Art, history, fandom intersect in geek couturier’s fanciful creations

Geek couturier Jane Burson’s creations are the stuff of a fashion nerd’s dreams, especially if you’re a fashion nerd who’s into pop culture.

Among the gorgeous, glittering gowns she meticulously designs, patterns, and sews to perfection in her Texas home — when she’s not working her day job at a tech company — are: a gauzy, 1950s vision inspired by Disney’s Sleeping Beauty; a painstakingly assembled 15th-century Burgundian gown; an unlikely, but amazing mashup of Star Trek and Dior’s “New Look”; and a gleaming Golden Snitch come to life in ballgown form, a stylish Quidditch player’s fantasy.

Since she was a child more interested in Barbie’s clothes than in the dolls themselves, Jane has been “textiles-oriented.” Her Mom introduced her to the basics of sewing. She has a degree in fashion design and is a skilled, self-taught artist. But she didn’t find her sweet spot as a designer and maker until she learned to combine her love of art, history, and fan culture and transform them into fabulous geek fashion.

A fan of Labyrinth, Star Trek, and the X-Men, she didn’t truly gain confidence as a couturier until she entered the 2018 Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con. She was accepted, walked the runway in her own feathery Howl’s Moving Castle-inspired creation, and was declared winner of the Singer Sewing Award.

The show introduced her to a community of like-minded geek fashion makers she still calls friends and led to other opportunities, including a judging gig at the 2019 HUFS and the opportunity to design pieces for Hot Topic’s Avengers: Endgame line.

Jane graciously spoke to me about that Her Universe Fashion Show experience, her design and fandom inspirations, her passion for using secondhand and recycled materials, and how she’s coping with social distancing by making do with her fabric stash. To see  more of her beautiful couture creations, follow her on Instagram, @janemakesstuff.

Jane Burson in the Singer Milky Way dress she was challenged to design by Singer Sewing Company.

You’re a prolific illustrator, inspired “geek couturier” and a winner of the 2018 Her Universe Fashion Show. What first sparked your interest in fashion?

I’ve been “textiles-oriented” since I was a kid. A favorite family anecdote is about how I would take the clothes off my Barbies and abandon the dolls to play with the clothes. My mom is a maker too, and she let me play around with her sewing machines and scrap fabric when I was growing up, and then showed me the basics when I expressed an interest. In my early teens, I got interested in the how textiles and apparel reflect and impact history (and are in turn impacted by), politics, culture, economic factors, etc. So this multifaceted maker-historian-designer kind of thing evolved out of that.

Why do you tend to gravitate toward geek fashion in particular?

Prior to the Her Universe Fashion Show in 2018, I wasn’t really aware that people were doing hardcore geek fashion. I had done some “interpretive cosplay” here and there, but when I found out that there was a niche where I could mashup my love of fandom, design, and historical fashion, it was like a big “THIS THING IS YOUR THING!” sign lit up.

You describe yourself as passionate about art, historic culture, and fan culture. Do you feel like these three things intersect in your life? If so, in what ways?

One of the big struggles of my 20s was that these various interests didn’t really intersect. I felt like I was being pulled in a lot of different directions and I didn’t know where to focus. We all only have so many hours in a day and it was stressful for me to feel like I was “neglecting” certain interests or passions to focus on others.

Thankfully I started figuring out how to appreciate the ways these things intersect. Or to find connection points. For example, doing a “geek couture” design is a sort of fan art, it’s a way of engaging in fandom, it’s also artistic and creative since I’m creating original designs, and I almost always draw from art history and fashion history when I’m designing.

You’ve been drawing since you were a kid and describe yourself as a “self-taught artist.” That’s hard to believe when I see your work, which seems quite sophisticated and reflects a wide variety of styles and influences. Tell me more about how you developed your artistic skills.

I feel sort of bad for not having a more eloquent answer, but “just never stopped drawing” is pretty much it! I certainly benefited from having a family and teachers who gave me access to good supplies, and never told me that “doodling” was a waste of my time. And I like exploring new mediums and techniques, which probably also helped.

I would just try to emulate aspects of art I liked aesthetically in my own work — for example if I liked the way someone drew eyes or trees, or the way they rendered their linework. My favorite art has almost all been illustration, so that’s probably why my style has tended that way.

Jane and her friend Jenny, wearing their Millennium Falcon and Death Star cosplays.

You’re known especially for fan art. How did you get into that particular, very popular niche? What do you enjoy about it?

For a long time, I had terrible, internalized biases against fan art, like it was somehow “lesser” than “original” art. Thankfully, I got over that and embraced things that bring me joy. I like that fan art lets me play around with concepts and ideas I have about the characters or the property. I read a lot of fanfiction but I’m not a strong fiction writer myself, so fan art is sort of my way of doing that. I also like that fan art gives me a chance to easily connect with other fans.

Jane’s most recent project was this “Aurora Bespelled,” Sleeping Beauty-inspired gown in the style of a 1950s “petal dress.”

As a “geek couturier,” you invest many, many hours in designing, patterning and sewing outfits inspired by fashion history and geek media. You always have something new you’re dreaming up or working on. Where do you find inspiration and ideas for these projects?

All over the place! Sometimes an idea comes to me practically fully formed in a moment of “divine” inspiration — I’ll see a piece of art or a read a description or see a piece of historical fashion that will spark a full, or mostly full concept.

For others, it starts with a handful of concepts — for example, for my recent Disney Sleeping Beauty-inspired “Aurora Bespelled,” I wanted to nod to medieval fashion, while redesigning Aurora’s classic gown through the lens of a particular 1950s design — so that one I had to iterate on to narrow down on a design I liked. Last year’s “New Look Kirk” pretty much just popped into my head one day when I was looking at model shots of Dior’s New Look. I would say that the first scenario is more common than the second.

Jane’s 1930s wizarding fancy dress-inspired Golden Snitch design, from concept to final product.

In 2019, you created no less than six stunning and ambitious geek couture looks, including a She-Ra gala gown, a Captain Marvel dress, A Millennium Falcon cosplay, and a Golden Snitch look, which you took to LeakyCon for a fabulous group cosplay. What are some of your favorite fandoms?

I’ve been active in online fandom for over 20 years, so I’ve definitely been part of quite a few. I think anyone who’s been in fandom a long time has seen some ugly parts of fandom, but ultimately, I’m just so inspired by how much fans care and how much passion they bring to their participation in fandom.

I always have to mention Labyrinth because it was my first fandom and a gateway into so many aspects of fandom that have gone on to be a huge part of my life. Star Trek also gets a call-out – it’s really amazing, humbling, and inspiring to be able to interact with fans who have been around for 50+ years and fans who are new to Trek.

Jane’s “New Look Kirk” dress, inspired by Star Trek: The Original Series.

Tell me about your background in sewing and fashion design. How did you learn the skills you put to use to bring your elaborate, fandom-themed designs to life?  

I like knowing how things work, how things are made. So while my mom taught me the basics when I was a kid, and one of my degrees is in fashion design, most of the skills I’ve learned are tons of trial and error, messing up a lot, having to redo things five times to get them right, sheer stubborn refusal to give up. Like many creatives, I suffer from imposter syndrome. I must remind myself sometimes not to fall into the “Oh, that’s too hard, I can’t do that” internal dialog.

Last year, you also meticulously constructed a medieval Burgundian gown. That looked pretty challenging. Why did you decide to tackle that project and how did you pull it off?

An interest in historical fashion was kind of what got me into fashion design in the first place, and it’s still something I find fascinating. It’s a bit of a different challenge to try to reproduce a historical style vs. creating something from scratch because you’re trying to emulate particular proportions and style lines instead of doing whatever you want.

And sometimes (often?) those proportions run quite contrary to modern aesthetics. Additionally, prior to the 17th century we have little to no primary evidence of how certain garments were constructed, so it’s like a bit of experimental archeology.

Unfortunately, Central Texas doesn’t have a ton of historical costume events, but I’m considering starting something ridiculous, like a fancy dress brunch once every couple months or something, just to give myself an excuse.

Jane’s “As You Wish,” a Princess Bride-inspired design.

What’s more fun? Making these looks or wearing them?

It’s funny, I LOVE wearing the looks as a chance to connect with other fans and makers. I fully support cosplay and costuming any way people want to do it and I hate it when I see people getting dissed because they purchased their outfit, but there is a certain amount of “game recognize game” when you can tell someone else designed and made their outfit.

It’s like an instant conversation starter: “How’d you do this? I love the way you designed that! Tell me about where you got this fabric! Did you do the ombre dye yourself? What about that pleating there, did you have to tack it to keep in from shifting?”

However, in a strange way my work feels kind of “dead” once it’s complete. The creative process is so dynamic, that the process is really what keeps me doing this (even though it’s also what makes me crazy!). I’m having to constantly troubleshoot and problem solve and think 10 steps ahead. It’s like solving a really complex, multifaceted puzzle — once the puzzle is solved, it’s kind of like … okay, time for the next puzzle!

How did you learn about the Her Universe Fashion Show and what prompted you to enter the 2018 contest?

I owe it all to my friend Jenny (@Supergeekerella on IG). I was sort of vaguely, peripherally aware of the show, but I assumed I wasn’t eligible for whatever reason (I wasn’t a professional, I didn’t cosplay much, I’d never been in a competition at a con, I wasn’t going to San Diego Comic-Con, I wasn’t as good as previous contestants, etc. etc. etc. See? Imposter syndrome.). Jenny, in the most loving way possible, told me my self-doubt was BS and that I should just enter, because really what did I have to lose?

Howl’s Moving Castle-inspired art by Jane Burson.

Your feathery, dual design inspired by the animated film Howl’s Moving Castle was chosen as the Singer Sewing Winner. How did you come up with and develop this concept?

I turned my application around really quickly — I think I decided to enter a week before the deadline, and I was leaving for vacation a couple days before that. Since I didn’t have a ton of time to brainstorm, I picked three properties that I loved (Howl’s Moving Castle, Star Trek TOS, and Thor) and felt confident I could whip up solid designs for in the time I had.

I actually had a couple other designs that got half-developed (one for Spirited Away, one for the indie animated film Secret of Kells) but which I scrapped halfway through designing because I hit a point where I knew I wasn’t going to be able to refine the design to something I was happy with in time.

So for Howl I originally just wanted to do his transformed beast-bird form as my inspiration, but I was worried that that much feather dress would just overwhelm the look, and his diamond pattern coat from the film is so iconic. So I decided to do a sort of mashup, where the bird portion is kind of wrapping around the body as if caught in a half state in-between. The overall design aesthetics and style lines (corset, bird-wing fascinator, bustled, high-collar dress) are a nod to late Victorian/Edwardian fashion since the film is set vaguely in a fantasy Europe of that era.

What was the process of creating the outfit like? What was the biggest challenge you encountered?

The feathers and the corset were probably the two most difficult single elements. You can purchase already-feathered fabric, but the feathers are sewn on in straight lines, which comes off kind of “meh.” I wanted the feathers to be really organic and dynamic, almost convey that dynamic “transformation” even when still. So I carefully cut and sewed lengths of feathers in whorls and waves around the skirt and bodice.

Doing it myself also allowed me to incorporate a lot of variety into the feathers themselves. Although it looks black, there are three shades of brown, and matte and iridescent black — and different shapes and sizes too! Ultimately it took about 150 yards of feather trim. I also had to do a lot of it by hand because it kept gunking up my machines.

As to the corset — corsets are always challenging. I’ve made a lot of them, but this one was extra maddening because I was trying to pattern match the quilted diamonds across all the different seams, AND have the corset extend down into “tails” in the back in a way that didn’t look totally awkward. I drafted the base pattern of the corset at least three times, and did about five mockups before I started on the final garment.

I’m curious about what it’s like to participate in the Her Universe Fashion Show. What’s the atmosphere like behind the scenes?

At the show itself? TENSE! All the designers have put a ton of time and love into their looks and want to show them off, but it’s also nerve-wracking to show your work in front of thousands of people and to have your design judged. But there’s also a lot of camaraderie too. Everyone’s stressed, but people want to help each other out if they can. There was also a ton of admiring one another’s work. I really appreciated that it wasn’t a stereotypical “mean girls”-type environment.

You also modeled your Howl’s-inspired look. What was it like to be up on the runway?

I barely remember it, I was so nervous and focused on all the different things you have to think about — where to look, where not to look, where to pause, how to pose when you pause, don’t walk too fast or slow — that suddenly I was off stage going, “What just happened? I hope I did okay.”

How did it feel when you were announced as a winner?  

It was surreal! It might sound trite, but I didn’t expect to win and was completely shocked. Jenny and my Mom and I went to dinner the night before and they asked who I thought was a strong contender, and I think I listed like 10 or 11 designs — and there were still a bunch I hadn’t seen in their entirety! It was really overwhelming to be selected as one of the winners with so many other amazing designs in the running.

Part of your prize involved collaborating with other winners on a line of Avengers: Endgame apparel for Hot Topic. What was that experience like?

It was interesting to get a peek behind the scenes to see how a team at a fashion retailer puts together a collection. I work in corporate social media for a major tech company in my 9-5, so it was really informative and cool to get a sense for how this totally different world operates.

You created looks inspired by Hawkeye and Thor. Are you a big Marvel fan?

When I was a kid I was kind of obsessed with X-men and followed several of the associated titles for several years (I still have a bunch of my old comics in a box somewhere …) and like so many other people, I’ve really loved the journey the MCU has taken us on over the past decade.

Jane with a Marvel fan, who is wearing the Thor-themed vest she created for Hot Topic’s Avengers: Endgame line.

What was it like to see fans wearing your designs? Or to walk into a Hot Topic and there they are?

I absolutely ask people if I can get a photo with them wearing my design, like a creeper. Who knows if they believe me when I say I designed what they’re wearing, but I love looking at all those pics!

In 2019, you returned to the Her Universe Fashion Show as a judge. That must have been exciting. What was that like?

It was a lot of fun. The HUFS community ends up being pretty tight, so it was great to finally get to see everyone’s work. It was also great just to experience it and not have all the stress and anxiety I had the previous year. There was certainly a layer of responsibility on top of that — there are so many factors to consider when judging, it wasn’t easy to narrow down all the designs to only a couple top choices.

What was the most important thing you learned from your overall HUFS experience?

Haha, omg, it sounds so cheesy, but having confidence in myself. Not feeling like I need to wait until I achieve some arbitrary level of expertise before it’s acceptable to share my work and connect with other people. Just … putting yourself out there can be really hard, but nine times out of 10 you have nothing to lose, and who knows? You might win a fashion show!

You’ve said participating in the show introduced you to a community of like-minded creators. How has that impacted you?

It’s honestly the best thing for me coming out of the show. There isn’t a huge community of costumers or sewists in Central Texas (or if they are, I don’t know where to find them!), so becoming part of this group of people who have this kind of odd niche passion is just incredible.

There’s a private FB group and pretty regular chatter of people asking for or sharing advice, sharing new techniques they’ve learned, giving feedback, sharing sewing and costuming memes. It’s very positive, collaborative, and supportive. As much as I think people should do things they love and which bring them joy, creating couture level clothing is a lot of work. Without a community of people who are excited to see what you’ve been doing, it can be easy to lose motivation.

You often use secondhand fabric and recycled materials in your couture projects. Why is that a priority for you?

I probably use under 100 yards of fabric a year, so my own personal impact is incredibly small compared to large-scale manufacturers or even small production ateliers — but I like to use and talk about using secondhand fabric and recycled materials as a way of raising awareness. I think as a whole, people just don’t understand or think about the far-ranging environmental and social impact the textiles and apparel industry has on the world.

The industry is one of the top sources of pollution and has a terrible track record when it comes to human rights violations. I’m happy to see many people in costuming communities becoming more aware and vocal about these issues, and I’m thrilled that creative reuse shops are popping up all over the place. And if people want to look at it from a 100% “what’s in it for me” standpoint, it’s usually far more economical to use secondhand and recycled!

One of your goals for 2020 is to create as many (or more) geek couture creations as you did last year. Can you give us a hint as to what you might have planned?

We’ll see what I get to. I have a 1984 Wonder Woman look that I was going to make for WonderCon before it was canceled. I have all the materials so it will still happen, just maybe not immediately. I’d love to do some designs for Lore Olympus (my top obsession right now), maybe something for Good Omens … with this social isolation thing going on, I’m trying to think of ways to use up fabric that’s already in my stash.

What’s left on your geek fashion bucket list?

My ideas list is so long, I’ll never get to all of it! My last several projects have been more “wearable” designs and I’d love to do something over the top and dramatic like Howl again to mix things up. Maybe I should go back to my fandom roots and do something for Labyrinth and/or Star Trek – I have some pretty fantastic ideas that have been percolating for a while. I just have to make them a reality.

 

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