Guest post by Dain Unicorn. Dain is a nascent novelist, frequent NaNoWriMo participant, occasional Convention attendee, absent-minded blogger, old school shutterbug, and full time dreamer. Born and raised in Arkansas, he was infected with a severe case of Wanderlust as a foal, which has led him to a career in truck driving, as well as many great adventures on the long road home. This article was originally published in the Further Confusion 2014 con book.
It was dark, hot, and the world around me was muted softly. I could feel my breathing and hear my pulse. Blacklights spread over the room made the white fur on my suit’s muzzle glow, casting a fun blue tint across my limited field of vision. Pounding music started to drive me as the dancing started. Spinning around to the soundtrack of my misspent youth I was living a dream years in the making, I had finally fursuited Further Confusion.
That was me in 2011 at the Dead Dog Dance, traditionally the last gasp of Further Confusion. I had been to Further Confusion previously but never with a Fursuit. It felt wonderful. It felt magical. I didn’t want the Con to end. It felt like I had finally made it, and included into something that I had only seen from the outside looking in. So how can I express to you what it’s like to don a suit and change who you are on the outside? I might have to bend the magic a little; I’ll try not to break it completely.
So what’s the difference between a fursuit and a common theatrical costume? In truth, not much except for the character it emotes. Fursuits have a personality. Does the suit look like a friendly face or a scary one? Do you want to run up and give it a hug or run away in panic? Can it inspire you? Does it show you what it’s feeling? All of these little things go into a suit’s creation. It is what the world will see when the performer wears it.
This is what I mean: an actor could not get on stage with a frown on their face and perform ‘happy’ believably. The audience sees the frown and will focus in on the performer’s real attitude. Putting on a fursuit envelopes you, covering your own emotions for the emotive qualities of the fursuit. In effect the fursuit becomes both a stage on which the fursuiter can perform, and a shield to hide behind during the performance. Refuge and excuse all wrapped into one.
The ‘Fursuit’ might be as simple as a mask with concealing garments or so complex to include stilts arranged to allow for quadrupedic movement. The common theme in all of these costumes is to make the wearer look less human and more of — well whatever they wish. High tech materials, servos, LEDs, fans, battery packs, advanced puppetry; all sorts of things can go into these amazing costumes. A complex suit can cost several thousand dollars and represent untold hours of work. That is why it is important to show respect for these fursuits and ask for hugs or other physical interactions, rather than assuming they’re okay. All of that hard work and expensive materials might be too fragile to permit horseplay—ahem—human-play.
One of the most persistent things about ‘Furries’ is an intense need to live vicariously: through a favorite character, a favorite creature, or even a favorite story or fable. Be it a means to protect yourself from a harsh reality, or exploring parts of life that are impossible for a mere human to appreciate on their own; living vivariously becomes a way around the limitations of reality. Fursuits are but one means of doing this.
Dain you fool, sounds like your talking about a religion here, cut to the chase and tell us what does it feel like to wear one. Ok, I will. Can you imagine bundling up in the heaviest winter clothes you have? Its a little hard to move around, isn’t it? Can you imagine putting on a tight fitting hat that keeps the sun out of your eyes? Can you still see that menu at the fast food joint without tilting your head? Can you imagine wearing thick mud boots? Keeping to the ramp rather than take the stairs? After all of these silly questions you might now have an idea of what its like. Fret not, I shall probe a little deeper.
Vision is restricted to the point where the performer probably qualifies as legally blind. The area that can been seen varies from head to head, but most heads eliminate more than half of ones peripheral vision, limiting vertical range and the viewing area that your eyes can normally track through. In addition to the limited aperture of the fursuit head’s eyes, the material with which eyes are made can make it hard to focus on the world as well, leaving the performer to ignore fine details in favor of a general impression of the world around them. This is especially true with ‘mesh’ eyes as you have to force your eyes to focus on things past the mesh, which becomes difficult for the nearsighted. Some fursuits put the performer in odd places inside, and they might not be looking out the eyes at all.
Pro Tip: Don’t be offended if a fursuiter does not react to you; chances are very good they cannot see you.
The more wonderfully artistic that fursuit head looks, the more likely it is to have poor air circulation inside. Between the fur and other coverings, any electronics inside, and the performers own breathing the fursuit head can quickly become an oven. These days it is common for most fursuit heads to come equipped with one or more small battery powered fans like the ones in your computer at home. These fans move air in or out of the fursuit head and allow the performer to breathe fresher air. Having fresher air to breathe results in allowing the performer more time in fursuit. If you find yourself sharing an elevator with a fursuit performer and hear a little buzzing, its not the elevator about to breakdown.
Pro Tip: Be polite and pretend you cannot hear that noisy fan in a fursuit.
While I’m talking about fans, some fursuit heads are so elaborately padded that hearing the world around the performer becomes difficult, with a fan blowing white noise and fresh air into the fursuit head can render the performer effectively deaf. That said hearing is perhaps the least restricted basic sense.
Fursuits are hot. Really, really hot! No, really, the fursuit covers so much of your body that it makes getting rid of the heat generated by dancing, performing, and even just walking around difficult. The human body uses evaporating sweat as its primary means of cooling down. The fursuit keeps the sweat from easily evaporating and this keeps the performer hot inside. Most full-suit performers use a base layer garment (often spandex or similar high tech athletic fabric) to help trap the sweat and keep the fursuit clean. Some performers wear ice-vests and cooling packs to extend their time in fursuit. Getting a hug from a fursuiter after the parade or a dance is likely to be a rather warm and damp experience. Performers need a lot of water to help avoid dehydration. Water stations with cups and often straws are setup all over con spaces to give the fursuiter a chance to take a sip without making it back to the headless lounge. While I’m discussing the need to stay hydrated forgive me a brief sidebar on Heat Stroke.
Heat Stroke is a serious danger for a fursuiter. I have discussed above some of the ways the performer disassociates their self from their character. Now it becomes a serious disadvantage. The fursuit makes it much more difficult for an outsider or handler to see when the performer has hit their limit. Should you see a fursuiter, without a buddy or handler, looking out of sorts, its ok to ask them if they are ok. Most of the time the performer only needs a little water or directions to the headless lounge or some other place where they can relax. If you can’t get an understandable answer, or if they tell you they need help, find a Convention Staffer at once, the fursuiter may be in distress. If you find a fursuiter that keeps falling down and doesn’t get up right away, you do not need to ask if they are ok. Quietly find assistance at once, but don’t make a scene out of it. In any event don’t attempt to help a fursuiter in distress unless you are a trained first responder. Summoning trained help is often the best help the untrained can give.
I have mentioned the Headless Lounge several times now, but just what is it? It is a special area where performers can ‘break the magic’ and remove their costume heads (hence the name of the room), take on water, cool off, relax, make fursuit repairs, attempt to dry out their gear, and generally just take a break.
In every convention I have ever attended, the Headless Lounge is a restricted area, available only to fursuiters and their handlers. Also I should note photography of any sort in the Headless Lounge is strictly prohibited for what should be obvious reasons. Its not a social gathering spot, its the ‘break room’ at work. Fursuiters leave the Headless Lounge to be social, so your not missing anything interesting back there anyway.
Still interested? Learn about becoming a Fursuit Handler. They are permitted ‘backstage’ and it is a wonderful introduction to performing in Fursuit.
So here I am, cooking in this sweaty oven, breathing through a fan powered ventilation duct, more than half blind, a little deaf, and quite daft: what do I get for these hardships? I get to perform magic. Oh, not hocus-pocus fluff, but real performance magic. I can show you what I want you to see, interact with you in the way I wish, and if I’m really clever, make you think you have seen a cartoon made real, or even perhaps something that science says cannot be. That is magic in my book.
There is a source of ‘make-believe’ that resides in each of us. That source might be a slowly dying ember hidden under years of bitter calluses or a beacon-fire so bright that it brightens the world for all to see. To take that flickering ember and brush away the dust and ash, bring it into the fresh air and let it begin to burn again for everyone to see is magic at work. For me, fursuiting is a way to amplify that magic and share it with the world. How much better could this world be if we each tried our hardest to build up that magic rather than tear it down?
Why do I go to this much trouble? I have a blast ‘taking off’ this human ‘skin’ and dancing around in the real world in a form of my choosing, in a manner of my construction, and with a character of my creation. Its not that I wish to abandon reality, but it feels so good to escape it for a while. I know that sounds like a muzzleful—ahem—mouthful, but its true. I can boil it all down to this: “It’s a lot of fun.” Others may put far more into it than that, but that is my reason. If you find your reasons to fursuit different from mine, thats ok. Tell me about it sometime, I love sharing the magic.