The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.
Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.
As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.
But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.
Both playful and seductive, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s spell-casting debut, is a mesmerizing love story for the ages.
“The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern, is perhaps one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. While I’m usually one for none stop excitement and action, this book grabbed me in a completely different way by fully immersing me in a world that, for lack of a better term, was like a dream from beginning to end. I fell deeply in love with each and every character in a different way and could see each detail of every scene with such vividness that it was hard to put the book down…both times. For that very reason I chose to create something I’ve never done before.
While I consume myself with cosplay much of the time, my absolute, real passion is costume design. I’ve designed original pieces before, but nothing quite like this. With an extremely clear image of the character in mind as well as a deep passion for the project, I began my concept.
To give a little insight into the character of Celia Bowen, she’s an extremely strong willed, elegant, and beautiful woman, inside and out, who you get to follow from childhood to adulthood in the book. While reading, I couldn’t help feeling close to the characters, having had the chance to see them grow and evolve through the span of decades. Celia herself is introduced as a quiet, closed off child who’s forced to live with her father. Without giving much away, Celia is physically and mentally abused through a series of tests distributed by her father, who brings her up to hone her natural abilities in magic.
Once a woman, Celia is something of a rose that had blossomed from a dark upbringing. She’s thrust into a beautiful yet mysterious world where she’s meant to participate in a game played through magic and manipulation in many forms. There’s romance, struggle, elegance, beauty, and sadness, all wound up in the pages of this magnificent novel. It wasn’t until a couple years after I’d read the book that I decided to create a gown based off of Celia Bowen’s character, but rather than choose one outfit, as they are all so perfectly described, I chose to make something based off my interpretations of the character herself. Here’s what I came up with.
To me, Celia Bowen is the epitome of strength. While she begins as a young, troubled child, she also has an aura of defiance about her that carries through the entire book. She’s impulsive and determined with the ability to overcome both physical and emotional challenges with a strong sense of elegance that never fades. Yet, as strong as she is, she’s a gentle soul covered by years of her father’s conditioning and preparation for her to participate in “the game.” Because of her layers, I decided to create an outfit that would reflect those parts of her.
To begin, I studied the era. It’s set in the late 1800s, early 1900s, a transition time between the Victorian bustle/draping fashions and the more subtle take on those styles that came after. Not wanting a bustle that was TOO exaggerated, I created a somewhat small, bustled underskirt using layers of curved boning to support the back of the skirt. I also made a corset to cinch the waist and a lace over shirt that buttoned down the back with peacock buttons. When it came to color, I chose to make something resembling the outfit she was described to be wearing during her auditions to become part of “The Night Circus.” Simply put, she wore a green dress with a black jacket, but of course I wanted to add to this. This was also the point in which I interpreted Celia’s character to become completely transformed and the last bits of her innocence being buried deep behind a more uniform and forced lifestyle.
To me, the color green is significant to her character for many reasons.
While she is later seen wearing less color to match the black and white style of the circus, Celia has, what I interpreted, as a colorful personality that was stifled early on through her training and tucked away along with her innocence. It’s also described that she can change the color of her clothing to compliment her company. This was also important to me as her romantic interest, Marco, has green eyes and it was described that her gown turned green in his presence. Because the novel is a story that surrounds a gradually developing romance between the two, I wanted the dress to be filled with signs of their relationship.
When it comes to the patterns and detail, everything on this gown is symbolic in some way. I chose a metallic, dotted satin for the second layer of the skirt because as soon as I saw it it reminded me of the night sky. I know! Cheesy, right? But it’s true. I didn’t want literal stars and moons on this gown, though at some point I considered it. In the end, I wanted the dress to bring about subtle and subconscious emotion and feelings. The circus opens only at night and is filled with lights that are described to look like hundreds of fireflies. I wanted to show that somehow in this gown, though the majority of it is somewhat disconnected from the circus itself and more closely bound to the characters and concepts Celia encounters throughout her journey.
Of course, I did want the circus itself to be somewhere on the dress considering it was the setting for this breathtaking story, so I chose to add a black and white trim both to the hat and black satin. I also added an old Egyptian pendant to the hat because I remembered the circus being in Egypt at one point and enjoyed adding hints of where Celia had been to reflect her development. Also on the hat, are two candles. Candles were important to my design because in the story, Celia’s most significant creation is the “Wishing Tree,” a tree standing in the circus filled with candles, each one a wish from a patron. Without giving anything away again, the concept of the tree and the magic that surrounds it carries through the book to the end in such a beautiful manner that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I also added a more literal reference to the wishing tree by adding it to the back of Celia’s jacket, where I beaded its branches with orange beads to represent the flames/candles that sat on its branches in the story. The last reference to the wishing tree is Celia’s underskirt, which is a deep, copper/orange color, representing, to me, the flames that consume Marco and Celia later on in their romance. Literal or figurative? You’ll just have to read the book. Perhaps it’s both!
Also a significant piece of the magic that was associated with Celia’s character was the Ice Garden, which was created for the circus by Marco, Celia’s opponent/love interest. It was described to be Celia’s favorite location in the circus, despite her knowing her opponent had created it. This, of course, was before she knew who her opponent was. I remember Celia touching a frosted flower and because of that I added a white/silver flower to the side of Celia’s bustle and spritzed it with glitter, giving it a frosty feel as well as a magical sort of glow that separated the dress from more realistic Victorian fashions. I wanted to include something from the Ice Garden both because Celia loved it and because it puts a piece of Marco into the costume and their relationship was ultimately what the story led up to in the end. It was dangerous and forbidden as well as playful and pure and resilient.
To get into more of the detail, Celia had many sides to her. Her compassion, though hidden behind her “character” inside the circus, was unwavering. As a child, Celia failed in trying to fix a dove’s wing and in turn her father killed the bird. This was another turning point for Celia to me as it created a sense of determination in her that only
strengthened throughout the novel. Doves are a symbol of purity and later on, during her auditions, she transforms her jacket into crows, a much darker symbol usually associated with death or misfortune. Again, this struck me as a turning point where Celia fully committed to this game that she had been being groomed for since she was a child. I wanted to put both concepts in this dress and so I chose a much lighter, pastel shade of green for the lining of her dark jacket, which shows only when the jacket is unbuttoned or on the bottom where the corners are flipped out like wings. on the hat, where much of the more magical symbolism is, I placed black feathers in the subtle shape of a wing resembling Celia’s association with crows.
Last but definitely not least, I put a small row of clock pendants on Celia’s cravat. They resemble the elaborate clock set up in the circus, of course, but more than that they represent time itself, something that moves differently inside the circus. And, avoiding spoilers, it represents the ending of the book and the unique bond between Celia and Marco.
In all, Celia and the story itself was an inspiration. I put so much work and passion into this project and when it came to finally putting it on after months of work, I felt more immersed in the character than I ever had with any other costume. I could have worn it all day were it not for the 28 degree weather and the heavy snowfall and snow up to my knees!!! But alas it was all worth it. I wanted to do the shoot in the snow so badly. We drove three hours on dangerous roads to get the photos I wanted. I hoped it would resemble the Ice Gardens and it just so happened that some of the location even looked like old streets with lamp posts and fences and in the end it just all fell together perfectly. I would LOVE to do more with this costume. Perhaps I’ll even make another costume or other characters from the book, as all of them are equally intriguing in their own ways, but in the end this is where my true passion lies. In the design and creation of costumes for characters that sing to me and speak to my heart. When I was looking over the photos of the costume I cried.
Nope, not joking. This design was so close to me and meant so much for me to do and when I saw the photos and the character come to life, I shed a tear or two of happiness. No project has done that for me in many years and I am so thankful that I got to do this for myself and that I could pull so much inspiration from a book. I hope you guys enjoy the photos and I hope you’ll all consider reading the book sometime.