Have you ever gone shopping for a corset?
Soon after I’d started poking around in the Orlando vampire community, I received an invitation to a vampire ball called “A Midsummer Night’s Scream” from a fellow who called himself BlackSwamp. Like everything else in the Orlando area (Disneyworld, Universal Studios) the vampire community did things in a big way. This event would be held in the downtown area on a July evening and proposed the most confusing dress code I’d ever seen.
“Let the flowers of the night be in full bloom,” the invitation said. “Let Elizabethan gowns and hose mingle with the tight vinyl of the now. Let great gods and goddesses dance with mortals shivering in the thrill of subjugation. Come in Victorian bondage and Medieval fury. Show your whole flesh or a peek of wrists and ankles. Be your fetish and fantasy on this night of nights.”
I began to suspect that sweatpants and sports bras weren’t an option. Undaunted, I called BlackSwamp for some advice.
He chuckled. “Go get a corset,” he told me. “The rest will come naturally from there.”
A corset? Like those horrible whalebone things that crushed ribs to get a waist with the circumference of a broom handle? I was dubious, but I dutifully wrote down the name and address of Night Rod, “the best place for vampire gear around”.
“And tell them BlackSwamp sent you,” he added. “They’ll give you the royal newbie treatment.”
I’d dragged my best friend Violet into many an adventure before this. She was especially excited to explore the vampire universe, and as she’d be going to the ball with me, she wanted to find out about this corset thing.
“That’s one of those things that pushes your boobs together and up, right?”
“Actually I think it goes around your waist.”
Violet grimaced and said, “What’s the fun in that?”
Night Rod proclaimed itself as the premier boutique for imaginative fetishwear and voluptuous costuming in Central Florida, a Target for the theatric. I’d never expected to see an actual farthingale anywhere but in sixteenth century portraits and historical films, but there they were, designed for all shapes and sizes and every one of them intended to make the wearer look like a ship under sail. A rainbow of Elizabethan gowns offered the chance to dress in the full regalia of a royal court or as a simple slops wench looking for a tumble in a hayloft.
Apparently the art of making chain mail isn’t as dead as I’d thought, at least in certain circles. The full body suit of endless metal loops made me cringe, but the sleeveless and low-cut shirts that covered anything from the entire torso to the bosom only had potential. Violet nudged me and pointed at the display of codpieces. “For the dashing knights who want to protect their jewels,” she said.
I’d just begun to look over the grand selection of all things black when a salesman straight out of some gothic abyss swooped down on us. Where he wasn’t covered by black leather, he was pierced. But don’t think he was just another darkling pressed in the mold. He had the most ebullient smile I’d ever seen on anyone—a masterpiece of paradox. He introduced himself as Christo and I gave him BlackSwamp’s tidings.
“So you’re friends of the dark lord,” he said, half-jesting. “Do you already have something in mind?”
“BlackSwamp said something about corsets,” I said.
“Excellent. PVC, leather, rubber, or vinyl?”
Violet and I looked at each other. “Are we buying clothing or tires?” she asked.
Well, Christo seemed like an accommodating sort, so I could ask him my stupid questions. “Look, we’re out of our depth here. What would you recommend? What’s most comfortable?”
“Comfortable?” He let a giggle slip. “You don’t wear a corset for comfort. You wear it for looks.”
“I thought it was underwear,” Violet said.
“In the Dark Ages, maybe. Today you wear a corset for it to be seen.”
Violet raised an eyebrow at me. “Underwear as outerwear with no obvious purpose?”
“It’s the aesthetic,” Christos said. “Vampire aesthetic. Goth aesthetic. Whatever.”
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” I said, appreciating the discreet and polite way Christos was estimating our respective sizes.
After a few minutes Christos reappeared with a bough of black fabrics over his arm. “I don’t think what you’re looking for is an actual corset,” he said, laying out the garments. “Corsets by definition are designed to mold and shape the body into a predetermined form. But you’re going for a look, not a shape.”
“You mean we’re too fleshy,” Violet said.
“I mean you want to be able to dance, don’t you?” Christos raised a black velvet and purple satin creation. “See how the careful lacing up the front is a creative mimic of a historical corset. The purple area narrows at the waist, an optical illusion to make your waist look as if it’s actually constrained. In the bust, the cups support and display the bosom. This is a cheat, I grant you, but it’s a woman’s best friend.”
Christos had brought out about two dozen of these best friends, all of them black with some kind of jewel-toned relief. I’d never worn vinyl or rubber before, and neither seemed to me to be good choices to wear right next to my skin. “Let’s assume I manage to get this down over myself,” I said. “How am I going to get it off again? You said yourself the lacing is for show.”
“Talcum powder,” he said. “People usually coat themselves in talcum powder before getting dressed. It prevents chafing and makes the faux corset slide off more easily.”
“Do you think BlackSwamp would kill us if we just came in black t-shirts?” Violet asked.
“That Elizabethan farthingale is looking better and better,” I added.
Christo laughed again, a paragon of patience. “Well, BlackSwamp suggested corsets, but really there is no limit to what you can or can’t wear to a vampire ball. No one’s going to turn you away because you’re not wearing corsets. So why not look around and see what appeals to you?”
This is a great metaphor for the vampire community as a whole. I tried a corset, but I found it too constricting. But that was fine. I could find something else that did fit my body and my personality and be no less welcome for it.
With Christo’s help, Violet and I began looking to outfit ourselves in a vampire manner that suited us. I found a black t-shirt with red calligraphy, something about having been the one-armed Nosferatu at the grassy knoll (a nosferatu is a Romanian species of vampire) which I could wear with faded jeans and black boots and call it a vampire’s night out. Christo helped me select some accessories: a silver necklace with a crystal-crusted ankh, a pair of handcuffs to be worn as bracelets (or whatever, I suppose), and a chain link belt straight from the auto body shop. Most importantly in Christo’s opinion, I needed special makeup—something that “hinted at the undead without destroying the natural glow of being alive”. He picked out a bottle of white cosmetic foundation that to my relief did not look like white face paint on my skin, and really did look remarkable with the black eyeliner and lipstick he also chose for me.
If I were to be the modern vampire, Violet chose to dress as her Renaissance counterpart. She’d really been taken with the idea of the slops wench. “No one would ever expect her to be a vampire,” Violet said, eyeing a gown finely made to look tattered and worn. “And once she got somebody into her hayloft, it would be dinner and a show!”
Christo rang up our choices. I realized we’d spent a lot less than we’d expected, but fortunately Christo didn’t work on commission. All of his extra effort for us was just part of the kind of guy he was. “I’ll see you two at the Scream,” he said as we were leaving, his smile never wavering. “It’s always astounding.”
On a normal sultry evening the venue for the vampire ball served the local gothic and punk communities with music and mayhem. That night, “A Midsummer Night’s Scream” transformed the place into a sensory carnival, a mix of the Roman Saturnalia with Mardi Gras shaken up and added to a phosphorescent cocktail of Rube Goldberg, Edward Bosch, and Medieval danse macabre wood cuttings. I’d never guessed that so many people in our area had the vampire community as a common denominator and yet there we all were, from all walks of existence and of all flavors, dancing and chatting and reveling as if we’d known each other for decades. Well, maybe a few would say centuries.
Violet and I nabbed a small table in the corner and set up to observe. I don’t mean in a Jane Goodall kind of way. We needed to ground and center just to take in everything exploding around us. People we’d never seen before and had never met greeted us with real warmth, a warmth that was easy to return. Christo from Night Rod stopped at our table for a few moments before returning to a hunt of his own—hot pursuit of a red-headed contortionist from Kissimmee.
Settling in, we ordered two Bathory Bubbly cocktails—a ruby red mix of raspberry ginger ale and grenadine syrup, served in breast-shaped glasses on a mirrored tray and named for the infamous Blood Countess whose vanity drove her to murder. At the Scream, great pains had been taken to accommodate guests avoiding alcohol. This concern was half health consciousness and half the knowledge that many real vampires believed alcohol seriously interfered with their vampiric gift.
At last our host BlackSwamp appeared. Now I’d been expecting something straight out of a dark fetish fashion magazine, and his black leather tuxedo did not disappoint. But while he completed the look in a black top hat and tails, he wore nothing under his jacket, leaving his suntanned pecs to be envied and admired.
“Clever,” I said to him as I stood to give him a kiss in greeting. “You’d be the prom date from hell for a lot of parents.”
“Been there, done that.” He leaned over to kiss Violet’s cheek. “May I say you both look in sanguine glory tonight?”
I might have been new to the community, but I wasn’t slow to thank him for what was meant as a compliment.
“Be warned that the trolls are here in force tonight,” he said.
“Trolls?” How many legends could fit inside one club?
BlackSwamp rolled his eyes. “Basically they want to be vampires, so they show up looking for someone to drink their blood and turn them.”
“You told me it’s not done like that,” I said.
“It isn’t. But try explaining that to a troll.” He started laughing. “You’ll see, I’m sure. You two look approachable.”
Violet frowned and said, “Maybe we should be meaner?”
BlackSwamp shook his head. “Close yourselves to some and you might close yourselves to all. There are plenty of interesting folks here tonight you’ll want to meet.”
The more people I talked with, the more people I wanted to get to know, and I was thoroughly fascinated by the real vampire—trolls notwithstanding.
One young woman accepted an invitation we hadn’t offered and sat with us for a few minutes. Eventually she asked, “Are you two feeding partners?”
I knew what she meant. She was asking if Violet and I drank each other’s blood. But before I could say anything, Violet giggled. “Sure,” she answered. “We go out for pie all the time.”
Another young woman seemed trapped somewhere between old enough to vote but too young to order a legal beer. Kind of dancing, kind of staggering, she came up to me. I could barely stand the aura of heavy smoker about her, but at least she had chosen clove cigarettes. If I shut my eyes and imagined myself in a dark room with some blues playing I might be able to pretend the scent was incense. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she said, displaying a smile perfected by the addition of gleaming white faux fangs.
“I can’t believe I’m here either,” I muttered to myself.
“You’re one of them.” She drew closer. “I know it. You’re one of them.”
In her current state this young woman could have thought I was anything, from Snow White to Sasquatch. I should have just turned around and walked away, but my curiosity is a fierce beast. “One of whom?”
At this she made some hand gesture I did not recognize. She touched her forehead, her lips, and the area over her heart with her index finger, and then crossed both arms over her chest. “You are one of the ancients and I salute you,” she whispered.
Biting her lip, Violet looked at me, her eyes sprightly and impish. I’d gotten myself in good this time, I thought. “Look, whatever you think I am, I’m not. I’m just enjoying a good party like everyone else.”
The young woman broke into a smile of epiphany. “Now I know you’re one of the ancients,” she squealed. “Only a true ancient would deny being an ancient.”
“Or someone who actually wasn’t an ancient,” I said, but she was awash in a deluge of conviction.
“Tell me everything. Tell me what it’s like to never die and to always live. Tell me about what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced.”
“It gets old after a while,” I said.
BlackSwamp reappeared. “Kara, darling.” In a brotherly movement he swung his arm around her thin shoulders. “What have I told you about bothering strangers?”
“Don’t do it,” she said, looking up at him. “But Black, these two won’t hurt me. They’re ancients. Didn’t you know?”
He shot us an exasperated smile that said, “I told you so.”
With great care he turned her away from us by her shoulders and pointed her in the direction of a knot of Greek deities. “Who was she?” Violet asked.
“A liability waiting to happen.” BlackSwamp waved his hand toward the crowd. “There are dozens of them here. They just don’t get it, no matter how patient we are in explaining things to them. Kara has been at every vampire ball and event since we began holding them. This can be dangerous. You don’t just go around offering your blood to anybody. Who knows what some creep might have in mind?”
All right, I’m a bit of a true crime buff, I admit it. I knew what BlackSwamp was alluding to—that delusions of what the real vampire community was all about could lead to some bad choices and physical harm. “But this ball was by invitation only. Couldn’t you have checked everybody out before you invited them?”
Looking a little abashed, BlackSwamp shrugged. “We have over five hundred people in here tonight, and I can personally vouch for most of them. But I don’t know the background and purpose of every single person that comes through that door. I’m sure there are predators just looking for someone like Kara to use and discard.”
“Must make it tough to appear a respectable subculture,” I said.
“In general I don’t think we much care how we appear to the rest of society. However, when you bring in the potentially dangerous and illegal, even we have our red flags.”
Then BlackSwamp said something that has become my statement of purpose, the reason to move deeper into the community and enrich my own life for the experience.
“Vampire society is something of a secret society, but it is an open secret. We are open to anyone with enough genuine interest and determination to find us and come to know us. New awareness is the foundation of our future.”
LOVE this story! lol. I had to read it in a couple of goes, due to stuff happening here, but I LOVED this.
Everything you write is SO well written!
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