The Pragmatic Manifesto
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.
Go Forth and Costume Freely!