Today's guest blog post is by Gretel Meyer Odell. Gretel is the owner and chief designer of Fancy Pants Kids, a Toronto-based company devoted to nurturing imaginations by creating exceptional costume/dress-up designs. She's been hard at work making the costumes that families will be able to try on in Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor's Painted Army! Gretel lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband, two sons, many pets, and an impressive dress-up collection.
What a delightful surprise it was to be contacted by staff at The Children’s Museum to ask if I could make Terra Cotta Warrior costumes for their upcoming hands-on exhibit. They had stumbled upon an entry on my Fancy Pants Kids blog showing some of my institutional designs. Over the years, my very favorite work has been creating custom designs for museums and galleries. Knowing that the items I create will be worn and enjoyed by thousands of children and their families each and every week creates a very special kind of satisfaction and motivation to make each item truly magical (not to mention indestructible). Some of my similar projects have been brown bats, medieval arming caps, and dinosaur costumes for the Royal Ontario Museum and David Bowie-inspired costumes for the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Working with my favorite material for this kind of project (sturdy upholstery vinyl) we adapted my original Terra Cotta Warrior design and started cutting all the pieces we would need to make 4 child and 2 adult-sized costumes. This was my very first time making adult-sized replicas and it was fun (but wow—adults sure require a lot of extra materials!)
Another interesting challenge was to figure out how to make the back of the armor weigh the same as the front. The 200-250 snaps on the front of the armor add a good bit of weight to the costume, causing it to pull to the front when you wear it. I solved this by weighing the number of snaps that would be placed and cutting vinyl inserts of the same weight to slip into the back panel. You'll notice when you handle and wear these pieces that they're quite heavy. I’m sure they're a small fraction of what the real armor weighed, but the weight does add to the experience of imagining what it may have been like to wear a uniform like this to work!
Once the pieces were cut, my assistant Jody and I used chalk to draw the individual tiles that comprise the armor, then we used light colored thread to top-stitch those lines. When the armor was fully assembled, it was time to start punching the holes for the snap heads that would create the look of the rivets that appear all over the real armor. The holes are made individually with a hammer and a small punch tool. This was hard work and took a few hours (and ear plugs). I tried to re-create the variations in how these studs were placed on the statue samples I had seen. If you look at one of the warriors you'll see that the studs are not perfectly symmetrical, nor is there a fully consistent pattern.
Once the holes were made, the armor went to Susana—a local sewer who works with Toronto fashion designers—who patiently installed the 1,200+ snaps in the armor. Then it was back to my home studio for inspection, thread snipping, and the first of tens of thousands of family photos that will be taken with the armor!
China's Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor's Painted Army, opens on May 10 alongside Take Me There: China. Learn more!