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Turning a Costuming Corner

ImageWhen all our experts were asked the questions that led to our Unlock Your Dream Wardrobe article, Sarah Lorraine didn't respond immediately. She gave a lot of thought to what led to her unseen graduation from home-made to professional quality work, and this article is the in-depth result of her musings.

When Cathy asked me what the turning point was in my journey into costuming, I had to think good and hard about the question. Turning it over and over, I let it stew for a few days, glimpsing some of the responses you’ve probably already read from my costuming comrades, all of them insightful and clever. For me, the answer was harder to grasp, and the more I thought about it, the more layers there were to peel back. It was never a clear-cut defining moment of clarity where the light bulb went off and the heavens parted to the sound of angels singing… And when I sat down to write, this is what came out:


Part The First: Question Authority

Don’t assume that because an expert says something is one way that it is, in fact, the only way it is done. We are lazy creatures, humans, and we like having a well-worn path to follow, but there are times when you have to be willing to blaze your own trail, even if it means challenging conventional thought and so-called tradition.

This lesson came early on, when trying to make sense of a long-accepted method of wearing one’s 16th century underwear, it dawned on me that maybe the “experts” weren’t right after all. This was prior to the Internet, so merely popping online to ask a general how-to question on a costuming newsgroup wasn’t an option. I made a very conscious choice to deviate from the standard path and I paid for it by having to a lot of research at a time when Janet Arnold was not a household name.


Part The Second: Research

Tangential to this is the tendency for people to assume that if it’s been printed in a book (and to some extent, if it's online), it’s solid research. Sometimes yes, but mostly no. Anyone can get published, and by and large the costuming world is rife with not-so-great books on construction and clothing theory. We’ve been blessed in recent years with an influx of fresh thought and excellent research and the internet has helped to connect us with one another all over the world, but it’s vitally important that the individual still tries to innovate and research. Not everyone cares about innovation and research, true, but I have found that the quality of workmanship increases with the more research a costumer does. This holds true for all genres of costuming, from historical to fantasy, sci-fi to anime, furry to movie recreations. “Research” can mean anything from studying a portrait, to examining extant clothing, to watching a scene in a movie frame by frame, but mostly it means spending time in a bricks and mortar library piecing information together from as many sources as possible. And if there’s a gap in the available literature on your given topic, well maybe that’s a sign that YOU need to start putting the information out there yourself. Costuming is a community effort, and we all benefit from the time invested by individuals within the community to educate and instruct.


Sarah Lorraine
1550s red taffeta gown by Sarah Lorraine (click to enlarge)



Part The Third: Be Aware of Your Prejudices

I often see people doing the most impressive mental gymnastics to wedge historical silhouettes to fit modern tastes, and this patently Does Not Work. I am here to tell you that your waist sits at the smallest part of your torso (ladies and gentlemen, please take notice), not where your low-rise jeans hit you. And girls, like it or not, the big butt look was fashionable for far longer than it has been unfashionable, so get used to accentuating the hips in new and terrifying ways. These are things we must accept if we make historical clothing, otherwise why bother?

If your tastes lean towards non-historical costuming, the rule still applies: Look at everything as carefully as possible and try not to let your personal body-image hang-ups steer you down the wrong path towards an ill-fitting purgatory.


Part The Last: Logic is King

The biggest piece of the costuming puzzle fell into place when I realized that there was a logic to clothing 500 years ago. People had to live their lives every day wearing things that, on the surface, appear to our modern eyes as extreme. No matter how fussy and uncomfortable it is by modern standards, the clothes people wore "back then" had to be functional in some basic ways. Fashion may not be logical, but clothing is.


The Finishing Touch

As I was saying at the start of this article, it wasn’t ever a clear path for me. It’s been a journey that hasn’t really stopped. As I’ve continued to evolve as a costumer, as a student of history, as a designer, I will continue to encounter new challenges to old ideas. The key thing that I can’t stress enough is to never, ever, under any circumstances should you stop learning. It is what makes the great costumers great.

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