Since getting involved with Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society a couple of years ago, I’ve got quite into making costumes. The blurry area between costuming and sculpture is particularly interesting to me, along with its close neighbour puppetry. For last year’s Samhuinn – a festival laying to rest the last dregs of Summer and ambivalently celebrating the arrival of winter – I dressed up as a sort of skeletal gentleman-raven, one of six Valravn embodying inevitable death. Fun fun. I made myself a top hat out of cardboard, silk and double-sided sticky tape; a cravat out of the same silk; and I re-tailored a plain woollen waistcoat from India, to give it a tighter fit and a collar of a sort that was fashionable around the end of the nineteenth century.
The biggest feature of the costume was the six-metre-wingspan folding raven wings we all made. I sat out of the design process for these, but we all chipped in practical work to help make them. The ‘bones’ of each wing are made of four lengths of plastic plumbing pipe, hinged so that they move in a pretty realistic flapping motion. One of the middle pair of bones on each side is longer, so that it’s possible to use it as a handle to control their motion, and there are little docks for these so that they can lock in place and leave hands free.
Attached to the bones are three different lengths of individual ‘feathers’, each one having a spine made of one or more thick wires, held in a sheath of black drill cotton, so that the wings extend almost two feet further than the bones. The inner feathers are sewn together, but the outer ones are left separate, one of the notable features of corvid wings being the way the feathers fan out when they fly. Most of the work went into the feathers, I think – the basic design could be done much more easily without such extreme attention to detail. The wings probably warrant a whole post to themselves, with clearer photos, so I’ll return to them.
Each of us had a different mask, some very different, some with a similar basic design. Mine is built on a framework of thick, soft aluminium wire. Once I’d made the basic shape, I wrapped it in wet muslin (for grip) and built white Efaplast Light on top of it to create a bird-skull. For the beak – black, in keeping with real raven skulls – I wound wire around its curve, and wrapped it in thin black muslin, slightly transparent so you could see the shape underneath. To keep it in place and in the right shape, I coated the muslin with PVA glue. It’s held on with a strip of elastic sewn on each side of the eye.
For this year’s Samhuinn – tomorrow! – I’ll be wearing a large tapir puppet, about the size of a real adolescent tapir, part of a troupe of puppeteers and dancers representing the doomed vitality and movement of summer. More on that under ‘Tara the Tapir‘.