Bustles on an Iron Throne: Victorian Gowns fit for Westeros

Lately I’ve been thinking about stepping outside historical costumes for something a little more free-form and fantasy based. I’m not a huge fan of the Game of Thrones TV show (I lost track of watching it a long time ago), but I am a huge fan of the amazing costumes by Michele Clapton, especially the beautiful gowns embroidered by Michele Carragher! But just because I’ve been drooling over fantasy gowns doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned historical costumes.

One of my favorite sources for historical dress inspiration, Augusta Auctions, is gearing up for their May auction. They always have fabulous fashion items and are so kind to post their upcoming lots with plenty of pictures on their website. I was scrolling through the Upcoming Sale page when I discovered THIS:

Wool Dolman Bustle Coat, circa 1885
The awesome medieval detailing, embroidered Van Dyked  trim, the sweeping fabric…so fabulous!

Queen Victoria and Queen Cersei might not have too much in common, but they might agree about one thing:

“It’s a YES from all the judges.”

If you have to attend both a Victorian Ball and a Game of Thrones party, but budget for only one outfit, THIS is the coat to wear!

But if you don’t want to be mistaken for the London/Lannisport Flasher, you might want a dress to go under that coat…

Silk Bustle Gown, circa 1880-1890

“That look is KILLER!”

Smooth fit…rich fabric…great color…SASSY BUTT RUFFLE…


I found these two gowns serendipitously. They are in the same auction catalogue! However, I’m sure there are more Victorian Westros gowns out there. If you find one you think Dany or Sansa might like, share in the comments below! I might have to start a Pinterest board…

Saving Face: A Brief History Cosmetics and How to Wear Them with Historical Costumes

When the Rose Blooming in Your Cheeks Happens to be White

I had a lovely time at Georgian Picnic despite the frigid weather. In my rush to get all my warm layers on, however, I completely neglected to apply any makeup!


Do I have something on my face? NO?! Dang it!

Normally I wouldn’t be bothered by this. I enjoy playing with makeup, but I rarely wear much of it. In fact, my bare face would be considered properly accurate for a period portrayal. Many reenacting circles encourage their female participants to forgo makeup and a common critique of a farb/newbie is their overt use of modern makeup (mascara, for example, wasn’t invented until the 1910s and wouldn’t be worn by a pre-1920s woman). That said, it’s important to note that a naked face may be a “safe” option, but it is not always necessary or even appropriate.

Cosmetics Box for Rouge and Patches, circa 1750-55

Our ancestors adored cosmetics just as much as we do. While they couldn’t walk into their local drugstore and choose from two hundred shades of eyeshadow and lipstick, women did have access to cosmetics both homemade and store bought. Upper class women famously indulged in cosmetics during all eras, even during the relatively conservative Victorian era. The wide range of anti-makeup rants may seem like evidence to the contrary, but there must have been enough women breaking the “rule” to inspire that many complaints!
Indeed, depending on the era, it may be less accurate to go bare faced. The ancient Egyptians and 18th century Georgians are especially well known for their love of makeup. A noblewoman (or nobleman) in these eras would have indulged heavily in various makeups as a part of their regular routine, even more so for court appearances.

The Six Stages of Mending a Face by Thomas Rowlandson, May 29th, 1792
The image above links to an alternate version in the Met. It was quite a popular print and there are a few different variations around the web. Poor Lady Archer! 200 years later and everyone is still laughing at her morning…face.

Commoners were not exempt from cosmetics entirely; though compared to their wealthy contemporaries, their options were much more limited. Homemade rouges, powders, and creams were all popular. The Industrial Revolution played a huge role in making cosmetics more widely available. With so much emphasis placed on a woman to be not only accomplished, but also beautiful, many enterprising entrepreneurs stepped in to provide the beauty nature may have not been generous enough to give. By the Victorian era, even a servant girl might afford a small jar of skin brightening cream, though she might have been better off skipping it thanks to some being laced with toxins!

They must be safe! Everyone knows that printed words never lie…

Many modern women avoid makeup for just that reason– well, maybe not for poison, but certainly for allergic reactions, environmental concerns, or a desire to keep certain chemical substances out of their bodies. In addition, makeup then and now is often tied to morality and societal roles.

Throughout the ages, most arguments for or against makeup are strongly tied to women’s freedom of expression and sexuality. As those values fluctuate, so does the stance on makeup. In Victorian England, for example, makeup was seen as morally corrupt since it “lied” about a woman’s appearance and was associated with prostitution.

In this photo, Belle Archer (not related to the Lady Archer previously caricatured) is wearing stage makeup and looking rather sad for a series of modelling photos taken during her career as an actress. The heavy stage makeup paired with the comparatively skimpy stage outfits 19th century actresses wore made them a target of public ridicule just as many modern starlets are mocked in the tabloids. Time has softened past judgements, however, and Belle is known as one of the Victorian era’s greatest beauties.

Makeup still carries many of those negative connotation today, but with the added bonus of being a required part of daily life. We can thank early 20th century marketers for that. They created a whole new persona for makeup and other hygiene products. Makeup became the symbol of a well-groomed, proper lady. To leave the house without completely covering the face was considered slothful and makeup was as indispensable to an outfit as shoes. To compromise these two views, today’s woman is encouraged to “go natural,” i.e. wear makeup, but not in a noticeable way. We walk a fine line! The prevalence of digital media in modern life makes it all the more challenging. We live our lives through the ever-gazing electronic eye of a camera lens.

So, how does all this tie back to Georgian Picnic? Well, I am not a strict historical reenactor. I costume for personal pleasure and enjoy socializing with others who share my passion. We agonize over every detail, from the colors to the textures to the smallest button on a cuff. We invest a lot of time and money in our work, so we want to make darn sure everything is the best it can be!
The costume doesn’t stop at the dress. Any costumer will tell you that the right undergarments, hair, and accessories are what make or break an outfit. Faces, however, are rarely emphasized. I think it stems from the modern ideal of personal freedom and beauty. No one likes to be told how they should look, especially if it’s genetically out of our control. I am no exception. I am stubborn, insecure, and probably more than a little vain. Vanity has heavily implied negative connotations, but striving to look your best is natural and, in the case of costuming, kind of the point. We want beautiful clothes that in turn make us feel beautiful so we can take beautiful pictures in beautiful places to make all-around beautiful memories!


There is no memory more beautiful than six Regency Wedgies (and some 18th century ones) all in a row…

The glory of modern HD photography is also a bit of a curse. Humans react emotionally to contrast and color. A lot of human beauty stems from increased contrast, which is why humans in many different cultures have embraced lining the eyes with dark colors. Rouge on the lips also serves the same purpose. By increasing the color and contrast, the features and expressions of the face become easily discernible. It also helps them show up better at distances (which is why stage makeup is so heavy) and in photographs. If you are pale skinned with pale eyes and pale eyebrows like me, your features will all blend together on camera, which is what happened in many photos from Georgian picnic:


Little did Jen know that in this shot, I had replaced myself with a wax figure!

So, a bare face is historically accurate, but not so flattering in modern photos! Part of it was the weather. Had it been warmer and sunny, I would have had a bit more natural flush, especially in my lips, but the cold sucked all the color right out of my cheeks, making me look waxy and exhausted. Perhaps it’s just my insecure vanity talking, but I find my sickly complexion distracts from my outfit. Now I know why all those antique beauty and women’s housekeeping books emphasize complexion so much!


However, unlike 19th century ladies, I rather like my freckles. My sun damage is adorable!

So, if you are going to an event and are hoping to get some flattering photos, adding a little bit of modern makeup to your face might be helpful. I don’t know if I’d call the following a tutorial, per se, but it’s what works for me…when I remember to do it, of course!
Depending on your natural facial contrast, a bare face might be just fine, but if you would feel more comfortable with a little natural-looking enhancement, take cues from our ancestors! I prefer to stick to a natural look. I find leaving the majority of my skin alone (no foundation or powders) greatly helps with this. However, my pale lips and skin do benefit from some pre-packaged “youthful glow.” Women throughout history have used rouge to this end. You can buy modern rouge in liquid and powder form, but it’s very simple to use a modern lipstick as both a blush and lip color. Just dab it on lightly rather than swiping.


I like a neutral shade that’s fairly close to my natural color. “Kasbah” by Rimmel London, if you were curious.

Sometimes I prefer to use lipstain rather than lipstick much of the time because it applies matte, sinks into the lips, and sticks around for longer than a lipstick (it doesn’t work very well as a blush, though). For a Renaissance or 18th century look, red lipstick dabbed on with your finger is great for mimicking the look of rouge from those eras. I also carry a tinted lip balm with me to events now, especially outdoor ones. Texas gets hot and dry, so protecting your lips with a balm with SPF and a little hint of color is smart. Just swipe it on for protection and a touch of color!

Next, it’s time to go a little anachronistic: Mascara! Remember, I’m not aiming for historical accuracy. The goal is to boost confidence and take photos everyone can be proud of. Indeed, that glorious goop I just declared unfit for pre-1920 wear is a godsend if you are planning on taking photos! It helps increase the contrast of your eyes, making them look brighter. Our ancestors valued long, dark lashes just as much as we do, but while they had to be born with them, we are blessed to be able to apply them right out of a tube. In lots of old paintings, you’ll notice that artists put a line of black or dark brown over the top of the eye to set the eye off.

An early 19th century lover’s eye pendant.
I need to make myself one of these!

You might assume, then, that eyeliner would be appropriate, and it might be, depending on what era/culture you are portraying. However, eyeliner is jarringly unnatural on the face and the dark line in paintings is really there to indicate the presence of lashes. A very light coating of mascara, therefore, is the perfect solution and blends much more naturally with the face.


I have deep set eyes, so eyeliner would disappear into the crease anyway.

Blonds, redheads, and light brunettes should choose a brown or brown-black for a natural look. Darker brunettes and folks with black hair can use true black. It’s easy to overdo it, so use a light touch. A single, swift coat on the upper lashes only is all you need! I often blot the wand off on a cloth or tissue before applying so I avoid a heavy coating.

This might be enough for most ladies. However, I have one extra step in my routine: eyebrows. You never know how important eyebrows are until they’re gone!


Yup. That’s Anne Hathaway without eyebrows.
Turns out “celebrities without brows” is an internet meme of sorts. It’s kind of unsettling how different folks look without them!

While my brows are just dark enough to be visible and an okay shape for my face, they do disappear in far shots.


Through an odd quirk of fate, my eyebrows are perfect for the Elizabethan era. Queen Liz and I share a name and eyebrows/lack thereof. Going eyebrow-less was trendy during her reign.


Pale, sassy, and proud!

However, the Regency period and the century before and after it valued darker brows. Turns out getting nice, fashionably full eyebrows was a challenge for ladies in the past, too. They had a whole list of remedies for sparse brows, including burnt cloves and mouse skin strips! Instead of massacring the local rodent population, I use either eyeshadow in a color that matches my hair or a bit of brown mascara depending on my mood. I avoid using an eyebrow pencil because, like eyeliner, the outline it creates looks too crisp and modern. The ideal Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian brow was arc-shaped instead of angular. They stretched like a gentle rainbow over the eye and were often full across the entirety of the brow rather than just by the nose. My face can’t handle that kind of brow, so I just fill in my natural shape.


It also brings out that fetching, perpetual “Huh?” look on my face.

The fact that you’re wearing makeup might be noticeable in person, but if you’ve done everything delicately enough, it will harmonize with your outfit, pulling the look together in a way that will satisfy both your costuming sensibilities and your modern tastes without being distracting. Win-win!


When lighting and weather fail to flatter, makeup can really help you save face. Now, even at a distance in terrible lighting, everyone can see your Regency bitchy resting face perfectly!


I thought I was smiling when I took this photo. Turns out, I was mistaken.


Makeup cannot, however, protect you from sudden gusts of wind.

If you are interested in wholesome historical cosmetic options (I strongly recommend skipping the lead white!), there are many recipes available online to recreate antique cosmetics using natural ingredients. Madame Isis’ Toilette, for example, details 17th and 18th century recipes, mixes them, and shows you the results. Various vendors online like Little Bits also sell recreations of perfumes, rouges, and powders. In my own experiments, I’ve dabbled with beet juice rouge and had pretty entertaining results!

Beet Juice and Cornstarch Makeup

Lady Archer would be proud.

Ultimately, the type of makeup and the amount you wear depends on the era and class you are costuming for, the type of event you are attending (reenactment, afternoon tea, convention, etc.), and your personal taste. Makeup for conventions, for example, is often heavier and theatrical in nature both to show up on camera better and portray a specific character. Plus, some of us just like to wear more makeup than others. Just find what works best for your situation and roll with it!

One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Civil War Era Dress Made from Simplicity 3723 (Part 2)

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60


After much procrastination, consternation, and perspiration (the sewing room upstairs gets rather toasty), I finished assembling my modified-for-the-1850s Simplicity 3723 day dress!


Hmmm….not so impressive.

While it looks pretty close to the envelope, if you think it looks a little “off” in that photo, you’d be right! This is a perfect example of how much undergarments matter. Simplicity 3723 is designed to be worn without a corset, but I fitted it over one for a more period look. However, since my corseted measurements and my uncorseted measurements happen to be exactly the same, I decided to take the opportunity to show how important proper undergarments can be. This is what the gown looks like without any petticoats, hoops, or a corset. It looks rather frumpy, doesn’t it?

You’ll also notice that even the pagoda sleeves, while lovely, look a little flat compared to what you’d expect. If you look at period photographs, you’ll notice that some ladies are wearing their wide sleeves alone, but most have fluffy while undersleeves filling out the cuff:


Daguerreotype portrait of a Woman, 1849-52
Worn sans undersleeves. Another later example here.

Handtinted Ambrotype of a Woman, circa 1855
Example of undersleeves from right around the time of my dress! Her undersleeves and collar are “Broderie Anglaise” (a type of homemade eyelet that was very fashionable in the 1850s). I like this photo a lot because she looks a bit like me. I even did my hair similarly. We’re history sisters!

Undersleeves, circa 1850-69
These are also decorated with broderie anglaise.

Undersleeves could vary from very fancy to extremely plain. For simplicity (Ha, ha! Jokes.), I chose to go with the latter. Making your own undersleeves is very simple! They are just two tubes of fabric gathered with drawstrings at the top and bottom. I used elastic cord for the drawstring because trying to tie drawstrings on yourself is impossible otherwise. Many undersleeves of the period had drawstring tops, but button cuffs for this very reason. However, I wanted something very quick and easy that anyone could make. By using elastic cord, I can dress myself.


I just measured the length from above my elbow to my wrist and cut that much off a bolt of 45 inch fabric, which I then cut along the fold, giving me two rectangles of fabric 18″ x 22.5.” This is about as “skinny” of a sleeve you can make. The fuller your dress’ sleeves, the fuller your undersleeves should be.

By 1858, hoop skirts were in full swing. I really want hoops, but right now, I don’t have the cash. Instead, I fit my dress over a cheap bridal petticoat I found in Goodwill for $7, a modest bumroll, and my “post-haste” petticoat.


Also: sock boobs!
I fitted the dress over a corset, but I didn’t put my corset on my mannequin because she is actually much longer waisted than I am and is nipped in and hard as steel in already!


My “post-haste” petticoat is just 3 or 4 yards of fabric with a drawstring waistband. it’s post-haste because I made it 20 minutes before an event in a panic! Now it’s been worn with everything from an 18th century dress to 1880s bustles!

So now:


Thanks in part to the heavy weight of the fabric, the final shape isn’t as defined and full as hoopskirts, but it’s still full enough to be period appropriate, especially for a common country woman. This fullness is actually perfect for 1840s, though! Now I know what to do for that decade when I get around to it.


The collar is just some soft net lace I had originally bought to make 18th century engageantes. I really wanted to use an antique collar, but I couldn’t find one the right size. This works well enough, though. I am really proud of how the tassels turned out. So much fun!


I notice a lot of pictures of museum workers standing by Victorian dresses, especially Queen Victoria herself, commenting about how tiny everything is. Well, it’s kind of an optical illusion. My dress looks pretty small compared to me, but that’s mostly thanks to modern clothes which aren’t fitted and cut across the body at the widest point. Also, you can really see just how much wide skirts make your waist look smaller by hiding your legs, which in my case are the skinniest part of my body. By hiding them, the eye re-focuses on the new skinniest place: your waist!

Before I could call my outfit complete, I needed a bonnet! No self-respecting 1850s lady, especially an ol’ married lady such as m’self, would be caught dead outdoors without proper headgear. Simplicity 3723 comes with a fabric sun bonnet pattern that’s pretty cute, but I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to be petty, tailored, and stately in a modest-sized spoon bonnet that fit fairly close to my head. I also didn’t want to be too matchy-matchy. I had some dark blue ribbon that complimented the jewel tones of my dress and reminded me of this gorgeous bonnet in the National Trust Collections:

Bonnet, circa 1840-50
It’s dated a bit early, but simple enough that it could pass for almost any style between 1840 and 1860.

I used one of the many flower pot baskets out of my TV-intervention-worthy hoard as a base. As a few online tutorials suggested, I took off the top binding and soaked it in hot water for a few hours to try to remove some of the waviness in the brim. The basket straw is much thicker and brittle than hat straw, so I couldn’t get it as flat as I wanted, but slight waviness doesn’t seem to be a issue for these historical ladies:

Ladies of Davenport, Iowa,1863
My bonnet ended up being almost exactly the same shape as the one on the far left. Also: love that lady’s purse!

I rebound the edge with bias tape and in the process discovered that you never, EVER use “Amazing QuickHold” glue. Ever. It smells like skunk, makes the cat flee from the room in disgust, and causes the husband to ask many unflattering questions. It’s formulated to be thin, so it also soaks into fabric, leaving little frosted white patches when it dries. Do not recommend! I learned my lesson and went back to trusty old “craft” glue.


I would have sewn everything on, but once again the thick straw got in the way– and perhaps no small amount of pure sloth. I really do love my hat baskets, though. They’re really cheap, easy to obtain, and highly entertaining. If I mess one up, I don’t feel as bad as if I had invested in an expensive reproduction bonnet form or even a straw hat. When I found the flower choices at the local craft stores to be rather uninspiring, I made some cockades using this tutorial and added a tassel cut from the dress trim scraps to tie it together without being overly matching:


Bonnet cost breakdown:

2 yards navy ribbon – $4.75, eBay
2 yards mustard ribbon – $4.75, eBay
Hat basket – $1.59, Goodwill
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
2 yards pleated brown ribbon – $4.50, Walmart
Bias tape – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $19.57

Add some second-hand square-toed boots and I was ready to trundle everything out to my graciously obliging mother-in-law’s house for a photoshoot! Here’s everything being worn altogether:




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Dress cost breakdown

6 yards printed cotton – $17.82, Walmart
2 yards burgundy cotton – $5.94, Walmart
4 yards tassel trim – $15.96, Hobby Lobby
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
Cotton sheet for flat lining – $1, Thrift Town
Hooks and bars – $1.69, Hobby Lobby
Brown poly-cotton thread – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $46.39


Bonnet – $19.57
Bridal Petticoat – $7, Goodwill
Flat, brown leather ankle boots – $29, eBay (Talbots brand)
Collar brooch – Personal collection

Total: $102.50
(a bit spendier than I would have liked, but still cheaper than purchasing one pre-made!)

Aside from the still-too-small petticoat circumference, I’d say my foray into the 1850s was a success!

I think the biggest reason the outfit came together so well stems from the way I approached the project. Sure, I wanted to be a bit ornery and prove you could make something passable out of the barest of materials, but I mostly made this dress for myself, approaching the project as though I was making clothes, not a “costume.” I chose fabric, colors, and trims that I thought looked best on me, not just because they were historically appropriate or pretty on their own and I made sure that I could generally exist in it comfortably without feeling suffocated or weird. A lot of costumes I’ve worn in the past have always felt costumey, so they projected as costumey, too. While taking on a different persona can be fun, if you are historically costuming in general, you are still you, even if you are an accountant in Alabama portraying a fisherman’s wife in 17th century Spain. Naturally, you would wear what “they” would have worn, but you are also the one wearing it, so wear what you would wear, too!


Many thanks to Becky for allowing me to roam all over the back 40 and helping me take photos!

For construction details and the story behind this dress, check out Part 1.


One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Civil War Era Dress Made from Simplicity 3723 (Part 1)

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60

I am not afraid to admit it: I have a not-so-secret love affair with 3723. Buying patterns for each and every specific era can be really expensive considering that patterns run about $15-$25 each. Simplicity patterns are no exception, but stores often run pattern sales for the Big 3 pattern makers. I got my copy of Simplicity 3723 for 99¢ during the Lobby of Hobby’s pattern sale. It’s the catch-all pattern designed to make basic “Pilgrim, “Colonial,” and “Prairie” style dresses using as few pattern pieces as possible, so instead of having to buy a different pattern for each era, you get a whole bunch of options in one. None of them are meticulously historically accurate by any means, but the shapes and styles are very easy to manipulate even for someone as ham-handed as myself.

Simplicity patterns get very little love in the historical costuming community, which is a shame. They may not be historically accurate, but they are readily available and in the case of Simplicity 3723, supremely modifiable– great for fitting practice and flexing your creative muscles! You can literally make a dress from almost any era with just this one pattern and plenty of chutzpah. One of my previous costuming projects involved transforming Simplicity 3723 into something a little more historically accurate for the 18th century:


My 18th century Lady’s Maid Dress from 2013

And more recently, an 1880s Bustle Dress:


My 1886 Day Dress from June 2014

Fit First!

 After making the 1886 day dress, I have pretty much refined the pattern to fit my torso properly. Most patterns are drafted for someone between 5′ 4″ and 5′ 8″ with an “average-length” torso and a B-cup bust. Some people are lucky enough to match standard patterns pretty well, but I’m broad shouldered, large-busted, and short-waisted, so no matter what, I always end up altering patterns to fit.
If you’ve ever been disappointed by how your costume looks after you’ve sewn it up exactly like the pattern said to do, it might be because the pattern doesn’t fit you quite like it should. The pattern shapes that come fresh out of the envelope are not absolutes! They are printed on paper not just for economy, but because they are designed to be cut, folded, and reshaped to fit you best. If you’re worried about ruining the original, trace the pattern pieces onto some cheap gift tissue or butcher paper so you can slice, dice, fold, and fiddle without fear. I encourage you to check out the many fitting guides you can find in books and online. For example, I have a simple pattern alteration guide from New Mexico State University saved on my desktop for quick access.

Hint: Pattern guides often leave this little tip out, but most modern patterns have armholes (armscyes) that are too low. Simplicity 3723’s are especially deep. If the armscye is too deep, it will make raising your arms difficult, creating a “bat wing” effect. Instead, the armscye should fit fairly close to your armpit. THIS SIMPLE PATTERN ALTERATION IS LIFE CHANGING! I will admit that I didn’t raise the armscye quite enough on my pattern. I only raised it one inch. On my body, Simplicity’s armscyes needed to be raised at least 2 inches. This handy guide explains how to get the right fit around your arm for an amazing fit every time. If you can get the armscye to fit right, you’ll be surprised how much better the entire bodice will look.

Since I plan to make many dresses out of Simplicity 3723 in the future, once I got the bodice portion to fit me correctly, I transferred the pattern onto some sturdy interfacing so I could use it over and over again without having to worry about ripping/overpinning/finding the cat chewing on the original tissue pattern. Now I have the basic building blocks for a whole wardrobe of fairly easy to make historical outfits!


Label the new pattern with the original pattern and piece number, any sewing marks, and what alterations you made. Adding a date created and/or the measurements is also helpful. Bodies tend to change over time!

One Pattern to Rule Them All Challenge

The glory of Simplicity 3723 is once you’ve got the bodice to fit, you can make tons of dresses from different eras by just manipulating a few key bits!  So, I decided to challenge myself by making a dress for every major costuming era as a way to stretch my costume budget, encourage more focused research, practice fundamental sewing/patterning skills, and encourage creative thinking (something that can be surprisingly hard in the midst of the unemployment doldrums).  I’ve decide to limit myself to no more than 5 pattern alterations for every project (aside from the ones for basic fit), so if anyone wants to fiddle around with the pattern, they can get similar results.

(These tweaks should also work for Simplicty 3725, which is the children’s version of Simplicity 3723)

The Inspiration

Simplicity 3723 includes a “prairie dress” pattern, View A. It’s based off of American pioneer garb from the mid-19th century mixed with 20th century fitting techniques, producing costumes very similar to those used in the beloved Little House on the Prairie TV series, hence the term “prairie dress.”

“A Christmas They Never Forgot” always made me cry when I was little. Still my favorite!

I’ve steered clear of “Civil War” and other mid-19th century costuming for a long time because, sadly, as one of the most popular reenacting periods, it can get pretty catty and cut-throat when it comes to historical accuracy. There are entire webpages and Facebook groups dedicated to “farb” shaming. In fact, the pejorative term “farb” originated in this particular era of historical reenacting.

Hoops showing? What a Farb!

This particularly strict and sometimes vicious attitude is one of the many ill experiences that caused my teenage self to abandon historical costuming for years. However, that experience (among others) led me to create this blog. Thanks to time, practice, and lots of new, more supportive costuming friends, I decided to give the 1850s a try; after all, my figure is pretty well suited for it! There are plenty of historically accurate patterns for this era out there, but when I confront a challenge, I like to challenge it back.

Simplicity 3723 is most definitely a “farb” dress by reenactor standards, but it was never designed to be perfectly accurate anyway.  The pattern designer, Andrea Schewe, created this pattern specifically with small-scale theater productions in mind that need to clothe lots of actors with few resources. View A  is actually pretty good straight out of the envelope (personal fit issues aside). If you need a mid-19th century dress for a school play, just make it up as directed and add fluffy petticoats for a convincing 1840s-60s character. The one-piece construction is historically appropriate as well as convenient, plus  there’s enough fabric in the skirt to cover a 90-110″ hoop skirt. However, I wanted something a little more distinctive. The 1850s and early 1860s are famous for wide skirts and equally wide sleeves. And, as you probably know by now, I love big sleeves!

There are tons of inspirational photographs and extant garments to choose from, but in my case, the fabric actually came before the dress was even an idea. I found this wild, but utterly perfect quilting cotton at Walmart for just under $3 a yard. It’s part of 2014’s “Circles on Stripes” pattern, which came in blue, green, and brown backgrounds. All the ladies at the fabric counter thought it was pretty ugly, but I chose the brown. At the time, I had no intention of making a Victorian dress, but it gave me the fabric fuzzies inside, so I knew I had to have it! I bought 6 yards.


I discovered a really nifty thing! If you go onto Walmart’s website, it’s horribly hard to look through their fabric listing, but if you really need extra yardage (as I did), but you’ve exhausted the supply at your local store, the website will actually tell you which stores still have your desired fabric in stock! That way, you don’t have to waste as much time driving store to store looking the hard way.

My particular pattern looks very similar to the ones found in this book of 1860s cotton swatches:

Swatch Book, circa 1863-68

It’s thick, as most quilting cottons are, much thicker than much of the cotton fabric available in the 1850s. In fact, the texture of my cotton fabric is quite close to Victorian dress-weight wool, which, as it turns out, was often printed with wild, bright patterns very similar to Walmart’s quilting fabrics! You can find quite a few photographs of ladies wearing eclectic prints:

Print Dress 1 print dress 2 print dress 3

Women in Print Dresses, circa 1855-65
This set of photographs is from an eBay auction.

Another must for the 1850s besides big bell sleeves is fringe and tassels!

Afternoon Dress, circa 1857
Okay, perhaps not quite so much fringe…

After looking at lots of designs and photos, this was the design I came up with:


One of the most important aspects of historical costuming is the shape of the waistline. The 1850s was transitional when it came to waistlines. The 1840s had really long, pointed waists and the 1860s were short waisted and rounded. Simplicity 3723 is long waisted with a slight point at the front, making it perfect for late 1840s and early 1850s. I’m naturally short waisted, so when I altered the pattern to fit my body, the waistline became more rounded with a slight dip in the front, pushing it closer to the late 1850s to early 60s.

To get the look I desired, I had to make the following alterations to Simplicity 3723:

(+1 skill point indicates something I’d never done before!)

1. Front Opening – The original dress pattern is made to zip up the back. To make the dress more historically accurate (and so I wouldn’t have mess with sewing in a zipper), I opted to make the bodice close in front with hooks and eyes. To be able to get the dress on, I added an 8″ deep lapped placket to the front of the skirt (+1 skill point!).

2. Dropped Shoulders – 1850s dresses had dropped shoulders, meaning the armscye didn’t sit at the top of the shoulder joint, but further down the arm (+1 skill point!).

3. Period Skirt Finishes – To get the most out of the fullness, I cut the skirt panels out of the full width of the fabric (in my case, 45″). Instead of gathering the waistband of the skirt, I used overlapping knife pleats. Originally, I was going to cartridge pleat it (another period method of fabric control), but after fiddling with it a few days (and ripping out yards of stitching), I decided knife pleating suited my tastes more. If you use 60″ fabric, your skirt can be made even fuller and you’ll probably want to use cartridge pleats to draw in the waistline. To help support the hemline, many Victorian dresses had hem facings between 4-10 inches wide (some even wider). I decided to go with a 5-6 inch wide facing.

4. No Collar – This is a small change. Instead of completing View A with a collar, I just left it off.

5. Pagoda/Bell Sleeves – I redrafted the sleeve pattern because nothing screams 1850s like sleeve swag! (+1 skill point!)

The Pattern


You only need 5 pattern pieces to make an 1850s dress!
If you haven’t worked with this pattern before, measure yourself wearing your undergarments of choice (especially if you plan to wear a corset) and choose the closest pattern size to your measurements. I recommend choosing a pattern size according to your bust measure, but generally speaking, this pattern is pretty true to size with a good amount of ease (2.5 inches in the bust) built in for the average, active wearer. As I mentioned previously, I performed basic pattern alterations to make sure the bodice pieces, mainly bodices pieces 1 and 2, fit my body. Buy some cheap fabric, second hand sheets work perfectly, and make a mock-up of the pattern to gauge where you’ll need to make changes to the pattern, if any.

Many 1850s dress have very low dropped shoulders. I have wide enough shoulders as it is, so I find dropping the sleeves to be a bit unflattering. I decided to drop the sleeve only two inches, which I achieved by adding to the shoulder of my pattern:


This is only an inches worth of drop which I tried for my first mock-up. I later extended it to two inches. Sadly, I didn’t get many action shots of this dress’s progress, for which I apologize!

The only other major change to the pattern pieces was turning the straight sleeve into a pagoda sleeve. I wanted a nice, fairly fitted upper with a generous lower bell that ended above my wrist, so I took the long sleeve pattern from View A and marked where the elbow was (this is where the flare would begin) and where I wanted the sleeve to end. Then I drew a gentle curve out about 3 inches between the two points. This hastily-drawn image explains it much better than I can:


It doesn’t take very much extra flare to make a really full sleeve. For extremely wide sleeves, you can begin the curve above the elbow almost at the shoulder line. I had to make a few mockups before I got a curve I liked.


Too much curve! This is what happens when the angle of your curve is too sharp and too wide.


For a front closure, I needed two separate halves instead of a single piece. So instead of placing the bodice front piece on the fold, I placed it on the selvedge. Make sure your skirt panels are the right length (remember that you may need to add some extra length if you are using hoops larger than about 100 inches) and to cut them the full width of the fabric if you are using 45″ fabric to get maximum volume. Otherwise, follow the cutting directions provided by the pattern. I also had to account for extra yardage for my sexy new, voluminous sleeves (about 2/3 yard extra). I flat lined my bodice using a thrifted cotton sheet. Sage advice: Flat line all your Victorian bodices. It’s not only period correct, it also makes  taking things in and letting them out so much easier!

???????????????????????????????I cut 6 inch wide strips of fabric across the width (45 inches) of my fabric and sewed them together to create the hem facing. For the front placket, I cut a bias-cut rectangle twice as long as the opening and about 2 inches wide.


Assemble according to envelope, but instead of inserting a zipper in the back, sew the two back pieces together and leave the bodice front open for hooks and eyes. I added a modesty placket so if there is any gapping, it will be much less noticeable. Since that created an overlapping closure, I used bars instead of eyes:


Modesty placket


Front opening

To make the placket for the front opening, I followed this surprisingly simple tutorial from Sense and Sensibility patterns for a slash/lapped placket:

I bag-lined the sleeves with some cranberry cotton, using the scraps to make some pinked-edged ruffle trim for the sleeves. After everything was assembled, I sewed on some showgirl-worthy tassels. You’ll notice that my original drawing had a square design on the bodice. On paper and my dress form, a square looks great! On me….not so much. So I took inspiration from this dress (really, its the pelerine, but it counts!) and went for a much more flattering  sweetheart design.


Obligatory “Kitty Helper” picture!

 So after, two months and three sewing machine needles later (don’t ask), was my 1850s dress successful?

Find out in Part 2!

One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Bustle Dress Made from Simplicity 3723

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Bustle Dress circa 1886

Ah, Simplicity 3723! I am not afraid to admit it: I have a not-so-secret love affair with 3723.  It’s the catch-all pattern designed to make basic “Pilgrim, “Colonial,” and “Prairie” style dresses using as few pattern pieces as possible. None of them are historically accurate by any means, but the shapes and styles are very easy to manipulate even for someone as ham-handed as myself.

Simplicity patterns get very little love in the historical costuming community, which is a shame. They may not be historically accurate, but they are readily available and in the case of Simplicity 3723, supremely modifiable– great for fitting practice and flexing your creative muscles! You can literally make a dress from almost any era with just this one pattern and plenty of chutzpah. One of my previous costuming projects involved transforming Simplicity 3723 into something a little more historically accurate for the 18th century:


My 18th century Lady’s Maid Dress

It’s the heat of the summer again and I felt like I needed another Simplicity 3723 project (maybe it’ll become a summer tradition, who knows?). I’m more penniless than ever before, so I had an extra level of frugality to wrestle with, but I was feeling ambitious. I needed a bustle gown and I figured I could whip one up in a jiffy if I played around with the pattern pieces a bit, and by golly, I was right! With a few tweaks, I was about to create a fairly decent bustle silhouette!

Sadly, in my haste, I neglected to add extra width to the shoulders, so I didn’t fit into the dress at all. A lovely lady in Germany offered to give it another chance, so off went Bustle Dress #1 to a new home! After a good cry and a few months/projects later, I was ready to try again. This time I made sure that I fitted the shoulders properly! That’s one of the glories of this pattern: the pieces are very simple to alter.


When I finally get all the alterations right, I trace my new pattern onto interfacing (the sew-in kind, not the iron-on). It’s strong, durable, won’t unravel and is hard to tear. Label the new pattern with the original pattern and piece number, any sewing marks, and what alterations you made. Adding a date created and/or the measurements is also helpful. Bodies tend to change over time!

Luckily, I had bought the whole bolt of faux suiting and found some more green velour at Walmart, so I could stick to my original design and stay within budget. Huzzah!

The Design

Simplicity 3723 doesn’t have a “bustle” option. Indeed, it’s well nigh impossible to find a decent all-in-one bustle dress pattern from the Big 3, mostly because bustle dresses are often large swathes of fabric carefully caught up into shape using tapes, gathers, drapes, and a strategically placed gore or three. All these large tissue pieces mean that a full bustle dress pattern is very bulky and hard to fit into a regulation Big 3 envelope. However, by choosing the right pieces and fudging them a bit, you can make View A (the “Prairie” style dress) into a fairly nice bustle dress for Steampunk or theatrical purposes!


I’m notorious for not following pattern directions, but for this dress, I decided to limit myself to no more than five pattern alterations (aside from those needed for fit):

1. Front Opening – The original dress pattern is made to zip up the back. To make the dress more historically accurate (and so I wouldn’t have mess with sewing in a zipper), I opted to make the bodice close in front with hooks and eyes.

2. Separate Skirt – Unlike Simplicity 3723’s dress, bustle-era dresses usually didn’t have the skirt attached to the bodice.

3. Bustle Shaping – In order for the dress to sit smoothly over a bustle without the hem of the skirt hiking up in the back, the back of the skirt needs to be longer and rounded.

4. Add Skirt Gores (or would they be darts of sorts?)- To keep the large amount of fabric in the skirt from bulking up the waist, bustle-era skirts generally had triangular gores cut out of the top so there was less fabric to pleat or gather.

5. Bustle “Overskirt” – To emphasize that luscious booty!

Step 1: The Pattern


Making a bustle dress out of Simplicity 3723 only takes 8 pattern pieces. Measure yourself wearing your undergarments of choice (especially if you plan to wear a corset) and choose the closest pattern size to your measurements. I recommend choosing a pattern size according to your bust measure, but generally speaking, this pattern is pretty true to size with a good amount of ease (2.5 inches in the bust) built in for the average, active wearer. As I painfully reiterated earlier, I needed to make a few additional alterations to make the pattern fit. I like to use the basic “Pattern Alterations Guide C-228” published online by New Mexico State University, but many other similar pattern altering guides are available online and in sewing books. Since the bodice pattern is so simple, it’s very easy to manipulate even if you’ve never done pattern alterations before.

You’ll notice all the pattern pieces I used were from “View A,” the prairie-style dress. The other two pieces are the “apron tie end” that I used as a waistband pattern and the “drape” pattern from the “Colonial-style” dress which would become the bustle overskirt.

Step 2: Layout

This is where most of the magic happens–and the key to making those all-important changes that will turn this into a bustle dress.


Something like this, depending on your fabric.

Once I had all my pattern pieces in order, I needed to lay them out on the fabric. Since I wanted my bodice to be front-opening, I didn’t lay the bodice front on the fold as instructed (though you still can; you’ll just need to cut it apart at the fold afterwards). To make the collar open in the front as well, I simply put the center back on the fold instead of the center front. A bodice looks much better when it is lined, so I cut the exact same pieces out of a nice old cotton sheet!

The most complex change, though, was the skirt:


In order to get that bump at the back that would make the dress curve over the bustle without the hem hanging funny, you have to have a curve at the back. Piece 5 is actually the front skirt piece, but it has that lovely curve already built in. I used it for the back of the skirt instead!

What I did:

First, I flipped piece 5 so it was on the selvage instead of the fold, then I extended the curve out until it met the fold.
Piece 5 is shorter than piece 6, so you have to extend the bottom of the piece to match the hemline.
Piece number 6 is going to be the front of your skirt. I only cut one copy of 6 because I didn’t want too much fullness at the front.
I cut a 12 inch long triangular gore out of the center waistline of piece number 6. I made mine about 5 inches wide at the top, but how wide you make yours depends on your waist size and how full you want the front of your skirt. Smaller sizes will need larger gores, otherwise there will be too much fabric at the waistline to gather/pleat down to the proper size!
I used piece 16 as a guide to cut a waistband for my skirt. I cut it 2 inches longer than my waist size to allow for finishing and overlap for the closure.

I decided to leave my skirt unlined because my fabric was fairly heavy. However, most skirts from the period are lined and lighter fabrics definitely benefit from a lining!

I chose to make the collar and drape out of a contrasting (and very annoying) green velour contrast fabric. I only cut one drape. It doesn’t look that impressive when it’s flat, but when you sew it together, it’s amazing how much fullness it has!

Step 3: Assembly


The draped overskirt is attached to the bodice. It’s not period, but it makes getting dressed a cinch!

Sew the bodice according to the envelope, but close the back seam instead of leaving it open for the zipper and leave the front seam open to add your hooks and eyes/invisible zipper/buttons. I attached the velour drape around the back, using the front darts as my stopping points. Sadly and rather embarrassingly, I ran out of hooks and eyes, so I couldn’t close the bodice all the way to the point! Whoops! Let’s  just say it’s an artistic design element, shall we?


I’m 5 feet 5 inches tall (41 inches waist-to-floor) and I didn’t alter the pattern’s skirt length. In 2 inch heels, it hits just above my toes in the front.

The skirt I pleated instead of gathered because 1) pleating was the preferred method of fabric control in the 1880s, 2) it isn’t as bulky as gathering, and 3) pleating is just easier for me. In order to get a bustle skirt and not just a plain trained skirt, you actually attach the curved side of the back skirt panel to the waistline instead of the straight side. It makes a little “pooch” for the bustle to fit under and keeps the hemline even. Often, heavy skirts with lots of fabric in them have a tendency to collapse around your legs at the hem, tripping you up and generally looking a mess. The Victorians loved full skirts, so to combat hem collapse, they faced their hems–sometimes up to 12 inches deep! I didn’t go nearly that far. Instead, I just used some 48mm Wright’s bias tape hem facing. It’s stiff, easy to sew, and bends nicely around the curve of the skirt. I wish I’d found some black or even green hem tape, but all Walmart had was white. Still, it does it’s job admirably!


Step 4: Decorate!

Bustle dresses usually have tons of trims, so feel free to go nuts decorating. When in doubt, add more trim! My finished dress looked very much like a uniform– camouflage colored, square shouldered, and stark– so I decided to keep it that way. Plus, I’m broke, so lots of fancy buttons, passementerie, and the like were pretty much out of my reach. I had a swathe of green velour left from making the drape, so I cut some strips from it for decoration. Normally, I would sew the trim on, but since this velour stuff is a knit, it was hell to sew. In a moment of frustration, I broke out…THE HEATBOND.


This stuff is super vintage, too. It’s probably only a few years younger than I am!

It worked surprisingly well.The velour didn’t stretch and shed and it kept the crisp lines. It’s not as neat and tidy and sewing it on, but if you’re pressed for time or patience, the stuff can work miracles.


To get the velour tabs on the shoulders just right, I ironed them on while the dress was on the dressform. That way, I didn’t create any weird creases and I could fiddle with the positioning.

The Finished Dress:

(and some poor-quality photos)






A silly pin-up picture showing my insufficient hooks and eyes and the giant feathery poof on my impromptu 1940s-hat-turned-bonnet. What a tart!

For undergarments, I wore my swanky new corset from Hourglass Attire, a cotton tank top, a white hippie skirt, and my homemade bustle:


The bustle is just a stuffed fabric crescent that I drafted from, of all things, the sleeve head:

101_7695 101_7697 101_7700 101_7705

Then, I added ties and a circular, ruffled tablecloth I found at the thrift shop, creating an utterly ridiculous, yet surprisingly effective, bustle in just the right size:


Cost Breakdown:

1880 old fashioned
Dress and bustle:

5 yards polyester “suiting” – $15, Walmart
2 yards obnoxious green velour – $6, Walmart
Queen-sized cotton sheet – $1.99, thrift shop
Heatbond – FREE! (Thank you, Reva!)
(Not enough) hooks and eyes – $1.69, Hobby Lobby
Brown poly-cotton thread – $1.98, Walmart
Ruffled cotton tablecloth – $1.99, thrift shop

Total: $28.65

While it’s certainly not re-enactment worthy or particularly flashy, it’s easy to wear, fun to make, and I didn’t have to buy any new patterns. So, I’d say the Simplicity 3723 Bustle Dress experiment was successful!

Steam Punks: A Disturbing Trend in the Neo-Victorian Community

Deny the Bud, Worship the Blossom?

I am a general costumer. I love the escape, the fantasty, the research, the dedication, and creativity that goes into making a outfit outside of the modern normal. One of the most popular genres of costuming at the moment is the rapidly growing Neo-Victorian movement which encompasses multiple genres, especially Steampunk. Steampunk has grown in the years since I discovered it in 2011, gaining a complex mythos and large fanbase with their own particular styles of Steampunk (historical, post-apocolyptic, international, etc.). It’s wonderful to see so many different types of creativity melding together inside one genre!

Steampunk Group Photo by Daylina Miller, Quill & Quirk

However, as the movement has grown and multiple styles have broken off in favor of certain sets of rules, rifts have begun to form between the different Steampunk “denominations.” For example, I follow the Steampunk page on Facebook. It began as the premier Facebook fanpage for the genre, but has since come under fierce fire due to its choices of posts even though the content really hasn’t changed all that much from when it began. Instead, the attitude and views of the followers have. For example, this photo was recently posted on the page:

 Poison Nature by Rei-Doll on DeviantArt

This is Russian cosplayer Rei (Irene) in her rendition of a Neo-Victorian Poision Ivy based on this sketch by NoFlutter:

Alternate Victorian Ivy Sketch by NoFlutter on DeviantArt

Here’s a full shot of Rei’s finished costume (along with a classic Harley Quinn):

Harley and Ivy by Rei-Doll on DeviantArt

She followed the inspiration sketch perfectly! Both the costume and sketch are adorable and both have obvious turn of the century influence: a corset, bustle, stockings, etc. They also have the original pair of favored Steampunk props: the top hat and goggles. So what’s “wrong” with it? Everything, it seems:


A small sample, but you get the idea.

I don’t like using my blog as a place to stir up controversy, but this isn’t the first time such “High Society Steaming” has happened and it’s happening more frequently. Of course, there will always be people who do not like or agree with your costume choice, but the Steampunk community originally began (and continues to advertise itself as) a welcome relief from the judgemental world of other costume genres. What made Steampunk so attractive is that there were so many options, story lines, and styles that could be melded together to form something entirely unique, yet share common characteristics with your fellow costumers, like the apparently evil top hat and goggles. They’ve stuck around because people like them. They are iconic! The pair is Steampunk’s gateway drug to the wider world of the genre, drawing people in and growing the community. Once they’ve mastered the simple top hat and goggles, someone can easily develop their unique persona and style if they like. Others may be content to keep their hats and goggles. Why shouldn’t they be? Top hats and goggles are awesome!

Steampunk Spamdragon by Novawuff on DeviantArt

I agree that many enterprising people have jumped on the bandwagon to make money selling “Steampunk-style” items rather than adding to the genre, but we’ve gone from loving gears to hating them, adoring top hats to ridiculing them, fawning over a new pair of goggles to condemning them as cheap. I agree that we can’t just “glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk,” but we also can’t deny the very ideas and symbols that we originally developed our mythos on. Steampunk has developed into a much more complex movement. It expands beyond costuming into literature, music, even lifestyles. Some people immerse themselves completely, choosing to go the “neo-enacter” route by dressing and living in a Steampunk fashion in their everyday lives. But someone who likes to dress in their own style of Steampunk shouldn’t be judged any more than someone who likes Steampunk music or jewelry but doesn’t live-eat-and-breathe Steampunk or someone who likes coffee but doesn’t own their own coffee shop and can’t tell a Kona bean from a Colombian one just by listening to it rattle.

The Genuine Balancing Siphon Coffee Maker based on an 1830s design
How to serve tea like a Sir (or Madame)!

In fact, the judgemental call-outs are very similar to those you hear from the darker side of the reenacting communnity, one of the many reasons I abandoned that scene in favor of casual historical costuming. This judgemental wall, real or percieved, has slowly begun to suffocate the reenactment community because new members, afraid they will be ridiculed rather than nurtured, do not join groups. How long before the caustic attitudes brewing in the Steampunk world bubble over and start driving people away instead of welcoming them in?

Steampunk Oddfae by oddfae on DeviantArt
“If I promise to take the goggles off, will you let me out?”

The Costumer’s Code

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 might 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?). Critiques can be good. They can help you evolve and you will costume all the better for it. If you are trying to be more 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 unsolicited condescending or unhelpful commentary. A well-meaning bit of education is robbed of all value if given without consent or gentility…and boy, can it sting! Keep in mind that many critical experts have been exercising their costuming selves a bit longer or differently than you—for example you costume part-time for community theater and they’re working the museum circuit—and may have developed a deep sense of orthodoxy. If you encounter someone being unduly domineering and judgemental about your creations, it is okay to be upset. You are a human, not a mannequin, after all! Just remember that they may be on a different costuming path than you. Don’t let one bad review smash your dreams flat!

On the flip side, the hardest criticism to put up with 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!
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.” In that same vein, keep in mind that other folks in costumes– no matter your opinion on their particular outfit– are also humans on their own journeys. Always remember that the difference between a critique and a criticism is consent and tone. If asked, give advice kindly. Respect, positivity, and goodwill are the best tools for helping everyone grow and flourish!



  • 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 bonnet from a cereal box? 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!

Happy Costuming!

Inspired by “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko

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.”