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!