If you don't recognize the importance of fashion, just think of Cinderella. Confined to a life of toil and hidden away from opportunity, it was a gown and misplaced slipper that rescued her from despair.
Writing for Bright Lights Film Journal on the 1950 animated classic and its commentary on postwar fashion, University of York art history professor Emanuele Lugli explains, "The movie details the making and unmaking of clothes, the daily routine of dressing, the pleasures of fashion, and the physical pains it inflicts. Clothes are so imposing that they take up a life of their own (they loom as large as colossi, they dance in the air) and thus change the way we perceive bodies ... Such emphasis is quite fitting for a story about how one outfit (and, especially, one accessory) radically transforms the life of a young woman."
And just as a shift in attire can dramatically alter the way others see you for at least one evening — until you find yourself longing to escape from those heels — a simple change in costume can take you from one life to the next. Whether a business suit or pencil skirt, uniform or lingerie, much of the control you have over how others see you begins and ends with what you pull off a hanger in the morning. Sometimes you dress to intimidate, other times to relax, and sometimes you dress to delight and captivate. The latter just happens to be a specialty of Shelby Sessler — performer, designer, and cosplayer.
"I have to be very delicate with my schedule sometimes. I just moved down here, so I'm having to move things around so that I can accommodate it. Occasionally I'll have a full day off, and I will spend the whole day crafting and watching shows for source material and just enjoying what I do. I love to make things," says Sessler in a bright, optimistic voice as she commutes from one job to the next. "A lot of times I will be going to and from conventions, and I'll decide what I want to do depending on if we're doing a group costume together or if my fiance wants to make something that we can wear together or if I am just really, really passionate about a character."
In between working at Charleston Grill and her job at a department store, Sessler runs a business where she appears at children's parties as their favorite characters. Designing and creating costumes in what available time she has, Sessler shows off her creations at conventions, photoshoots, and any other appearances she may have lined up. Recently relocating to Charleston from Columbia, Sessler has always loved crafting. Around the age of four, she remembers watching her mother sew her Easter dress. As a small child, she attempted to staple together a Princess Jasmine costume, only to be devastated when it ripped apart as she tried to wear it.
Sessler started designing her own Halloween costumes for her mom to make when she was in the second or third grade. For her 12th birthday, Sessler's mother bought her sewing lessons, which meant that from that point on she'd be responsible for creating her own costumes.
One thing to remember when considering what it takes to realize a costume for an animated film is that the real world is very different from the two-dimensional realm. What seems magical and simple in one may prove to be a massive undertaking in the other. For example, the costume team behind the most recent live-action adaptation of Cinderella spent 4,000 hours just to bring the titular character's pale-blue ball gown to life, using three miles of thread and 820 feet of fabric in each of the eight versions of the dress made for the film. Without an international corporation to help pick up the slack and sew a stitch or two, Sessler finds herself making due the best she can.
"I'm still setting up my work station down here. I have a lot of things still in Columbia. I had an entire room over the garage devoted to just my wigs and fabric and costumes, and I'm having to downsize it considerably down here," she says. "We have a spare room, sort of, but when you are sewing one thing and making a magic wand and hot-gluing armor together, you kind of spread out all over the entire apartment."
Shelby Sessler has no shortage of inspiration when it comes to the characters she portrays. Here's a look at some of the costumes she's created in the past.
• Joy, your favorite emotion from
• Cinderella from, well, Cinderella
• Elsa and Anna of Arendelle, the estranged sisters from Disney's Frozen
• Adagio Dazzle, applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity from My Little Pony
• Rapunzel from Tangled
• Renge, the outspoken manager from Ouran High School Host Club
• Louise Belcher, the problem child from Bob's Burgers
• Peter Pan, Wendy Darling, and Tinker Bell from Disney classic Peter Pan
• Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time
• Hiccup, the under-rated protagonist from How to Train Your Dragon
• Super Girl
• Katniss Everdeen, top tribute from The Hunger Games
• Star Butterfly, the intergalactic warrior from animated series Star vs. the Forces of Evil
Sessler approaches each new project by first deconstructing the costume in her head, piece by piece. There is a great deal of homework that goes along with the process. Sometimes this means repeated viewings of the same film, sketching out ideas in an empty theater during the middle of the day. If a certain character can be placed in a specific part of the world, Sessler uses that information as a starting point for what fabrics to use and what designs might best fit the persona.
"There is so much homework you have to do. Some things are a little easier, like if you're designing a costume as opposed to making something exactly like you see it on screen," says Sessler. "A lot of the My Little Pony costumes that I make I have to draw out a design for because it's on a horse, so you have a lot more creative liberties that you can take with that. A lot of times I have to design it and then I get to pick what fabrics I want to use."
Of course, nailing down the costumes is only a portion of what it takes to fully capture each character. Cosplay is as much about performing as it is looking the part. While designing and crafting a costume appeals to Sessler's creative passions, it's the thrill of embodying a character that serves her love of performing.
Ultimately earning a degree in music, Sessler began singing at a very young age. She and her sister joke that Ariel from The Little Mermaid was their first voice teacher. Participating in church and school plays, Sessler caught the theater bug after starring in a middle-school production of The Music Man. From that point on, she served on the school's drama board, helped at children's camps, and worked in the costume department on school productions. Between Sessler's freshmen year in high school and the end of college, she was involved in around 60 different productions.
"Neither of my parents are very theatrically inclined, although my mom does like to act out stories she tells, and my dad has been in a few shows with me, but he prefers to crew the shows and watch from the wings," says Sessler. "Both my sister and I sing and act, although for my sister does it is more out of enjoyment than a drive to perform. My passion is driven by the audience and giving each audience member a unique experience. It is the same passion that drives me if I am interacting with children in character or performing at a small event, be it a birthday party, a convention, or a festival."
After college, Sessler briefly worked with the Birmingham Children's Theatre, where her director introduced her to the idea of doing character appearances in full costume. After developing the idea a bit more, Sessler made her first in-character appearance at a party, but things were a bit challenging starting out. Not surprisingly, questions surrounding how much a fictional character gets paid per hour or what exactly one is supposed to do once they step into the role took some time to figure out. But over the course of three years, Sessler and her friend were able to iron out the details — expanding on her business, Practically Perfect Princess Parties — although most of her recent character appearances have been at conventions since moving to Charleston.
Traveling to New York to Maryland to the West Coast for conventions, Sessler compares the experience to improv — only instead of spending maybe an hour on stage, she finds herself remaining in character for 12-14 hours.
"You just have to really know the characters and be able to bring that spirit out," says Sessler. "But it's a completely different experience than being on stage. Singing for a group of kids in someone's living room versus singing on stage for a bunch of people, it's a little shocking at first by how close you have to be and making eye contact and still performing songs as perfectly as you can. But it strengthens you as a performer."
As someone who dedicates so much of her time and creative energy to looking and acting like someone else, Sessler's current career aspirations to become a voice actor would find her completely out of the gaze of the audience.
"I love making costumes, live theater, wig making, makeup, but more than anything I love to use my voice to express myself, whether it is singing or acting through my voice. I find it very liberating to have a medium of acting where you are not judged by your appearance, but solely by the talent that you bring to the table," she says. "I know that sounds funny coming from someone who spends most of my free time dressing up like other people, but I feel like there is something truly special about voice acting that you don't always find in another medium."
Sessler adds, "If I can use my voice to bring to life a character that children love and inspires them and brings them joy, that is really all that I want in life. While I have not had a chance to work professionally yet, I have been involved online in voiceover for a few years, and I have made some really amazing friends from around the world."
Inspired by everything from cartoons to period pieces and musicals, Sessler credits the sense of community that comes from cosplay as the thing she loves the most. It's how she's grown her social circle and met her fiance. Between convention and birthday appearances, Sessler has the opportunity to lose herself in a character, but she also offers those who stumble upon her the chance to meet their heroes. Running between photoshoots and conventions, Sessler comes across the occasional kid who stands awestruck to have run into his or her favorite character. The burden that comes with this is that she can't step out of character when faced with a screaming fan. Fortunately, Sessler finds the experience all worth it.
"There is nothing better than brightening a child's day, whether at a birthday party or a convention or just straight up at a festival," Sessler says. "Just the look in the child's eyes, that gleam of excitement that you see in them, there is nothing comparable to it. That's one of the reasons why I love bringing life to the characters like I do because I just love kids."