down, mid-torso, near this young woman’s waistline. The costume is a one-piece beige flannel thing that looks like the unintentional mating of men’s pajamas and a hospital johnny.  It’s basically a rectangle one enters through an enormous slash in the back that ties at the neck.  The crotch, with the rest of the fig leaves, is hanging at her mid thigh, while the legs end abruptly at mid-calf.   Eve is scowling at herself in the mirror and looking pissy.  She hisses quietly to Adam, who scampers to her side.  She mumbles something to him.

          “She wants to know if you can take this in, maybe make it fit her better. Smaller somehow… and move the fig leaves up where they belong,” he translates, while she growls incoherently. (Eve is speaking English, by the way, just not loud enough for anyone but Adam to hear it.) I explain that I would love to take in the sides for her but with the big slit in the back, it won’t do much good—it will just cause the back to be more open, not the sides to be fitted.  There is basically no structure to this sack of flannel.  Eve is not happy.  These look like costumes from a biblical play held in a church basement somewhere.  For two people attempting to look as naked as possible, it’s adorable how cuddly and frumpy they look.  These are the most chaste Adam and Eve costumes one could imagine.  It dawns on me that this is precisely Eve’s problem.  She wants to look sexy.  She is tall and slender, with a waterfall of golden curls cascading down her back.  With her sky-colored eyes and aqualine nose, she could easily pass for one of Leonardo da Vinci’s angels if she wanted to.  (She doesn’t.) This costume is as far from sexy as your grandma’s furry bathrobe with oatmeal on the cuffs.  Even Prudence Thimbleton—that wanna-be nun in my head—totally approves of these costumes.   “It’s a damn shame they are portraying Adam and Eve after the Fall, instead of before,” whispers Prudence dryly, “Otherwise this one would be free to run butt naked through the barn dance, dining on fruit and not giving a second thought to fig-leaf placement, which seems to be the look she’s really going for…”  

Adam is talking to Eve again. “No,” he insists, “I like my costume” (which has one clump of dangling leaves, not three) “It’s warm and I have plenty of room to wear long-johns under it. I’m NOT wearing a leotard.”  He turns to me with a sigh and asks, “She wants to know if you can take the leaves off these costumes and put them on a leotard.”

“Of course,” I say. “No problem.” Eve smiles but Adam rolls his eyes.  He turns to her again.  “Look, honey, how about if we don’t match? We don’t actually have to match, do we? You could wear a leotard and I could just wear this…” he says, gripping his costume tightly. I can’t help giggling at the layers of irony going on here.  Adam just wants everything to stay the same. He wants to be warm and innocent, able to drink beer and enjoy his long johns but Eve won’t be happy until she looks like a little tart.  She does not care how hellish is the Cold.  (Apparently, she has never read Dante’s Inferno all the way to the middle. Or partied in a barn in New England in October, for that matter.)    I leave them in the dressing room in order to attend to other business in the shop.   It’s not long before they depart:  Eve leading the way, looking purposeful, her jaw set; Adam trailing behind, looking bewildered and defeated.  They will be back, he mutters, with leotards. He’s just going to do whatever Eve tells him to do.

How does one describe modern-day Halloween in North America to those who have not experienced it? Frankly, the custom is a little insane but, with more than 175 million Americans planning to partake in festivities, Halloween is big business. According to the National Retail Federation, total spending for Halloween is expected to reach $9 billion in the U.S. this year. Celebrants are planning to shell out an average of $86.79 each on badly-fitting costumes, masks and candy, so their offspring can go door to door threatening their neighbors and being rewarded with miniature chocolate products that will rot their teeth, and make their temperaments impossible to deal with until next summer.

Naturally, my focus is mostly about the costumes (and, um…the Milk duds). Before the 1930’s most people fashioned their own disguises—typically bed sheets with eye-holes cut in inconvenient locations.  In 1930, Sears started selling the first boxed Halloween costumes and the humble home-sewer has been in competition ever since.  Whether you are a professional seamstress or not, if you can wield a needle and have even so much as a tiny sewing kit purloined from your last hotel visit, chances are you will be pressed into service at the last minute to make some adjustments to  someone’s outfit. (For the rest of you, there’s duct tape and staples.)  Either way, you will have a fun-size taste of what it is like in this shop on a daily basis.

Show me a seamstress who has not pulled an all-nighter for a Halloween costume and I’ll show you someone who thinks all that chocolate is actually for the kids. You might think that my children had fabulous costumes growing up. But then you might stop and ask yourself whether or not the cobbler’s kids wear shoes… Every year, the night before Halloween would find me in my workshop staying up all hours of the night, howling at the moon, surrounded by fabric and panic… Sewing, you ask? Well, that was the Plan. In actuality, I would spend hours carefully sifting out all the tiny boxes containing Milk-duds from our cauldron of candy, gnawing my way through them, insisting to myself that each box was “the last box.” Dawn would find me feeling icky and deciding that my children didn’t really need costumes after all.  This was the year I could convince them to take a few spare shingles from the barn and stand on them with their violins and go as “Fiddlers on the Roof.”  At least they would not forget to practice their arpeggios, in the midst of the festivities. They never bought it.  They much preferred to hide in the leaves of our make-shift graveyard on the front lawn, scaring people who came to trick-or-treat us.

Scaring people can be thrilling. Serious Fear drives the whole enterprise in general: fear of “razor blades in apples” drives up candy sales; fear of predators makes the grown-ups of today dress up and accompany their children on their begging rounds (children used to go alone); fear of not having the Best Costume (and thus facing exile from the tribe) drives up iParty sales… Halloween is when we wander around being each other’s nightmares and playing with what terrifies us most—like sexually dominant women dressed as slutty pirates or men with boobs.

Not all hell returns to the other side of the veil when the night is over.  Some is trapped here on earth. The genuine horrors we face in the shop are far more sinister than any candy-corn-flavored Nightmare before Christmas.  Me? I’m not afraid of bats or spiders.  I think witches are just AWESOME. The things that scare me most are the bride who has a gown fitting in the morning, leaves crying, and comes back drunk after lunch; the grandmother who brings a bag of her granddaughter’s clothing and says “can you let the waists out all the way, but don’t tell her mother—I’m sick of her yelling at the kid that she’s too fat”; and the wife in dark sunglasses who can’t pick up her husband’s shirts until pay day.  Pretend horrors are WAY more fun!

Halloween gives us an official, Amazon-sanctioned chance to use clothing to disguise ourselves, or perhaps reveal a part of ourselves we otherwise hide.  It is a time to risk, to experiment and face fears of mortality or morality.  (Hmm… wait there!  This is sounding like just another day in the dressing room!) But we get to kick it up a notch in a bigger, larger than life (or Death) way.  In my humble opinion, we should get to wear these costumes any time we want. Some of us just have those “I must impersonate-a-Tricerotops or Buzz Lightyear” kind of days more often than once a year.  So be it.  May we smile at each other fondly and be not Too Afraid.  What is clothing anyway but a balance between protecting our tender, bald skin from the elements and protecting our tender psyches from shame? Thanks a lot, Adam and Eve…we’re still trying to get the compromises right.

Stay warm and safe, Dear Ones! Be merry and do Good Work! (and save some Milk Duds for me!!!)

Yours aye,

Nancy