The Historical Costumer’s Holiday Book List

I don’t know about you, but about 90% of what’s on my Christmas list this year is books on historical costuming. We in the community are lucky to have so many excellent quality reference books, so if you’re making your own list, or checking someone else’s twice, considering adding these wonderful resources:

Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th century (Taschen 25th Anniversary)

The Kyoto Costume Institute Book, as it’s sometimes called. This is a gorgeous, enormous survey of fashion, with beautiful photographs of full costumes, from one of the most important collections in the world.

I recommend this book for beginners and advanced costumers alike, as it’s a constant source of inspiration and great overview of 18th – 20th century fashion.

Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail: The 17th and 18th Centuries

A splendid catalogue from the Victoria and Albert Museum, this book takes an in-depth look at the details of 17th and 18th century clothing, both men’s and women’s.

Beautiful, high-resolution images reveal cuffs, collars, embroideries, trims, buttons, laces, and so on. A line drawing of each garment reveals the full design, and a useful schematic for the historical costumer.

Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail

The companion book to the one above, this 19th century catalogue from the Victoria and Albert Museum reveals details of men’s and women’s clothing from the Regency to La Belle Epoque, with close-up images of collars, cuffs, basques, buttons, and so on.

Detailed line drawings show the full costume, with a description of each, and the accession numbers to assist in finding further information online.

Two more books in this series:
Underwear: Fashion in Detail
and Twentieth Century Fashion in Detail (V & A Fashion in Details)

What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (Williamsburg Decorative Arts)

The first and largest of the “Williamsburg Books,” this one is essential to the serious 18th century costumer, with invaluable information on the dress of men, women, children, and the elderly, along with purpose-made clothing, and that of the working classes as well as aristocracy. This book includes hundreds of color photographs of clothing and accessories from Colonial Williamsburg’s collection.

For the beginner, Williamsburg also offers this smaller primer:Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg (Williamsburg Decorative Arts Series)

Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790

Costume-Close-Up is the companion book to What Clothes Reveal, with patterns and instructions for making many of the garments in Williamsburg’s collection. This is an invaluable resource for the 18th century costumer, with patterns for men, women, and children, accessories, and with detailed diagrams showing period accurate stitching techniques.

Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800

A valuable book for the Renaissance, Baroque, and Georgian costumer, Hunnisett offers a wide variety of gridded patterns, along with instructions and advice for making each. The book covers everything from closures to trimmings, as well as the creation of underpinnings.

This is a practical book with good advice for theatrical costuming. I have found many of the tips in this book to be perfectly applicable to historical costuming, helping with ease of wear, and making up.

Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress, 1800-1909

Another in this series, this book has patterns for Regency through the end of the 19th century, with large and valuable sections on sleeve and bodice designs, the cuts of skirts, construction of corsets, petticoats, and cage crinolines, and how to achieve the correct look for each period.

I’ve found this book incredibly helpful and complete in creating both day and evening looks for each decade in the 19th century.

Two more books in this series: Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress, Medieval – 1500
and Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Outer Garments : Cloaks, Capes, Stoles and Wadded Mantles

Patterns of Fashion 1: 1660-1860

Recommended for intermediate to advanced costumers, Janet Arnold’s famous books offer detailed gridded patterns, drawings, and information from original gowns in the Snowshills Wade costume collection and Victoria and Albert Museum. This book also includes a thorough preface with history and sources, along with an appendix with information on the book, author, and patterns.

Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction C. 1860-1940

Second in the series, this book includes gridded patterns, drawings, and history for 1860 – 1940.

Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women C. 1560-1620

Third in Janet Arnold’s series, this book is perhaps the most in-depth, with patterns for both men’s and women’s dress of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and various countries. Beautiful line drawings and thorough information complement the detailed history, photographs, and reference materials included in the preface.

Goes excellently with this companion book:Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540-1660 (Patterns of Fashion)

Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930

Another for the serious costumer, The Cut of Women’s Clothes offers primary and secondary sources for women’s clothing from the 17th c. to the 20th c. Non-gridded, scaled patterns are provided for reference or scaling up, with information on each garment.

This is a rare book best acquired through a third-party vendor, but an excellent one to have.

Corsets and Crinolines

This is an excellent, focused book on underpinnings of the 17th through 20th centuries. The book contains primary and secondary sources, as well as non-gridded, scaled patterns for corsets, stays, girdles, cage crinolines, and bustles. It’s a wonderful book for the seamstress interested in making her own underpinnings.

Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques

A good companion to Corsets and Crinolines, Salen’s book focuses specifically on corsets from the 18th century to the early 20th century, with gridded patterns ready to be scaled, showing boning and cording placement for several interesting examples from each period.

This is a great book to use as-is, or as a cross-reference for corset patterns, or your own pattern draft.

Costume in Detail: 1730-1930

In terms of sheer volume, Costume in Detail wins, with hundreds of illustrations of women’s dress from the 18th century to the 20th century.

Each page is stuffed with information, showing several views of each garment, with detailed drawings of interiors, seam lines, closures, trims, and so on. Some of the garments in this book are patterned out in Janet Arnold’s “Patterns of Fashion” books (above), and can be found in the National Trust website database

Vogue Sewing, Revised and Updated

The Vogue Sewing book is a reference book for modern sewing techniques, both hand and machine. While you won’t find period-specific techniques in this book, it does cover multiple methods of finishing everything from hems, collars, cuffs, and buttonholes, to how to work with faux fur, leather, and couture techniques for tailoring. This is a *must have* for beginners and advanced seamstresses alike.

Couture Sewing Techniques, Revised and Updated

Another great book for detailed, hand-finished garments, Couture Sewing offers easy-to-follow tutorials for working bound buttonholes, finishing hems, cuffs, and collars perfectly, tailoring basics, and a number of other techniques to take your garments from home-sewn to stunning. I use this book in conjunction with the Vogue Book to achieve a professional level of finish..

The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Dress

This is a great book for anyone recreation Renaissance fashions for either men or women. The gridded patterns are easy to use, with clear instructions on how to scale, slash/spread, and fit them. It’s a beautiful book with color photographs and stunning, inspiring examples of garments made with the patterns.

Also in this series:The Queen’s Servants: Gentlewomen’s Dress at the Accession of Henry VIII (Tudor Tailor Case Studies)


This is by no means an exhaustive list – there are hundreds of costume and vintage sewing books out there, covering every period you could ask for. These are just a few of my favorites I keep coming back to year after year, and will hopefully be as useful and beloved of you or the historical costumer in your life as well.


  • Lumikettu

    December 20, 2014 at 7:04 PM

    I would also like to recommend the Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff. It's a handy book with tips and tricks on different ways to, well, as the title says, manipulating fabric. Here's what Amazon says about the book: "The possibilities for three-dimensional manipulation of fabric – gathering, pleating, tucking, shirring, and quilting woven materials – are seemingly endless. To describe them all would be to describe the entire history of sewing.

    In The Art of manipulating Fabric, Colette Wolff has set herself just this task, and she succeeds brilliantly. Working from the simplest possible form – a flat piece of cloth and a threaded needle – she categorizes all major dimensional techniques, show how they are related, and give examples of variations both traditional and modern. The result is an encyclopedia of techniques that resurface, reshape, restructure and reconstruct fabric."

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