WisCon is over, and a wonderful time was (apparently) had by all, or almost all. WisCon is the world’s first feminist science fiction convention, and the social mores are very difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t been there. People who know science fiction conventions are often puzzled by the feminism, and people who know feminist and other activist spaces don’t always understand what the science fiction community brings to the party. And I’m not going to try to unwrap any of that here.
Sunday night is a big event, with the guest of honor speeches and the Tiptree Awards. Science fiction conventions have long been dress-up spaces, and Sunday night at WisCon is the high point of dress-up for this group. What I wanted to do quickly was try and explain what I mean by “dress up” in this context. Just as some beaches and hot springs are “clothing optional” spaces, WisCon is a “flamboyance optional” space. A significant number of people wear their everyday jeans and t-shirts. Some people wear what we would call on the street “costume,” which could be from a movie or a TV show, or could be elaborate face paint … whatever. Generally, it is home-made or hand-done rather than store bought.
At least 50% of the folks, however, wear dress-up clothing: something silky, something sexy, something special. To understand that, you have to realize that that 50% crosses genders, ages, and body types. I didn’t see a man in an evening gown this year (though I did last year), but I saw a few men in skirts or sarongs, as well as at least one in a tux. One of our guests of honor spoke wearing a tight corset and a black wrap; the other was more modestly (but equally beautifully) dressed. Gray hair and finery are common companions. I brought a dress that looked sexy in the catalogue but looks mother-of-the-bride on me (in a pretty good way). I didn’t wear it, however, because one of our community’s finest clothing designers waylaid me with a multicolored shimmery garment (I’d call it a poncho, but it’s far too elegant for that hippie-sounding word) that slid over my black slacks and completely uninspired black turtleneck to turn me into something out of faerie; slip a beautiful handmade necklack by one of our community’s finest jewelers over it, and I felt extremely elegant. And a lot of people confirmed that with compliments.
In a culture where fat and/or middle-aged women are invisible, the importance of finery cannot be overstated. WisCon is a space where, whatever you look like, it’s okay to dress to be seen. And people will see you, and tell you what they see in the most admiring terms.
In the back of my mind lurk questions about why being seen is equated with being sexy, why we (I) feel better in silk and shimmer than in blue jeans. Laurie, as a professional jewelry-maker, has a lot to say about that, but she’s not here. Whatever the underlying cultural issues, though, I’m here to tell you that being around hundreds of women and men dressed in ways that make them feel visible, and getting props for their choices, is something special.