California Costume

part 1 | 2 
At the end of any large construction job, there are usually some raw materials left unused.  So it was for a display-building job in preparation for the 2002 California State Fair.

It was after midnight on the last day of construction, when the final polishing and cleanup takes place. I had my eye on a giant roll of soft foam rubber, and my boss Richard Bay generously let me take it home.


I planned to use the inch foam sheet to build some kind of soft furniture, but I was having a hard time deciding on a project.

As Halloween approached, I decided to make myself a California costume. I'd had a great time as Africa back in 1990, so I knew the joys of giant geographic costumes.

I brought an image from the public service message prank into Photoshop. I resized and repositioned the outline of California until it was as large as I dared make a costume. 

Unfortunately, I didn't have my giant California outline any longer, so I had to re-draw the silhouette by hand.

Summer helped me draw a one-square foot grid on a 5'x9' sheet of foam taped onto the wall. She's using that herbalife sign as a straightedge.

I superimposed a similar grid over my California design, then transferred the pattern of the California coastline to the foam sheet. 

Within a few minutes, I had two seven-foot foam rubber cut-outs on my floor. I planned on having a colorful front panel and a plain back-panel.

When I wore the Africa costume back in 1990, I had been sandwiched between two sheets of cardboard with an open edge. I wanted California to have a more finished appearance, so I cut three long strips to seal the sides of the costume.

I decided to roll a first coat of paint onto the foam pieces.

I was trying to save money by using latex paint instead of spray-paint. This turned out to be a silly mistake because the open-celled foam could absorb an amazing amount of liquid paint.

They make paintbrushes out of the stuff for heaven's sake.

I rolled almost a gallon of black paint onto the backing before I realized my error. The foam was totally saturated with paint, it wasn't drying and its weight had tripled.

I trashed that one, cut out another silhouette and bought 5 cans of black spray paint.

I was done in no time. If you've never spray-painted with both hands, you don't know what you are missing.

For the front of the costume, I downloaded an elevation map of the state. This one was colorful and fairly detailed.

In case you are interested, that big green area in the center of California is the Central valley. Lots of water flows to this fertile area and our state is able to produce an obscene amount of food.

from U.S. Conference of Mayors report on California's Great Central Valley: It is 450 miles long and only 50 miles wide. It produces 250 different crops worth more than $14 billion annually. It is America's most important agricultural resource.

I bought about $25 worth of spray paint and went to work duplicating the look of the color map.  I should try this with an airbrush some time, but for now I stuck with aerosol spray paint (or rattlecans, as Mark likes to say).

California was ready to be glued together.

To support the top of the costume, I bought a second-hand baby carrier and hot-glued some shoulder-straps to it.

I have a feeling I'm going to be making something like this every year from now on. I'm certain a backpack frame is at the heart of many award-winning costumes.

Next I screwed some lengths of PVC (plastic) pipe to the sides. One support pipe threatened to hit the eastern edge of California, (near Lake Tahoe) so I heated the pipe over the stove and put a little bend in it.

I didn't know what kind of lethal, odorless gas would be released by doing this, but a little research revealed:

It only takes five ounces of burning PVC to give off enough hydrogen chloride gas to kill the occupants in an average size bedroom in ten minutes. Not Man Apart, Nov. 1982, report of results, Univ. Pittsburgh via Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

I wasn't burning it, but nonetheless I'll be more careful in the future.

The next step in forming the backpack support was to fashion a cardboard box for the top. The top edge of California was 23" wide, and I decided to make the costume 12" deep. This 23"x12"x10" box would give California a nice rigid shape to hang from.  I poked the PVC poles through the box and secured them to the top with stiff wire.

Miraculously the box sat solidly on top of the poles, and the angle seemed about right for my tilted state.

I placed the front panel of California face down on the floor and used Dap Weldwood contact cement to glue side-pieces along the edges. The cardboard box slipped right into the top.

I glued the cardboard box into place and soon it was surrounded by foam.

The costume was enclosed nearly all the way around. Only the Pacific coast, from San Simeon to San Diego was left open.

With Rosemary's help I hoisted the whole mess upright and cut a hole for my face.

It was getting late. The glue and paint fumes were pretty intense.

Mike poked his head into my room, "you aren't planning on sleeping with that thing in your room, are you?"

The next morning I painted some details in with stencils, including this black San Francisco Bay. 
I printed and laminated some tags for major California cities, but didn't end up using them.
Despite the fact that it was only October 23rd, I found battery-powered Christmas lights for sale at Wishing Well, a local party-supply store.

I tested one set of lights with some new batteries. The last thing this costume needed was rolling blackout jokes.

In true geek style, I tracked down a California nighttime light-energy map and used it to place my 35 tiny bulbs, poking the little lightbulbs through the foam. I screwed the battery packs to the PVC poles
The effect was pretty cool and straightforward, but it made the interior of the costume a mess of wires.
The costume was looking great. I had been keeping my ears open for Halloween contests in Sacramento, and had found one for Friday, October 25th and Saturday, Oct. 26th.

Saturday, Oct. 26, 2002 was an amazing night for parties. I was invited to more parties on this night than ever before in my life. A massive Halloween party was being promoted by a local radio station, and I planned on being there.

It was 100.5 The Zone's Exotic Halloween Ball, and tickets were $24. None of my friends were going, but they were promoting big prizes: a $1,500 first, $1,000 second, and $500 third prize. California wasn't the most original costume, but it was big, so I figured it might be good enough to win.

please continue to part 2 of California Costume.

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November 19th, 2002.  

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