“Why Don’t I Look Right?” : Getting The Look Spot-On with Historical Costumes

I often get questions, or read comment threads, about why a historical ensemble doesn’t look just right, and it’s got me thinking about the things to consider when putting together a costume for any period of dress.  This isn’t the be-all-that-ends-all list, but hopefully these tips will be of some use, and help take your costuming (and mine) to the next level.

Wear The Right Underwear

The right undies for 18th c – petticoats, smock, stays.

The biggest “mistake” we run into with costumes is that the understructure isn’t right.  With modern sensibilities about weight and volume, it’s hard to get past the idea of increasing the size of your hips in order to make your waist look tiny, for instance.  Always wear one more petticoat that you think you need.  Particular to the 18th c., volume through the skirt is essential to getting the correct look, so either wear panniers, large bumpads, puffy quilted petticoats, ruffled petticoats, or all of these things together!

This is just a mockup, but you can see how bad the skirt looks without enough puffage underneath.
Much better fullness in the finished costume (but ignore those shoes)

The same is true in regards to boobs (yes, I said boobs).  The modern ideal is for boobs to look big, but in the past, boobage was flattened, squeezed, lifted, separated, and generally manipulated every which way.  With boob-centric styles such as Regency, it’s important to wear a bra, or stays, that bring them together and up (way up).  Elizabethan, Baroque, and early 18th c. styles need them to be flattened and conical, in one line with the torso.

In Short: petticoats, hoops, and corsets.  Do not skip these!

For a fun little learning game on dressing from the inside-out 18th c. style, visit this link on the Colonial Williamsburg website.

Fit and Tailoring
If your underpinnings are looking swell, the next biggest issue is fit.  You could have the most beautiful, intricate, and mind-blowing gown in the world, but if it doesn’t fit you, it will look shabby.  If you are making your costume from scratch, take the time to make a mock-up, and remedy any fit issues.  Taking in the side-seams is a good place to start, followed by pinching the back seams to account for modern sway-back-ness. If your bodice has darts, take these in or let them out.

This is one of the first costumes I ever made.  It’s taking a lot of guts for me to show you this monstrosity!  But it is the perfect example of REALLY HORRIBLE FIT.  Please don’t make too much fun of me!

Other problems you may run into that effect the fit involve the length of waist – I, for instance, am long-waisted, so I always have to add length onto the waist of my patterns.  Sometimes I add too much, so it’s vital to try your mock up on with *all* of your underpinnings (petticoats, hoops, corset, EVERYTHING) to see where the waist will sit.

If all else fails, take the garment to a tailor!

Undertrimming and Fabric Choice
Now I am a believer in affordable fabrics.  If you shop hard and are particular in your fabric choice, you can find affordable, beautiful silks, even synthetics, that looks great and don’t drain your pocketbook dry.  If you are shopping for fabrics based on a historical piece you’ve seen in a museum, try to match it as closely as possible in terms of the overall look – what are the colors used, how big is the print (or embroidery), what is the texture and sheen of the fabric?

This gown is an okay fabric (taffeta), but it has NO trims at all, unless you count the funky lace cuffs.

As for trimmings, do NOT skimp on trims.  They don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be well-represented.  Looking at historical garments, you will notice they are littered with embroidery, buttons, slashing, pinking, fly fringe, pleating, ruching, smocking, ruffles, lace, beading, braiding, gimp, passimenterie, fringe, you name it.  (Check out Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail and Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail to see what I mean).

In the words of Truly Victorian – “trim, and then trim again.”

Accessories – Finishing a Costume
Going out without a hat, gloves, and a neckerchief these days is no big deal, but in the past this would be considered “undressed,” and highly improper.  For 18th c. ensembles, the extra bits you need include a wig or a cap, a hat, a neckerchief, possibly gloves or mits, stockings and shoes, possibly an apron, and jewelry (I’m thinking middle to upper class here, but toned-down versions of these things are true for lower classes too).  At the very least, one must attend to their tops and bottoms – what is on the head and what is on the feet, because both of these areas are conspicuous with 18th century clothing.

Here’s a “complete” outfit – wig, ribbon around the neck, proper shoes, enough trimming, and appropriate fabric choice.  This could be taken further with a neckerchief, sleeve flounces, and a big awesome hat.


Now, I don’t always get it right.  I try, but sometimes my hair looks like crap, or my petticoats aren’t puffy enough, and I am certainly guilty of undertrimming!  How great it is when a costume is complete, though, and you both look good and feel good wearing it!

If you are looking for resources on where to get some of these items, particularly hats, shoes, and wigs, do visit my Resources Page.  Comments and e-mails are always welcome!


  • Angela Reichelderfer

    March 10, 2011 at 1:28 AM

    Great post! And, I love your first costume – (even though you are embarrassed by it – lol!) You look so sweet in it! 🙂

  • Lauren Stowell

    March 10, 2011 at 2:07 AM

    Thanks ladies! Another thing I should have added in here is to not be afraid of adding in additional boning to bodices. A look inside Victorian bodices, especially, reveals boning on just about every seam, and that's worn over a corset. It helps keep everything straight, flat, crisp. I'm definitely still coming to terms with this idea.

  • Lithia Black

    March 10, 2011 at 7:44 AM

    Great post and the part about waist placement in particular. I think a lot of people don't realise that the natural waist and the waist placement on modern clothing does not match. I think this is why many people have problems when they venture in to sewing both more tailored modern clothes and period costume.
    I for example have a high waist and I always have to remember to look out for that fact when I draft patterns.

  • Rowenna

    March 10, 2011 at 1:12 PM

    Awesome post! If I can add one detail I notice a lot–makeup. I've seen some lovely ensembles dragged down a bit by the overuse of modern makeup. Sure, use some natural-looking foundation or mascara, and if the period and persona lend themselves, rouge it up! But heavy eyeliner…bright or shimmery eyeshadow…sparkly lipgloss all look like modern intrusions to my mind. If you're going to go historical, own it–and know you look beautiful even without modern cosmetics!

  • Lauren Stowell

    March 10, 2011 at 8:24 PM

    Both really good points, Lithia and Rowenna, especially about the makeup. Both modern sensibilities that have to be pushed aside for historical loveliness 🙂

  • Olympe de la Tour D'Auvergne

    March 11, 2011 at 2:36 AM

    Shoes are often the hardest to get right; but of course with your help we will all be one step closer soon! ;D

  • The Dreamstress

    March 11, 2011 at 3:00 AM

    Fab post – it could have been hideously patronising save for your humility and willingness to show us your mistakes, so big ups for that!

    I *have* actually seen quite a few examples of untrimmed/barely trimmed 18th century dress, so it wasn't entirely unknown.

    The other big thing for me is the right fabric – you just can't make those cheap polyester satins look right, no matter how you cut them. Better to have a less fancy cotton frock!

  • Lauren Stowell

    March 11, 2011 at 3:06 AM

    I'm glad it didn't come off as patronizing, that was certainly not my intention! Yeah, I'm not afraid to show my hideousness, also because I'm still guilty of it, hahaha.

    I agree about the satins. Sewing non-period clothing with satin is evil too, it's just hard to get it to look good. I've had luck with synthetic/blend taffetas, but you gotta be SO careful about how it looks – case by case basis, I think.

    I also agree with you about the plain cotton gowns. There are some great examples of un-trimmed cotton gowns in the KCI book, and for middling sort and lower of course you wouldn't be sporting lots of trims. I will so, though, that when you're scarce on the trims, though, your tailoring has to be spot on!

  • Anonymous

    July 7, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    Lauren thanks for showing your first costume – its all a learning experience! I'm posting as anonymous because I daren't post some of my awful efforts – but I'm learning! and you blog is hugely helpful.

  • bauhausfrau

    August 17, 2016 at 4:35 AM

    It's so true! Accessories, fit and fabric can make or break an outfit. And when I see photos of me that I cringe at I've usually messed up one of those. 😛

    I will add it's not just period correct fabric but the right draping fabric for a project. I've made silk dresses that made me look terrible because the hand was wrong for the style of dress I was making.


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