The Pragmatic Manifesto

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This is one of the first plays I ever helped costume. I was 17. The Gunne Sax were pulled straight from my collection barely 3 days before the performance and the gent’s costumes were made overnight by volunteers (who accidentally switched the colors!). That’s me on the left, looking rather rosy in my over-abundance of stage make-up!

When I first started historical costuming at the age of 16, I worked in a small local theater at McCurdy High School staging productions like The Miracle Worker and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In my initial research, I was dismayed to discover that costuming had developed a split personality as either a snobbish obsession preoccupied by rules and historical constraints, or a cheap slap-grab of flimsy department store fabric that disregards not only history, but all physiological logic. I felt as though I was either being judged for having metal busks before 1880 or assaulted by one-size-fits-all costumes that, in reality, fit no one. It was all very discouraging and when I was 18, I gave up costuming for a few years. I didn’t stop researching, however, and I became convinced that while rules and having fun are important, one should not be sacrificed to achieve the other! I picked up the passion for costuming again, this time intent on balancing costuming with the challenges an average, occasional costumer encounters like budget, time crunches, material shortages, limited knowledge, and less-than-par sewing skills. This blog seeks to blend the two vastly different methods of costuming into a more affordable, accessible method: pragmatism. Costuming pragmatically means using historical guidelines to help organize a costume from what you might already have. The pragmatic method also helps you identify ways to use pieces you’ve already invested in, like turning a Renaissance chemise into a Regency tea gown.

I based this approach on the principles of costuming that have been used throughout history: do what you can with what you have. Humans always enjoy escaping the constraints of their everyday selves and have used costumes to become momentary gods, demons, inanimate objects, abstract concepts, emotions, and symbols. Ancient man had a very different set of materials available to him than we have today. Even the Victorians and mid-century housewives relied on what they had on hand to create their costumes. If you didn’t have the money to buy fresh silk satin and hire a tailor for your queen costume, you used your mother’s faded curtains and recycled lace trim from last-year’s nightgown. How many of us remember the old Church ladies sewing our angel costumes out of dollar store t-shirts or belting our mother’s bathrobe  with some garland for a Christmas play? One advantage we have over our ancestors is that a wealth of information and communication with fellow friendly costumers is available nearly anytime, anywhere. Online, you can connect with excellent seamstresses and pattern websites to help you craft more elaborate costumes if your budget allows. Costuming pragmatically doesn’t mean you’re limited to what you can scrounge up from the $2 bin at Goodwill or Rue21 (though they are two great places to look). Costuming pragmatically means utilizing all the resources you have available as far as you comfortably and financially can.

Feedsack dresses were stylish and inexpensive during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Costuming provides an outlet for emotions and passions that might otherwise be laughed at or condemned by society. Who doesn’t love dressing up for Halloween because you can be anyone you want for a whole day? Sometimes you feel more at home in your Roman Empress costume than in your everyday clothes. Programs like Comic Con, Costume Con, Steampunk conventions, and hometown theater productions are great examples of pragmatic costuming in action: costuming as a way to change who you appear to be while enhancing who you are as an individual.

Click here to read “The Costumer’s Code”

Seven things I wish people had told me when I was first starting out

Go Forth and Costume Freely!

13 Responses to “The Pragmatic Manifesto”


  1. Your beautiful blog is elegantly bursting with wonderful writing, information and pictures, and I absolutely love your pragmatic approach to costuming. As a teenager I used to enjoy designing dance costumes, but this fell by the way. Now a few decades later I’ve rediscovered this interest. Then, almost straightaway, I felt guilty for not having everything historically correct.I do tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and being like that can really spoil the fun. So I am trying to be as free as I can with my ideas. I like to design, but have never considered making one of my designs. My sewing ability is limited to dog coats – but they’re very smart coats! Maybe you will one day inspire me to actually make up one of my designs. But don’t hold your breath!

    • Liz Says:

      LOL! You just described me 2 years ago! :P
      I, too, am not the greatest at sewing, but I’ve gotten really good at alterations and I can thrift shop like no one’s business. Dog coats are a great start! Between that, your art, and your writing, I’d say you’ve got the creativity to do almost anything you put your mind to! :)


  2. Thanks for this lovely reply.

  3. Karen Ralston Says:

    Liz, I think I’ve found a sister from another mother–or judging from your photo, I’m old enough to be your mother! Anyway, please keep the fantastic writing coming! And, if you’re ever in Memphis–or Breckenridge–give me a holler!


  4. Dear Pragmatist: I have read and forwarded your writings to my daughter and wife. It is fair but prejudiced to say that both are on top of fashion, and I want them to know your writing and thinking. Thanks for your work and Adios! STC

  5. Laura Says:

    Hey, I happened on your page when I did a google search for “18th century men’s pockets.” I’m going to be Benjamin Franklin for Mardi Gras. I love history, and occasionally make historical costumes for myself, so I love that you say, “while rules and having fun are important, one should not be sacrificed to achieve the other.” That’s the balance I always strive for!

  6. Rae Says:

    Hi Liz, Fascinating pieces of history here; nice job! I’m on a mission to learn all I can about how / where the ruffled cuff began, and how it evolved and took on many dimensions. Do you think the NY library would be a good place to start my project? many thanks, Rae

    • Liz Says:

      Libraries are always a good place to start, especially if you happen to find a good librarian to aid you! What sort/era of ruffled cuff may affect your research a bit, so keep that in mind. I also recommend visiting the online collections of museums such as the V&A, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, etc. to find extant examples.

  7. Patricia Says:

    Hi Liz,
    I found this blog by accident while looking for thistle wedding bands, but love it. I have been a theatrical costumer for 15 years and I applaud your efforts. You have learned a lot and I learned these things in almost the same way. I found that I love doing this and can be really creative while being historically accurate. Keep up the good work.
    Patricia

  8. Mary Cooper Says:

    Hi, I have something Elizabethan that I am trying to identify, wonder if you can help me, please?

  9. Patricia Says:

    I would be happy to take a look.


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