Monday, October 19, 2009

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.

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