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Proper fitting is crucial to getting the right look and to making a costume into clothing that one can really live in comfortably. It's best to do a mock-up first in a cheap fabric and have an initial fitting with that, then make it up in the real fabric and have another fitting before any of the finishing or fastenings are done.
Make sure the person in the costume is wearing the underpinnings and shoes that they will wear with the finished garments.
It is nearly impossible to do a proper fitting on oneself. Find a friend who knows what they're doing, or at least one who can follow detailed instructions, and check the fit of every part of the ensemble and the levels of all the hems. This is most important for fitted garments, whether corsets or those worn over corsetry, but it can also have an enormous impact on garments that are less fitted, like men's coats.
Research very specifically to see how the clothing should fit, where the seams should fall, and how it all goes together on the body. Try not to impose modern standards of beauty or seam placement onto historic garments. Look at portraits or photographs to see what the ideal look was and try to reproduce it.
Take pictures of your mock-ups on the body, especially if you’re fitting on yourself. It's amazing how much more you can see in a picture than on yourself. Fairly obvious idea, but it took me a while to think of it :) Katherine Caron-Greig
Speaking as our theatrical expert, Melanie has great experience of professional costuming, requiring a high level of accuracy in design, technique and fit. But even if you’re just making a bodice to wear whilst visiting a Renaissance faire, there are tips you can pick out here.
Even if you need not ensure 110% historical accuracy, take an interest in the look of the period. Recreating the fit and lines of the original, even just a nod to them, can go a long way to making you look more authentic and less like you lost your way to a Hallowe’en party. If accuracy is more important to you, then Melanie’s advice is even more relevant. Look for fit in your historical sources – is the outfit closely fitted, medium or loose? Where are the areas of closest fit? Look for seams – their position can change the whole shape of the outfit. And notice how those fashions differ from what you’re used to in the 21st century. Notice how tempted you are to make them “look good” in the present day and see whether you can resist.
The importance of a toile, or mock-up, can’t be underestimated. Many a glaring mistake has been rectified at minimum cost by doing a trial run. If you can find the patience to make mistakes in calico or muslin, you’ll notice how confident you become when cutting the fancy fabric – because you’ll already know that the garment works. Mock-ups are rarely a corner worth cutting.
Melanie and Katherine have different views about fitting on the self, but remember that these are two costumers in very different situations. In Melanie’s theatre productions, a high degree of professionalism is required and it would be unheard of for an actor to do his or her own fitting. She advises enlisting a friend to help.
But in Katherine’s workroom, she is designer, cutter, fitter, seamstress, model and client, so she has discovered ways around the difficulty of fitting on oneself by sheer necessity. Experiment with both their ideas; see what works for you.