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The Tarot Garden Library

About the Author

Jeannette Roth is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden. She has been collecting tarot cards for 20 years, with an eclectic interest in all areas of its study and use.

Cards in Three Dimensions:
Tarot-Inspired Costumes

Cards are a two-dimensional medium. But although tarot finds its origins in the cards, the concept of tarot itself transcends the medium. Tarot is a tool, a passion, even a way-of-life. While the cards will probably remain its most natural form of expression, it is no longer restricted to the flat, four-cornered world from which it evolved.

This is a story of how a talented group of folks moved tarot into the "third dimension." Although I had the distinct pleasure of participating in this endeavor, I can't take any of the credit for bringing the project to fruition. My primary contribution consisted of an offhand comment to my husband about how the cards of the Londa Tarot would look absolutely stunning rendered as full-size costumes.

But... from my lips to "costumers' ears," as it were. Around these parts, interest in costume design and construction rivals the passion for tarot embraced by many a collector. So, from my fledgling costume-enthusiast husband, on to other costumers in the area, the word traveled. And the next thing I knew, I was embarking on a shopping trip with "the gang" to find the right fabrics and base patterns for turning the idea into a reality.

The goal was to create an ensemble of outfits that could be entered into the formal masquerade competition at Archon in 2002. Archon is a science fiction and fantasy convention held annually in the St. Louis area, usually in October. They are generally regarded as having one of the premier such competitions in the Midwestern U.S. A secondary goal of having two of the costumes completed in time for the International Tarot Society's biannual "World Tarot Congress" was not achieved, as time ran short, and the Congress was held in May of 2002 -- five months earlier than the St. Louis event.

Initially, four people stepped forward to work on the project: my husband Les, two local costuming talents -- Rachelle Hrubetz and Mandi Arthur -- and myself. Les selected the Hierophant card from the Londa Tarot for his portion of the presentation, and it was decided that Rachelle, Mandi, and I would do the Justice, Strength, and Empress cards respectively. Over the following months, Rachelle, Mandi, and Les worked together on constructing their costumes. I did very little construction work on my own costume, and replied heavily on advice from Rachelle and Mandi in the construction of the top portion thereof. The pants, cummerbund, and difficult left sleeve of the Empress costume were primarily constructed by another local costumer, Sallie Abba, who also participated in the final presentation when the concept was expanded in scope (more below).

In the original Londa cards, each of the selected characters is holding one or more objects -- a scepter for the Empress, a spear for the Hierophant, a sword and scales for Justice, and a leopard for Strength. Les decided to replicate these items in such a way that each person could carry an item that would light up or glow under darkened conditions. The scepter was built to incorporate a plasma lightning globe inside the top sphere. The shaft of the spear was constructed with an internal light source, so that rune symbols incorporated into the design would appear to glow forth from it. Justice's sword was made from an acrylic material that conducted light from a source in the hilt upward, toward the sword's tip. A commercially-purchased glowstick was twisted into the shape of a lemniscate and hung from the collar of Strength's leopard.

The hair designs for the characters also presented a challenge and an opportunity. Wigs were obviously needed, and were subsequently purchased from a specialty wig supplier. However, although good matches were available for the Justice and Strength designs, modifications were required to match the hairdos sported by the Hierophant and Empress. Additional stylizing of the Hierophant wig was performed by Joann Firkins, a professional stylist and former high school classmate of Les'. Sallie applied her creative talents to the Empress wig by combining two hairpieces in order to achieve the desired length and fullness, and then painting the resulting product to match the orange-tinged locks as represented on the original card.

The makeup was also a crucial element in effectively recreating the "look" of the original cards. The makeup design and application was achieved largely through the efforts of the talented Lynda Sherman, a theater arts specialist.

It seemed unlikely that most of the Archon audience would be intimately familiar with the tarot we were attempting to recreate. Therefore, Les decided it would be best to include full-size reproductions of the cards in the presentation. Because it was too expensive to print full-color posters of the cards at the desired size, the services of graphic artist Max Rauer were solicited. Max reduced the illustrations to black-and-white line drawings which could be printed affordably. Mandi then used pastels and chalk to re-color the black-and-white posters to match the original illustrations. The posters were then mounted in frames constructed of PVC piping for stage-display purposes.

To add drama to the presentation, it was later decided that the posters should be displayed, with the costumed characters subsequently "stepping out of" the cards. To provide a foundation for this staging, Les and Rachelle decided to cast the presentation within the framework of a "gypsy" tarot reading. Some additional people were invited to play the parts of the gypsies -- Sallie Abba (mentioned previously), her husband Greg, and Joe Struss. Sallie would perform the role of the reader, Joe would be the querent, and Greg would act as the gypsy "assistant" that revealed each of the full-size reproductions of the cards to the audience as they were "dealt" on stage by the reader.

Since the primary focus was intended to be on the Londa card costumes, the original concepts for the "gypsy" outfits were very simple. However, as avid costuming enthusiasts themselves, Sallie and Greg had a different idea: what if there were an actual tarot with cards after which the gypsy costumes could be patterned? As it turned out, Buckland and Lake's Romani Tarot provided the perfect designs for such an endeavor. Although the audience might not be aware of it, they would have the opportunity to view reproductions from two tarots within a single presentation.

The characters chosen from the Romani tarot were as follows: reader -- the Magician (represented by a female figure in the Romani deck); assistant -- 8 of Chivs (Swords); querent -- 5 of Chivs (Swords). In addition, Greg constructed a special prop to serve as the "reading table." The design of the table was inspired by items pictured in the Romani cards, most specifically the Magician and World cards. It incorporated the four traditional "elemental/suit" symbols of the tarot, as represented in the deck -- Koshes (wands), Koros (cups), Chivs (swords), and Bolers (pentacles).

Thanks to the excellent talents of the Archon masquerade team, the stage setup allowed contestants a great deal of flexibility for entrances and exits. It was decided that our presentation would be best served with a split left/right entrance. Thus, the final presentation staging was as follows: we began by moving the reading table and card posters into place under "lights out" conditions. When the lights came up, the reader dealt each of the Londa cards (using the actual cards from the actual deck, although this was probably not apparent to anyone in the audience past the first row) while the querent looked on. As each card was presented, the assistant "unveiled" each of the posters, which had been covered with a black hanging cloth (constructed by Rachelle) that could be flipped back behind the frame.

By the time the last card had been revealed, the audience appeared to be convinced that the gypsy costumes were the presentation, and they applauded politely. At that point, the reader and querent moved the table to the rear of the stage (the reading "stump" having been mounted on a wheel base to facilitate this transition), and the Londa "characters" stepped out from behind the curtains and moved into place next to their "cards." The gasps of surprise, followed by various "ooos" and "aaaahs," and then renewed enthusiastic applause, were worth the months of effort. After displaying both the fronts and backs of the costumes, the stage lights were lowered, affording the audience the opportunity to observe the lighting effects incorporated into the props before everyone made their exit.

The costumes and presentation garnered two awards: a workmanship award for "Best Media Recreation," and the presentation award for "Best in Show." Awards aside, however, the entire experience provided me with a new and valuable opportunity in my personal tarot studies. I discovered that as an art form, tarot provides a well-defined framework of concepts and images. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, the executional possibilities that find their roots within the framework of tarot are practically limitless.

Postscript: It is customary, at the "higher" levels of competition, for entrants to provide the judges background and construction documentation on a costume presentation. For those interested in more detailed information on the concepts and construction of the Londa/Romani costume ensemble, the documentation can be accessed and viewed in .pdf format by clicking here.

The following are additional photos of the entrants that were taken during the competition. Click the button below any thumbnail to see an enlarged view of the photo.

© Jeannette Roth
6 November 2002

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