Fashioning a New Meaning for ‘Freak’

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Maria Ramirez gently stepped into a bucket of mud and lathered herself with handfuls of the earthy substance. A projector screened images of nature and society while a voiceover emphasized treating the earth as a lover. Bare breasts covered in rich, wet dirt entrapped the audience’s focus but also made them ask, “Why?”

Ramirez’s performance, “Free(ing),” was one of many at the 30th annual Queer Fashion Show (QFS). The circus-themed show unveiled its colors for the first time on May 13 for a full run-through and continued through May 16. Circus skits of stereotyped women led by a misogynistic, racist ringleader in white face created the skeleton of the show. Individual performers revealed moments of social commentary, female empowerment and queer issues.

The “freaks’” empowerment progressed throughout the story. The women in the circus eventually overthrow their evil ringleader but not before the performers take audience members on a ride. The individual acts included fashion and physical performance, pulling heartstrings and breaking the fourth wall to invite the audience to engage with issues like campus climate.

“You can’t really talk about the circus and ignore the freak show,” Jamie “Wonder Pig” Epstein said. She has directed QFS for two years and said a lot of hard work and attention to logistics go into creating a successful production.

“Different capacities brought on by different students snowball into a magical event,” Epstein said. “It’s a long-term process, but in the end it’s really rewarding.”

Aside from ordering materials, booking venues and holding meetings, Epstein walks backstage with a supportive smile and a face that says, ‘Let’s do it.’ As she introduced the set list backstage, nude models wearing recycled pantyhose and Bubble Wrap used cotton balls to accentuate their feet or stomachs or to create new body parts.

Queer women of color Mesha L and Evre used hip-hop and rhyme-flow to highlight the beauty of existing. The Marvin Gays — a five-piece ensemble — performed “Uptown Funk,” while Peligrosas — a fierce group of females — rebelled against stereotypes of the subservience of women through an inspiring dance.

While many of the performances were planned and rehearsed, Friday night’s QFS also included a spontaneous call for action by a trans women community group Coven. The call demanded training for UCSC staff on exceptional treatment of all people, self-defense classes accessible for all and gender accessible restrooms.

Minerva Magdalene, one of Coven’s organizers, commented on why the call to action was necessary. To continue the developments of the Title IX investigation, the action recognized the concerns of the trans women community.

“We gave people the information and resources they need to help reform broken campus polices, and to advocate for better access to health and housing resources that our queer and trans peers need.”

Coven was the only group of trans women to take the stage Friday night. The audience listened intently while they spoke.

“Six Mind Tricks to Shrink Your Thighs in Six Minutes a Day!” was a performance piece challenging Cosmopolitan’s “Tricks to Make you Look Beautiful.”

“Why don’t these tricks talk about ways to love your body?” John Fernandez asked, questioning Cosmopolitan’s intent.

Designers Fernandez and Ynez Barber focused on placing every pin just right and prepped the models to strut on the runway.

As the team walked out for the first act, a cacophony enveloped the audience. Darkness fell and red lights flashed on the models, who eerily walked and limped, looking almost like zombies. Spectators smiled, snapped videos and pictures and turned their heads in wonder.

Fashion was not to be toyed with in the show. From cloth cocktail dresses to condom-made cocktail dresses, the showcase was nothing short of powerful. Third-year critical race and ethnic studies and art double major, Jesse Huynh, always aspired to be a designer. He said QFS not only inspires but empowers him because it gives him a platform to display his work and art.

A portion of the night titled “Honorable Mention” showcased dresses Huynh designed and made — often by hand. The collection is dedicated to his 6-year-old self and serves as an homage to how far he has come. He never thought he’d be here with his own clothing line.

The circus — with its dark yet playful atmosphere — is important to Huynh because this year’s QFS theme embraces “weird culture.”

“It brings the queer community together, a lot of the stuff talked about on this stage is never talked about or celebrated,” Huynh said. “It’s interesting that everyone is comfortable being together.”