Fashion and Feminism: Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute and the Hunt for a Healthful Corset

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Portrait of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute in an article commenting on her corset research and practice (among other things), 1890s.

Before I proceed, I am going to ask that you read this post with the following disclaimer in mind:

I do not fluently read/speak French. Therefore the translations provided below are courtesy of Google Translate, which is not perfect. I tried to verify the translations through multiple dictionaries to ensure that I am not misinterpreting the author’s intent, but sometimes things can be lost in translation which is why I have provided the original French alongside the Google English translations.

 

le-corset

Wikimedia’s photograph archive from the book “Le Corset” written by Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute c. 1900 showcases a wide variety of body shapes in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period. The book has illustrations (photographs overtraced by hand) of women of many body types modelling the “old” corset style from the 19th century and the “new” corset style we call the S-bend or flat front corset, which was supposed to prevent lower tummy expansion and be healthier than the older style.

captureClick here to see all the illustrations.

As you go through the photos, notice all the women the have lower belly paunch that comes from age, childbirth, medical conditions, weight gain, gravity, and from wearing corsets which push belly fat and organs downwards– effects which Gaches-Sarraute wished to correct with her new corset design.

This revolutionary and controversial book is one of the most famous pieces of corset literature from the early 20th century.
(The other, also titled “Le Corset” but by a different author, contains the infamous corset x-rays)

You may already be familiar with some of the images from the book, if not the book itself:

Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute vehemently opposed the Victorian corset because of the health problems she observed–like hernias, constricted ribcages, displaced organs, and weakened muscles–in the women wearing them. At first glance, the book may seem decidedly anti-corset and has lent much to the modern hatred/fear of the garment. However, the author herself states that she is not anti-corset:

“I could not think propose the abolition of the corset, we have seen elsewhere that has its uses; it is towards the elimination of its main drawbacks I directed my efforts.
Original French: “Je ne pouvais songer à proposer la suppression du corset, nous avons vu d’ailleurs qu’il a son utilité; c’est vers la suppression de ses principaux inconvénients que j’ai dirigé mes efforts.”

In fact, she is pro-corset, but only if the garment was made to more healthful standards. Her goal was quite a noble one: to improve the overall health of women by changing what she saw as the root cause of many female health problems— bad corsets.
Thus she designed a new support of her own:

Fig. 7 – Corset Gaches-Sarraute

It is very similar to the girdles that we see later in the century and still wear. In many advertisements, the short, light-reduction version of the S-bend corsets closest to Gaches-Sarraute’s original design are called “girdle corsets.”

It was meant to support the organs from below, free the chest from compression, and encourage “proper” posture. She believed her new corset design not only helped women’s organs, but improved their beauty and mental health. This design became the basis for the S-bend or straight front corset that took the fashion world by storm during the first decade of the 20th century.

With an abdominal corset that supports and relaxes her, the woman has less drawn features, eyes less circled, she is more vivacious, more energetic…Many women, sick without the cause of their condition being well determined, condemned to an almost constant repose, are now vigorous, healthy, able to walk, and without exaggerating, are reborn to life. Did the simple change of corset produce such results? Yes, because to this day all corsets, constructed without rules or laws, acted in the opposite direction to natural indications, and thwarted all physiological functions.”
Original French: “Avec un corset abdominal qui la soutient et la repose, la femme a les traits moins tirés, les yeux moins cernés, elle est plus vivace, plus énergique…Bien des femmes, malades sans que la cause de leur état fût bien déterminée, condamnées à un repos presque constant, sont aujourd’hui vigoureuses, bien portantes, peuvent marcher et sans rien exagérer renaissent à la vie.Le simple changement de corset a-t-il pu donner de tels résultats? Oui, parce que jusqu’aujourd’hui tous les corsets, construits sans règles, ni lois, agissaient en sens inverse des indications naturelles et contrariaient toutes les fonctions physiologiques.”

As we know now, the S-bend was not the cure-all Gaches-Sarraute hoped for. It came with its own set of problems.
Though the distended lower stomach caused by the older style of corset was considered unsightly and unhealthy, it had the advantage of allowing viscera some means of expansion. The S-bend/straight front corset did indeed keep the organs from being distended downward, but instead, it pressed them up, much as pregnancy does. The long, rigid front of the S-bend corset could become very uncomfortable since pressure from meals, gas, urine, menstral/hormonal changes, etc. has nowhere to expand except up against the diaphragm. This was not directly the fault of Gaches-Sarraute’s medically-minded design, but the effect was exacerbated by fashion adaptations made by mass manufacturers (as is so often the case, isn’t it?). Many straight front corsets made for the mass market extended too high on the body to allow for expansion of the ribs and upwards movement of the organs.

W. H. K. & S. “Ascot” Straight Fronted Corset Ad, 1902
Notice how much higher it extends compared to Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute design.

Modern corsets suffer from similar problems as we value the straight front, but crave full coverage to avoid unsightly bulges. This hybridization contributes in large part to the corset’s uncomfortable reputation as mass-manufacturers focus on overall slimness rather than the comfort of their wares. Without room left at the top and bottom of the corset to allow for the expansion and movement of flesh, tubular fashion corsets press too much everywhere, leading to chafing, numbness, breathlessness, and constriction. Coupled with general ignorance of how corsets should fit and be worn, it’s no surprise that the garment has gained such a painful reputation.

Inès Gaches-Sarraute and corset-lovers everywhere are cringing so hard right now.

The size/looks-before-comfort method of corset wearing has always been a problem.
Yes, even Victorian and Edwardian women wore ill-fitting or improperly worn corsets, often purchased “off the rack” in shops or through catalogs.  It’s a common myth that everything was perfectly tailor-made to fit by the women themselves. By the mid-19th century, corsets were manufactured in large factories and purchased much as we purchase a pair of jeans today.
Victorian women were number-conscious just like us, too!

Women have heard from their friends about a corset that looks good, which makes a pretty size [waist] – that is the only fact that interests them: they want to wear it, hoping to benefit also from an aesthetic point of view; But as their physiological state and conformation differ, if the corset is applied under the same conditions it produces the contrary effect and hurts them.
Original French: “Elles ont entendu parler par leurs amies d’un corset dont on se trouve bien, qui fait une jolie taille — c’est le seul fait qui les intéresse: elles veulent le porter, espérant en bénéficier, elles aussi, au point de vue esthétique; mais comme leur état physiologique et leur conformation diffèrent, si le corset est appliqué dans les mêmes conditions il produit l’effet contraire et leur fait mal.”

On this point, Gaches-Sarraute and modern corsetiers absolutely agree: do not sacrifice fit for looks! Fortunately for modern corset makers, the corset’s recent rise in popularity has increased awareness of proper fit. Gaches-Sarraute’s principles play heavily into modern corset design, like reduction points closer to the hips, cupped ribs to allow room for comfortable breathing, and embracing the underbust cut for ease of movement.

Gaches-Sarraute’s underbust design was revolutionary. For the first time in over 300+ years of corset evolution, the female breast was not held within the corset. This was a big change. The low front leaves the bust unsupported and pulls weight from the abdomen upwards, creating a top-heavy apple shape with natural-state breasts, which didn’t suit the Victorian feminine ideal of defined hourglass curves. Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute saw this as an bothersome, but positive side effect:

There is therefore a reform to bring to the costume, tedious reform, but which is necessary. The woman who wishes to wear the abdominal corset must not allow herself to be stopped by this modification; She must not hesitate to subject her clothes to the radical transformations required by the apparatus.
Original French: “…il y a donc une réforme à apporter au costume, réforme ennuyeuse, mais qui s’impose. La femme qui veut porter le corset abdominal ne doit point se laisser arrêter par cette modification; il ne faut pas qu’elle hésite à faire subir à ses vêtements les transformations radicales exigées par l’appareil.”


This is the sort of loose, unrestrictive clothing Gaches-Sarraute was probably expecting.

Fashions did change, but not quite as Gaches-Sarraute might have hoped. To adapt to the new corset shape, the dresses of the early 1900s are different than any feminine fashion before them: the waist moves low to the pelvis, bodices hang full and loose, and women in fashion illustrations appear to be rushing forward so fast they are leaving their skirts behind them.

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1904

Les Modes, 1904

Because the new style of corset moved the point of reduction to the soft abdomen rather than over the floating ribs, women discovered they could achieve greater reductions than before, an effect Gaches-Sarraute obviously was not aiming to achieve originally. She notes with some amused befuddlement in her book:

Before ending the long enumeration of the modifications made by the Abdominal Corset , I must point out a curious phenomenon, which is difficult to explain; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.
Original French: “Avant de terminer l’énumération déjà bien longue des modifications apportées par le corsetabdominal, il me faut signaler un phénomène assez curieux, assez difficile à expliquer; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.

We would call this effect “waist training” in our modern vernacular. Gaches-Sarraute noticed that the shape and weight of her patients changed after they had worn the corset regularly. From her Observations section later in the book:

Madame. H, 48 years old. Obesity, heart palpitations, very bad condition, does not leave the couch, varicose veins. First corset, October 1898. Since then, a lot thinner: 40 cm of belly circumference [15.75 inches], Since then, has thinned a lot: 40 centimeters belly, circulatory disorders have decreased and general health is much better, the patient walks very well”
Original French: “
Mme H…, 48 ans. Obésité, palpitations de cœur, état général très mauvais, ne quitte pas la chaise longue, varices des membres inférieurs. 1er Corset, octobre 1898. Depuis lors, a beaucoup aminci : 40 centimètres de tour de ventre, les troubles circulatoires ont diminué et la santé générale est beaucoup meilleure, la malade marche très bien.”

It probably wasn’t just the cinching power responsible for Mme. H’s transformation. She might have been able to move around more due to the lower back support provided by her new corset, boosting her impressive weight loss results with increased physical activity.

Back support has long been one of the main functions of corsets and corset-like garments. To provide the back support which Gaches-Sarraute believed Victorian corsets lacked, her corset design was very sharply angled at the lower back. This created artificial lumbar hyperlordosis, commonly called swayback. Some people develop this naturally, but by modern medical standards, it is considered a form of bad posture because it places stress on the lower disks, hip joints, knees, and, with the added pressure from the corset, the kidneys. However, this sort of posture was considered both powerful and graceful– and quite masculine. It was the posture of well-pedigreed gentlemen and soldiers standing at attention with their chests puffed out in confidence.

Early 19th Century British Uniforms

German Soldiers, 1901

Dr. Gaches-Sarraute’s design gave women this same posture, and straight-front corsets were often advertised as “military front” for that reason:

Foster Hose Supporter Ad from 1901

Corset advertisement, circa 1901-1905

This hyper-extended ideal posture was adopted by models, fashionistas, socialites, and famous personalities like Camille Clifford and Edith Lambelle Langerfeld:

Camille Clifford is famous for the curvy figure and is known to many as the original Gibson Girl. She embodied the epitome of the new S-bend look: flat abdomen, swelling bust, and prominent derriere. Her extraordinary photos must be taken with a grain of salt: she is also one of the greatest examples of early photo retouching. The retouching is evident here by the unnatural smoothness of everything from her hips up where the wrinkles of fabric suddenly vanish.

Edith Langerfeild “La Sylphe” was an exotic dancer known her extreme flexibility and extreme forward-arching posture, though not for wearing corsets (she regularly danced semi-nude). She combined the fashionable swayback posture and her contortionist skills to create an exaggerated version of the look sans-corset. Her career– and signature style–extended the forward-leaning trend into the 1910s, though the waistline moved up from the hips to the just under the bust.

Outside fashion photographs and illustrations, the average woman did not usually adopt the exaggerated posture–as this informative article, “The S-bend in Context” by Marion McNealy, shows– and some created the illusion of the shape with padding rather than posture.

Women walking, circa 1902-1905
Edwardian women in day dresses going about their daily lives for comparison to the fashion images above.

Photograph of a working class woman walking, circa 1905-1908
A great example of how the underbust design affects the fit of the bodice over the bust compared to a Victorian corset.

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Padding options from the 1905 Sears Catalogue
They are still called bustles, though they are quite a bit smaller than those of the 1880s!

The S-bend posture ideal had lasting effects. In 1932, Elizabeth Arden released a newsreel urging women to abandon the now “old” swayback style of posture Gaches-Sarraute’s straight front corset encouraged:

Elizabeth Arden advises women to adopt the modern straight posture we still strive for today. This posture ideal has much to do with our focus on unisex athleticism and greatly slimmed-down fashions (athleisure, anyone?). It’s quite impossible to hide the edge of a rigid corset under a pair of yoga pants! Many women wear only one or two layers which hug the body and is often cut to reveal skin and structure. We no longer deal with the bulky layers and heavy skirts our female ancestors considered fashionable, which leads to another of Gaches-Sarraute’s reasons for not throwing out the notion of corsets entirely:

The main role of the corset should be to support the clothes and prevent constriction of ties around the waist, so as to prevent overflow of the viscera downward under the influence of this constriction.
Original French: “Le rôle principal du corset doit être de soutenir les vêtements et d’empêcher la constriction des liens autour de la taille, de façon à éviter le refoulement des viscères vers le bas sous l’influence de cette constriction.”

This same sentiment is shared by Robert L. Dickinson who wrote “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement” for The New York Medical Journal in 1887:

“In the woman who wears no corsets, the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction”

Just like the fashions of the Victorian era, the fashions of 1900 were all about layers that relied on a tight fit at the waist. Women sought to make these layers as lightweight and full as possible to avoid bulk, but there was still many hidden supports under those beautiful outer skirts:

I covered more about historical clothing layers in earlier posts: “With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes” and “Lifting Skirts and Loosening Ties: What goes under an Edwardian Dress?

A corset takes and distributes the weight of the skirts, supporting all the layers so they do not dig into the skin– the very definition of a “foundation garment!”
Gaches-Sarraute’s low-cut corset lead to the creation of a new  foundation garment: the brassiere, though not quite as we know it now. Gaches-Sarraute was emphatically against altering her corset design to provide breast support, devoting an entire chapter in her book to her argument against it. She believed that the new design provided enough support to the breasts by means of the expanded, upraised ribcage it created and that:

Trapping the breasts in an impermeable fabric promotes wilting and atrophy of the gland.
Original French: “Le fait d’emprisonner les seins dans un tissu imperméable favorise le flétrissement et l’atrophie de la glande.”

Gaches-Sarraute’s entire mission was to spare as many organs as possible from pressure, including the mammary glands. She even describes a problem many modern women who have worn an underbust corset with a modern bra have experienced: the dreaded pinch that happens to the flesh trapped between the corset and bra band.  Modern tastes and social mores press Western women today to wear bras, especially in conservative American culture: modern American women are expected to have high, round breasts that do not show nipples– a goal that mandates daily bra wearing under our relatively thin, sheer clothing. Edwardian women, in contrast, wore multiple layers of cloth over their breasts, so show-through wasn’t as much of a worry. Their concern with the lack of breast support was out of habit (used to old corsets) and practical (the need for support while working/exercising) which is why  some women found the underbust unsatisfactory. This meant that underbust corsets didn’t take over the world in a blink. Instead, Victorian styles and high, demi-bust versions of S-bend corsets were sold right along side the shorter style, much, I am sure, to Gaches-Sarraute’s chagrin:

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Corsets Department page from the 1905 Sears Catalogue. Left side shows older Victorian style corsets while the right side corsets are S-bend straight front corsets.

As any large-breasted woman–myself included– can attest, unsupported breasts have many painful complications of their own. Once they are past a certain size and age, they no longer are self-supporting, creating both comfort, health, and aesthetic issues. She brushes these notions aside, saying, “there are few women with breasts sufficiently large for it to be necessary to provide them with a support/il y a peu de femmes pourvues de seins assez volumineux pour qu’il soit indispensable de leur fournir un appui.” However, she begrudgingly acknowledges the criticism of her design and offers a solution. One of the most famous images from the book shows her brassiere design of choice:

She was far ahead of her time when it came to the design: fifty years later, women would be wearing a very similar look:

Formfit Ad, 1949

Spencer Ad, 1959

Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s corset design, whatever our personal opinions of it, undeniably revolutionized fashion even though the woman herself cared very little for any of the outside frills and fashion. She was concerned only with the internal workings of women, not that of their needles and thread. From her earliest design trials in the late 1890s (her first recorded recorded observation is dated 1895), she recorded the health improvements she saw in her patients after wearing her new corset design, claiming to have observed nearly 4,000 cases of successful recoveries ranging from healing incontinence to treating infertility.

When studying old texts like “Le Corset,” it is important to remember that medical practices and knowledge 120 years ago were very different than today. We cannot verify all of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s claims. Her writing must be viewed with some skepticism, as she is writing to promote both her work and designs as well as writing with the limitations of Victorian medical knowledge. As even she states, it was hard to find enough uncorseted women to form a control group, making it difficult to tell which medical conditions were caused by corsets, exacerbated by them, relieved by them, or completely unrelated. For example, many 21st century women have rounded, low bellies like those pictured in “Le Corset” even though they have never worn a corset in their life– it’s just how some bodies store fat and where loose skin forms after childbirth.

 One thing that is clear, however, is Gaches-Sarraute’s steadfast devotion to the healing and liberation of women’s bodies. She was determined to improve and advance women’s lives via her new corset design:

Woman has glimpsed the possibility of altering her way of life; she wants to take part in the work and physical exercise of men; On the other hand, she is incommoded by the present dress, she is ill, and, consequently, ready to accept its modifications. I appreciate this happy disposition, convinced that nothing can be done for women except with their own consent, and I shall be happy if my work, based on scientific and physiological data, is appreciated by the medical profession and by hygienists. It will be much easier for me to fight against fashion and prejudice, which take no account of the needs of our organism.
Original French: “La femme a entrevu la possibilité de modifier son genre de vie, elle veut prendre part aux travaux et aux exercices physiques des hommes; d’autre part, elle est incommodée par le vêtement actuel, elle est malade, et, par suite, prête à en accepter les modifications. Je saisis cette heureuse disposition, convaincue qu’on ne peut rien faire pour les femmes qu’avec leur propre assentiment, et je serai heureuse si mon travail, basé sur des données scientifiques et physiologiques, est apprécié du corps médical et des hygiénistes, car il me sera alors beaucoup plus aisé de lutter contre la mode et les préjugés qui ne tiennent aucun compte des besoins de notre organisme.”

Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute, as a female doctor, saw her unique opportunity to influence female freedom. As a medical doctor, she had the knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biology that seamstresses, fashion designers, and corset manufacturers at the time lacked. As a woman, she personally understood feminine needs and sensibilities in a way that her male medical colleagues could not. In addition to designing a new corset, she advocated for sensible dress, championed bicycle riding, and was even willing to let women wear pants if they agreed to stop wearing old-fashioned corsets.

Bike Riding with a Corset

Bicycling in lounge pants and and old-fashioned corset. Whoopsie! Sorry, Dr. Inès!

Her legacy continues today in the form of medical corsets/braces (which help thousands find relief from back pain/scoliosis, postnatal complications, hernias, and more), modern corsetry design principles, and, for better or worse, our cantankerous relationship with one of the most controversial garments ever made.

The full text of “Le Corset” is available in the original French on Wikimedia.
It is available in multiple formats, including a wonderful scanned PDF version.

When it comes to corsets–and clothes in general–everyone has different needs. Corsets are certainly not one-size-fits-all, and they aren’t all one-style-fits-all either! Some find the underbust S-bend corset suits their body and is just as pleasant to wear as Gaches-Sarraute hoped it would be. Other people find the flowing curves and high front of the Victorian corset more comfortable and supportive. Many more still have no want for any corset at all, and that is perfectly fine, too.
As for my tastes: Remember those too-tall S-Bends from earlier? Yeah, those work great for me if patterned right! I like the flexible demi-bust front of a Victorian corset for support, but the curve of my back and titled pelvis work best with the back and hips of the S-bend, so long as there is plenty of extra room in the ribs and hips for all my luscious lipids to move around in!
This sort of knowledge is not inherent or concrete. It is something you learn over time with experience. Remember: a corset is just a garment. It is the person filling it with that matters most!

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Animated Edwardian Stereograph by Thiophene_Guy

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Georgian Picnic 2016: Rainbow Regency and a Normandy Bonnet

I hardly got to attend any events this year since work is short-staffed and work weekends always seemed to fall on guild days. I am so thankful to Carol for covering for me so I could attend my favorite event: Georgian Picnic! It was the first event I ever attended with the DFW costumers Guild and it is still my favorite. It’s laid back and relaxing.

The costuming chaos leading up to it, however, is a different story. This year, as every year, was fraught with last-minute perils. On my plate this year was the ever-variable Texas weather (will it be 85° or 58°?), a new Regency tailcoat (remember how well that went last time?), and a Normandy Bonnet (Wha—???).

After the disappointment of making a costume last year for a friend only to have it languish when she was unable to attend, I was wary making costumes for anyone other than Chris and I. But while I was able to escape work on the 19th, he was not so lucky. So I laid aside my fear of rejection and asked our friend Jen to go with me. She had never worn a historical costume before, but was interested in sewing and was willing to go through multiple fittings. Regency menswear struck her fancy, so we settled on a tailcoat made from Butterick 3648:

Butterick 3648 used to be out of print, but is now available through McCall’s Cosplay website in the “Vault Collection” as M2021. I used the old Butterick version I purchased off of eBay. I didn’t use the trouser pattern, but the coat pattern was very easy to use, if a bit complex. Bag lining is always a bear! I just can’t wrap my head around the pseudo-topology of it sometimes, but I worked it out. I actually got the inside fairly neat and tidy! It’s a miracle! The jacket pattern itself is quite handsome, and I highly recommend it. Depending on the fabric choices and styling tweaks you make, it can work for 1970s to 1830s. Here are some of my inspiration images:

“Portrait of Nicolas-Pierre Tiolier” by French painter François-Édouard Picot, 1817

 

Men’s ensemble with piqué vest and nankeen pantaloons, 1813
This is one of my favorite Regency outfits ever.

Fashion plate, 1813

Fashion Plate, circa 1802

And here’s the final result:

Photo Courtesy of Festive Attyre

This pattern has a waist seam (not usually found before about 1820 for those concerned with HA) and uses modern techniques to put together–a boon since tailoring is not a skill I possess! I used the size XS for the jacket to get a close fit and it was still a little large even after alterations. I treated the coat as a Victorian bodice rather than a suit jacket for fitting. I learned a handy new alteration, too: forward-sloping shoulder. It is the total opposite of HA (most period coats have shoulder seams over the back of the shoulder, not at the top and definitely not in the front), but the fit and comfort level improved 100% with just that one change. Modern folks just sit more, leading to forward-leaning shoulders. If you struggle with shoulder fitting, this might solve a lot of heartache!

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You can’t see it in this picture, but I also raised the armpit, lengthened the sleeve and reduced the sleeve cap to increase movement. Modern suits have a very sharp sleeve drop-off whereas Regency coats have a more sloping line. The forward-shoulder adjustment was significant, almost an inch!

Since the last few picnics were on the cold side, we decided on a soft, warm cotton flannel in a light slate blue. Cotton flannel is great stuff to sew with, it’s fairly cheap, and it’s easy to find, making it a great option for outerwear if you can’t find/afford wool!

With the addition of some vintage pants, white shirt, gauzy scarf, and a tricket-filled fob, Jen was transformed into a proper, if slightly dandified, Regency gentleman!

Overall, the pattern was a good one, but there were two things I didn’t like. First was the bag lining. This is a personal hangup. I hate slogging through the method even if the results are nice. Trying to line the edges up and sew them crisply was a PITA! The little turn where the standing collar and revers/lapels meet turned out so wrinkled because the many think layers all bunch there despite trimming and notching the seam allowance. This is mostly on me, though. Like a always say, my sewing skills are harried at best, vicious at worst, so it’s no fault of the pattern, just a technique I don’t like/am not used to. The second problem, though, was the pattern’s use of iron-on interfacing for the jacket front. Many good, experienced seamstresses and tailors swear by interfacing to give a nice smooth, full appearance. The period correct method of interfacing/interlining is to pad stitch in horsehair canvas. Since this pattern is designed with modern techniques, the instructions recommend iron-on interfacing to make the front of the jacket, its collar, and revers lay smoothly. I’d never used iron-on interfacing before…NEVER AGAIN.

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IT LOOKED AND FELT SO BAD YOU GUYS. Like, maybe I chose the wrong type or weight or whatever, but…NO! It felt like damp paper towel and made the front of the coat look like it was made of craft foam. Thank heavens I had double the amount of the flannel yardage in my stash, otherwise I would have been in a world of hurt. So I had to re-cut and re-sew the entire front of the coat, but this time I used some vintage linen my Nana had given me. It wasn’t nearly as stiff as horsehair would be, but it got the job done and is still soft, more HA, and didn’t make Jen feel like she was being suffocated in a kitchen trash bag.

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You can see that the linen give the revers some oomph.

When given the choice between fabric-covered and metal buttons, Jen chose my favorite brass button from Walmart to give her coat some flash. They are the same type of button I used on my merchant gentleman’s coat. They are cheap and fabulous—I highly recommend them! Plus, they mimic the look of new gilt buttons from the era. Just a few weeks ago I found some original buttons at a local antique store. The Walmart ones are much lighter weight and way shinier, but look at how similar they are:

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Guess which ones are are the Whal-mert buttons!
…yeah, the ones on the right.
They’re not perfect dupes, but for their look and price-point, you can’t beat ’em!

The waistcoat I improvised from the coat pattern by omitting the tails, standing collar (though early Regency waitcoats had standing collars, too), and sleeves and cutting the back as one piece. The striped fabric is way too precious to use my usual slap-dash sewing methods. I’d never made a properly lined vest before, but it was waaaaay weirder than I had anticipated, yet with lots of help of Google and some awesome bloggers who took really helpful pictures, I succeeded.

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The vest has small white plastic buttons down the front because I didn’t have enough vintage mother of pearl buttons that match. I was so proud of myself: I finally gathered the gumption to use the buttonhole function on my machine to spare myself the embarrassment of making hideous hand-sewn buttonholes! Though now, I wonder if that contributed to the death of my sewing machine….

Yes. That happened, too.

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On Thursday, my Singer Simple ground to a halt. Despite all my best efforts oiling, faithfully de-linting, and changing needles, wrenching the flywheel forward felt like it is full of gravel, it sounded like death, and it would only sew at top speed, whumping like a thrash metal drumline with each stitch. And yes, I did try all the usual fixes. I took out the bobbin apparatus. I oiled every bit that could conceivably need oil. I took off the plastic cover and checked every part I could access. I am no sewing machine expert and while I was upset since the machine was a gift from my parents, I had no time to get it serviced before the event and it was more cost effective to buy a new machine. So I did.

I will confess that–and it’s a bit silly, I know– when I brought the new machine into the house, I made sure to box up the old machine and lay it quietly in the downstairs closet before I even took the new machine upstairs because–yes, it’s so ridiculous, but I didn’t want to hurt the old machine’s feelings….ya know? The last thing I need is the ghost of Sewing Machine Past haunting me in the middle of the night as I tossed and turned in my bed, tormented by a guilty conscious and the sound of grinding flywheels.

When I typed in “haunted sewing machine” into Google, this was one of the first results. Pearls Before Swine never fails me….unlike a certain sewing mach—nooooooooooo! It’s coming for meeeeeee!
Jokes aside, it was pretty emotionally traumatic and incredibly frustrating since it was so close to the deadline. It actually wasn’t actually the buttonholes that did it. My machine continued to sew well until I had finished my bonnet and started my dress mockup. There’s just something out of plumb in a place I can’t reach.

As soon as the new machine had ascended the throne, I launched right back into sewing. I’d been far too unproductive this year and I felt the burning need to finish something. One too many bowls of mac n cheese had piled up on my hips, so nothing fit anymore, so I had to sew or go plain-clothes! NOOOOOOO!

By slicing and dicing my old version of sliced-and-diced Simplicity 4055, I made a bodice that fit well enough to be wearable:

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That top left photo shows this alteration in progress. I also performed a FBA and changed the gown from a back closure to a front closure and only inserted a drawstring in the front instead of all the way around.

This was not Pragmatic, guys. I will be the first to admit it. It’s a ton of work to size up a pattern that much! It’s great alteration practice, though, so there is a bright side. For example, this pattern will now fit between a 40 and 46 inch bust, so even if current weight trends continue, this pattern will still fit for a while.

Speaking of bright sides, I used a possibly-poly-linen-blend from the Walmart value fabric section in yolk yellow for the fabric. Simplicity 4055 is a great pattern, but the sleeves can be obnoxious. The illustration and notches are kind of confusing. We’re so used to putting the sleeve seam at the back of the dress and the illustration appears to show that set-up, but when you set the sleeves that way this happens:

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The top photo shows the angled wrinkles as the sleeve fullness bunches at the front of the shoulder and you cannot reach forward. When I lift my arm backwards, the wrinkles follow the movement naturally. As I discovered in my previous striped version, the seam goes in the front, quite high up, too! Then you have a nice, full range of motion.

I also made an apron from a sheet, but I didn’t take any pictures. I just freehanded a top shape and used the front overskirt panel from Simplicity 4055 as a guide. I cheated and used the pre-hemmed edge of the sheet–one less thing to hem!

Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

As garish as the ketchup and mustard combo is, the dress and apron are not the stars of the show, though. That honor might go to my bonnet:

Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

It’s certainly not your average regency coif! Indeed, this isn’t like any Regency bonnet I’d ever seen before. (While Chris was helping me take pictures of my pattern draft, he asked me why I was making a chef hat out of coffee filters). It’s quite a statement!  So why did I choose this peculiar bonnet instead of, say, a classic turban or pokebonnet?

Depending on how much you’ve read on my blog, you may remember this particular Find of the Month:

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You can read all about it here, but the TL:DR version is that I bought this early 19th century Saint Lo paste cross on eBay. Much like my weird concern for my sewing machine’s feelings, one of my lovable eccentricities is the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I “reunite” something old with the fashions of it’s youth, for example, wearing an 1890s jacket in a Victorian house or pairing an 1850s book with a crinoline dress. I like to imagine their surprise at seeing something from their distant past after decades of watching modernity grow up around them. This battered old pendant has a particularly soft place in my heart. It’s not as eye-catching as my bonnet, but this is the true star of the show. It deserved to worn in the sunshine on a velvet ribbon once again! But what would it have been worn with?

I set about researching the costumes of Saint Lo in Marche in the Western part of Normandy, France, not expecting to find much about something so particular and obscure. You think I would have learned by now that if you ask the right questions long enough, the internet is full of surprising answers:

Embed from Getty Images

 There are two other images as well, but I do not have a license to post them directly. :(
One is here.
The other, which is my primary inspiration image, is here.

I never in my wildest dreams thought that’d I’d find one, much less three, original engravings of the traditional costume of Saint Lo and from the exact period my pendant was made! What an amazing time we live in!
The book they came from is “Costumes de femmes du pays de Caux, et de plusieurs autres parties de l’ancienne province de Normandie” by Louis-Marie Lante and Pierre de La Mésangère with engravings by Georges Jacques Gatine, first published in 1827. The book is full of full color engravings of the local costumes of the cities, villages,a and countryside in Normandy. There is even a digitized version from the New York Library you can see online! Sadly, not all of the plates were scanned in color and it seems to be missing some (and there a few doubles) so it may be an incomplete copy or some plates came out in a different edition.

Looking through the photos, I noticed that throughout the region there were lots of bright colors, pinned on aprons, and fichus/neckerchiefs/shawls. Oh, and bonnets!

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The shape of my bonnet ended up being a cross between Saint Lo and Lisieux.

Normandy is famous for its traditional costumes, especially extravagant bonnets/coifs/caps! The caps styles vary greatly from town to town, family to family, and woman to woman, but they are generally lacy and full or tall and frilled…sometimes both! I couldn’t find a pattern online, especially on my short deadline, and my drafting skills are rudimentary at best. So as much as I’d like to make an exact replica, I decided it’d be best to design my own take on a Normandy bonnet. I took the main elements of the Saint Lo Bonnet and broke it down into components:

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Tall body, accordion pleated frill, and puffed top.

I used Swedish sewing paper Becky had given me to draft the bonnet. It’s non-woven and stiff enough to stand on its own. A fabric bonnet would be more work to get it to look right. First, I needed a fabric that was thin, lightweight, but strong. Orgnady would be a good choice, but I already had this sheer white cotton shirt from Goodwill on hand:

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After cutting and assembling the main part of the cap, I starched it…A LOT. I used this recipe, but dunked the cap and un-pleated frill instead of spritzing them. To help hold the shape when it was drying, I made this highly professional hat block:

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Worked great, except the starchy water dissolved some of the paint, so the inside of my cap faintly reads “Taco Casa.”

The back frill was done in accordion pleats. Accordion pleats are tedious to iron, lemme tell you! This book has a great description of the process. Without a pleater board, you can’t get pleats much smaller than 1/2″ or so. One source even said that accordion pleats are best left to professionals only! You know how well that sort of challenge goes in my craft room.

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Accordion pleats stack up just like a handfan, so you are ironing on a tall, thin edge. I ended up having to pleat one half of the frill and then pleat the other half, meeting as close to the middle as possible, otherwise, it became too tall to iron! To keep the halves together as the pleats set, I whips stitched them. Heavily starching the fabric helped immesly because it gave the fabric the texture of paper, so it was similar to working with construction paper.

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 The fanned frill is a separate piece that I basted on to the back of the cap. The tips of the frill are held open using small straight pins (which I had to do without the benefit of a mirror at the picnic. The bonnet is too tall to wear in the car!).

The day of the picnic had just enough wind that I needed two bobby pins to secure it in front since it’s so tall and wide it acts like a sail!

Overall, the picnic was a success! We played a skittles/tenpins, took a few turns trying out the bandelore (yo-yo), and generally enjoyed the refreshing autumn air.

My friend Jen pointed out that we were Disney Princess colors!

I’m looking forward to next year!

Find more photos on Festive Attyre’s (Jen Thompson) Flickr Album:

2016 Georgian Picnic

And on my meager Flickr page:

Georgian Picnic 2016

Easy (Post-) Edwardian: How to Put Together a Thrifted WWI Day Dress

Dressing Like Great-Grandma!

One of my favorite hobbies is scouring the local thrift stores for “no-sew” costume pieces that save me both time and money–plus recycling is good for the planet! One of the easiest eras to thrift shop for is 1910-1920 and I’ve written a few posts about taking advantage of 1970s maxi dresses, modern a-line skirts, and 1980s secretary blouses to create on-the-fly costumes. Imagine my delight when, a few weeks ago, I discovered a new thrift shop item to add to my hunt-for list: 1980s and 1990s dresses!

If you would believe it, late 1980s/early 1990s fashion is actually rather similar to late 1910s fashion.

1980s

1990s

Now, before you spit tea all over your screen, let me clarify a few stipulations.

While the 1980s and 1990s were full of crazy bright color, oddly-placed cut-outs, and head-to-toe acid-wash denim, they also saw the rise of the more conservative ankle-length jumper dress or pinafore (depending on your local dialect):

Simplicity 9764, 1980s
(Now, by the way, better known as an actual historical costume pattern for hoopskirts!)

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Vogue 1584, 1980s

jumperdressMcCalls 7812

McCall’s 7812, 1990s

McCall’s 6782, 1990s

Add a baggy collared shirt and a few additional classic late 1980s/early 1990s accessories– lace-up heels and a round brim hat or raspberry beret (which, in 1915, had actual berries)–and you suddenly realize that much more than your boots look like granny’s:

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Fashion plate, April 1915

May 1918 fashion plate

Fashion plate, circa 1915

Fashion Plate, July 1915

Autochrome by Heinrich Kühn, circa 1912 (looks more 1914-1915 to me, though)
Seriously, this could be me and my sister hanging out with my mom and one of her friends at the park.

Loose fit, natural (or slightly dropped) waistline, ankle length skirts, funky straps, fun button placement…yup! Our great-grandmothers made it cool long before Molly Ringwald and Laura Ashley!

So while I was at Goodwill a few weeks back, I was very excited to find a promising jumper dress of my own:

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Ah, memories of my school days!

 Since I’m already addicted to secretary blouses and hats, I had a great (if slightly stained) collared shirt and straw sunhat ready to go!

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Don’t I look like I should be heading out to Sunday Meeting for a potluck? I feel very much like I should have a basket of eggs, but I didn’t trust myself to set the self timer, run into position, and avoid walking all over the cat while carrying fragile, goo-filled things.

To liven up my hat, I tied a vintage silk necktie around the brim:

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Since the polka-dot dress is just slightly too large and by WWI corsets were mostly tubular (as I already am below the bust), I’m not wearing any sort of corset or waistshaper underneath! My dress would benefit from being taken in for a slightly tighter fit at the waist just for flattery’s sake, but it works okay as-is. An outfit like this is a great option if you have an event but don’t want to wear a corset all day.

Also: POCKETS!

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Awesomeness x 1000!

1995 Does 1915 Outfit Breakdown

Jumper dress – $6.99, Goodwill
Silk Blouse – $4.59, Goodwill
Hat – $3.99, Thrift Town
Silk Tie – $1.25, Goodwill

Total: $16.82
(and not a lick of time spent sewing!)

The shoes are from Oak Tree Farms and are the most expensive pair of shoes I own! I think I paid around $120 for them on eBay. You could just as easily wear a pair of inexpensive mary jane shoes (like my favorite T-straps, Jean by Angel Steps), pointed-toe pumps, or some oxford-style heels.

If you follow my Facebook page, you know of my new addiction to BeFunky, a free photo editing website. It’s great for making your digital photos look “old fashioned” and artsy! I had fun trying to mimic the two main types of photography during the 1910s…

Classic Black and White…

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…and the dreamy early color photo process, Autochrome!

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 Not exact, but close enough! :)

If you make an Easy Edwardian outfit of your own, I’d love to see it! Send me pictures on Facebook either through private message or as a post on my wall.

—-More Edwardian Costume Adventures—-

Edwardian On a Budget – Original Post
Easy Edwardian for under $10 (1900-1910)
More Easy Edwardian (1913-1914)
Butterick 6093 (the 1912 dress)  Version #1 and Version #2

From Bed to Bodice: What to Look for When Using Sheets for Fabric

Goin’ Bat-Sheet Crazy!
I use second-hand sheets all the time for my costumes. They are perfect for mockups, linings, or even fashion fabric! Sheets are cheap and plentiful at second-hand shops, outlet stores, and garage sales. They are a great source of fabric for folks who live far from craft shops, need a costume to be inexpensive, or are just learning to sew. Ruining a $4 sheet is much less painful than ruining a $4-a-yard fabric!
Over the years, I have developed a few guidelines to help me wade through bins of sheets to choose the best ones for the task at hand.

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General Sheet-Shopping Guidelines

  • Pick Queen or King size sheets.
  • 100% cotton is great for a more accurate costume.
  • You can never have too many white and solid colored sheets.
  • Test sheets like you would test any fabric at the store for drape, weight, and weave.
  • Buy a variety!
  • Wash all sheets before sewing with them, especially if they are purchased used.

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Choosing Sheets for Mockups

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Mockup sheets are very basic: nearly any sheet will do! However, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

Size: A King sized sheet has more yardage than a Twin or Full, meaning you can get more pattern pieces/larger pieces out of it. If you are testing a pattern with large pieces, a larger sheet will come in handy. Twin sheets, however, are perfect for mocking up smaller pieces, like bodices.

Fabric content: Since a mockup is usually just used to see the way a pattern fits together, the content of the sheet’s fabric isn’t usually an issue. However, keep in mind that different types of fabrics have different amounts of stretch and draping, so it is wise to consider what type of fabric you will be using in the final garment and choose a sheet with similar properties. A polyester fabric, for example, may have less give than a cotton one, for instance. This will affect how the garment fits later, so a sheet mockup may fit perfectly, but the final garment might be too tight if the final fabrics have a tighter weave. (PRO TIP: If your final garment is made of woven fabric, don’t use a jersey knit sheet for you mockup!)

Pattern: A mockup will likely be messy and won’t end up in the final garment (unless you choose to use your mockup as a lining or finish it, then see below), so the pattern and color do not matter that much. Bright purple with lime green flowers? Pink elephants? Sexy animal print? DO IT!

Choosing Sheets for Linings

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Sheets can be good linings. Since the lining goes into the final garment, however, it pays to be more judicious.

Fabric Content: Consider what you want your lining to do for your garment. Poly-cotton blends are readily available in a wide variety of textures and colors and are very easy to wash, but they can pill something fierce, become ragged-looking, and scratchy. 100% cotton is breathable, easy to sew and launder, and an excellent all-purpose lining fabric, but there are a few exceptions. For example, does the lining need to be smooth to glide over another garment, like for a coat? Cotton and cotton-blend sheets will cling to other cottons, velvets, and many other soft fabrics, so look for sheets that are slinky, silky, and slippery instead. Many will be polyester, so bear in mind that they might trap heat– a boon for a coat, but a possible curse in the summer!

Weight: Weight can mean two things– the thickness of the fabric and the actual physical weight of the fabric itself– and they aren’t necessarily related! A flannel sheet might be thick, but it may be lighter in physical weight than a densely-woven cotton sheet. I have made the mistake of choosing a thin cotton sheet that turned out to be much too heavy en masse, overwhelming the the light, silky fashion fabric, dragging the whole silhouette down with it. Sheets can be very heavy, so be prepared! Test the weight and drape of a sheet like you would test any fabric at the store!

Size: Check your pattern for the recommended amount of lining yardage to get an idea of what size sheet and how many you will need for your project. This is a handy chart of yardage equivalencies for all sizes of sheets to help you calculate:

Chart by Sew Much Ado

Color/Pattern: Linings and fashion fabrics work together. If there is a chance the lining may show, trying to match or compliment your fashion fabric is a must! If the fashion fabric is sheer or loosely woven, the lining may show trough it, especially in certain lighting. Choose a sheet of a similar shade for the lining or one near your flesh tone so the color of the fashion fabric is not affected, though you can get some interesting color effects if you choose alternate linings. For example, a white fashion fabric may look slightly warmer with an orange cotton lining or a loosely woven black fabric can be laid over a bright magenta lining to produce a changeable silk effect. You aren’t limited to plain colored sheets, either! Printed sheets can make excellent period-correct linings. Some Victorian bodices and skirts were lined with patterned cottons. If the lining won’t be seen at all, color or pattern may not even matter! Made a mock-up in that crazy animal print and want to use it as a lining for your Victorian bodice? DO IT!

It’ll be our little secret…

Choosing Sheets for Fashion Fabric

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This 1710s outfit is made from a sateen sheet, curtains, and a hacked-off pair of men’s slacks.

While cheap sheets aren’t as luxurious as duchess silk satin, they can make excellent fashion fabrics, especially for 19th and 20th century day dresses. They are also fabulous for undergarments, like petticoats and drawers. Many of the guidelines for choosing a good lining sheet also apply to choosing on for fashion purposes, but with a few more specifics:

Size: Size matters! If you are wanting one fabric for your whole dress, you may have to get creative with your pattern piece placement to maximize your fabric. King or even California King are ideal. For most dresses, a Queen sheet is the absolute minimum size I will buy. I was able to squeeze a Size 12 Regency dress out of a Twin sheet and an XL 18th century men’s coat out out of a Queen sheet, but both cases required some pretty creative pattern piece placement! Using a sheet set (flat sheet, fitted sheet, and pillowcases) are ideal for dresses that need more than 5-6 yards of fabric.

Color/Pattern: Sheets had a bad reputation in the costuming world because the print can make or break a costume, but now that many of us have access to the internet, it’s easier than ever to study original garments and fabrics. The best way to tell if a particular sheet will work? RESEARCH! Solid colored sheets are the simplest choice, since solid colors have always been in style. Stripes and plaids (woven or printed) are also great options if you find them! Just keep in mind that stripes and plaids are directional and will take extra fabric to pattern match (if that’s your thing). Sheets with printed patterns can make amazing dresses if you are discerning.  It can be a fine line between Laura Ingalls and Laura Ashley (though sometimes it’s the other way around…)! Browse museum collections, like the V&A, to see examples of original fabrics.

Texture/Shine: Basic cotton sheets are plainly woven and matte. They are great for day dresses! My striped Regency dress is made of a plainly woven polyester sheet with printed stripes:
dressSateen sheets are also fairly easy to find and, thanks to their weave, they have a warm luster to them that can be dressed up a little more than a plain woven sheet. They are also very soft and somewhat heavy. I admit I hoard sateen sheets! I’ve made costumes from sateen sheets in 3 different centuries: Chris’s 1710s coat, another 1810s day dress, Amelia’s 1910s dress!
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Regency Dress made of a Cotton Sateen Sheet

Edge Finish: This a small thing, but it really does make a huge difference! Sheets have one edge that is deeply hemmed, creating the top of the sheet, and a narrower hem at the bottom (where the tag is usually attached).  The sides of sheets can be finished in two ways: hemmed or plain selvedge. I frequently cheat and use the wide finished edge of the sheet for the bottom hem or sleeve openings of a dress (like on the blue regency dress above) to save time, but in order to use every inch of fabric, you must unpick or cut the hems which takes a lot of time! If you choose a sheet that has plain selvedge edges instead of hemmed, you save a lot of time. Plus, the selvedge edges don’t fray, so if you use it as your seam allowance, it will be hidden inside your garment and won’t need any finishing to keep it from fraying: WIN-WIN!

sheet types

Left: Sheet with plain selvedge sides
Right: Sheet with hemmed sides

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Dang! “Seams” like buying sheets is a real chore, huh? Well, when I write it all out like this, it certainly makes it sound tedious, but like anything, the more you practice, the faster it goes. Soon you’ll be judging all your sheets by how good they’d look as a 1770s petticoat or 1930s skirt. Heck, just the other day I found myself eyeballing my actual-factual bed sheets, noting that I should probably get some new ones because I wouldn’t even save them to sew something with! That’s how you know it’s time for new sheets….and that you’ve got too many sheets at the same time!

3 Dollar Store Products for the Penny-Pinching Costumer

No need to pop tags cuz there ain’t none!

I thought dollar stores had disappeared. After all, inflation is a real life issue. Even many of ye olde quarter machines at the local grocery stores raised cheap plastic snakes and keychains from 25 cents to 50 cents (and even 75 or a dollar!). Could you even buy something cool for a dollar anymore, much less something useful?

Enter Dollar Tree! When I walk through those automatic doors and smell the aroma of $1 potpourri, I feel alive! There are no price tags on the shelves. Every item in sight (except some smaller items) is $1! That box of brillo pads? $1. That potato masher? $1. Rolls of Christmas wrap? $1. A set of child-sized “spaceman” armor? $1! In fact they have a whole section for “Dress-Up and Pretend Play” filled with fairy wings and foam swords. None of it is super high-quailty, but for $1, it’s a kid’s dream come true!


I’ve never actually won a pageant in my life. These are all from Dollar Tree!

But that’s besides the point. Dollar Tree as cheap, awesome stuff for costuming, but it’s not all cheesy kid’s stuff. If you can pry yourself away from the wall of $1 gift bags, there are some great hidden gems.

1:  Stockings

I used to ignore this section of the store because socks are important daily-wear goods that need to be durable. There’s no way a $1 pair of socks could be any good. Boy was I wrong! I found my favorite pair of ivory knee-high stockings at a Dollar Tree a few years ago and they are still kickin’!

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They also sell sheer black trouser socks which are a classy addition to a dark colored ensemble. I found them especially handy to complete my 1880s evening gown. Black stockings have always been fancy, but in the past they were expensive. Now, they’re cheap! Woot!

2: Hair Accessories

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Being hair illiterate, I love those mesh donuts that you slip over a ponytail to make a fat bun! Walmart sells single donuts in a pack with a few bobby pins and a hair tie for about $3, but at the Dollar Tree, I found the donut by itself for $1, a pack of 20 bobby pins for $1, and an enormous pack of hair ties for $1. So for the same price, I got extra bobby pins and hair ties! Plus, Dollar Tree has cute, tiny hairbrushes that fit perfectly in a travel bag or pocket. I’m notorious for forgetting my brush when I travel or losing it along the way, but with these cheap ones, I don’t have to worry about it.

2: Make-up

Me, 20 minutes before the event begins…

I’m not a make-up maven. I love playing with the stuff and I wear it regularly to work, but I’m not buying $20 lipsticks or even $20 foundations. I usually buy my everyday powders/concealer/etc. from mainstream brands like CoverGirl. However, I found a tube of “Light #1” BB cream hanging in the Dollar Tree personal care aisle one day and I thought it might work well for pale 18th and 19th century looks. It was awesome!

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This is my face with nothing on it but the BB cream on the left.
It may look stark compared to the un-covered half of my face, but my face is very ruddy compared to my body. Putting on the pale BB cream actually makes my face match the rest of me! I apply it over my lips as well so when I apply lipstick, it blends in rather than having a very sharp, modern outline.

It gives a very pale, dewy finish that reminds me of Korean make-up more than the powdery matte look most Americans strive for. The dewy look is in line with the makeup our ancestors wore, so it’s perfect for historical applications! You can see it at work in the photo of me showing off my black stockings above. Since I am shiny enough on my own, I sometimes tone it down to more modern tastes with a little pure white eyeshadow (also a Dollar Tree find) to mattefy the look.

selfie circa 1715

For Georgian Picnic I wore the BB cream with the white eyeshadow (which is very translucent) all over.

I haven’t tried it for daily wear yet because it’s  less-concealing than a brand-name BB cream and a bit on the greasy side, but I do like how hydrating it is. It makes my skin feel soft even after I take it off. Plus, it stays put–seriously stays put–especially if set with a powder. I wore it all day and it hardly moved! Susanna has a wonderful full breakdown of the ingredients and application on YouTube. Dollar Tree often stocks ELF brand products, too, which are cheap on their own, but at the Dollar Tree, they are even cheaper! I adore their brushes and lipstains.

Dollar Tree also stocks lots of holiday decorations for cheaps which can work out perfectly for decorating hats and making themed costumes of all sorts, but these three things are my costuming staples for almost any outfit.

Holla for the Dolla Tree!

regency holla

Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

Full, Exhaustive Title:
Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

found in Extant 19th Century Garments from Augusta Auctions

I enjoy poking around on internet auction sites for extant garments “in the rough.” Museums can’t hold every original piece of clothing. There are literal tons of antique clothing sitting in private homes and shops that no one has ever seen before! We are blessed in this age of internet commerce to see some of these treasures for a few brief days on websites like eBay, Etsy, or Ruby Lane before they disappear again into private collections. Many of these amazing private holdings posess design details and quirks that are often glossed over by sweeping generalizations about past fashions. Looking through these often less-than-perfect dresses in their wrinkled, as-found condition is a wellspring of fresh sewing inspiration!
Since I can’t buy every gorgeous gown that scrolls across my screen, I have taken to collecting them digitally on Pinterest, combing through online sales pages for pieces with unusual features or appealing designs. One of the many sites I try to check regularly is the Augusta Auctions page. They are an antique/vintage textile and clothing auction house that so kindly keeps pictures of previous auction lots long after the auction has ended (so many times auction sites remove photos soon after the sale is complete). They have garments of many types from the 1700s to modern, but my research recently has focused on the Victorian era (1837-1901). Many of their items are de-accessioned from public museums which means that the Augusta Auction website is often their last accessible record before disappearing from the public view. Rifling through the auction lots has yielded some unusual and strange pieces, but it also has brought to light a few simple, unique design elements that a modern costumer could easily adopt!

1. Mix-n-Match and Matchy-Matchy Accessories
(I guess that’s really two tips in one, so this list has 6!)

Morning Glory Cotton Sateen Day Dress, 1880s
“2-piece, maroon [looks brown in the photos, but it my be more reddish in person] cotton sateen w/ blue floral print, lace trim, cut steel buttons, matching fan.” – Augusta Auctions

I’m not generally a matching maven when it comes to my day-to-day modern clothes, but making my own historical outfits means I pay a lot more attention to color, pattern, and stylish shortcuts. This dress has a classic combination of dense print paired with a plain matching color. The printed bodice and bustled overskirt are separate from the simple tiered brown cotton underskirt, so they can be mixed and matched with other pieces. The solid colored skirt would be very easy to match other bodices with and it’s likely the dress’s original owner had one or two other pieces she could mix together to create a multitude of outfits with, especially since (unlike many bustle underskirts that have plain backs) this underskirt is decorated all the way around making it extra versatile:

A very simple bustle back suitable for an active woman on the job or on the go!

But sometimes you just wanna MATCH. Some women match their shoes to their purse. Others can’t leave the house unless everything from their underwear to their earrings are all the same shade. This day dress in particular comes with a unique matching accessory, especially for such an otherwise ordinary outfit: A custom matching fan!

It matches so well it’s nearly camouflaged!

If you are interested in making a matchy-matchy fan of your own, here’s a semi-tutorial posted on La Bricoleuse:

Making a Silk Folding Fan

As an added bonus, the fabric on the fan was protected from the sun when it was folded up, so it did not fade! It gives us a clue about how much brighter this dress used to be: just look at that pop of ultramarine and hint of crimson! It was a brilliant use of excess fabric. Other ways to use extra fabric scraps to create matchy-matchy accessories include small drawstring purses and coverings for hats and bonnets.

Lined Drawstring Bag Tutorial
By In Color Order

Cardboard and Duct Tape Victorian Bonnet Tutorial
by Darling and Dash

2. Ribbon Flowers
(may be combined with the matchy-matchy tip above for decorating pretty much everything)

Detail of a Silk Visiting Dress, 1860s
“Three-piece buff changeable ribbed taffeta, trimmed with bright coral satin bands, scallops, bows, rosettes and Van Dyke points: front buttoning boned bodice with high neckline; belt with attached back peplum; trained unlined skirt, gold stamped label “Louis Hille Tailleur Pour Dames 398 Rue St Honore Paris”[…] Featured in April 1998 ANTIQUES Magazine” – Augusta Auctions

It’s fairly common to see garments decorated with ribbon bows and cockades, but when I found this dress, the big pink satin flower caught my eye right away. It is extremely similar to modern ribbon flowers that can be found on everything from toddler headbands to coffee cup koozies!

There are hundreds of ribbon and fabric flower tutorials, but for this particular design, there are three methods that will produce similar results:

Ruched Ribbon Flower
Tutorial by Nikki in Stitches

Scrap Fabric Flower
Tutorial by Melissa of Until Wednesday Calls

Round Petal Kanzashi Flower
Tutorial by A Pumpkin & A Princess

In addition to how modern the flower looks, the placement also gives it unique charm. There’s one at a fairly standard location at the small of the back, but another is placed just off the hip and another midway down the skirt. So cute!

The seamstress really liked trimming in general. Just check out the amazing design created with matching pink ribbon/fabric applied in a multitude of ways!

Rosettes, stripes, binding, applique, scalloped edging, bows… the works!

3. Embroidered Accents

Embroidered Visiting Dress, 1870s
“2 main fabrics: black silk faille & black silk satin, satin w/ narrow velvet stripe embroidered w/ wine, brown & blue flowers, polonaise bodice, cut steel buttons & lace, blue satin modesty insert, trained bustle skirt, B 36″, W 30″, Skirt L 40″-59″, provenance, Homans family Washington, D.C.” – Augusta Auction

Victorian costumes often feature lovely embroidery work. They didn’t have access to fancy in-home digital embroidery machines like we do now, but there are so many beautiful modern fabrics and trims that come pre-embroidered today so even if you can’t embroider, you can have the look! Even now, embroidered fabric can be pretty expensive. A whole gown of the stuff might be out of the question for most. A yard or two, though, is enough to add a rich touch to a dress like in this sophisticated frock:

The seamstress who crafted this dress made judicious use of the fine striped satin with embroidered flora, placing it front and center on the bodice and cuffs, but leaving the back plain while edging and gores in the skirt tie the look together.

There was quite a heated discussion on a forum about the legitimacy of using pre-embroidered fabrics in historical costumes. While handwork is always period, pre-embroidered fabric is a fantastic way to mimic the look. The embroidery on this dress in particular features a small, repeating pattern that looks very much like many pre-embroidered fabric available today.

Bonus points for the pieced front and late 18th century revival styling!

4. Bold Buttons

Silk Brocade Jacket, 1880s
“Black silk ground w/ Persian inspired brocade, small rondels in metallic gold, sky blue, maroon & yellow, fitted torso, constructed in style of gent’s 18th C jacket, black velvet trim & back pockets, cream & gold embroidered lace trim, 24 magnificent gold metal buttons inset w/ cut steel faceted beads in silver, cobalt & wine, bright yellow silk satin lining, B 32″, W 24″, L 27-30″, excellent. [De-accessioned from the] Brooklyn Museum.” -Augusta Auctions

The last dress had some pretty nifty cut steel buttons, but this jacket certainly ups the ante! Victorians loved buttons of all types and there are as many colors and styles as you can imagine. The buttons on this jacket are something truly avant-garde and different, though. They look thoroughly modern. They would be right at home on a 1930s suit or a 1960s mod mini dress, but here they sit on an otherwise unassuming brocade jacket!

Like many buttons and pieces of jewelry from the 19th century, these buttons are made of faceted steel studs riveted together. These are unusual for their added color and abstract dot pattern.

As they were 150 years ago, buttons can be an expensive investment, but they can really add a pop of character to an otherwise plain dress! Many Victorian buttons are more “traditional” than these, but Victorians loved quirky buttons of all types– from colorful lions and garden insects to distant planets and birds on a telegraph wire!
Etsy is a great place to look for unique buttons, both antique and modern.

With all the wild figurative metal buttons out there, you could probably use these awesome steampunk mechanism buttons or these ancient glyph buttons and no Victorian would bat an eye (they might even compliment you on them, considering how fond they were of industrial progress and ancient cultures). After all, they were the ones putting spiders, ears or corn, and fighting children on buttons first!

Fashionable fisticuffs, anyone?

5. Stunning Studs

Taupe Silk Tea Dress
“2-piece silk crepe, boned bodice w/ overlay of chemical lace studded w/ cut steel beads, grey velvet trim, label “Jermyn W. 45th St.”, B 36″, W 28″, L 41″” -Augusta Auctions
(This dress would totally fit me! If only I had snatched it up. It sold for only $120!)

Augusta Auctions dates this to the 1910s, but the shape, construction, and styling all scream 1889-1892, so I’m including it here.

Ah, my angsty teenage self sure did love silver studs! I treasured my gnarly Hot Topic studded faux-leather bracelet because it made me feel like an invincible warrior. Surprisingly, it’s not just goths and neo-Victorians who enjoyed being studded with glittery steel. The dresses above had silvery cut steel buttons. This particular dress cut out the middle man and has cut steel applied directly to the lace!

Cut steel jewelry and accessories have been around for centuries as a bright, sparkly alternative to diamonds. In the late Victorian period, cut steel was mass manufactured and widely popular. Steel-encrusted miser purses, opera capes, and shoes were de rigueur. While individual studs were less common, they were popular for wearing indoors because they were excellent at glittering in low light.
Studs weren’t just made of rounded cut steel. Some were spiky enough to make even the hardest-core punk rocker happy! Here are two bonnets with pyramid studs that defy the supposedly frail and fragile femininity associated with the Victorian era:

H. O. Hanlon Bonnet, circa 1887
Metal (the Met doesn’t list if they are steel or something else) studs in action. My favorite 1880s bonnet!

House of Virot Bonnet, circa 1885
Black glass pyramid beads add some fierce glitter to this otherwise plush bonnet.

Victorians loved the interplay between hard and soft surfaces and playing with textures. Some combinations are truly unusual and funky, but if done in moderation and with a careful eye for the design, even supposedly “modern” fashion elements can work in the Victorian era!

Calculating the “Cost” in Costuming

Investing in the Hobby: Is it worth it?

Dress made of £50k for a promotional.

When you begin a costume, there are a few major determining factors that dictate how your project will proceed. You must have in mind an era or character that you want to recreate, like a 1942 army nurse,  Jessica Rabbit, a Civil War widow, Zelda, an 1570s Italian, etc. While this might seem like the greatest determining factor of a costume, in reality, nothing looms over a project so largely as a budget.

My grandmother and I had a phone conversation a while back, and I mentioned my latest sewing projects and plans. She admitted to not having sewn anything in a few decades. She asked how much fabric cost.
“I usually buy cheap fabric that costs between $1.50 and $6.00 a yard,” I told her, “but a quilting cotton could easily run $8-14 dollars.”
I could imagine her shaking her head as she told me, “I used to get patterns and yardage for about 50 cents. Now, it’s often so much cheaper to buy things already made than it is to make it at home.”

In 1959 (when this pattern was published), 50¢ had the modern purchasing power of approximately $4.10 today.

That brief–but informative–moment on the telephone prompted me think a little harder about the actual cost of my hobby. Granted, the vintage price of a pattern or fabric wasn’t subject to modern inflation, but fewer people sew their own clothes these days than ever before, turning fabrics and patterns into luxury hobby goods rather than household staples. A firm project budget is a must!

There is big difference between a set budget and the actual cost of a costume. Budgets should be set before the costume is even begun. Ideally, a budget should be a fixed number, but sometimes you go over, but often you might find yourself happily slipping by under budget! Cost, however, is ultimately a fixed number. It is the amount you spend making your masterpiece (or novicepiece, as is often my case). The concept seems pretty straight forward, but after costuming for a few years, cost can become a fuzzy grey area.

I’ll use perhaps my “cheapest” costume, my 18th century maid’s outfit, as an example.

Calculating the Cost of an Individual Costume

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1. Fabric

Usually when you calculate the cost of a costume project, the most natural thing to do is figure how much you spent on fabric bought specifically for that project. For example, my Simplicity 3723 dress involved the following materials:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – STASH!
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – STASH!
_____________
Total: $6.00

I was fortunate (or unfortunate, as the stuff turned out to be a wrinkly nightmare) to find some faux-linen-whatever at Walmart for only a dollar a yard, and the floral decor remnant was from my stash, as was the cotton sheet. The cewel-work sample that became the stomacher was sent along as a free gift with another sample I bought. When it comes to fabric calculations alone…HOLY COW! A DRESS FOR $6?!

Yes!

Well, sort of.

You see, I am a miser–or perhaps, more aptly, an accountant– when it comes to my purchases. For example, while the crewelwork and sheets were genuinely free (my parents had purchased the sheets for me five years ago as a college gift and I had worn them out), the floral remnant I could remember paying $10.64 at Hobby Lobby about a year prior, thanks to the paper label I had kept it wrapped in. Even though it wasn’t purchased exclusively for this dress, it was still an integral part in the costume.

Pictured: Not my stash.
My stash is nowhere near this organized.

Stash and scrap fabrics are an interesting case because so often we forget how much they cost.  Does it need to be included in the “cost” of my costume if I use it even though I purchased the fabric so long ago? Obviously I spent money on my stash fabrics at some point and even my penny-pinching side can’t remember the cost of every fabric in my stash. Could I count four yards of expensive embroidered silk taffeta as “free” if it’s been sitting so long in my closet that I can’t remember what I paid for it? That’s a tricky question. Basically, if I think the stash fabric would cost under $5 to buy new, I ignore the cost just for the sake of my sanity. Otherwise, I try to list a fair price.

There are also trims to consider, like the lace engageantes sleeves I made which, though removable, are basted to the dress and an important piece to complete the look. So my cost calculation should look more like this:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
_____________
Total: $26.64

2. Notions

Paper box with linen measuring tape, circa 1790-1810

All these fabrics and trims aren’t held together by angel dreams and unicorn tears. Sewing requires notions. I have a large collection of threads, bias tapes, and other sundry items, but do I include them in my calculation of cost? Notions are just like stash fabric. Often, we have collected them over a long period of time and can no longer remember their cost. Some, like spools of thread, can be used across multiple projects. However, notions (especially if you consider buttons or ribbon to be notions) and other structural materials like boning can add up fast, not to mention the cost of the pattern itself!

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
22″ zipper from Walmart – $2.55
Size 10 sew-on snaps – $2.97
Zip tie for boning the stomacher – FREE!*
Thread – $1.55
Simplicity 3723 pattern – 99 cents*
_____________
Total: $34.70

*As a general rule, if I calculate that I spent under 50 cents for the individual item, I do not count it, but I had to purchase a whole pack in order to get just this one 1/2 inch wide zip tie. If I never use the rest of them for other projects, I basically just spent $6 to buy boning for this one costume.  Also, the pattern was on sale at Hobby Lobby. On a regular day, Simplicity 3723 costs $10-17, depending on the store.

This is the money that I personally invested in this particular dress. It’s not the $6 dress from earlier, but it’s still plenty cheaper than buying one pre-made. You can’t find a mass-produced costume for that cheap, especially not one custom made just for you.

2.5 Equipment

This category is tricky and I’m only going to briefly go over it. Hence the “2.5” designation.

Almost any hobby requires you to invest in a few basic tools. The most basic tool for sewing is a needle. A good, sharp pair of scissors is another, as is a lot of pins and a flexible measuring tape (or 5). All other sewing equipment is just a variation of those three tools. These basic tools can be purchased for only a few dollars: needles are a dollar or two a packet of 10 or more, a box of pins might cost another dollar or two and a flexible measuring tape costs about the same. The most expensive is the scissors for $8-10. So for a handsewer’s start-up, the initial equipment investment can be less than $15!

However, most folks who sew will want to invest in a sewing machine. I sew on a Singer Simple machine. It was a gift, but would cost about $100 to buy new. Machines require special machine needles which, ideally, must be changed at least once a project and purchased to suit the type of fabric being sewn. Some people like also having a serger to finish edges for them or an embroidery machine. Those can run into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Others, like myself, content themselves with investing in lot of excellent pairs of fabric scissors. I have pinking shears ($20), regular fabric-only shears ($15), and two or three sets of thread-snips scattered around the craft room ($10 each). Some folks prefer cutting their fabric with a fancy rotary cutter instead of scissors. A good seam ripper is another must-have tool ($3). I probably spend more time ripping apart seams than sewing them!

My basic sewing equipment arsenal adds up like this:

Singer Simple – FREE-ish! (gift, but $120 new)
3 bobbins, button hole foot, needle threader, lint brush included with machine
Invisible zipper foot (a recent acquisition) $11
Sewing machine needles, pack of 5 – $6
3 boxes of pins – $6 ($2 each)
Fiskars fabric shears – $15
Fiskars pinking shears – $20
Fiskars thread snips – $30 ($10 seach)
3 flex measuring tapes – $3
Innumerable hand-sewing needles of various sizes – $5 (rough estimate)

_______

Total: about $220 if I had to buy it all over again

While the start-up can be initially expensive, these tools are used for every project, so their per-use cost rapidly decreases the more projects you do with them. I have used my scissors so many hundreds of thousands of times that I don’t even consider them as a cost for a costume. At most, the per-costume use cost would be a few cents. But if you are just starting out in the hobby or starting a costuming business, the cost of your sewing equipment is an important budget consideration.

3. Time

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Sewing at 2am is standard practice.

Material costs are one thing, but the time required to turn those materials into a piece of wearable clothing makes a custom costume more expensive. My costume took lots of hard work to make. I handsewed 90% and it took me over a week. I sewed about 4 hours a night for 8 days, so about 32 hours. That’s like working an average day job! At my current day job, I made about $12 and hour. If I carry that value over to all my time, by working 32 hours, I have have done $384 worth of work!  If you sell the costumes you create, keeping track of the time invested in your items becomes especially important. While you may not get the equivalent of $12 an hour, you don’t want to undervalue your time either! This is why custom clothing items are so expensive compared to the mass-produced clothing you buy in Walmart or even department stores. A home crafter or even a small co-op cannot match the production costs of a giant factory filled with specialized machines staffed by workers paid pennies by the hour.

I don’t think “paying myself” for something I do as a hobby applies to this dress because I made it for myself, but putting a price on the physical labor does make you appreciate your own handiwork infinitely more.

However, even if I put aside the hours of work involved in making my dress, I still haven’t reached the actual cost of my costume!

SAY WHAT?!

4. Support Garments

I’m not just wearing the dress I made, I’m wearing undergarments as well:

IMG_0068

Though I did not sew my undergarments myself, my costume wouldn’t be the same without them! My costuming undergarments include a corset, tank top, and button-front skirt. Even though I wear them with everything and don’t include them in any costume’s cost calculation, I technically did pay for them at one point:

Corset – $75
Tank top: $3
Second-hand skirt: $3

I wear these so often that if I apply the “divide the cost by number of times worn” rule, the cost of the most expensive item, my corset, comes out to only about $1 a day. But if someone else wanted to recreate my look from scratch, they would have to invest the whole $75. The same goes for homemade stays. To buy fabric and boning to make them also costs money. Even my stash-made pillow panniers are made of material I once had to purchase.

5. Accessories

IMG_0037

Accessories are another sneaky cost, but they can elevate a costume from cute to full-on fabulous! For this particular costume, I splurged on my beloved American Duchess Pompadours. I dyed and trimmed them for pizzazz. I have a favorite pair of stockings to wear with them as well. Up top, I used vintage baby bonnet to cover my bun. Even though my grandmother gave it to me in a box of linens, it was still marked with a $4 price tag. I also threw on some vintage faux pearls for charm; these belonged to my sister and were promptly returned. So to me, they were free!

American Duchess shoes – $92
Shoe dye – $12
Antique metallic ribbon – $18
O Basics stockings – $8
Vintage bonnet – FREE! / $4
Vintage necklace – FREE! (or $5 if you hit up Walmart)

Total it up!

IMG_0019

So here is the new calculation based on every single item in this outfit:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE! *sent along with another I paid $24 for
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
22″ zipper from Walmart – $2.55
Size 10 sew-on snaps – $2.97
Zip tie for boning the stomacher – FREE! *$6 for the pack
Thread – $1.55
Simplicity 3723 pattern – 99 cents*
Corset – $75
Tank top: $3
Second-hand skirt: $3
American Duchess shoes – $92
Shoe dye – $12
Antique metallic ribbon – $18
O Basics stockings – $8
Vintage bonnet – FREE! / $4
Vintage necklace – FREE!
_____________
Total: $249.70
OR
if you include the $384 time investment:
$633.70

I’m not going to lie: that’s a lot of money. Looking at the breakdown now, my dress seems like a poor showing for $250, much less $634! Would I pay that price for it? No. But remember, the actual dress only cost me $34.70! Everything else is an investment. My corset, stockings, shoes, and all the other separate bits are reusable. There may be thread left on the spool, the rest of the zip ties get used up the way they were intended (did you know that zip ties can actually be used to tie things together? Who’d have thought?!), and the leftover bits of fabric get added back into the stash. That is why when a costumer lists the “cost” of their final outfit, they do not include those sorts of items in the math.

While keeping costs down is the goal of many home costumers, you will ultimately spend money and, more importantly, time. There’s just no way around it. That’s why setting a budget and making smart investments is so important. Even a $35 dollar historically accurate pattern is justifiable if you have the skills to make it properly and/or make multiple pieces from it. Use a $10 dress pattern once and you paid $10; use it twice, and now it was only $5 per dress! The more you make, the better you will get and the cheaper the pattern will become. Find pieces that multitask or that you can refashion later when you get tired of the old version. Borrow and share pieces amongst your (trustworthy) friends. Recycle as often as you can!

The most important thing to remember about cost is that you are investing in your hobby. Keeping yourself busy with something you enjoy is the best therapy in the world, even if you get so frustrated with your machine you want to smash it with a hammer and throw it down the stairs after it gets all tangled up with an impossible amount of red thread in impossible places…

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Experience speaks!

I costume not because I’m particularly talented at it, but because I love a challenge just as much as I love pretty clothes. To me, making costumes is like earning a series of giant, wearable achievement badges. More than once I have turned down a beautiful fabric because I couldn’t afford it or my current skills would not do the fabric justice. I may miss out on the perfect print, but I don’t think it’s a huge sacrifice to go with a cheaper fabric that I feel comfortable making a mistake with. You name the mistake, I’ve probably done it! However, I usually don’t stress too much if I purchased plenty of fabric at a good price. I could buy a $10 box of chocolates that will disappear in a few hours and mysteriously reappear around by waist a few weeks later, or I can buy $10 worth of fabric and puzzle a dress out of it. Even though I love candy (and dessert in general. Oh, the cheesecake!), investing $10 towards a new dress much better than spending $10 towards growing out of one.

Is costuming worth it? Yes.
Is it for everyone? Well, it could be. :)

Whether you make or buy your own costumes, what matters most is that they make you happy!