Thoughts on Costuming (or The Writer Also Sews)

Posted by on Oct 28, 2013 in Other Craftiness | 5 comments

I’ve recently gotten very involved in costuming. I’ve always enjoyed making costumes, but now I’m actually being paid for my work. Yay!

So, being the research addict that I am, I’ve been bouncing about the Internet reading costuming blogs and whatnot. I was over at Historical Sewing and read an article on the biggest mistakes a costumer can make. I also read all the comments people had added. Some were quite discouraged by the article; in trying to point out that I thought the author was just trying to show areas where small changes could make a difference, I started writing this long involved reply … and then decided to just turn it into a blog post instead (I seem to be doing that rather often).

Silhouette, Seamlines, Fit, Fabric, Trim, Proportions, Dressmaking Skills, Accessories, Attitude and Deportment, and lastly Giving Up–according to the author, these were the biggest mistakes Costumers make.

I’m going to give some of my thoughts on those areas, using the dress I created for A Great Wide Nowhere as an example. This one, being modeled here by the entirely too beautiful Callie, who brought my character Danica to life. dani1

Silhouette. Undergarments, that is. A proper corset and petticoats or hoops make a world of difference in how accurate your costume looks. I didn’t do so well at that. A corset of some sort would have made a big difference in how this bodice fit. You can definitely tell that from the picture.  The petticoats/hoops I did have a good excuse for: when I first made this dress, I was taking it to Wyoming with me and I couldn’t fit hoops or tons of petticoats in my airline luggage. However, I managed to come up with a backstory to cover the missing hoops–out West women often skipped the hoops because the wind made them dangerous to wear. So if anybody had asked, I had a response that managed to teach a little more about the time period while not making me feel like it had to be perfect. By the time of the photoshoot, I had access to petticoats, but I still haven’t gotten a set of hoops that are historically accurate for this dress.

Seamlines and Fit. I’m combining these two because the pattern you use accounts for both of these. A good pattern can make up for a lot of other problems. When I made my 1867-68 dress, I had to start with a Civil War-era pattern. I’m not experienced enough to draft my own yet and there aren’t any patterns out there for this short period of post-war fashion. The dresses differ from the round-skirted previous style by having a flatter skirt front with most of the fabric being pulled towards the back, but without the bustle that would develop in the 1870s. Using photographs from those years, I managed to adapt the pattern. Having the lines of a dress accurately followed the lines of the time period in question can make a world of difference.

Along with that, I can’t stress enough the importance of making a muslin mock-up of your project first, to work out all the kinks/make sure the pattern fits before cutting into your nice fabric.

Fabric and Trims. When most people think of the Civil War and the Frontier, they think calico. But I read in my research that middle to upper class women of that time refused to wear calico–that was the fabric of slaves and poor people. So when I decided to make this dress, I splurged on a linen-blend (couldn’t afford straight linen or wool). Not only would it be more historically accurate, but also how the linen draped would effect the way the dress flowed. And I knew I would need a ton of fabric: I ended up buying the entire bolt of fabric, which is where Jo-Ann’s 50% off coupons on a single cut of fabric is a wallet-saver. I think I ended up using somewhere around 6 yards of fabric (usually I cheat and cut cross-grain for my skirts, because I’m short and can get away with that, but I didn’t this time).  I probably should have used more trimming, but I got very tired of hand-stitching all that velvet ribbon on. I did, however, use historical photographs to make sure my placement was reasonable, which is a good thing, because otherwise I would have likely placed my trim in totally different (and inaccurate) places.

Proportions. This is knowing how to balance historical accuracy with your body type to make sure the end result looks right. My original pattern called for bust padding and long boning in the front of the bodice, and a very large bum roll in the back. Wanting to be accurate, I made the pads and put in the boning. I also added little caps above the sleeves, a design feature I saw on some of the photos I was using for reference (or as seen here). These features would have been fine, except I’m rather … curvy … to begin with and broad-shouldered to boot. By the time I was done, I looked like a giant football-playing beet. Not cool. I put away the dress in embarrassment. A year later, I’d lost almost 30 pounds and decided to remake the bodice of my dress. Out came the pads, the boning was all shortened tremendously, off came the cap sleeves. Everything was simplified and slimmed down. Now, while technically not accurate in construction , it looks right for the time period.

Dressmaking Skills. Unfortunately, many historical patterns don’t make much sense to people who’ve only worked on modern clothes. And the only way to finally make sense of them is to keep working and practicing and learning new ways (old ways?) of stitching and fitting. For this dress, I had to learn how to make cartridge pleats and how to bone a bodice properly (I also researched and attempted to build a set of hoops for this time period, but ended up abandoning that effort. I should go back and try again). Jean Hunisett’s book has a wealth of construction information. I also called on a veteran seamstress (my mother) to help me figure out how to adapt/redraft large portions of the pattern I was using. She’d never made a dress like this either, but she’s been sewing since she was a child and knew how clothes went together. Finally, most modern costume makers fall into the trap of only using their machine. I too would have done that in my younger days. But now,  after quilting by hand for so many years, I’ve found hand-work not only looks better, it also is often easier to do (trying to manhandle some of these seams under a presser foot would have been an exercise in frustration).

trim small


I am, however, guilty of doing a machine-stitched hem. Mainly because you can’t actually see the hem, so I could get away with it.  But once around for the hem, twice around for the large velvet ribbon, and twice around for the smaller velvet ribbon/gimp trim = 60 feet of hand-stitching, and that was more than I could handle. I did, however, do all the bodice trim by hand.


Accessories and Attitude/Deportment. I can’t say much about these, since I’ve not really worn the dress anywhere (I’m too chicken, and there’s a dearth of places to wear it to. I almost wore it to the reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg last December, but since it was technically not the right time period, I didn’t.). Beyond that, the only accessory I have is a small brooch on the lace neckline, and when we did the photoshoot, I had Callie wear her hair down, since my character Dani often does. No earrings. A simple wedding band. Oh yes, and Dani’s beloved green ribbon….

Finally, there is Giving Up, which I’m proud to say I didn’t do. There were times when I wanted to wad all that lovely plum linen into a ginormous wad and set fire to it. I’m glad I stuck to it, and eventually got it looking nice. I’d also like to think I’ve become a better dressmaker in the time since I first tackled that dress. In fact, I’m looking forward to trying another historical period. Maybe American Colonial or a real Civil War dress–here in Virginia there are plenty of places to wear that kind of costume to. Or maybe I’ll try something really different. Like this one:

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  1. I’m impressed! That’s a lovely dress, and the amount of work that went into it is amazing. I also appreciated your list of mistakes. I’d probably be guilty of more than one of them! (To start with, my dressmaking skills, never all that great, have deteriorated in the years since I was made any actual dresses.)

    I haven’t done much sewing since I left college, though I spent a good bit of time in the costume shop there. Since then, I’ve mostly made doll clothes, a few Halloween costumes for my daughter, and a fair number of tea cozies… I should get back to sewing, but how to squeeze it in??

    • how to squeeze it in? Give up sleep. Permanently.
      Just kidding. But small, portable projects are a good start. I bring my dolls with me most places I go and take the minutes I can grab here and there to complete them 🙂

  2. Great ideas and points of view! I think the first step towards getting better is recognizing where we fall short and that it won’t be perfect. Best of luck on your next project!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer! I’ve bookmarked your wonderful website in preparation for the next project 😀

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