Getting Your Ideas on Paper: Using Croquis to Design Your Historical Gowns

Proper measurements and proportions are important not only for sewing, but creating a flattering design. If you are not a pattern size 10 (the base size from which most pattern companies grade up or down), how can you be sure you’ll look as good in the dress as the model on the cover? On top of that, if you want to make changes to the base design of a pattern, how can you be sure it will look okay?

Many costumers are generally creative people. I know so many who like to draw and paint as much as they like to sew! Putting a design to paper first can help refine a design before you choose fabric or start cutting patterns. To help distill the abstract design elements in our heads into a more concrete design, many costumers draw fashion illustrations of their dream gowns– called by their French name “Croquis” (sketch/sketches) like these:

Oscar de la Renta, 2014

Valentino, 2013-14

You’ll notice, though, that the figures in these couture drawings don’t exactly look like anyone you’ve ever met. The average human is approximately 7.5 “heads” tall. A high-fashion croquis on the other hand, is generally drawn 9 or more heads tall, with the extra length added to the legs and neck, elongating the figure:

If you assume the figure on the left with average human proportions is 5 feet tall, each “head” is about 8 inches tall. That gives the left figure an inseam of 32 inches (4 heads), total leg length from the hip of aprox. 36 inches (4.5 heads). The fashion figure on the right is 6 feet tall with a 44 inch inseam (5.5 heads), total leg length from the hip of aprox. 48 inches (6 heads).

This means that skirts seem to flow more, everything looks overall more slim, and the proportions are stretched. They have an air of fairy-like elegance– like willowy goddesses inhabiting some far-off dream. These sketches are works of art as much as the fashions that are eventually created from them. Many are drawn just for the joy of making beautiful drawings of beautiful gowns.

While there are many tall, thin women, ladies with such lengthened proportions are exceedingly rare, though not unheard of: Yekaterina Lisina, a Russian athlete and model, is the Guinness World Record Holder for the world’s longest legs. She has a hip-to- heel leg length of 52.2 inches. She is 6 feet, 9 inches tall! Remember, though: she is the record holder because her size and proportions are so extraordinary. What if you are an ordinary girl with ordinary proportions? Can an fancifully-proportioned croquis work for you? Of course it can! A fashion sketch does not need to be photo-realistic for it to help you create your masterpiece. Maybe you just want to get the basic elements in place: a floral fabric. A midnight blue cape. Spiked red pauldrons. A fashion drawing doesn’t have to be realistic to be beautiful and useful.

But what if you have concerns about how well a design will work on your particular body? An idealized figure won’t do much good if you are concerned  a square neckline might make your shoulders look boxy or mutton sleeves might make your face look like a cherry tomato between two popcorn puffs! If you create a croquis that matches your own proportions, you can experiment with raising the waistline or adding a bow or puffing the sleeves before you start choosing patterns or cutting precious fabric.

But, if you are not the best artist–or if you are like me and struggle to draw your own body realistically (sometimes I draw myself too slim, sometimes too wide, sometimes one boob is way bigger than the other…)– what can you do?

ENTER THE “TRACING REAL BODY MODELS” PROJECT!

“ROMMY”

“ZAVA”

“LEILA”

There’s such a wide variety of “average” bodies that a single, standardized “average” croquis just won’t do! The Tracing Real Body Models Project created a selection of croquis from photographs women of different shapes and sizes submitted to the project. Sadly, the blog doesn’t seem to have been active in over a decade, so there aren’t a whole bunch of models to choose from. In spite of that, I found some that are pretty close to my body type! You can print them out to draw your designs over them (or import them into your chosen design software and draw over them digitally, if you’re tech savvy). None of the models in the project are corseted, of course (When you sew historical costumes exclusively, it’s hard to remember that the average modern woman doesn’t wear one when she plans her designs!), but nothing a few pencil strokes can’t approximate.

“Valentina” in two different decades!
Notice the amount of space between her legs/bottom and the outer edge of the skirt: this give you a good idea of how much padding and how many petticoats you will need to fluff out a design properly.

 They are also a great reminder that it’s not really the SIZE of the body under the clothes that makes a dress look historical: it’s the garments themselves that matter. That’s why having a model that looks as much like you is so important. It’ll give you a better idea of how a well-fitted historical garment should look on YOUR body once its complete. The TRBM blog has photography tips for taking a base model photos, so if you don’t see your body type represented, you could follow their photography guide, then print and trace your own photo for a perfect croquis of yourself!

The Dress that No One Can Wear GETS WORN!

A while back, you may recall this lovely 1950s dress that, according to the measurements, should fit me perfectly. Thanks to an errant zipper and perhaps not being wiggly enough (flexibility was never my strong point), actually getting the dress on was a physical impossibility:

The Dress No One Can Wear

I listed it on Etsy in the hope that someone more lithe or zipper-skilled could make it work. Soon after, Melissa (who has her own Etsy shop selling adorable hand-knit berets) bought it and promised me pictures of the dress being worn. At first, we thought the zipper might need moving, but after donning some foundation garments (and completing a semester at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wiggle-ry), Melissa performed a feat of unbelievable vintage magic: she conquered the dress no one could wear!

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The Dress FORMERLY Known as The Dress No One Can Wear!

Even if Melissa and I are the same size, sometimes straight-forward measurements aren’t enough. Different body fat levels/distribution, bone structure, and even posture can affect how a garment works on different bodies. Undergarments are also very important, since they alter the fit of a garment even on the same body (for example, a modern foam bra vs a seamed bra vs no bra). And for those particularly tricky garments, a bit of hocus-pocus helps, too!