conferences & conventions · Useful Stuff To Know

Thoughts in the CoCo aftermath: Challenges

Trystan has had enough of your shit.
Trystan has had enough of your shit.

There’s been some interesting posts about Costume College lately, mostly directed at newcomers or potential attendees. I thought I’d add my own insights after having just marked my 10th consecutive CoCo. Because, you know, life is not complete without Sarah’s over-sharing commentary about some type of costuming activity. I think it does help to see that there’s a lot to take in, emotions can be running high, expectations might not be met, and how to be prepared for utter chaos. So without further ado…

Sarah’s Unsolicited Advice On Potential Pitfalls At Costume College:

Costume College is The Death March of Fun.

Sometimes you need to grab your sweetie-darling and a bottle of Stoli and hide in the bathroom.

Kendra came up with this term a few years back and I think it’s probably the best description I’ve ever heard of what it’s like being at Costume College. For me, it begins about two weeks before CoCo and runs 24/7 until late Monday night after we’ve spent at least 6 hours driving on Hwy 5 with an overpacked car and no less than three cranky and exhausted costumers stuffed inside. It is a ton of fun, but dear god, it is exhausting.

  • How to combat overstimulation: Don’t feel bad about taking time to yourself, even if it means just sitting in a dark hotel room for an hour, or reading by the pool. I always need a place to retreat to, which can be challenging when the Pretty Pretty Princess Party is being hosted in my hotel room and there’s ten drunk women bouncing on my bed, singing “I Touch Myself” at the top of their lungs. I have been known to lock myself in the bathroom for ten minutes just to catch my breath. Every little bit helps, trust me.

There is SO MUCH TO DO and NOT ENOUGH TIME TO DO IT ALL. For me, it usually boils down to three questions:

  • 1) Do I want to teach?
  • 2) Do I want to take classes?
  • 3) Do I just want to hang out with the friends I only get to see once a year?
Typical Friday night in Sarah’s bed at Costume College.

I need to be really honest with myself about my limitations, and this debate rages on well into Friday afternoon of CoCo before I realize, to hell with it, I just want to enjoy my friends as much as possible. I don’t think I’ve managed to sit through a single class in at least five years because friends > classes. I do try to teach every other year, though, because I do enjoy it, but that brings me to the next point…

Teaching is HARD WORK. I used to teach fashion design for a living, but even that was no where near as labor-intensive as it is to teach at CoCo. There’s a limited amount of time you can realistically ask people to commit to your class, and a limited amount of time you can realistically teach without it impinging on your enjoyment of the event itself. It’s self-determining, so I can’t give any sure formula for figuring it out, other than I know it’s about 2 hours of class time per day for me. Any more than that, and I start getting that thousand-yard stare and flashbacks of CoCo 2009 when I taught an advanced limited class on drafting an effigy corset and it nearly killed me.

  •  How to stay sane when teaching: Remember that you’re teaching a subject that YOU are excited about! Otherwise, why would you bother teaching it? Getting enough rest is difficult (see above, re: Death March of Fun) but at the very minimum make sure you remember to eat. I’ve had to go so far as to designate someone to come and shove a plate of food under my nose because if anything is a given in this world other than death and taxes, it will be that I have forgotten to eat and am about to have an epic blood sugar crash. It’s not pretty, folks.

Classholes. You know the one person in class that has to prove they are more knowledgable than the teacher? You’ll get a few here and there and you will develop a noticeable tic when you hear any sentence that begins with “Well, actually…” Being gracious to these people when you’re the teacher is probably the biggest accomplishment you’ll ever make, because you will reach a certain point where you have a sudden, overwhelming urge to throw the laptop at their head (please note: this is generally frowned upon and damages the laptop).

  • How to deal with intrusive or rude students: I’ve developed a couple of tricks in dealing with these lovely people — the most important thing is to set firm ground rules in your class. Before you get into the lecture or demo, tell everyone to please hold their questions until the end. Normally this is all that’s needed, but if not and you find you are dealing with the dreaded classhole, the trick is to respond to any challenge with a smile and calmly say, “I’d love to discuss this more with you after class. Now, moving on…” It’s the civilized version of pistols at dawn or screaming “Let’s take this outside” while tearing your clothes off and leaping over chairs to tackle them. (See above, re: Blood sugar crash.)
Thank your teachers! They’re doing this because they want to share their passion with you!

Teachers are virtually uncompensated. Yes, CoCo is a volunteer organization, and teachers are an integral part of things — it wouldn’t be a “college” without them! However, remember that while you may have spent $50 to cover the cost of the kit you received as part of your class, the teacher has easily spent several times that preparing that kit and all the ones for the other students, making the handouts, creating the lecture deck, etc. And at most they get a few bucks at the end of the month from the org, or maybe a coupon for a certain percentage off in the Dealers’ Room. The featured guest lecturers have their attendance fees and travel comped, but the rest of us peasants instructors have to pay full price for the membership, plus any of the usual extras like Gala tix, tours, the Tea, on top of travel and hotel expenses. It ain’t cheap.

  • How you can make it worth itBe nice to your teachers! If they seem cranky, just tell them “thank you for teaching” and offer to buy them a refreshing adult beverage at the bar, particularly if their name is Sarah Lorraine. Seriously, though, just saying thanks goes a long way to making the effort of teaching worth it.

Determining skill level. The biggest challenge I’ve experienced being a CoCo teacher is not the classholes, it’s not the stress of the prep or the actual teaching itself… It’s having a student who is a rank beginner in a limited class for advanced students. It happens at least one time in every limited advanced class I teach and is part of the reason why I no longer teach advanced limiteds. I do not blame the student because I think a large part of this mix-up is to do with the fact that there’s really no official Costume College standardized rubric for students to self-evaluate their skill level. My “intermediate” could be someone’s “advanced” and there’s no real way to know ahead of time how to account for that. It is highly frustrating for everyone, however. Below is my general breakdown on sewing skill level. The years of experience are highly variable, of course. Someone could be sewing for 2 years but already be at an advanced level because they’re a quick study. Alternatively, someone could have been sewing for 20 years and never really progressed passed the beginner stage, so it’s by no means an exact science:

  1. Beginner = 0-2 years of sewing, using only commercial patterns. Needs a lot of hand-holding and supervision.
  2. Intermediate = 2-4 years of sewing, some drafting/draping understanding, can modify/hack commercial patterns, has basic understanding of tailoring techniques. Is pretty self-sufficient, but may need limited supervision.
  3. Advanced = 4+ years of experience, primarily drafts/drapes own patterns, is/has been in a profession where sewing/drafting/draping is a main component of their duties or is a Serious Hobbyest, understands tailoring principles and techniques. Can essentially take a project and run with it without supervision once they understand the parameters.
  4. If you’re unsure, round down or contact the instructor ahead of time: Finally, it’s better to round down your skill level to be on the safe side, if you’re not sure into what category you would fall. Or, you can even contact the teacher ahead of time (most of us are pretty easy to track down) and ask them whether or not they think you would be a good fit for the class.
This was post-2015 Red Carpet drama. Note the enormous Manhattan and the dead look in my eyes. Sarah was not a happy camper.

The Red Carpet is traumatic for some of us. The Red Carpet used to be very informal — people would line up to see/take pics of the Gala attendees as they came down the hall all fancied up. You’d pause, pose for a photo, a couple of nice ladies in bathrobes would compliment you on your outfit, and basically that was it. In 2015, however, it was changed into a more formalized event, with an emcee and music and seating for people to sit and watch as people filed past. We thought we would be smart and come down 45 minutes after the Red Carpet start time because we didn’t want to be rushed, only to find the line stretched back into the lobby (which is a long way away from the banquet room/end of the Red Carpet) and the hall that lead to the banquet room was packed on either side with spectators. Cue immediate claustrophobic/social anxiety panic attack.

We didn’t want to get in line, we just wanted to find a way through to the hall, but in the process we had to squeeze past both attendees and spectators to find that there was no alternate route around the line. Some of the spectators yelled at us for blocking their shot of a costumer or “cutting in line”. It was awful, it left a really bad taste in my mouth, a couple of us ended up in tears (my eternal thanks to that helpful staff member who kindly gave this weirdly dressed woman who was sobbing uncontrollably a bottle of water and let her get back to the elevators safely and unobserved by the hoards of people who had just been yelling at her). I vowed never again would I do a Red Carpet walk. Since this year was a similar set-up, albeit with an exit route clearly marked this time, it looks like the new Red Carpet is here to stay. Not a fan, but what can you do?

  • How to make a stressful situation a little less stressful: We were completely blindsided last year by the change in Red Carpet procedure, so that definitely played a part into how poorly I handled it. I don’t really like surprises, especially panic-triggering surprises. But honestly, this should be pretty straightforward: Don’t be rude to people by default. If you think someone is doing something like cutting in line, they may actually be having a panic attack and be looking for a way out of the situation and screaming at them is NOT HELPING. If you’re the unfortunate one who is having the panic attack, try to find a quiet place to retreat to, even if it means flagging down a hotel staff member and asking if they can help you get to somewhere where you can calm yourself down.
This 2014 costume was a definite failure. I can’t even look at the professional photos of me that are still out there on the web without cringing. But, hey, you can’t win them all!

You win some and you lose some. I think everyone has a CoCo experience where things could have gone better, be it as a teacher, a student, a Gala costume that didn’t quite work out as you envisioned, or forgetting a key piece of a costume which renders the outfit unwearable. That’s life, and it’s bound to happen to all of us at one time or another. And annoyingly, there will be pictures EVERYWHERE online of you looking like a hot mess in a bad wig. Sigh.

  • How to persevere when things don’t work out quite rightTake a deep breath, pour yourself a cocktail or grab a piece of good chocolate, and focus on the real reason you’re here — to see your friends and have fun. So what if you look like a hot mess? Work it baby! There’s always next year!

And finally, the one thing I learned this year that surprisingly took me 10 years to figure out is that if I go into Costume College with a relaxed and positive attitude, I will have a relaxing, positive time. All of these experiences I just outlined above were avoided entirely by simply deciding that I was just going to enjoy myself, rather than stress about a party, or teaching, or classes, or my Gala costume… And whaddya know? I had the best CoCo yet.

Do you have any questions about attending or teaching at Costume College? Share them in the comments!


11 thoughts on “Thoughts in the CoCo aftermath: Challenges

  1. This year my friend and I just blew off just about everything on Sunday and went to the pool. We had a long drive ahead of us at 4pm back to Oakland (our 3rd had a class until then) Neither of us had a limited class that day and we thought about taking some limited classed and we both just kind of went “you know what? Screw it” Neither one of us ever ever has downtime to just sit by a pool, have a bloody and read a trash mag. So that’s what we did and we didn’t regret it for a second.

  2. I have been a silent reader of your blog for a while – thank you for sharing your expertise and all of your lovely creations. Your honesty and clarity is encouraging to me as a relative beginner (not in years, but expertise; though it has been a while since I posted an update on my blog) 🙂

    I came out of the woodwork on this one as I have never been to Costume College, but have wanted to ever since I heard of it. Thank you so much for this post! It’s really helpful to have experienced advice about how to approach it 🙂 …especially since I am a bit intimidated by the whole Red Carpet thing and CC in general, but maybe I’ll work up the courage to go next year, and (if you are teaching) take one of your classes.

    1. Yay! I was worried that this might put new and potential attendees off, but with everything, there’s good and bad and there’s always room for improvement. And I know I’d like to be prepared for unforeseen pitfalls when going into something new, so I think it’s important that us Old Timers be honest and candid with the new blood about managing expectations, especially in the digital age. I’ve seen people come to CoCo for the first time with wildly unrealistic expectations which aren’t met and then dump the entire experience as a waste of time and money. While it’s true that it’s not for everyone, it can be great for a whole lot of people. 🙂

  3. “Teachers are virtually uncompensated.” yeah, that. I was a teacher, one who traveled from out of state to teach a corset making class. After being reprimanded for charging $3 for class handouts (this was for a stack of 9 pgs) because they were a “non-profit” I gave up. Meanwhile those who have built a pattern empire willingly teach for “free” because they hawk their patterns there and make a killing. They also felt the lovely venue of Airtel Plaza (with one of the most beautiful water features on the planet, very soothing and lovely) for a bigger one because you know, bigger is better! UGH

    1. Ugh is right! That sucks that you were hassled for the handout fee — I routinely ask for a couple bucks as a “donation” to offset the cost of the handouts, and I’ve never been hassled about it thankfully. I’ve also been surprised to have students leave me a few bucks without even asking for donations to cover the printing costs… I think many do realize that teachers aren’t comped very well and try to spare a dollar or two in return for anything they’re given in class.

      And I also miss the Airtel! I loved how intimate it was, and how we basically had the run of the place so it was much easier to do our thing without worrying about upsetting/offending/freaking out non-CoCo hotel patrons. That said, CoCo had hit the absolute limit of Airtel’s ability to accommodate us in the last couple of years we were there, so I do understand why moving it to the WC Marriott was necessary. Especially since the event was becoming so popular that attendance was basically doubling between years. And some of the issues I’ve discussed above are directly attributable to growing pains within the organization… I hope.

  4. What a wonderful review of the “unexpected ” joys(?) of any convention. I hope to attend in 2017 as a first timer.

  5. My husband and I attended CoCo each year from 2011 through 2015. We didn’t go this year. I just couldn’t face another stay at that poorly-managed hotel! Example: I think everyone gets the day off to a better start with a good breakfast, but the restaurant is so disorganized that you can wait half an hour or more to get a table, even though there are lots of empty tables. There always seem to be plenty of wait staff wandering around, but they aren’t actually doing anything. It’s a BUFFET. You should be able to get in, eat and then get to your classes, not spend 20 minutes in a line that doesn’t move, then finally grab a muffin from Starbucks’s just so that you can get to class on time.
    I also have problems with check-in procedures; unloading the pile of luggage and hat boxes and getting everything up to the room; mistakes (EVERY year!) on the bill; mediocre food at the Gala; and so on, but I won’t bother you with the details. For a hotel that bills itself as a convention center, it does an incredibly poor job of handling crowds!
    A couple of years ago the hotel was purchased by some different group and we had hopes that it would improve, but it hasn’t. I think everyone would have more fun and less stress if the hotel were run competently!
    Whew! Got that off my chest!!! Thanks.

    1. Having stayed at some hotels that are truly unequipped to handle conventions, I actually think the Marriott does a decent job. We also tend to order room service a lot more than deal with the restaurant, which saves a lot of aggravation. The food arrives on time and is hot and fresh and we don’t have to get dressed to get it.

      That said, their policy with the luggage carts is stupid, particularly when it comes to checking out. 😛

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