When Melissa Villy was 3, she insisted that her mother design her a costume exactly like Ariel's in the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid."
Monica Villy got to work. A tail, complete with embroidered scales, rose out of shimmery green and blue fabric. A tiny purple shell top, also made of fabric, completed the ensemble and Melissa was all set for Halloween.
Fast-forward 23 years and Melissa and Monica are still designing costumes together. Over the years, they've designed and sewn dozens of costumes for Victorian tea parties; "Star Wars" conventions; and picnics for Steampunks, modern-day fanciers of 19th-century technology.
"We read a lot of books about how they made the costumes for Star Wars and we got a lot of books from the library to figure out what people wore in different historical time periods," Monica said.
A costume usually starts when Melissa has a design in mind. She relays the information to her mom, who alters a pre-existing pattern, or creates one entirely from scratch after spending hours doing research online or at the public library.
A more practical creation was Melissa's communion dress, a white, puffy-sleeved creation that Melissa proudly wore to the church.
"She wanted puff sleeves, tiers of ruffles and appliqué and beadwork on the front," Monica said. "I said: 'Is there anything else?' She said, 'yes, moire taffeta.'"
Monica usually made costumes from scratch with new fabrics but after stumbling upon a cheap mink coat at a thrift store, was amazed at the low prices and vintage finds she could get. Many of Melissa's Victorian-styled Steampunk skirts are altered finds with added bustles.
"She was into it and so that made me into it," Melissa said. "It became a bonding experience. She will stay up for hours to finish a costume that I have to wear the next day. She loves making them and I love designing and wearing them."
The Illinois farmer's daughter grew up with 13 brothers and sisters, and patching old clothes or making new ones from scraps was a necessity. As a child, Monica made dresses for her dolls after observing her mother on the sewing machine. As a teenager, she made her own clothes and sewed wedding dresses for relatives.
As a mother, she made Melissa's Halloween costumes and new clothes for her Barbie dolls.
"Melissa started designing Barbie doll clothes and I would make them from scraps of fabrics or remnants of fancy scraps at the store," Monica said. "Barbie had a lot of formal wear."
Instead of fashion design, however, Melissa studied English literature at the University of Tampa and is now pursuing her master's degree in library and information science at the University of South Florida.
Between classes, Melissa assists her mom making costumes for Victorian-themed tea parties and outings with the Tampa Bay Steampunk Society.
"You get to be another person," Melissa said. "I love dressing up as my favorite characters."