Xena’s Journey to Hades and Back in Cosplay Form began as an ambitious Halloween costume idea in August 2022 and “finished” August 2023…so, well past Halloween and yet also in time for Halloween. Despite not being quite finished, it’s now “old” so in true Sisyphian fashion I’ve started on another ambitious cosplay that will almost certainly not be finished in time for plans I don’t have. I could learn my lesson, but why?
Xena: The Costume Base
I decided to construct this cosplay from leather, primarily because I wouldn’t then have to go shopping to find just the right brown vinyl fabric. Especially when I already had some damaged hides on hand that I’d purchased at a deep discount for just this type of experimentation and I could get started right away. Leather also offered the benefit of durability and the beauty of natural material; the dings and scuffs of bargain bin leather add character to a project like this. Leather has visual weight.
It also has physical weight. I absolutely, positively, 100% cannot flip around like Xena regardless of what I am wearing or the power of trampoline upon which I might hop, but the added weight of this leather armor keeps me extra grounded.
Using leather in the interest of saving time turned out to be an exercise in self-delusion. With fabric, you just cut it out and sew it together. With leather, the cut pieces need to be dyed on all sides, multiple times if you want deep, dark color. The excess dye needs buffing off the surface. The edges need burnishing. Places where attachments are made can need skiving to remove bulk. You need to align pieces that are to be joined so stitching holes will match, and then you punch all those stitching holes by hand and sew it all together by hand. Leather also needs conditioning and finishing. And if you screw up, if the pattern was not quite right? Sometimes you’ll have to cut a new piece of leather and start the process over while feeling guilty about the animal who died so you could suck at cosplay.
Was I grateful for the solidity of leather on photo day when Icelandic horse Ari started vigorously grooming my greaves in gratitude for the neck scratches I was giving him? Yes! But given the laboriousness of the process, the weight of the final costume, and the eco-ethical considerations, I don’t think I’d choose to use leather again unless it served a specific purpose.
Construction of the skirt was fairly straightforward. I didn’t anticipate the way the riveted straps wanted to turn and twist and catch themselves on the other straps, so I ended up having to use barge cement to glue the flaps together.
Construction of the corset was also fairly straightforward save for the cups. I knew I would need to alter the pattern significantly from the template of the one I found made to fit Lucy Lawless–I have a shorter torso with smaller breasts set further apart. (There’s no way I could hide a dagger in my cleavage, it’d just slip down and stab me in the gut. But that would give me a reason to battle cry?) I made a fabric mockup sans cups to test placement and when that looked good, I moved on to the leather portion, believing that the cup would come together almost intuitively. If you’ve got one piece left in a puzzle, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out where it goes and its orientation, right? My problem was twofold: my intuition is terrible and, critically, I was unaware that my pattern was incomplete.
That blue shield shaped piece of fabric represents half of one cup; I thought it was the whole cup and kept frustratedly and unsucessfully trying to align it with those cartoon eyeball holes. These shapes do not match but there are only so many ways to turn a puzzle piece, so get in there! Still you refuse? Here come the scissors, you belligerent puzzle! I had some success cutting out a wedge and sewing it back together to force a sort of false cup, which did fit in the corset but the results looked a lot like Xena and Madonna’s cone bra had a baby. Once I realized I needed two pieces to make a cup and sized them appropriately, this critical component finally came together. I don’t know how to explain the mental block–it’s like I’d never seen a bra before and refused to look at one?
Because I have thick calves that are either wider around than a cow or bootmakers have collectively decided they might as well be, I didn’t waste my time trying to find screen-accurate leather Xena boots. I have cried in the wide calf section of DSW enough for one lifetime, thank you. Instead, I bought the one knee-high brown synthetic option available at Lane Bryant and called it a day. Hers lace up and mine don’t? Take it up with the boot industry, I shouldn’t have to learn cordwaining to cosplay.
Xena: The Armor
I initially made Xena’s armor from EVA foam, cutting the pattern and then sanding it down with a dremel. When I’ve used foam in the past for the look of metal armor, I’ve sealed/finished it with glue, which is nice and lightweight. However, the glue can crack easily and it felt like a mismatch to use a fragile finish on something paired with the durability of leather. So I decided to cover it with worbla, a thermoplastic that adds strength and has a fairly smooth finish. I’d never used it before but I’ve seen amazing cosplay results so I was excited to try it out.
At the point I was making this armor, I still believed I could finish the costume in time for Halloween ’22, so after adding the worbla, I forged ahead and painted it although in my heart of hearts, I didn’t love it. The foam armor had been approximately the correct thickness, but layering the worbla on top added a bulkiness that felt cartoonish even without a layer of leather underneath. And while I have less chesticular goings-on than Lucy Lawless, I am also not completely flat so my chest armor probably shouldn’t be, either. Unless I want to survive actual combat in which case it absolutely should be.
I made her greaves from leather and inset the decorative armor, which I made from worbla that I shaped with a heat gun outside during a heat wave on an “unhealthy” air quality day thanks to wildfire smoke. It was important to do it then, you see. I was going to finish this by Halloween ’22!
They attach behind the leg with two straps and buckles. I think I need to add a third or make some other modification to get the upper part tighter to the leg so they don’t interfere with one another when I walk or (theoretically) kick ass. As they are now, I have to walk a little bowlegged-y which is perhaps not the most intimidating of strides.
After I’d missed my self-imposed Halloween deadline, I decided there was no reason not to try making the armor again and see if I could improve upon it. Anything worth doing is worth doing twice, I guess? Or up to four times, considering the number of limbs involved. This time, I made the bracers, armbands, and shoulder armor out of worbla, with strategic wire on the back to help it hold its form when shaped with a heat gun. I liked the look of this armor much better but ran into my next issue when it came to attaching it to the leather backing–because of the curves and the thinness of the material, there were not enough significant flat edges to firmly glue them together so it kept popping off or peeling apart or there were places you could see glue residue on the leather (gross!). My solution was to pierce some holes in the leather and sew the armor on top with some strategic loops.
The second breastplate turned out so much better than the first. The leather and rivet trim creates the attachment point for the shoulder armor, so once that was completed, I could finally see it as part of an assembly rather than as individual pieces.
I knew before I even started making the costume that the serpentine wire that connects the breastplate to the shoulders was going to be a problem and indeed it was. Any wire that I could bend into the shape was immediately pulled out of shape by the weight of the breastplate. I don’t know how to solder or weld and didn’t feel inclined to learn, so I tried to reinforce the serpentine with twisted wire, which didn’t look great.
I eventually took that apart and tried again with smaller reinforcements only at the places the serpentines met, which is less visually distracting but could still be improved upon. I also used two leather straps to hold the front and back armor pieces together but didn’t secure them, figuring I’d take care of that detail closer to whenever I actually decided to wear it.
Xena: The Weaponry
I would, in fact, download a sword! I would even pay to download a sword. Here’s what you get when you download a sword:
- an immediate call from your credit card company’s fraud protection services asking if you meant to make a purchase from “three demon dot com” (3-D, mon!)
- a collection of files that aren’t ones your 3d printer can read so you also get some:
- high tech homework
- day upon day of agonizing wait time as this thing inches its way into existence
- having to start over because the initial print was scaled comically large for person 5’2″
- day upon day of agonizing wait time as this thing inches its way into existence
- a sword so fragile that it explodes apart if you dare swing it
I broke this sword so many times. So very many times. I broke it with the aforementioned swing. I broke it while trying to blend the edges with apoxie sculpt. I broke it while sanding the apoxie sculpt. I broke it by setting it down too fast, and, tragically, just before the photoshoot I broke it by accidentally knocking it off a low table onto the floor while getting my costume on. I won’t say that it would have been easier or faster to learn to forge a sword and then actually forge a sword but if I’d done that at least I’d have a sword I could swing with vigor. What I have now is less of a sword for war or even play war and more of a sword for “looking at” and I think it’s entirely possible that it might break if you look at it too hard.
The chakram print of the design Xena uses most frequently is nearly as fragile. Xena can fling hers into the faces of thirteen dudes plus a wall and a chandelier and it returns to her hand unscathed. Mine broke apart while I was spinning it around on my wrist like a hula hoop, part of it shattering further when it hit the carpeted floor.
I completely understand if you would no longer download a sword.
I’d started crafting my first round armor at the home of a friend who met her now-husband at a convention for Xena: the Warrior Princess. Every time I made progress on the costume, I’d text her a photo update captioned “*drumming intensifies*“, a reference to the dramatic drums on the intro to the show, which I had been hearing in my head on a loop nonstop since I started making the costume. I’d hear them pounding when I woke up in the morning, while I scrubbed horse water troughs at work, buying groceries, falling asleep. Xena’s drums were the soundtrack to everything. Why?? Does that mean this project is blessed by Xena? Was its presence in my mind related to my urgency to finish this project by Halloween ’22? Or was it, like, just a little brain damage from heating up thermoplastics and dremeling foam outdoors on smoky hot days? The shimmering image of Lucy Lawless on the edge of my vision who whispers into my ear tells me not to think of such things. Anyway, one day she (my friend, not Lucy Lawless) texted asking where I’d gotten my chakram because she wanted to surprise her husband with one for their upcoming anniversary. I offered to make her one, and the finish was so much better on this build that I was inspired to revisit mine, and in the process I broke chakrams about six more times.
Xena: The Cosplay
One day, costume unfinished and sitting on the backburner in my brain because all I had left were frustrating, unfun parts that didn’t give me any dopamine, I pulled into the driveway at the barn and saw new horses, including one who looked enough like a shorter, thicker version of Argo that I audibly squealed. It became my immediate not-so-secret hope that his owner would let me take Xena photos with him. Not-so-secret because I told absolutely anyone who would listen, except his owner, because the costume wasn’t done and also it feels like the polite thing to get to know someone before asking them for a weird favor.
And then one day I heard he was going to be moving away soon and decided it was better to risk weird impoliteness than miss the opportunity entirely. And she said ok! So that meant I was going to actually have to finish this thing.
I finished this thingish. Which means that I finally figured out the cup and serpentine wire and armor/leather attachment issues. I also ordered some full coverage shorts because in October 2022 the finished skirt was a little risqué, but with another year of Shaun T’s glute-building dance workouts under my belt, it was borderline obscene. In the final run up, we had a number of very hot days in a row on which I absolutely refused to put on pounds of leather armor to make adjustments. I paid for this choice on the day of the shoot as I was getting ready and realized the shoulder straps were too long and needed new holes punched. Doing this ate up the time I thought I’d have to attach the leather side straps that hold the front and back armor together and also meant my just-broken sword would remain broken. No sword? A little disappointing, but oh well. The straps? Way more important than I thought in terms of holding everything in place. Without them, the breastplate kept slipping forward which pulls the shoulder armor out of place, which made a lot of photos look like I was going for Sultry Xena or perhaps Drunk & Disheveled Xena.
I thought about (and started) photoshopping things where they belong and ultimately decided against it. I also thought about (and started) digitally nudging my body, to the horror of every brain cell that’s tried to embrace body neutrality and stamp out my fatphobia; smoothing out the bulge of my arms around the bands, sharpening my jawline. I ultimately reverted all of these changes. Not only because it would take more work and probably look a little wrong but also because it’s not reality. I can see the value in having every aspect polished and perfect, in the effort of creating an artistic end product that aligns exactly with how it was envisioned. But I made this costume because I wanted it to exist in my reality, and pushing pixels around this time felt like telling myself that my reality wasn’t as good as a fantasy I had about it. And if the reality of the thing doesn’t live up to the idea, if I find the very contours of my own body unacceptable, what’s the point of even doing the thing? The costume isn’t perfect and neither am I, but these moments existed as a culmination of mine and other people’s efforts and that is meaningful to me.
Like heavily damaged discount bin leather hides, the imperfections add character.