You are in your sewing room, happily working on the project you have put off for months, when the call comes,..a dear friend is on the phone and she desperately needs your help. She needs a costume. Of Course, you say. Then it hits. Where do I start?
Your first task is to determine if it is really a costume you need. I'm going to break this down into two categories,.. costuming,.. and creating period clothing.
The first is pretty easy to determine. If your friend needs to be Little Bo Peep for Halloween, that is a costume. If she is playing Marie Antoinette in the school play, that is a costume. If her daughter is going to have a Renaissance wedding and she simply wants "something" to wear, that is a costume.
If she will be a vendor at a Renaissance festival all summer, or wants to attend Rendevous with her new boyfriend every weekend,.. then you need to create period clothing. My focus will be on the last,.. creating clothing for this character to wear on a regular basis. I do want to discuss, however, some points you will want to consider when creating a costume.
One thing you will want to consider is how appropriate your fabric, notions and patterns must be.
For the first category, that of a Halloween costume, I strongly encourage you to take every possible way to save yourself time, effort and money. If it never has to be washed, don't concern yourself with care.
Patterns from the major pattern companies are fine for this.
For a theatre production, your first concern is appearance. If it LOOKS right, that is what counts. Other considerations are ease of wear, temperature, or breathability, and easy access. For a long run production, care is also a consideration.
Some of the factors in the garment you can take pretty generous liberties with are undergarments,.. many women prefer a 20th century silhouette regardless of what would have existed during the time period. One need only look to period pictures made in the late 50's and early 60's for evidence of the circle stitched bra under a classic 13th century gown. Period fastenings such as lacings for Middle ages and Renaissance outfits, or hooks and eyes for turn of the century wear can easily be replaced by velcro and zippers for theatical use. Theatrical use also tends to the flashy,.. brighter colours, satins rather than wools and cottons, more trim and larger sleeves and headdresses than might be practical.
For a one-time historical re-creation, such as a wedding, or for display, you have an option. If you wish the garment to be CLOSER to "real" feel free to adopt any or all of the considerations I will work with in creating period clothing. However, you will have to be the judge of whether it will be acceptable in the place it will be used. A display for a scholarly institution should be closer to accurate than for example, a display for a shop window meant in a humourous manner. The Bride in a period wedding should be more historically accurate than guests need to be.
Now we are to the category that is the most confusing to most people facing a project like this,.. creating period clothing. This is the category that includes tour guides for historical sites, the primary persons in period weddings and productions, display garments for historical displays, and living history participants and re-enactors.
Living history re-enactment is a growing segment of the leisure activity market. There are re-encators from every period from the middle ages and Renaissance through the Voyageurs and Buckskinners, Revolutionary war and Civil war re-enactors, people who recreate famous people, such as General Grant, or Abraham Lincoln, neighborhoods that put on historical festivals, even businesses that style themselves after particular periods in time. All of these people share one common "thread" if you will,.. the need to wear, on a semi-regular basis, clothing that is as close to practical as their persona, or character would have worn. It needs to look and feel like period clothing, moving and draping like the "real thing" It needs to be easy to wear, that is, be as comfortable as the style allows, at LEAST as comfortable as a person in that time period would have been in that clothing. It needs to be relatively easy care, as our standards of cleanliness are a bit higher than those in some periods, and the garment should look at least as good as if period methods were used to construct it.
Your first task will be to choose the garment itself. Choosing the garment is like choosing a persona or character. There are several considerations to making that decision. First of all, decide when and where your character is from. Keep in mind, just knowing a year is sometimes not enough. Imagine the differences in clothing in Iowa in 1860, Paris in 1860, New York in 1860, and Atlanta Georgia in 1860. Then imagine Scarlett O'Hara in a prairie in the midwest in her ball hoops. Not a pretty picture, is it? Imagine a pioneer woman hoeing her garden in 1860 in ruffles and lace. Where your character is from can be just as important as when she is from.
Are there class differences or occupations that can make a difference in the clothing you choose? Certainly. A schoolteacher in San Francisco during the gold rush would have dressed a bit differently than a saloon girl. Likewise, a lawyer's wife, used to maintaining a certain standard of dress would feel somewhat out of place in a housemaid's dress, or even that of a storekeeper or printer. A merchant's wife in the middle ages would have had much more access to goods and fashion knowledge than would a simple farmer's wife. So the class of the person is a consideration in determining the garment itself.
You also need to make certain that you can carry out what duties you need to be able to perform while wearing the garment. For example, wearing huge sleeves in the middle ages was very often popular, but if you are in charge of cooking or serving a meal, you may wish to modify your desire for "angel wings". Hoops were worn in many years in the 1800's, but if you are working around a campfire, or washing dishes in the outdoors, they may not be practical. Certainly, flashier, dressier clothing is more fun, but comfort is sometimes more important. If your character will be guiding a tour, or standing in a wedding, chances are you can err on the side of a less practical garment.
So now you need to find out more about what this person would have worn. When doing your research, the best of all possible sources would be to look at an actual garment from that time period. Most of us don't have that kind of access. The next best thing is what is called primary sources. These are photographs and firsthand descriptions of the actual garment,..and paintings, frescoes, illuminations, and statues produced during the time period of the garment. The theory here is that the person creating the artwork should have seen the garment firsthand themselves, and is therefore less likely to make errors in reproducing the garment.
Secondary sources are drawings not produced during the time period of the garment, drawings based on photographs, paintings, statues and such. These are, of course, more likely to contain errors. These are also more likely to omit details, or in some cases, add details that are more recent in origin, such as darts.
One place many people get their first idea for a piece of period clothing is from an artist's impression of fictional clothing. I have tried to help many people whose sole research has been the cover of a romance novel. While this can sometimes be a stepping stone, or a starting point, it is important to establish that that particular garment was worn in that time or place, or was in some cases, possible to construct. Don't rely on movies. They are notorious for mixing centuries and countries freely.
Your first impulse may be to choose a patterns from the Halloween costume section of one of the major pattern companies. There is a lovely Renaissance dress in the McCall's book,... with zippers and darts. Zippers and darts did not exist during this time. Again, if you are willing to use these patterns as a starting place, and then make changes to them to reflect a more accurate viewpoint, by all means, browse the major pattern companies.
We are fortunate, however, that many small companies have sprung up to fill our need.
Period Patterns is a company that produces patterns from the middle ages and Renaissance. These often contain several different views or styles, and all the sizes in one pattern. They also contain several pages of primary source material as well as a bibliography and suggested reading lists.
Eagle's View is a company that specialises in wear for the 1700's and 1800's. Everyday, buckskinner type wear. All sizes are in each pattern.
Patterns of History are produced by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and have several distinct advantages. They are drafted from actual garments in the Society's collection, they come usually three sizes to a pattern, they are from Midwestern clothing, and they contain lists of the fabrics and colours that were popular during that time period.
Past Patterns are from the early 1800's through the late Twenties. All sizes are in each pattern, and there are many styles to choose from.
Folkwear Patterns are produced by the people who make Threads Magazine, Taunton Press. They are good sources for ethnic and national clothing. All sizes are in each pattern, and the instructions have period notes. These are no longer in print, but a treasure to find.
Society for Creative Anachronism Stock Clerk
There are some simple patterns available for the Middle Ages and Renaissance from the Stock Clerk of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The S.C.A. is a non profit, educational living history organisation in it's 31st year. Patterns include simple shirts, pants, and headwear.
If you're a little,.. no, a LOT more adventuresome, you might want to check out one of the books produced for theatrical costuming. There are no patterns, but gridded diagrams you can scale up. They often contain little instruction, and few historical notes.
The next consideration is how period must your garment be? I always like to remind people who are choosing period garments for the first time, that chances are their persona only had two or three garments, at most. After all, you think twice about having another dress when to get one, first you have to catch the sheep. Now, MOST of us aren't going to take a project from catching the sheep through the completed garment. So,.. what guidelines should we use in selecting the fabric, notions, and patterns for the garment?
First of all, I want to say a word about fabric. Again, if you are making a one time wearing garment, by all means, use the cheapest fabric that looks the part. But if you need to be concerned about how the garment will launder, if you are concerned about a shirt holding up under repeated washings and wearings, then choose your fabric as carefully as if you were making a standard garment.
Look at the fabric content. No, they didn't kill little virgin polyesters in the middle ages. Look to linen, cotton, and wool for most of your garments. Yes, linen and cotton wrinkle. They had wrinkles in the Renaissance. Natural fibers breathe. If you are recreating Voyageur clothing or something from Northern Europe, our 95 degree, 95% humidity Iowa summers are bad enough. Don't compound the problem by using that lovely polyester twill. Blends will work well too. If you are very concerned about the fabric's stability under our more frequent washings, or how your garment will look after being smashed into a suitcase, consider a blend with at least 40% natural fibers, or rayon or Tencel, breathable manmade fibers.
Eyelets for lacings were handmade, but many machines now will do eyelets automatically. Metal eyelets are also available, but have their own problems will falling out under heavy use.
You will want to choose the colours for your garment based on what colours were available during that time. Certainly, colours that were produced using natural materials took precedence. When in doubt, look at paintings from that era. Beware of the neon pink Tudor or blaze orange Rendezvous clothing.
You will find that upholstery and drapery fabrics very often have the right weight and patterns for period clothing. Be aware some of these have insulating backing material or fire retardant coatings on them. Aside from being uncomfortable, and reducing the cleanability of the garment, some people are sensitive to these chemicals. It's best to avoid them.
A dry clean only skirt that will be worn in a campground is not practical. Likewise, silk that needs to be hand washed is probably not a good choice for a shirt that will have to undergo frequent, rough washings. Make sure your fabric is relatively easy care, and you will save yourself much expense and heartache. If you think a fabric marked dry clean only could be washed anyway,.. pretreat it as you do all your fabric,.. in the same manner it will be washed on a daily basis. Be cautious of shrinkage, fading, and printed goods that are printed off grain.
When fastening your garment, reserve zippers, elastic, and velcro for theatrical or Halloween wear. Use hooks and eyes, or buttons, or even laces to fasten your garment. Drawstrings were used in pants and necklines.
All purpose thread will do for most period garments. You might consider silk or cotton if the garment will be dyed after construction, of if fading is a consideration. You want your thread to fade WITH the garment.
There are several period interfacings or stiffenings. If you are producing a garment for competition, or if you suspect the inside of the garment will be inspected, by all means use them. However, I usually use modern interfacings when I need to. I am more familiar with their use, and I get a good result. And people don't normally look inside my clothes. If they do,.. they are not likely to comment on my choice of interfacing.
The construction differences you will find in creating period clothing are not so much new techniques you must learn, but rather, modern methods you must UN learn. One of the most confusing is darts. While fitting, you may be tempted to add a dart to make an underbust or side seam fit "better". Actually, in many cases, through manipulating center front, center back and side seams, you can create the same effect. And in some cases, as in the flattened bodice of the Elizabethan era, our 20th century silhouette is not appropriate.
The two most important notes I have to make about fitting the garment are that you must be fitting the garment over the proper undergarments for the time period. This means, any time before the 1930's,.. no bra. If the garment would have had a corset, you will need to make your corset before you even begin the bodice of the gown.
The second point I want to make is to make a muslin of at least the bodice,.. and perhaps the sleeve before you cut into your fashion fabric. Many of the period styles are based on figure types that have changed in the intervening years. If a gown was designed for a girl that had been in a corset since she was 12 years old, it will need some alteration for a modern woman who wears knits every day.
To serge or not to serge?
How are going to actually construct the garment? Again, you have some choices here. For a competition, or one that will be in a historically accurate display, there is a case for using period construction methods,.. such as hand sewing.
If you'd like a happy medium to your work, consider machine french seams or flat felled seams in your garment. They are certainly period finishes, and will provide extra strength.
Now you have it made,.. literally. You can choose to launder the garment, my personal choice,.. or to have it professionally dry cleaned. If you have any doubts at all about the launderablility of the fabric, by all means, have it dry cleaned! You have put a lot of time and effort in that piece of work. You don't want it ruined.
Preserve the life of your garment by storing it out of direct sunlight, and by removing stains as soon as possible.
Consider the use of a hem saver,.. a piece of fabric applied to the hem of the gown to keep it from wearing through and getting too stained for wear.
Don't store your garment in plastic, especially if it has not been laundered since the last wearing. You invite mildew and pests.
Now you finally get to wear your garment. Make certain you have proper undergarments for the period, or at least where they will alter the fit of the gown.
Make certain the appropriate parts of your body are covered. If gloves were the norm, by all means, wear them. Head coverings of some type were expected during most periods.
Accessories like pomanders, fans, gloves, pouches, pockets, belts, knives and jewelry all help to make your work come alive.
The way you carry yourself and walk is an important part of the character or persona you are trying to recreate. You will find that in many cases, your clothing will FORCE you to walk or carry yourself differently. After all, you may have up to 10 yards of fabric hanging off your body,.. and that doesn't include your underwear!
Well, you've done it. You have successfully created a garment that a person from that time period could have worn. You look good, you feel good,.. there is only one thing left to do. Have fun. Get into the spirit of your time period. Perhaps find out what kinds of things the person would have known,.. how they would have occupied their free time. Discover what books were written then, or what the music sounded like. Know who was president, or King, or Queen. Take a little slice of history and make it your own.