Legacies Little Girl, Big Dinosaur Costume
Fashion is about more than looking good, or feeling comfortable—it’s about how your clothes tell your story.
I only know about the princess costume because of a photograph. I guess I had been so young that this one memory has slipped away from me. I’m standing with my pre-K class on the steps of the chapel, pink and glittering, a princess among many others. These were the days of Belle and Ariel—and while a princess costume wasn’t the most original idea, my costume felt special, because it didn’t come from a store. Throughout my childhood, none of my costumes would. They came from the hands of my grandmother and my uncle, who made me so many over the years that the princess costume was forgotten, until that photograph.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a willowy Italian-Irish woman named Margaret whose house always smelled like freshly brewed iced tea, and who was always working on a new sewing project. The memories of afternoons spent in Nonna’s house beneath the pecan trees have become sacrosanct in my mind. She was a supremely strong and independent woman, who only became more so after my grandfather died. She rejected a late-in-life marriage proposal by a longtime friend, climbed ladders, and threaded needles well into her 80s, and only stopped because cancer took her suddenly when I was in high school.
My uncle, my father’s brother, was named Martin, but I never once in my life called him that. When I was a toddler, I could only discern that his name started with “M” and so I made up the rest. From then on, for me only, he was “Uncle Meno.” He was creatively talented in every way. He could sew; he could draw. He designed home interiors that were featured in the local navel-gazing magazines about San Antonio’s rich and famous. But I also knew he was sick in some way, not because he looked sick or said that he was sick, but because every morning my dad and I sat down and prayed that he didn’t get sicker. Being young, shy, naïve, and accustomed to taking adults at their word, I didn’t ask him what that meant. This wasn’t something I understood or even thought critically about until I was in 8th or 9th grade, when my dad sat me down and explained that Uncle Meno had HIV and that, despite the prayers, despite antiretrovirals and modern medical science, it had progressed, and now he had AIDS and no one knew how long he had left. I was stunned. Still young and naïve, I had many questions, but didn’t ask any of them. I sat there quietly, thinking, “You idiot, what else could ‘sick’ have possibly meant?”
This was my costume-making dream team, the people who lovingly turned me into the princess on the chapel steps, and then a puckish Mickey Mouse, and then, infamously, a bag of Brach’s candies, an angel with gold wings, and a vampire. But, before all that, the ultimate costume: a full body masterpiece of green felt and polyester batting—a dinosaur. Dinosaur year was first grade, the first and only time I ever wore a Halloween costume to school. I was immensely proud of it: When I stepped onto the playground that morning I felt menacing and scary, and tall and strong when I was actually puny and awkward. It was a dazzling moment of empowerment for a shy kid who was just realizing that she was bad at math and equally bad at being likable. But all day I reveled in my prehistoric brawn. I roared at my classmates and made a show of swinging my tail out of the way when I sat at my desk. Compared to the princesses and fairies around me, I felt unique, and special, and smart. “Dinosaurs existed, and I know all about them!” I wanted to say to everyone around me, and maybe I did.
Every July, when the question “What do you want to be this year?” came up, I knew my answer could be “a cloud of moon glitter” and Nonna or Uncle Meno or both would find a way to make it happen, because they were brilliant and through some sort of Halloween magic could make anything out of next-to-nothing. This was a resourcefulness derived from two very different lived histories, that of the Great Depression and the club scene of the 1980s and ’90s queer community, both eras when craft and resourcefulness and creativity reigned, first because they had to, and then not just because they could, but should. It was Uncle Meno that saved a child-sized mattress bag from the trash and turned me into a bag of Brach’s jelly beans—one of my favorite costumes, though I hated it at the time. I was three and incensed that, because the bag was full of balloons, I couldn’t sit down. I cried endlessly. I look miserable in every photo. But today I am awed by the creativity that went into those balloon jelly beans, and I’m not sure any costume I make will ever top it.
I was thinking about the dinosaur costume when I called my mom a few weeks ago with a question: How many old photos were there of my childhood Halloween costumes? “If you wore it, I took a picture of it,” she responded. I asked her to send me some of them, if she got around to it. I expected a few to trickle in over the next few days, but she immediately sent an onslaught of pictures taken with her phone camera—all photos of costumes, more than I remembered, and each one better than I remembered. Anyone can open up an old box or family album and behold themselves growing up from one picture to the next, but there was something special about seeing myself grow in the context of what I’d wanted to be for Halloween each year, a little girl growing up and growing out of a princess costume.
Two years later, Nonna and Uncle Meno collaborated on an angel costume. Nonna worked on the dress, and Uncle Meno created the golden wings that tied around my body like an ancient Grecian gown. A new girl my age had just moved in next door and we’d become fast friends. One day in October, I went over to her house to model the costume. I twirled in the dress, and stuck out my arms to show off the bell sleeves, flexed my shoulder blades to weakly flap the wings. I asked her what she was going to be, and she told me she wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween, because it was Satanic. “But I’m going to be an angel,” I said, confused. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s evil.”
In fall 1997, just like she did every year, Nonna turned her dining room into a sewing room, bought some black satin fabric, and turned me into a vampire. When she put that costume into my hands for the first time so that I could try it on, I knew that this one was different from the others. I took it into the small, tiled bathroom in her old creaky house and looked at myself in the mirror. The dress was long, black, and cinched at the waist with a sash. Over it, Nonna had tied a high-collared black cape, lined with blood-red satin. I bared my teeth in the mirror. I took the cape in my hands and twirled like an actress in a movie. I felt cool , and scary. At an age when I was barely beginning to pick out my own clothes and dress myself, that costume made me feel some little bit of sartorial autonomy, a taste of adulthood, no longer a princess or a dinosaur but a proper monster.
She was introducing me to style, one Halloween at a time.
I wore the vampire costume with a gloating glee that Halloween, thrilled that mine was the most beautiful costume among all my friends. At the end of the evening, back from trick-or-treating, I took off the cape and saw myself in just the dress. In the mirror, I saw a version of myself that I was surprised by—a grown-up me wearing something nice, something classy, something so beautifully made that no one would ever know that it was once part of a vampire costume. I saw my future—the me that would grow up to love clothes, the me that would experiment with her identity over and over again through what she would wear. When some late evening trick-or-treaters came to the door, I delighted in answering it without the cape, wearing only the dress, my mom’s red lipstick still smeared across my face in the guise of blood. It was the first time that I felt the transformative power of clothes, that they could turn me into a different person, a better person, more sophisticated, elegant, and worldly. “What was she supposed to be,” I heard one trick-or-treater say to the other as they walked away. I wanted to scream at them, “GROWN UP!”
Despite the beautiful things she made me, Nonna’s own grown-up style incorporated not a single cape or satin dress. I remember her always in slacks and unfussy floral button-ups, things that were practical and comfortable, equally good for hard work in the garden and an afternoon cigarette and beer on her breezy front porch. And yet, as a child, I loved going through her closets and drawers and finding little treasures she’d saved over the years, especially the bits of elegance that she once wore but no longer did: the evening jewelry, the little bottle of Ungaro Eau de Parfum, the extraordinarily high heels that I could barely imagine her wearing, that I put on my small feet and shuffled around in.
She must have noticed my fascination, because one day she put a big bag of her old clothes in my hands and said, “They’re all yours.” I was thrilled. I spent hours in my bedroom trying on her old dresses and slips and scarves, playing make-believe that I had places to be and affairs to attend to. These things introduced me to a version of my grandmother that I didn’t know: These clothes weren’t practical at all. In fact, they were downright fancy! I saw her as a younger woman, one that I never knew, who existed long before I was born, and I now only knew through the things that she wore—the worn buttonholes and zippers and satin that had defined a time in her life now past, but that she had given to me, and that she was still giving to me every time she made me a new Halloween costume. That elegant woman wasn’t gone—Nonna was putting her into the things she made for me. She was introducing me to style, one Halloween at a time.
And then there was Uncle Meno, a person whose creative sensibilities were tailor-made for Halloween. He was always in something elegant and unbuttoned down to his chest, a gold chain peeking out from below the carefully pressed collar. He dressed like an emergency party was always a looming threat. His room was a wonderland to me, full of an endless number of strange and beautiful things: Patrick Nagel prints on the wall, a collection of tiaras and obelisks and crucifixes on top of a bureau, crates of Madonna records. There was an exhilarating chaos in that room caused by cascades of shiny and loudly patterned clothes strewn over every surface. He was a man who knew how to shop, and it was Uncle Meno who taught my dad how to thrift, a skill my dad later passed down to me: Look at everything on the rack; try everything on; don’t be afraid of the old, the out-of-style, the flamboyant. Child me was yet another canvas on which he could practice his creativity, a living doll who loved sequins and ribbons and face paint as much as he did.
He dressed like an emergency party was always a looming threat.
What I’ve learned from their closets and from the Halloween costumes they made me every year for a decade is that fashion is about more than looking good, or feeling comfortable — it’s about how your clothes tell your story. The costumes they made for me were more than cute things for a little girl to wear for one or two nights a year. They told my story of growing up, of the transformation from princess to dinosaur to vampire, from cute to scary, from pink to black. The vampire was the last costume either Nonna or Uncle Meno made for me, and with that cape and dress and smeared lipstick came the end of an era. I hadn’t even realized it was happening. The next year, I made the very adult decision to make my own costumes, and I’ve been doing that every year since, but I wish I’d known what I was losing, or rather, what I was growing up and away from, and what I’d never get back.
In 2001, when I was a freshman in high school, my independent, ladder-climbing, dress-making grandmother suddenly became very ill. It was quick; barely a month after first feeling a pain in her abdomen, she passed. It was the first time in my life that I’d experienced the death of someone I was close to, and I found that I had trouble figuring out what to feel and how to feel it. Even today, I have so many things I wish that I’d asked her. I wish that I’d asked her to tell me the stories behind every dress she’d plunked into my hands. I wish that I’d asked her to teach me to sew. I wish she could make me just one more dress, one more cape, and if she couldn’t, then I wish that I could open my closet and say to her, “See? I’ve kept the beautiful things you made for me. I love them. I love you!”
When I was in my second year of college, newly transferred to a school 300 miles from home, my infinitely creative uncle succumbed to complications from AIDS. He and I had the same birthday, a special connection that came with our relationship, the costumes, the silly name that I called him. Losing my grandmother had been hard; losing my uncle was devastating. His absence tore a hole through the family. He left behind unfinished sewing projects, a dog who wondered where he’d gone, and that hurricane of clothes and obelisks and tiaras and records that, years later, were dispersed to family members that loved him and missed him. I took a soft brown knitted scarf and still wear it when the trees turn orange and the pumpkins and skeletons appear on every porch. To him I would say, “We are so alike, I wish you could have known me as an adult. I love you!”
They were my costume dream team, but they were so much more. They were talented, artistic, and there was no one else on Earth like them . And now, every time I come across bits of these old costumes, in bins tucked away or in closets at my mom’s house, I still feel so incredibly loved, and so incredibly supported as an artist. Those dresses and tiaras guided my path. Those angel wings flew me straight into art school.
I love Halloween because it’s the one day of the year when I can look into a mirror and say, “So, what do you want to be?” And then, using everything I learned from Nonna and Uncle Meno, I can turn myself into that person, or that thing, or even that idea . I can become something fantastical. Halloween is for Nonna and Uncle Meno: my closet is the ofrenda; the offerings are Werther’s and Like A Prayer .