• Stephanie Ashton

Just Can't Get Enough

Black Eyed Peas, The Beginning, 2011

This blog is all about how my dressing and creative interests have flourished into more artistic and ambitious photo-shoot projects. Whilst I appreciate that my brand of art may not appeal to everyone, I hope that my story may be of interest to some and provide some inspiration for others in their creative pursuits.

Before diving into the details of my recent ventures I will quickly start by going back in time to explain the origins my interest in big themed photo-shoots.

When I split up with my last genetic girlfriend in 2017, it took no time at all for Stephanie to rise up like a phoenix from the flames. Feeling instant relief and happiness at being free, the girl-in-me came back stronger, more positive and more creative than in any of her previous incarnations. My feelings for dressing had been largely suppressed for a number of years with the sedative that had been my ultra-feminine girlfriend during that time. However, with the ending of that toxic relationship, the girl-in-me was once again unleashed.

Stephanie also returned to service with significant upgrades in the form of new female skills and behaviours, derived from that relationship. In console gaming terms, I had levelled up multiple times whilst offline and acquired a whole range of new sisterhood perks. The most obvious of these attributes was a newfound passion for creative pursuits. It almost seemed that as a parting gift from the relationship, I took away a new understanding of female fashion, make-up and female etiquette.

Stephanie returns to action. Okay, what next?

Throughout the remainder of 2017, I often thought about the recently failed relationship with the objective of finding a positive way forward that did not involve making the same mistakes again. The result of this self reflection was that I would no longer tolerate people in my personal life who were toxic or dragged me down. Going forward, I would only spend my time with people who enriched my life, and I did likewise for them in return. The other conclusion that I reached was that Stephanie would play a centre stage role in my life going forward. Dressing femme would be my social norm, possibly even leading to transition.

So, I had a new energy for exploring the different avenues of my feminine self and in particular, my softer and more creative side. But hang on a minute! I had been a slightly effeminate boy going into the relationship, but I had still done male 'things.' Where had this softer and more creative side suddenly appeared from?

When I sat down and thought honestly about what I now enjoyed doing, other than dressing of course, I was quite shocked. During my last relationship my interest in boy pursuits had declined into near non-existence, with the exception of keep-fit and cycling. Wise people may rightly comment that this phenomenon is not unusual when a man is thoroughly content with a female partner; he consciously or unconsciously chooses to let go of some interests that no longer fit into the shiny new relationship. However, this was simply not the case for me.

The truth for myself was that my interests had fundamentally changed. Prior to the relationship I had played golf, football, enjoyed shooting and fishing, socialised with the 'lads', and been a bit of a petrol head. But no longer. In fact, I am not exaggerating when stating I would rather lie face down on the floor and cry before wanting to be involved in any of those things again. No, instead my interests now revolved around working out, reading, writing, photography, film, fashion, costume design, coaching and dare I say it - cooking. Had I also gained an interest in ballet and horse riding; I think I might have won some sort of 'transitionee of the year' award. And no, I did not just include cooking in my list of interests to improve my wife credentials post transition. That is quite naughty of you to think that!

You want me to change a wheel bearing on the car? What with my nails?!

From a dressing and fashion point of view, it seemed obvious to me that the best way to fast track Stephanie back into action was to visit some excellent dressing services. In addition to producing some amazing pictures, I loved the sessions I did in 2017 and 2018 as they really allowed me to explore different female personas, styles, poses, and themes. Irrespective of the fact that I was now dressing socially most of the time, these sessions did provide a route to explore my creative interests through the artistry of the make-up and fun times had trying on many different fashions.

There was however a big "BUT" looming in my mind. Whilst I had loved every minute of my dressing sessions, I already had a vision of being a model in a far grander photo-shoot with pictures that would be a piece of art in their own right, maybe even fit for the front cover of a magazine. When I sat down to think about what sort of 'big' project I would take on, it was not initially clear in my mind where I would focus my efforts. So naturally, I turned to the internet in my search for inspiration and was almost immediately rewarded.

Whilst browsing through Flickr one lazy Sunday afternoon, I found some amazing pictures of genetic girls in various steampunk and cyberpunk costumes. It is no exaggeration to say I was immediately transfixed with the beautiful images on display. The most striking aspect of the pictures I started downloading by the dozen was the beautiful design of the costumes combined with the high quality post production of the images. If only I could be in these pictures.

It was at this point that I had a brain wave. Rather than continuing to spend all my time and money on repetitive nights out and shopping, I would instead engage my creative side to execute projects that would create something more rewarding, and of similar quality and artistry to the images I had found online. I had actually done some themed photo-shoots in my earlier days of dressing and so I have to admit, the idea was not entirely new to myself. However, those early shoots had been with naff outfits and the production quality was nothing like the scale and artistry I now had in mind. Surely it would be amazing fun to plan and be a model in my own high-end project?

Stephanie striking a pose, not that I love to model at all...

So much like Dr Emmet Brown falling off the toilet seat and coming up with the Flux capacitor, I suddenly had a vision that would enrich my life and feed my creative passions in a positive and exciting way. I would surround myself with beautiful and talented people who would combine their ideas and creativity to produce unique images that could be regarded as art in their own right. The only downside was the less than ideal female model would be myself!

It also occurred to me that for some of the projects, in addition to planning and execution, I could put my own creative talents to work to produce accessories or maybe even cosplay costumes. This entire concept instantly filled me with joy; I had found an outlet for my creative passions and a sense of purpose for my free time outside of work. It would also be a welcome alternative to spending all my time and money on clothes and nights out.

So, I set about starting my first big project.

Astra Mechanista

The steampunk rebel Astra Mechanista was my first big project that I completed in 2018. The entire project started from a piece of concept artwork for a female steampunk character that I found online, as shown below. I instantly fell in love with the idea of recreating the character in real life and so set about making it a reality.

I decided that for my projects I would create a back story for my characters to help give some direction to the costumes, accessories, props, styling and poses. So amusingly, I contacted the South Korean kid who produced the original artwork and described my plan for recreating his character in real life. In the message I sent, I also asked if he had any deeper thoughts on the character, behaviours, values, alignment and the like. The response was rather funny and not what I expected at all. Besides being completely bemused why anyone would want to do such a thing, this chap had nothing to offer about the character other than the fact she was a thief. In his response he ended by saying "You know, I smoke a lot and draw some pictures." Hilarious.

Concept Art for Astra Mechanista

When I set off to deliver this project, I wrote nice messages to a number of talented people and explained that I was a Transwoman looking for assistance in producing a high-quality themed photo-shoot. For some reason I doubted that people would want to be involved with a dresser in such a scheme but fortunately I had underestimated humankind. All the people I approached responded positively with lovely messages and all worked on my project over the course of the next eight months. In addition to forming wonderful friendships with many of these people since, it was a huge boost to my confidence to be accepted in this way.

When the project started in earnest, I focused my energies initially on the long lead items. The super talented Lyndsey Clark and Adrienne Henry were engaged to produce a custom made dress and top hat for the project. The design and quality of these elements was very important to recreating the steampunk thief in real life so were both fascinating and time consuming in getting them right. Hilariously, on the hottest day of 2018 I went for the final fitting of the entire outfit in a lead lined arcade in Reading that had no ventilation. It is not clear who suffered the most, but Lyndsey and myself lived through a very hot and sweaty experience together in the tailors changing room. I remember saying to Lyndsey when strapped into the corset "I am overheating and need air!" to which she responded "You want air as well? Steffie you are so demanding!" lol

The next challenge was locating all the accessories I would need. This was an activity that seemed to go on for ever. In many cases I bought one item online only to find something better a few weeks later, so ended up buying the second item as well. For shoes I had a wonderful pair of ankle strap heels that matched the concept art, but they were a bit plain for such a big shoot. This issue was soon resolved when I upgraded the shoes by attaching steampunk cogs suspended on chains to new purple bows on the back of the shoes. These details are sadly invisible in most of the pictures and possibly did not warrant the effort, but I felt happy knowing my shoes matched the overall theme of the costume.

I adore shoes with bows. I am so 1984...

The remaining big-ticket items were finding a great photographer and finally a suitable location. So, without any recommendation I happened upon the super lovely Tiffany Lin who came and did a wonderful job as my photographer and also project manager for the event. Tiffany engaged the make-up artists and kept everything on track before and during the shoot. In terms of the location, I already had Maunsel House in Somerset in mind as a possible venue. It has been featured in a number of steam punk shoots due to its very quirky and eccentric nature. What do I mean by that? Well it has many unusual features including a stuffed bear in the corridor wearing a cricket hat and a bar that is full of swords and heavy machines!

Without going any further into the details, in summary my activity plan for the event was more detailed than that used by my whole work department in 2018. The plan contained over 600 actions, and involved sourcing items from over 30 suppliers, many from Etsy online. In addition to all the wonderful moments of thinking about what materials and accessories I should buy, I also had to manage all the logistics, travel arrangements and other such mundane things necessary for the event to work. It was a real labour of love. It would be inappropriate to discuss the cost involved, but realisation of the project cost me my summer holiday in 2018. At this point you may think me OCD, a bit mad, or both. Regardless, it is fair to say that this project took on a merry little life of its own, much to my delight and amusement during 2018.

In the two months before the photo-shoot my focus switched to my diet and exercise routine. It would be a complete washout if I arrived out of shape! I did everything I could to ensure I was in the best condition possible for the shoot including running on the beach with a backpack full of bricks and cycling 100 km a week. Then the big day came when I set off for the UK and Somerset to complete the project.

The night before the photo-shoot I booked a lovely place to stay just outside Bridgewater and felt so calm that I went to the cinema as Steffie where I watched a quite forgettable film, before getting an early night. Come the next morning however, I started to sense the same anxiety that I remember feeling when visiting a dressing service for the first time; how would it go, what would happen, who would I meet at the house, would I like the make-over?

Well fortunately, all the planning and hard work paid off as can be seen from the pictures.

Following the editing of the images I finally received the final set and sat back and looked at them in detail. Having completed the project, the big question now was whether I had achieved everything I had hoped for. And the answer to that question was a resounding yes. The pictures of myself in Maunsel House in November 2018 are easily among the very best images ever produced of myself as a model, in any context. Indeed, other respected friends with similar interests have commented that these images are indeed art in their own right.

You may recall that it had also been an important part of my vision to surround myself with beautiful and talented people to deliver this project. Again, this objective was fully achieved. Tiffany and Lyndsey were fantastic throughout the entire project, along with the make-up artists and hotel staff on the day. Having these brilliant women around me really contributed to the projects success and left me with many fond memories of the fun we had together on the photo-shoot.

Vampirette of the Ages

The timing of this blog was quite intentional because in just over two weeks time I set off to shoot my next big project, Vampirette of the Ages. This project has been in the planning for over 9 months and has occupied me deeply in its planning. My home-grown concept was to capture images of the same Vampirette at three different periods of time: one set of pictures in Medieval times, one set in the Victorian era, and one set as a modern day criminal mastermind.

In order to deliver three styles for this project I knew that it meant signing up for three costume changes, multiple make-up changes, and a whole array of accessories and props. This level of complexity has made the project both exciting and daunting in equal measure.

The planning for this event has gone really well and my project plan reliably informs me that I am 88% complete in the planning stage. Before even setting foot in the photo studio in London, it has been great fun taking on board all the creative and inspirational ideas during the planning stage for the costumes, make-up and poses.

As with the previous shoot I have engaged wonderful people to support me and I just know that the day will be fantastic with them alongside me. Who knows what the final results will be but for now, my focus is making sure I eat, sleep and exercise so I am fit and ready to make the most of the experience. The day itself and resulting images I will blog about at a later date.

The Ancient Vampirette Development Board. One of three looks to be captured...scary stuff!

Final Remarks

The projects I have undertaken have helped keep me entertained and provided me with a wonderful outlet for my creative passions, which I have found very rewarding. It has been my absolute pleasure to bring together such lovely and talented people to assist in delivering the projects and I feel genuinely blessed that they have entered my life. It is not a word of lie when I say the friendships made with these super people have literally been formed through blood, sweat and tears (mostly of laughter.)

I hope the Vampirette shoot goes well and I continually recheck my plan with nervousness to make sure I have not forgotten something that might catch me out on the day. Regardless, I will learn from this experience and the planning and results from my future projects will be even better.

Indeed, there are already three other projects in the pipeline including a Female Raider from the console game Fallout, Yennefer of Vengerberg from The Witcher, and a fur clad Valkyrie alongside a very good friend on mine. Beyond that, who knows?

Concept art for my Fallout Raider character "Barbie."