The Costumer’s Code
August 17, 2012
Seven things I wish people had told me when I was first starting out
- You are a costumer!
Do you wear clothes? Congratulations! You are a costumer. The role of costumes in our everyday lives may not be as exciting as, say, wearing a Civil War era ball gown, but being a costumer is more than just wearing historical clothing. “Costumes” as we know them were once boring everyday clothes to someone in the past. When you look at old portraits and photographs, you will notice that not everyone dressed the same across the board. Some people are better at accessorizing, some better at hair, and some make really neat pin tucks that everyone with a 100 mile radius is jealous of. There is bound to be some part of costuming you are good at. For example, I am terrible at patterning. Machine sewing scares me more than a midnight slasher flick when I’m home alone. However, I am the queen of thrifting. I can take a $6 dress from Goodwill and attach it to a curtain from Ross to make a 1915 dress. The key to costuming success is finding what your talents or interests are and using them.
- You have to start somewhere and you can only get better.
My first “real” costume (outside of the theater) was less than ideal. That photo up there is a really bad picture of it taken in my mother’s bright yellow kitchen at after a long night of handing out Halloween candy. The Renaissance style outfit was a second-hand bargain buy from Ebay purchased three days before Halloween. When it arrived it turned out to be entirely the wrong shape and size (I am 5′ 6″ with 17 inch shoulders, which I thought were huge. Turns out this dress was made for someone about 5′ 3″ tall with 19 inch shoulders). I did some quick and dirty alterations, so the dress didn’t slip and slide everywhere, but it never fit quite right. Your first few costumes will probably have some flaws, too. Heck, even some of your later ones will still have hang-ups. Keep going! Switch up your methods, check YouTube DIY videos for help, or browse the myriad of blogs and websites dedicated to the art of costuming. Chances are someone had similar problems and found a fix. Costuming, like any part of life, is constant evolution. So long as you are learning and experimenting, you will get better.
- It takes work.
Once you’ve found your costuming self, you need to exercise your costuming muscles! Have you ever had an event that required special clothes like a date, a dinner party, or most notoriously, a wedding? Recall how much thought and time went into making sure every little piece of your outfit was just right. All that fussing can be exhausting! Developing your costuming muscles takes work. Unless you are a costuming prodigy and were born with an innate knowledge of all time periods, sewing techniques, accessory styles, and wherewithal, you will have to do research, learn basic skills, and develop you own set of tricks. It’s like being in school all over again! If you plan on doing historical reenactments, you will have to go to the library or Google late into night to find what you need. If you want to do events, theater work, or attend conventions, you will need to network, make plans, and work with deadlines. You will get frustrated. You will hit walls. You will remake the collar six times and it still won’t lay right. No one said costuming was easy! Nonetheless, it is great fun and can be very rewarding. There’s nothing more satisfying than showing off your hard work to others who appreciate everything you’ve done to get there.
- People are judgmental. Don’t let them faze you!
There’s one in every crowd, every group, even lurking within ourselves: the “Critics” and the “Experts.” No matter how hard you work on a costume, someone wants to rain on your parade. Critics are opinionated and enjoy finding what’s wrong with something rather than applauding what’s right. They will point out a lopsided seam or laugh at your choice of colors. They may not even now what era you chose or why you are all dressed up. Experts, other other hand, will point out your use of a hoop skirt instead of a crinoline or your use of “damask” instead of “brocade” when describing that lovely upholstery fabric you used to make your “Victorian” dress (which, BTW, has polyester content and is sooooo not period correct. Didn’t you know they used natural fibers and didn’t have zippers?). Such advice can be really helpful if you desire critiques and historical accuracy, but the tone can make or break the educational value of a comment. Keep in mind that many experts have been exercising their costuming selves a bit longer or differently than you—for example you costume for the quick-change-between scenes in theater and they’re working the museum circuit—and may have developed a deep sense of orthodoxy (“right” vs. “wrong”).
Presenting your costumes to the public is kind of like going to the gym. You work out and feel a great sense of accomplishment, but then someone with more toned legs and a perfect tan walks over and points out how your methods are all wrong. The advice they give can be helpful or hurtful, depending almost 100% on their presentation. Critiques are good. They help you evolve and you will costume all the better for it. If you are trying to be historically accurate and someone points out that metal eyelets don’t belong on your Georgian corset, you can use that info to make your costume better next time. Criticism, on the other hand, is sneering and unhelpful, often stemming from a “holier than thou” mindset (and insecurity). Don’t let one bad review smash your costuming dreams flat!
The hardest criticism to put up with, however, is often your own. The clothes look great laying out on the bed, but then you put it on and it’s just all….wrong! Ugh! Everyone else’s looks soooo awesome, but mine is sooooo gross! STOP! Turn your self-criticism into critiques instead. You can fix your mistakes the next go-round. Remember that no one is perfect straight out of the gate or even later on, so stop worrying so much about what’s “wrong” with your costume and enjoy what you did “right.”
- No costume is a failure.
Okay, so I might argue with this one sometimes. I mean, seriously? Sexy pirate costume with bright pink arm… kidney… thingies…
But, in reality, if you’re going to a club party, a pink sexy pirate will fit in much better than a genuine 17th century pirate. The point of being a sexy pirate isn’t to re-live the past, anyway. No matter how much we try, we are living in the now and our costumes are made to be enjoyed in the present in many different situations. My first “real” costume that fit all wrong was not a failure. I handed out candy to tons of little kids that night who thought my costume was awesome and a few parents even complimented it. The truth is, all your costumes are valuable. They can teach you things, set you apart, and make people happy.
- Design and wear costumes that make you happy.
If you like yards of soft, plushy green velvet, use soft, plushy green velvet. Making a swiss dot dress from every decade since 1820 your fantasy? Do it. Want to add buckles to your corset instead of a boring busk? Heck yes! Costumes and clothes in general are an extension of who you are. If you look in the mirror and don’t wink at yourself, something’s wrong. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so don’t exclude something just because at first glance it looks hideous. A garish orange plaid might make an extraordinary 1840s dress. I saw a woman in a period perfect Tudor dress made from hot pink and blue tie-dye! She was the most beautiful Tatiana at the faire. When you have to costume for an event, on commission, or for a group, you will have to work to meet other people’s needs and tastes, yet there should always be something in it that makes you proud. Dip into your imagination and find ways to meld what needs to get done with what you want to get done. You are limited only by your means, and even then there are ways to sneak around obstacles to create an outfit you love!
- Keep learning! Don’t be afraid to try something new.
Fresh ideas and experimentation are the key to becoming a great costumer. It sounds so easy, but it can be so hard! Living under the dark “gotta be first!” cloud is no fun, then again, neither is making the same thing over and over. Escape from both by trying new things in small doses or bash all expectations to bits by going in a radical new direction. Sometimes new doesn’t necessarily mean you have to invent something no one’s ever done before. What’s important is that you’ve never done it before. Never used a buttonhole attachment on your sewing machine? Never made rouge from an 18th century recipe? Never heard of dieselpunk? Never seen a 14th century Vietnamese dress? Never tried making a French hood from a Bisquick box and an old throw pillow? Knock those atrocious “Nevers” into oblivion as much as possible. You’ll be amazed at how much fun you’ll have and what you discover!
For more information on how to handle criticism and bullying in the reenactment community, check out “Ask A Reenactor: Bullying in the Hobby” by Kelsey at Historically Speaking and Nina Brand’s article “Historical Re-enactments” which discusses women in military re-enacting circles.
For more information about historical accuracy issues in costuming, visit Jennifer’s Historical Sewing articles, “Why You Can’t be 100% Historically Accurate” and (for a little pick-me-up) “Costuming Keeps Us Dreaming.”