Depressionistas: Costume Incarnations

What is one way to save literally barrels full of cash on your out-of-control costuming habit? Remodel, revamp, reuse, recycle, and refurbish your old gowns into brand new ones!

Remodeling gowns is extremely historic. Many sources mention the re-cutting of bodices, or construction of news ones by taking fabric from the skirt. There are also extant period garments that are documented to have been made from much older fabric, such as this one from the Kyoto Costume Institute:

So why not do it ourselves? Surely there are items in your closet that are just taking up space. Understandably, many seamstresses form attachments to their garments, after toiling to create them, and find it difficult to even contemplate the idea of cutting them up. However, if you are one of these, ask yourself these questions:

1. When is the last time I wore this costume?
2. Does it still fit me?
3. Does this costume accurately represent my sewing prowess?

4. Does the style, decoration, cut, period, etc. still appeal to me?

Be honest with yourself. It may be time to remodel the dress. It could be a matter of remaking the same gown but *better* or it could be crying out to be made into something completely new!

Sometimes a length of fabric will go through many incarnations until there is literally nothing left. Maggie of Serendipitous Stitchery believes in this practice to a high degree: one set of old sheets has been made into two 18th c. gowns, a Victorian corset, and the linings for who knows what else!

Check out these other recycled gowns from my own costume closet:

The Dickens Disaster Turned Robe a L’Anglaise
What It Was: Originally 5 yards of upholstery taffeta, I threw together in a few days the worst costume in the history of the Dickens Fair. It consisted of a modern blazer with badly altered sleeves, and an enormous skirt gathered on a drawstring and tied around my waist. I topped it off with Vatican-sized gold bonnet. The worst part is that someone working in one of the shops complimented me, asking if I’d made the ensemble myself. I now know she and her friend had a good laugh after I’d left.
What It Became: An 18th c. Robe a L’Anglaise, of which I am mildly proud.

The Not-Quite Flemish Peasant Turned English Middle Class
What It Was: A quick costume put together for reenactment with my first guild at Renaissance Faire. The overgown was navy blue tweedy-something, lined with and ochre linen blend. The kirtle was some kind of weird linsey-woolsey. The kirtle was made once, then remade the next week after the Snark at Costume Check snarked about the neckline. At the time, I was quite proud of this costume, and wore it many times.
What It Became: This is a case of the costume no longer representing my sewing skill. After scrapping the light blue kirtle, I separated the MASSIVE lengths of ochre and blue, making the former into a skirt, and the latter into a new gown to wear over. This gown is actually reversible, and I love this costume to pieces.

The Gold Venetian Turned Elizabethan Bodice
What It Was: Seven yards of gold jacquard bought on sale and years later made up into a sortof-kindof 1490s Venetian gown. I had a tiny bit of the fabric left, so technically I didn’t cut this gown up, but…
What It Became: An Elizabethan doublet with black velvet trim. Currently this doublet is worn with a black skirt, but if I ever decide to construct on overskirt for the costume, that old Venetian is on the chopping block!

Other examples are made from bits of this, pieces of that, but those morsels will be kept for another entry!

So how much yardage do you have sitting in your closet? It is not a crime to make your old costumes into new ones. It will save you money in the end, and you will have a brand new costume to wear in a fabric you love! Post links to your costume remodels in the comments section!


  • The Dreamstress

    July 18, 2009 at 6:23 AM

    You know – I don't think I have ever re-made an old costume! My only 'bad' costumes were made when I was child sized, so there isn't enough fabric to re-make them. And I give costumes that I don't like anymore away.

    I love what you did with that gold Victorian dress though. Wasn't it a crack-up!

  • Lauren R

    July 18, 2009 at 7:31 AM

    There are definitely a handful of costumes that are going to be donated to the University drama department, but I like to reuse as much stuff as possible. You've been sewing for so much longer than me – lol, I wish my "fails" were child-sized, but sadly I still fit into them!

    I'm glad I could cause you laughter at my costume fails, lol. Yes, that gold dress really WAS that bad!!!

  • Jenny

    July 18, 2009 at 8:48 AM

    Only "mildly proud"? You did a gorgeous bit of rescuing that gold gown, and giving it a new lease on life. Love the doublet, by the way. 😀

  • E. Waterman

    July 18, 2009 at 4:21 PM

    I'm thinking of turning my blue and gold elizabethan nobles into a late 18th c robe a l'anglaise..or something of the sort (wonder if I have enough scraps/in the skirt…)

    Also; I think I'm turning japanese (i really think so).

  • Fiona-Jane Brown

    July 18, 2009 at 7:23 PM

    I'd settle for learning to make a costume in the first place!!! Promise, the minute I graduate, I'll be right down to John Lewis's to buy fabric for the evening dress I wanted to make years ago and couldn't persuade sewing friend to do it for me!!!

  • Lauren R

    July 21, 2009 at 12:31 AM

    Jenny, while the gold 18th c. gown is LOADS better than its prior incarnation, it has some problems, but if you can't tell then I won't tell you, lol :-).

    Maggie, you're insane, and apparently Japanese.

    Fiona, as soon as you start stitchin' it up, you *MUST* start a blog and let us all see your progress! I have very fond memories of when I started learning to sew (and some not so fond, haha), and I'm always willing to help out newbies!

  • Lauren

    July 21, 2009 at 12:42 AM

    Fun, fun! Nothing like revamping an old gown 🙂 Thanks for the comments on my blog 🙂 I can't wait to see what you come up with.

  • Robin's Egg Bleu

    July 28, 2009 at 2:17 PM

    Oooh…yeah. That 'complimenting' thing, I've had happen to me in regards to a bonnet, using a modern 'Victorian' felt bonnet as the base. Advised by the 'Victorian' shop owner who sold it to me on how to properly trim it, I went to my first Civil War reenactment preening in my overtly ostrich plumed chapeau.

    A group (i.e. gang) of anti-farb young ladies came over to 'admire' my hat. I could see instantly by their own bonnets that mine was so very, very, very wrong.

    I heard their snickers as I walked away.

    It wasn't nice of them, but I sure learned to do my own research instead of relying on a shop or sutler…and I have ripped apart many dresses (and dolls) to start over. For the better!

    Your work is fabulous!!!!

  • Lauren R

    July 28, 2009 at 9:44 PM

    Oh Robin, that is positively WICKED! You are right, though: one experience like that and we never make the same mistakes again.

    I happen to believe, however, that one can never have too many or too tall of feathers. Then again, for proper reenactment, which doesn't exist in California (lol), it does better to dress appropriately.

    I would love to see your refurbished gowns? Links?


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