Meet the Johnnies: Petra Schaaf (A21)

August 3, 2020 | By Shweta Agarwal (A21)

Petra Schaaf (A21) in costume.

This summer, rising senior Shweta Agarwal (A21) is getting in touch with fellow Johnnies to find out how they’re spending their socially distanced summers. This week, she caught up with Petra Schaaf (A21), a passionate cosplay fan and DIY costume designer.

One of the defining qualities of St. John’s College lies in the singularity of the Program: while students come from many different paths and hold a wide range of interests, the Program ties us together in unique and extraordinary ways. For Petra Schaaf (A21), the books of the Program are the reason she came to St. John’s.

In high school, Schaaf was volunteering at a library in Santa Monica, where she’s from, when she came across a Great Books collection for sale. While she wanted to add them to her personal library—she loves rare books—the expense and sheer space necessary for a 60-volume collection needed plenty of consideration. Then, the day she decided to buy them, they were sold to a book collector. But shortly after, Schaaf’s parents told her about a place where students actually read all those books. Originally, St. John’s College became a part of her college list as a joke. However, as she went through the application process, it moved into her top five, then into her top three, and finally became the place where she decided to pursue her undergraduate degree.

The Great Books aren’t her only passion; she’s an avid fan of DIY costume design, fashion, and cosplay—defined by Merriam-Webster as “the activity or practice of dressing up as a character from a work of fiction.” On the Annapolis campus, Schaaf can be spotted wearing fawn-like or feathery ears, beautiful pink, lavender, and sometimes ash-gray wigs, and a variety of cloaks, gowns, and footwear. From Empress Rinea’s cloak and royal gown (from Fire Emblem Echoes) to Star Guardian Xayah’s bird feet (from League of Legends), Schaaf’s designs are usually inspired by video game characters and other elements of popular culture: Disney princesses, pajama versions of cosmic cosplay characters, and Lolita fashion—a subculture highly influenced by Victorian-era style. Sometimes she is making ears, gauntlets, or designing boot coverings and stockings to complement a fantastical look; other times she is playing around with unorthodox colors and creating royal, Elizabethan-style designs—a longtime fascination for her.

Schaaf’s interest in costuming and the fashion industry began fairly early in her childhood. She loved playing “dress up” as a kid and developed a growing fascination with being able to “become something that you are not.” She discovered the world of cosplay later in life; her high school friends were zealous animators who attended cosplay, anime, and comic conventions and got her excited about dressing up for the events. “There was Halloween on another day that wasn’t Halloween,” she says, recalling the excitement of her first forays into costume-making. “My old designs are hilarious; I did so many crimes to fabric!” She tells me she started at the bottom, just like everyone else, but she immediately took to designing and making her own garments. The building, construction, and process of figuring things out within the realm of costume design is something she loves.

This summer, she has been filling her days with a variety of activities: playing video games, sewing masks and garments, and taking an Introduction to Design and Industry course at Pasadena Community College. Her mornings are spent completing assignments for the PCC course, which is focused on construction: researching textiles for a dress, designing swimsuits and patterns for fabric, and making presentations about what inspires her designs. These assignments have challenged her to step out of her comfort zone. For instance, while she has largely stayed away from using foam and other unorthodox materials in the past, “I will gradually get my toes in that water too,” she says. Additionally, she’s been pursuing her own projects; she’s currently waiting impatiently for the arrival of her recently ordered silk and velvet fabric. “This is going to be for my big cosplay build! It’s a huge ball gown, it’s absurdly large,” Schaaf says. “I am really excited to wear it at St. John’s!”

The many ideas and subjects contained in the St. John’s Program have far-reaching impact outside of the classroom—the way Johnnies approach encompassing ideas like virtue and truth can also affect the rest of their lives. For instance, Schaaf has written on love and versions of love ever since freshman year, questioning it as a theme and challenging it as a concept. That type of critical thinking has helped her appreciation for beauty and aesthetics evolve. “St. John’s helps to pull things apart and put them back together,” she says. “I have learned to think critically about someone else’s design, and in cosplay I have to ask myself [similar questions]: ‘How do I make that real? How does that fit on a human body?’”

Schaaf dreams to someday compete in a cosplay convention, and she’s also excited to set one up at St. John’s. Although her plans are entirely dependent on the restrictions for social gatherings and what may change between this summer and next spring, she is hoping to organize a “Comic Con-esque” convention for students to showcase their artwork and costumes—and spark further conversations and interaction between Johnnies. She hopes to find creative solutions to make this event possible even in the face of probable restrictions, and she is enthusiastic about the prospect of celebrating something that has never been showcased before at St. John’s.

In the distant future, Schaaf wants to pursue further study at a design school; eventually, she hopes to create a clothing collection for children, a gender-neutral line—“better than weird blue and khaki,” she jokes—and a larger variety of plus-size costumes, “because not everyone wants to wear something from Legend of Zelda.” While no one can predict the future, she’s certain of one thing: she wants to keep costuming and cosplaying no matter what.