Why We Costume, Part 1: Every Dance is Your Wedding

Let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled costuming for a little insight, a little philosophy, a little article on why it is I believe we costume.

Why DO we costume?
What is it about dressing up in historical garments, tying ourselves into underpinnings not conventionally worn for a hundred years or more? And why is this so popular world-wide?

Last night, while catching up on my list of TV detective shows, I watched one episode in which a murder was committed at a wedding. The bride-to-be was decked out in her beautiful gown, and the setting was a posh hotel draped in flowers and golden glowery. I realised that many women only get to wear formal attire a handful of times in their lives, and for some women this is “never.”

In high school we might have a smattering of semi-formal homecoming dances, or we may go to our Senior Prom, and get to shop for, pick out, and wear possibly the prettiest thing any of us at age 18 have ever dressed our awkward teenage bodies in. As adults, occasionally a formal reception may crop up, or some kind of banquet, but these things are few and far between, which leaves us one last overarching, shining event: our weddings. It is the one day where gentlemen can look snappy, feel snappy, and allow the fuzzy warm feelings of romance to read like a book upon their faces. And, of course, it is the day that the bride will wear the one piece of clothing that will be so blazingly beautiful that fathers will cry and grandmothers will drink three times the martinis.

So what has this to do with costuming? Just look at the photo above! A beautiful dress, a luxurious setting…sound familiar? As women, I believe some small part of us costumes for the same kind of feelings that we could or did feel on our wedding days. We love the long skirts, the gentle (or extreme, your choice), hugging support of underpinnings keeping everything, bodies and dresses, perfectly in place. We love the golden light glowing on our skin in the grand ballroom, the sweeping steps to descend and ascend gracefully, the flocks of other beautifully dressed girls to gush over and to gush over us. We love the gentlemen looking their finest, asking us to dance, and, of course, that unique, unforgettable feeling of being swept around the dance floor, skirts flying out, head spinning, short of breath and loving every minute of it. This is all a romanticised view, of course, but is it not the dream we spin and the things we remember the next morning, suffering our dance-hangovers?

I do not mean to imply that every girl who costumes secretly wants to get married (or not so secretly!). I also do not imply that it is the ONLY reason we costume (of course not!). I do, however, truly believe that we love getting “dressed to the nines” for special occasions, even if those special occasions happen every month! At the root of all this is the desire to feel beautiful, striking, special, which clothing of the past will always somehow have the ability to accomplish.


  • Unknown

    January 20, 2010 at 8:09 PM

    Castle is one of my favorite shows. I never miss an episode. I loved/love my wedding dress. I even wore it 2 Halloweens ago and dressed up like Marie Antoinette to hand out candy. The kids loved it. Thsi year, I made an outfit out of a pair of old sheets with tulips on them. I called my, 'Mrs. Bennet' and wore my under skirts from my wedding dress. I loved the rustling noise they made and did not want to take it off. I'm not yet brave enough to wear my costume in public but someday, maybe for territory days here in Colorado Springs. Who knows?

  • The Dreamstress

    January 20, 2010 at 9:04 PM

    Costuming events are better than your wedding (at least as far as the clothes go!). You get to look gorgeous, but don't have all that stress and pressure of being 'perfect' and of meeting everyones expectations!

    And you get to pick partners because they are good dancers, not because you love them with all your heart and are willing to put up with the fact that they *are* terrible dancers who step on your toes!

  • Anonymous

    January 20, 2010 at 9:23 PM

    This sounds pretty much right to me – a chance to wear something amazing, look pretty, see other people looking amazing and being in great moods because of it (one would hope), feel special, and not stand out in a bad way for it (ie, if you went to the local corner shop in that attire, you'd stand out, but for all the wrong reasons. I loathe feeling over-dressed for an occassion, it makes me feel very uncomfortable.).

    Great post – very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  • Madame Berg

    January 20, 2010 at 10:15 PM

    As a person who has never, ever dressed up in formal clothing (even at my wedding I wore a knee-length dress)I believe this is true, although I never realised it until now!

  • Duchess

    January 20, 2010 at 10:39 PM

    Ladies, I'm so glad you liked the post! And crafty, Melissa, you knew which show I was watching!

    I'm going to write at least a part 2 to this, since it's not ALL about "wedding days," but I've got to get some sewing done first!!

  • Lauren

    January 20, 2010 at 10:53 PM

    It's the little girl princess thing. We want to be princesses at heart and we love it when we look like one, or at least I do 🙂

  • Jenny

    January 21, 2010 at 12:09 AM

    Growing up watching period films, playing dress up, and reading historical books, fairy tales, and novels is my main reason for loving costumes and dancing at Gaskells. You are wearing a lovely gown,there is all the wonderful chaos in the dressing room, oogling what others are wearing, dancing with handsome men…. A dream come true. Plus the agony and ecstasy of creating the dress (if you sew) in the first place. Can't wait for part II of this post, Duchess. 😀

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    January 21, 2010 at 12:51 AM

    Truly profound and truly true! As an ex-bridal shop owner and frock maker, I would also add that at least 25% of the women getting married are doing it, consciously or otherwise, precisely because they want to dress up in a gorgeous dress, choose bridesmaids dresses, flowers, cakes, all that stuff, not because they want to spend the rest of their life with whatsisface in the tux! I think it is WAY healthier to play dress ups and get it out of one's system that way 😉 And some of us wore what can only be called costumes at our weddings. I'm not sure deep purple silk velvet and gold silk with raspberry 3-D flowers is particularly traditional wedding garb for any period of history hehehe So, what you say I feel is true both coming and going!

  • Duchesse

    January 21, 2010 at 1:48 AM

    Mrs C, I'm shocked that 25% of women getting married do it for the "wedding stuff!" Maybe that accounts for the higher divorce rate? Wow. I can't lie and say I don't think about possible future weddings for someone-that-might-be-me-someday-maybe. I gotta have a good man, first, though, and that, up to this point, has actually been quite difficult to obtain. 🙂

    Freckles and Other Lauren – you hit the nail on the head for the next article in this series, but I can't give everything away yet, you have to wait!

    P.S. THIS dress from Marie Antoinette whispers "get married in this!" to me in my daydreams 🙂

  • Jeannette Ng

    January 21, 2010 at 3:27 PM

    I second the point on weddings being rather inferior. Discovering costumed events did rather remove any remaining desire in me to get married. (I hesitate so say "ever" since there are many years ahead of me and all).

  • Duchess

    January 21, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    Jeannette, but why? I see them as similar in psychology, concerning the dresses and the frippery, but not at all in actuality. What is it about costume events that made you not want to get married? (I'm just curious!) The only thing that made ME not want to get married was a seriously bad boyfriend, but now that he's gone, the daydreaminess is back with a vengeance. (and it's not because of wanting to wear a pretty dress, just so you know, tee hee)

  • Time Traveling in Costume

    January 22, 2010 at 10:05 PM

    I totally agree that most women hardly ever get to dress in some fantasy-like gown, and feel really beautiful. I missed my prom, did get to wear a wedding dress, and wore a uniform during my career. So it's a dream for me to be able to make and wear something totally over the top and as often as possible. And don't forget those lovely gentlemen in costume too.

  • annamae

    January 24, 2010 at 2:25 AM

    I have thought something similar for years! Only coming from a different angle, my sisters and I grew up planning multiple weddings for the fun of it and always purchased bridal magazines to drool over the gowns. We all decided the reason the wedding industry is so huge and so overpriced is due to the fact that we as women don't get to dress up anymore the way women used to. Many would say that they prefer the freedom of movement and whathave you over the alternative but I think deep down most women wouldn't complain if society asked us to don gorgeous gowns on a daily basis once again. Lord knows us costume junkies wouldn't! 😀
    anyhow, great post and I look forward to part 2.

  • American Duchess

    January 24, 2010 at 8:07 PM

    I do agree with you Annamae, that clothing ought to be more sophisticated than it is now – there is no standard of dress anymore, and people look, ugh, AWFUL, when you go out, pretty much anywhere! And when someone does make an effort to look snappy, they're questioned as to why they're all dressed up, like there needs to be a reason besides just looking and feeling good! I don't know about going *too* far back in fashion, but we as a society could certainly use with some earlier-20th-century-style dresscode!

  • Katinka

    January 25, 2010 at 5:22 AM

    I thoroughly enjoyed both of your posts on this, as both rang very true for me. Something happened in about October, where it was like lightning struck me and suddenly I was hopelessly in love with the 18th century. I've liked to play dress-up all my life, and have always lamented the lack of opportunities to do so these days.

    To shorten the story of where this has led me: I finished my first 18th century stays yesterday.

    I recognize many of the names above me in the comments, from all of the blogs I've clicked these last few months. Your blog, as well as many others have been a source of inspiration, and well, sanity… because it's so good to know I'm not alone when I dream of dance-hangovers.

  • Duchess

    January 26, 2010 at 1:29 AM

    Katinka, first off, I'm happy to hear another lovely lady has been bitten by the 18th c. costume bug! Welcome! I'm also so flattered that you like the blog, and that I've been able to help elucidate some of the mysteries of the costuming. There are still many more things I have no idea about, but it's fun to stumble through them and hopefully find some answers to share with everyone else!
    Congratulations on your first pair of stays – 18th c. stays are quite a lot of work, but even more reward!

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    January 30, 2010 at 4:58 AM

    Oh Your Highness, I can understand why that dress has you thinking of weddings, isn't it glorious! Yup, it is sad that so many weddings are about, well, the wedding. The shortest marriage I know of was six weeks, after a 10k amazing wedding. I loved her, loved making her dress and was surprised it lasted more than a month. *sigh* I don't think there is anything wrong about dreaming about weddings and dresses you would/wouldn't wear, goodness knows I've had a dream dress on mental file since I was 15 – the dream dress changed from time to time but there was always one, but I was 37 before I met someone I wanted to marry, and then I couldn't get the fabrics I wanted to make the dress I wanted, so I adapted and I LOVE the one I ended up in. And some time this year it is getting a new lease of life as a frock coat. Such a waste of velvet hanging in the closet…

  • Her Grace the Duchess of Cupcakes

    February 11, 2010 at 3:26 AM

    my dress changes in my mind as well, Mrs. C. I was never one of those girls who had her wedding all planned out…I still don't…it's like a nebulous thing that flicks into my mind on occasion in moments of weakness :-). So by the time I do get married, if I ever do, it could be a completely different dress! But being the costumers we are (as you say, a waste of velvet!), I want it to be something I can wear more than once, or adapt for other events. As Captain Barbossa so eloquently says, "Waste not!"

  • Anonymous

    February 15, 2010 at 9:35 AM

    I agree with your post, it makes so much sense! Since I can't wear 18th century pouffiness every single say, I settle for making and wearing a retro 1950s look instead. I get to wear a "glass-of-water-and-a-cracker-for-lunch" bustier, with pouffety dresses, and they look so much better on me than the travesty which is the 80s revival clothing – I don't want to LOOK pregnant if I'm not. Not to mention the fun of doing my hair up, putting on red lipstick, and wearing tons of faboosh jewelry and hats!!! *squeee*
    I think it's a perfectly lovely alternative, and I get compliments every day. Bring back the 50s, I say!
    But, when I do get the chance, I love to slip in to my 18th century stuff… I want to make my own wardrobe of historical day-to-day wear. I think this concept has crossed many a mind.


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