Interview with Karen Bowler of “Classic Costume”

Hi all! It’s been some time since we last interviewed a savvy historical costumer.  Today I’ve interviewed Karen of “Classic Costume,” a custom maker of some seriously gorgeous 18th century and Regency ensembles.  You can find Karen on her website, Etsy, and Facebook .  Here’s what she has to say about her work…


1. How did you get started in historical costuming? What drew you to it?

I’ve always been a fabric addict one way or another, sewing, collecting vintage, doing theatrical costumes, printing and dyeing, patchwork – which taught me to hand sew long distances – and I’ve acquired a huge stash of fabrics and laces that I just can’t throw out, all in natural fibres, I hate polyester. I used to dress antique fashion dolls for an antique dealer friend – dolls like these on Pinterest, and doing the research for that gave me a bit of background in historical construction techniques. When I decided to become self employed, historical costuming just seemed to combine it all and give me the chance work with yards and yards of natural fabrics, and meet other costume fanatics. I’ve always felt that modern western fashion is a bit dull!

2. How do you see yourself as a costumer? Are you a re-enactor, a theatrical costumer, or a just-for-fun type?

I’m not trained as a theatrical costumer, and I think that’s a profession which needs a good training, for sure its not all pretty dresses. I do wear my own stuff, of course, but really I see myself as a dress-maker. Every dress I do inspires new ones, and I’m always learning – either new periods or new variations on a style – so its a case of so many frocks, so little time.

3. What is your favorite garment to sew? What is the most challenging?

My favourite garment has to be the robe Polonaise, the photos show one of the early ones I made from an Ikea duvet cover – 100% cotton and with, I thought, an authentic looking print. Plus it has gorgeous, gorgeous cartridge pleats. Its only when you are making the dresses that you see why – they were just about the best way to keep all that fabric under control. I love the bustled-up skirt and those 18th Century lines – plus I love working with stripes as well and they were big in that era. {I did a blog post on stripes here} I’ve spent a lot of time getting that 18th Century look right as its so different from the 19th or 20th Century silhouette. They do need a lot of fabric though, and getting all the trims to mix and match is quite a challenge.

My least favourite, maybe because its so difficult to get a good fit by mail order, is the 19th Century Victorian, look; highly fitted, round shouldered, tightly corseted – I really admire people who can get that right. I hate it so i don’t do it! I really think it shows if you love what your’re making – or if you hate it.

4. What is your preferred time period? What draws you to this particular time period, and are there other periods you are interested in as well?

I started off loving the Regency era high waisted gowns because they are so elegant and have lovely clean lines, but I’ve been moving back in time from there because I wanted to understand what they derived from. A Regency ’round gown’ (so-called because it goes all around the body) was a new thing in the 18th Century – before that a dress was more like a long coat or a mantua, and had quite a different construction. Going even further back its amazing how much thought and respect for the fabric went into the cutting and making of early items of clothing – not an inch wasted and there were little built in ways of adjusting the fit or allowing it to be remade in a different size. I think the 18th Century is my favourite because it was the age of enlightenment, far freer than the repressed Victorians, but just at the dawn of printed fabrics, the era of revolutions and of course the golden age of piracy – which is of special interest to me based in Plymouth, Devon, home of Sir Francis Drake, where pirates still have strong presence. Also I love the Edwardian and 1920s era clothing – doesn’t everyone?

5. What are you favorite materials to sew with?

Favourite fabrics are silk and linen – can’t have just one! wool and cotton are great as well but nothing beats those two!

6. You make historical items on commission – tell us little about your experiences, good, bad, or ugly!

Ha! commissions. Well, along with ‘can you fix the zip in these jeans?’ they must be the most dreaded aspect of costume making. Seriously, yes I do do commissions, but in a fairly limited choice of colours, fabrics and styles. I’ve worked hard on my patterns so I can be sure of a good fit in each size, since I don’t operate from a walk in workshop. Every dress is a one off though, and when I’m making them I feel its a bit like giving birth, I’m very focused for the whole creative period. I find I get better results that way. Getting a dress to look right is quite subtle. Its very hard to pin down what exactly it is that makes the whole thing come together, and its even harder trying to pin down what someone has in their head, especially when they want it like that but with different sleeves, a different waist, a different colour, a totally different gown in fact. . . . I’ve had some success working from oil paintings of the correct period, like the green velvet gown modeled on the painting of von Bayern, but its very hard to match up my idea and description with that of the client, no matter how many drawings change hands, and I have struggled with this. Its also so hard to get the right fabric at the right price, and I do like to try and remain affordable! What I do now is discuss style, size, colour and fabric availability etc. with the client, then make the garment and – giving the client first option – that way nobody is disappointed.

7. Do you have any advice for beginning seamstresses, or those just starting out in historical costuming?

I would encourage everyone to have a go, there are plenty of good commercial patterns available and these are a good place to start. I would say always, always, always make a toile. Not only will you get a better fit, but you will get an understanding of how the dress goes together and that will make it easier to sew up the real thing. So get an old sheet or two from a charity shop/thrift store, and use that to fiddle about with it till you are happy with the fit. Then get some nice fabric. Don’t be tempted to use polyester under any circumstances – it will drive you mad!

Then check the tension on your machine, cut carefully, take your time sewing and go for it.

Thank you Karen!

You can connect with Classic Costume here:
Classic Costume on Etsy
Classic Costume on Facebook


Leave a Reply

Discover more from American Duchess Blog

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading