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?





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!

I Need Your Help: Sewing Plans for 2014

Join The Cheer/Brute Squad

I am, as I have always been, addicted to possibility. Every new pattern, fabric, button, trick, or tutorial makes me giddy. I am notorious for gathering all the materials for a project– pattern, fabric, notions– but never actually start work on it. Even after starting one, most recently Simplicity 4156, I get backlogged and frustrated. I’ve been working on this latest project for almost 3 months now! I am nearly done, but if I had put my mind to it, I could have had it done weeks ago.

dress designThis was my early design for the dress. The colors have stayed the same, but the belt detail, sadly, had to go, and I’m rethinking the trim (worked better on paper than on me). Otherwise: it looks just like this!

It may seem a little late to be posting Sewing Resolutions for 2014, but I’ve begun to lag behind. I just don’t have the “get-up-and-go” to make things. I need a little motivation! All of you– my readers, fellow costumers, family, and friends– are the best motivation ever and I don’t like to let you down! I’m going to post a few project ideas here because I know that if I promise to complete them for you all, it will give me that extra push I need to get back into the groove and put my stash of fabrics to good use.

Despite taking so long with it, I am really in love with Simplicity 4156. Now that I have it fitted to better suit my body and know what to expect from it, I’d like to work more with it. I have lots of stash fabric that would work brilliantly for the pattern as well, including two cottons and an oatmeal herringbone in particular that scream 1890s to me:


My favorite of the bunch, but sadly, a little chewed up (you can see one of the many pulls on the left). However, it would…no, WILL…be a great rough-and-tumble day dress!


Slightly more Edwardian than the last print, but still applicable to the 1890s, I think. It’s a fine cotton with subtle woven-in stripes in the background. The flowers are much punchier in person: a very crisp cornflower blue and black. It WILL make a lovely spring/summer day dress.


I don’t know what fabric this is as it was a remnant. It reminds me of poly-wool blends, though, and is very drapey and smooth. It WILL make a great walking dress for cooler days.

One of the funnest parts of my addiction to possibility is getting to draw all my future dresses! Making a fashion sketch keeps me from wandering around a project (and the fabric store!) without a clear direction. They really do help with focus! I don’t have photoshop or any other fancy drawing program, but I do have a paper sketchpad and Microsoft Office PowerPoint. So I sketched a basic outline of an 1890s dress based on Simplicity 4156, photographed it, and imported it into MS PowerPoint to add color. Ta-da! My plans for the three fabrics I’ve chosen:


The Rainy-Day Dress
For the chewed-up-but-perfect grey cotton.


Fine China Day Dress
For the blue and white floral (it reminds me of my grandmother’s blue willow china)


Business and Pleasure Walking Dress
For the oatmeal herringbone weave. The center fabric is a fun one. It’s not really period-perfect, but it’s got pizzazz…and I’m all about pizzazz! It was a happy accident: I found it right next to the oatmeal fabric–a work of fate!

You’ll notice that there’s a big difference between these designs and my current dress, which is made 90% true-to-pattern. Here’s the original 4156 dress design sketch that’s published in the pattern:

Excitingly, my current dress is going to turn out almost exactly like this! YAY! I am so proud that I actually got those sleeve to work!

The design is very large and over-the-top. It’s fabulous for my dinner dress, but it’s a little too much to manage if I want to go to events, especially outdoors. The gigantic sleeves are very apt to catch in the wily Texas wind and flop around like two unruly balloons! I also want to make some dresses without the peplum. The peplum is really nice because it neatly hides the place where the waistband of the skirt meets the bodice white adding to the illusion that you are wearing a separate jacket, and peplums were all the rage in the 1890s:

Wool Suit Fashion Illustration, circa 1894-97

 Ladies’ Demi-Evening Toilette Dress for a Paper Doll, circa 1896
This paper doll’s dress is almost a perfect match for Simplicity 4156!

However, I wanted to make something less fussy. In the process of doing research for my current dress, I found lots of wonderful dresses with straight-across waists combined with sash belts that were directly sewn onto the dress:

House of Rouff Dress, circa 1897

April 1897 Fashion Plate
It’s just like my little yellow sash!

Garden Party Toilette for a Paper Doll, circa 1895


A photograph I bought from a local antique store. I really love her dress! It’s a later design, probably around 1897-99, but it’s just so darling. It has an applied sash around the bottom that doesn’t meet at the front. The bodice she has on could easily be made from the pattern pieces I have right now: just make two “collars” and apply them on either shoulder under the lapels instead of at the back of the neck! Hmmm…ideas…

Luckily, all three of my fabrics are perfectly complimented by mustard yellow, so I only have to purchase one small piece of velvet to make sashes from. Added bonus: they will all match the same hat! I even have a hat base picked out that will work perfectly:

Hat Base by Humboldt Haberdashery on Etsy

I hope posting all this here will give me the motivation I need. I don’t like to disappoint people, and so long as you are here to support me and jab me in the ribs if I get a little slow, I think we can get through these dresses together! My goal is to get all three done by the end of the year. It’s only three dresses, but there are plenty of other patterns and stash fabrics that need attention, too, and I’m working on plans for them as well.

I’ll keep your updated on my progress (with plenty of pictures, I promise)!