Monday, October 19, 2009

Costume Fever

by Dana Reeser
It’s all very well to describe what costumers do, but perhaps we should also explain a little about how costumers come up with the costumes to wear to all those fun events. Mostly, they make them or commission someone else to make them. Some buy them online, often from other costumers, and some rent.

The Great Basin Costume Society has been in existence for less than a week and the members – all two of us – haven’t had time to scour Reno and surrounding towns for shops that carry quality costumes. Often, you can find something appropriate in the antique stores, secondhand stores and thrift shops, especially if you’re looking for early 20th century. These are great places to pick up bits of your costume from any era: jewelry, gloves, collars, hats, shoes and the like.

The Mexican wedding shops on Wells are excellent places to find hoops and petticoats. My high school Spanish/English Dictionary gives at least eight words for “petticoat”. “Crinolina” worked for me. I think “hoop-skirt” is “tontillo”, but you might want to check that. The shop girls were very helpful and with lots of gesturing, giggles and Spanglish, I got what I needed.

But, mainly, costumers sew. Personally, I think the events are just excuses to make new costumes. It’s addictive. Most of us start with a pattern from Simplicity or Butterick and grow from there. The Society plans to provide workshops and other support. The internet offers an amazing number of blogs by both experienced and novice costumers who are always ready with suggestions, encouragement, and links to other helpful sites. Soon, you’ll find yourself researching the difference between Elizabethan and Victorian corsets and the proper shape for a Regency sleeve or your gentleman’s frock coat. I am continually amazed by the number of men who get wholeheartedly involved in costuming, right down to researching and sewing their own attire. Thank goodness, for without the gentlemen, with whom would we dance?

How To Commission A Historical Costume

There are two kinds of costumers, ones who sew their own costumes, and ones who have them made.

True, many pieces of your costume can easily be found at second hand shops, or even retails stores like Target. You can buy bits and pieces, such as gloves, parasols, hats, shoes, in online boutiques, but when it comes down to your main ensemble, where exactly do you get that?

It has become more and more difficult to find ready-to-wear costumes to rent or buy. Most "costumes" nowadays are made from shiny, cheap polyester, don't fit quite right, and are either for children or promiscuous Halloween "ladies of the night." Locating a decent quality historical costume is near impossible. Even with online shops offering ready-to-wear skirts, bodices, and jackets, you end up paying the same if not more than you would to commission a local costume seamstress to make it exactly to your specs and liking.

What to expect when you commission a costume...

The seamstress will first have a consultation to determine your needs. What event is the costume for? What sort of material would you like? What is your budget? Once these and other questions are answered, you can expect to see a couple design sketches and fabric/trim swatches. A design sketch for a Victorian ballgown, taking in to
account patterning, details, and fabric

Cost is based on the price of the fabrics/trims chosen, plus the labor. You can expect a modest costume dress (bodice and skirt) to be around $100, whereas an elaborate, historically accurate, made-to-last gown could be upwards of $200.

An example of a muslin, made to check for proper fit and patterning,
before the final, expensive fabric is used. Dog not included.

The seamstress will then set to work on what is known as a "muslin" or a "toile." This is a test run made from cheap cotton, to determine proper fit. Expect at least one fitting during this step, though depending on the complexity of the gown and its purpose, there may be multiple fittings.

Once the fit is perfect, the gown will be completed and delivered, and you'll be ready to wear it to your party, dance, or outing!

An example of a fashion plate from Godey's Ladies' Book, 1874

Your commission can be a simple or complex as you like, as creative or conservative. Simple dresses sometimes make a greater statement than fanciful ones. If you are at a loss for ideas, think of movies set in the time period you wish to portray, and your favorite costumes in the film. Try looking up images on Google, using search terms like "victorian fashion plate," or "renaissance portrait," depending on your focus. Your costume specialist is also a wealth of information when it comes to designing historical garments, and can help you make decissions about your look.

If you are in need of a costume for upcoming events, feel free to contact Lauren at She is currently accepting commissions, and specializes in Renaissance, 18th century, and Victorian costuming.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What Costumers and Costume Societies DO...

You may be wondering just what is in store for members of the Great Basin Costume Society. Well here are a few ideas to get you excited about the possibilities...

Costumers Have Picnics...

...and look good doing it...

"The Gatsby" 1920s themed picnic at Dunsmuir House, Oakland,
put on by The Art Deco Society of California

Costumers Like To Dance...

Gaskells grand Victorian Ball, Oakland

...sometimes in fountains...

Le Societe de Pique-Nique's "Egyptianesque" picnic at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose

And get a little silly...

Ladies flashing their bloomers at the Gaskells Victorian Ball, Oakland

Costumers Go to Renaissance Fairs...

Noble ladies visit the Valhalla Renaissance Faire, Lake Tahoe

...and Christmas Fairs.

Two London ladies at the Great Dickesn Christmas Fair, San Francisco

Costumers Sometimes Ride Horses...

A cavalry unit performing at Gold Rush Days, Old Sacramento

..and sometimes ride in cars.

Costumers Like to Time Travel...

A time traveler in a unique Japanese Steampunk ensemble

Costumers Make New Friends...

New and old friends at Le Societe de Pique-Nique's "Italiana" picnic

As for Costume Societies, well, we make it all possible!

The Joy of Bonnets - A Primer

It can be reasonably assumed that many of the events members of the Great Basin Costume Society may attend in the Reno area will be set in the past, between 1850 and 1900. Many of these events will be outside, affording our ladies (and gentlemen too) to display various forms of headgear associated with the decades of the 19th century.

Pervasive among these is The Bonnet. The Bonnet came into vogue around the turn of the 19th c., and enjoyed various incarnations before dropping out of style in the 1870s. Women wore both summer bonnets of straw, and winter bonnets of felt, wool, velvet, any number of materials.

Summer bonnets were often decorated with lace, faux flowers, ribbons, even small fake birds. Winter bonnets could simply be straw forms that were covered in decorative fabric, but were more often built on a buckram base. They could be lined in fur, satin or silk, velvet, and decorated with ribbons, feathers, bows, more faux flowers, a myriad of possibilities.

Bonnets were worn out of doors, to protect the lady's face and hair from sun, snow, rain, fog, or lurid gentlemen. Bonnets were never worn as fashion accessories indoors, when hair ornaments, ribbons, feathers, and wraps were favored. This was as much a safety and social precaution as anything, as bonnets limited the peripheral vision of ladies, and could easily assault the faces of the poor gentlemen they were dancing with. Therefore, bonnets and other outdoor accessories, such as capelets, pellerines, and parasols, were left in the coatroom.

So now that you know when and when not to wear The Bonnet, where do you get one?

A) Order Online - has both basic felt forms (for winter) and straw forms (for summer), just waiting to be decorated to the tee. Prices are quite reasonable.

B) Take a Jaunt to Old Sacramento - where you will find Sacramento City Dry Goods, a lovely shop that carries all manner of Victorian dress, from shoes, to full ensembles, to bonnets. They have an online shop as well, and here you can see their bonnet and hat options.

C) Get Crafty - make your own bonnet using tutorials found online, and craft store goodies. Here is a tutorial on making a form from a cheap straw hat. Some commercial pattern companies offer bonnet patterns, such as this one from Butterick, and this one from McCalls

D) Commission A Custom Creation - have your bonnet made exactly to spec and to match your costume by commissioning from local costume specialists. Lauren Reeser is accepting costume commissions for all manner of dress, including accessories and hats - contact her at

Examples of custom made bonnets

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Costumers and Historians: Welcome to the Silver State

Reno, Nevada, is an interesting place. In the minds of the non-Nevadan public, it has always been a place of, how shall I say, ill-repute. Gambling and prostitution are legal here, as well as quick-hitches and even quicker divorces. Reno is a place that could be and once was a little dirty, a little dangerous, and we don't mean just the dusty desert and the rattlesnakes.

A Stage and Four-in-Hand at the Carson City Rendezvous

It is a unique place, where rodeos, rib cook-offs, and rendezvous all happen within weeks of each other. Classic cars share downtown Virginia Street with 300 head of Herefords (though not on the same weekend!). It's what people don't know about Reno that keeps this little town the best kept secret: a thriving arts community, huge farmers markets with live music and craft vendors, motorcycle and big-rig hot rod festivals, kayak competitions, hot air balloon invasions, and vintage airplane races. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

The Great Reno Balloon Races

Northern Nevada is also rich in history, with its own, less-known silver rush, known better as The Comstock Lode. Nevada had its own hand in the Civil War, and quite a large role in the settling of the West. Native American cultures intersect with classic Old West histories, which intersect with Asian-American pasts, and somewhere in there is the transcontinental railroad!

Virginia City, center of the Comstock Lode, near Reno

So why, oh WHY, is there no outlet for Reno's love of its own history here in the Great Basin? Why are we still driving to the Bay Area to attend their dances, their fairs, and their picnics? I say we have our OWN!

The Great Basin Costume Society will be a club organization dedicated to holding events that celebrate this forgotten place. We will organize picnics, fairs, dances, socials, museum visits, workshops, and so many more FUN things to do, as a way of indulging our obsessive costuming habits, and also enjoying the historical attractions and festivals in the Reno area.

Elizabeth Rowell, 1936, working the Reno Rodeo

We may be small to start, but we hope to one day draw a hearty membership, and provide community-based activities that everyone can enjoy! Look for future articles and posts on all sorts of things!

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