The Biggest Mistake Costumers Make

Biggest Mistake Historical Costumers Make

What I look like and what I want to look like

Reproducing historical costumes is a heavy task. We work and labor; we finagle and cry; we bleed and curse and cause our family to wonder why we do this crazy stuff for something we’ll display to the world once or twice.

It’s because we’re chasing after that elusive goal of hearing: “Wow! You look like you just stepped out of another time.”  Music to our ears indeed.

So what makes us fail in getting that LOOK of the time period? Why do others seem to nail it on the head, whereas the rest of us wonder where we went wrong? How do we get our period wardrobe to look antique instead of like a costume?

Civil War in November

Civil War Event in November

If you’re familiar with my article about you can’t be 100% accurate – it’s true: we will always fail as historical costumers because we weren’t there when it happened the first time. We look different and we act different.

Initially, you might say it’s all about the fit, which is hugely important as their garments were made specifically for them. They couldn’t walk into a Macy’s and buy something off-the-rack.

But you’ll see photographs with clothing that isn’t fitted very well. It’s actually kind of loose and poorly made. [I don’t think this is the look that most historical costumers are trying to re-create.]

However, you have to take into account everything that had been in their lives prior to that. It’s contemporary. It’s not like, “It’s now 1887 and I want to sew an 1887 dress.” No. It’s simply their clothing! I think that’s a huge part of why we miss the mark. Period clothing is not our everyday wear.


Aside from the fact that we’ll always fall a little short, I know of several instances where we as 21st Century dressmakers drop the ball when it comes to getting that “perfect” historical look.


#1 – Silhouette

I talk about silhouette often because this is where it all starts. An 1880 dress looks nothing like an 1838 dress because of the defined shapes & lines. A dress built over the right undergarments produces that historical picture you want.

So in building the silhouette, make sure you have ALL the proper garments to reflect that. For most of the 19th Century, this includes: chemise, drawers, corset, under-petticoat (if you want it), structure support and petticoats.

A decent corset will cover many decades. Just wearing one will make a difference.

Same thing with petticoats. WEAR THEM! Please. (Can you tell I’m passionate about them?)

A corset and two petticoats will take you so much further along the road toward “the ideal” than you think. Many costumers miss the importance of starting with a good foundation.


#2 – Seamlines

Accurately placed seams can catapult your creativity from “Costume-y” to “Period Clothing” in the time it takes to find your seam ripper. The Biggest Mistake? Not following seamline placement.

That shoulder seam – throughout the 1800s you’ll see it angled from the side of the neck toward the back of the arm. This is for fitting purposes primarily, but it’s also a telltale sign of a well-researched costume. Shoulder seams sitting right on the shoulder will scream modern.

Are your waist darts too far apart? Or too far from center front? Study originals and you’ll be thinking twice on sewing them exactly where that pattern tells you.

It’s not just where the seamlines are but why. The seam placement in garments back then were for a specific purpose – many times to follow the fashionable line, but also for fitting…which is a huge area of Epic Failure when it comes to pulling off a historical look.


1885 Polka Dot Dress

1885 Polka Dot Dress

#3 – Fit

We all know fitting patterns to our particular figures is crucial to getting a period look. Of course, one can use poly costume satin to make a drop-dead, spot-on 1845 dress, which in all other circumstances is just awful, but if her fit is to the tee and the seamlines are in the proper place, she will look stunning…. But we’ll discuss the fabric mistake in a moment.

I think “perfect” fit is so elusive for us because we have our minds set on the fabulous photographs or museum mannequins where they are dressed so perfectly. The dress is filled out; there are no wrinkles, they’re all smooth. Same goes for when viewing fashion plates.

I think this gives us a false goal.

We compare it. It’s our 21st Century viewpoint of them. So when we see a costumer who has a perfect figure for, say the 1890s, and they make a 1890s costume, they ooze brilliance. They achieved that just-stepped-out-of-the-photograph look.

The Biggest Mistake is not one of avoiding a particular time period, but rather NOT taking your time to build the right silhouette, choosing elements from the period appropriate to your personal figure, and fine tuning the fit to match those photographs.

Fitting takes time and sometimes multiple mockups.  Set yourself apart in the costuming realm by not making the mistake of rushing through the mockup stage.


Silk Taffetas

Silk Taffetas

#4 – Fabrics

Oh, is fabric selection a Biggie Mistake when it comes to historical costumes! Right off the bat if a costumer selects a nylon taffeta or a polyester broadcloth, or doesn’t use enough of an appropriate material, that period garment will fall short of the look that’s desired.

Of course, fabric selection is by no means an easy task. Most of the time we end up using too-heavy fabrics. I did it often when I first started period sewing, and I still do it today despite my attempts to re-train my brain on what to use. It’s just we don’t have textiles that drape the same way as the originals.

You want quality fabrics. Going the cheap route is a historical costumer’s mistake and will only disappoint. The project will turn out something hideous too, something you won’t be happy to wear, which only results in lost money and a sad dress that represents a dream you once had.

To look like part of history, costumers need to step up their knowledge of fabrics and be willing to save for the quality silks, the quilting cottons, and the handkerchief linens.

You can fake it sometimes, with blends like wool/nylon. However, remember that if you simply want to throw together a period garment but your budget isn’t up to speed, even with great fit, you will miss the mark. (But don’t worry – if you make fabric selection mistakes, you are in cozy company with most casual costumers.)


#5 – Trims

Placing trims haphazard doesn’t work. Merely slapping on a 3″ ruffle at the hem won’t cut it. It has to mean something. It has to have purpose there. Is it to balance the overall design? Is it connected to the other elements of the garment?

Trimming the wrong way or not applying enough trim (which is probably a huge portion of our Biggest Mistake) skews the look toward amateur. It begs the observer to think: 1) you didn’t do your research, 2) you ran out of time, or 3) you didn’t have enough money to purchase trims that would complete the look.

Just as not putting enough panels in that skirt, skimping on trim will not give you the look you’re going for. Big Mistake to not give trim your full attention.


Laura Jean Libbey, 1898

Laura Jean Libbey, 1898

#6 – Proportions

Proportion is another design element that we, not necessarily fail at, but that some costumers get so right. They just hit the nail on the head with their proportions. We’re talking the size of your support garments (hoops & bustles), trims, collars and cuffs in relation to YOU and your figure size.

It’s taking your body type into consideration when creating your design and in the pattern drafting stage. If the emphasis is on a small waist, you want to design the shoulders and hips to visually reduce that waistline – no matter what your figure looks like. The proportion comes with the fine elements and details of the design.

The Biggest Mistake comes from the “cut & paste” of the pattern into a wearable garment. Where’s the thought that you might have to scale the pocket or collar up because you’re 5’10”? Why are you drowning in 4″ box pleats or your bustle apron hangs to the floor?

It’s not only the fit.… The balance of each element of the garment must be given attention in its relationship to all the other parts while reflecting the time period represented.


#7 – Dressmaking Skills

Although most modern home ec techniques can produce a decent historical costume, it’s those details such as using bias to finish raw edges and boning a bodice that makes a costume design stand out.

The mistake here is not working on your skills. The execution of the technique is sloppy.

A machine stitched hem is a FAIL when it comes to historical costuming. NOT boning a bodice because you think it doesn’t matter because you’ll be in a corset is a thought to be avoided.

The only way to up the ante in your dressmaking skills is to keep sewing. Keep learning. Keep repeating over and over and over again those techniques and methods that elude you. One day this Biggest Mistake will be conquered… or at least it’ll get you past the 8th grade home ec class.


#8 – Accessories

You can have the most stunning dress with a striking fit and fantastic fabric, but if you merely pull your hair back into a headband it will look wrong. Why is it we always leave our hairstyle plan for the event day?

And it’s not just the hair. It’s the bonnet, the gloves, the shoes, the earrings.

But for those who have stepped from the portrait, they’ve put nearly the same amount of research into hair and accessories as their dress. They know a ponytail is out of the question. They wear only wire earrings and very little makeup. Leather gloves adorn hands. Their parasols are not white nylon with ruffle-y nylon lace sewn all over it.

I believe, any accessory is better than no accessory – within reason… leave your hot pink L.A. Gear sneakers at home. I’m talking about: have a straw hat on your head that has a flower pinned to it if that’s all you can afford or it’s all you have. It’s better than nothing.  The Biggest Mistake is having NO accessories to complete your costume.


Women at the Champs Elysees, Paris, June 1906

Women at the Champs Elysees, Paris, June 1906

#9 – Attitude & Deportment

One last mistake that historical costumers make is actually when wearing their creation. It’s our attitude. It’s how we behave in our costume. It’s giving our period clothing an injection of proper historical etiquette.

It’s an on-going process, though, this attitude adjustment… because we don’t live back then. These costumes are not our regular clothes that we get up and put on every day… or even every weekend. We don’t do that so they are unusual to us. Our habits and our behaviors are very 21st Century.

When you dress up, you have to act. You have to create your historical persona with all their quirks to bring your vision to reality. Become that character whenever you wear your costumes.

Pay attention to your behavior. Mind your manners. Be authentic. Be 19th Century.



So even using beautiful materials, a precise fit, and standing up straight… It’s ALL the elements combined. You have to consistently do enough projects to get a feel for how the time period drapes and moves and flows.

The Biggest Mistake historical costumers make? They give up when reality doesn’t match the dream in their head.

We are all striving for that “Look” that vision. A good deal of elements have to come together to produce that. And it takes effort. You’re not alone in this. We all fall short of that “perfect” costume. Just keep moving forward and your mistakes will diminish.


What do you think is the Biggest Mistakes historical costumers make?


  1. says

    TOTALLY ON THE MONEY. I always have this lurking around in the back of my mind, especially when I see the photos of myself in a costume and then I realize how close or how far I got from looking like I stepped out of a portrait.

    I think the two easiest things to fix for the vast majority of people, are also the two hardest things for people to let go of: Modern hair and makeup. A lot of women have a really hard time putting down the eyeliner and eyeshadow and going without “defined” eyes. More than lipstick, this is the biggest detractor to a historical look, unless you’re going for something post-1920 (and even then, pay attention to the way makeup is applied! It changes from era to era, decade to decade, season to season!).

    I think most people just forget about their hair, really. Either it’s too “hard” or complicated to try to recreate a hairstyle, or they figure if they have a hat on their head, they’re close enough. But bangs/fringe, modern coloring techniques like frosting/streaks/highlights, modern cuts like extremely short or layered hair, all are obviously out of place when in a historical costume.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop here! 😉

  2. Sarha Clembys says

    I agree 100%! Although I have not made an accurate historical costume, I have great respect for the steps required. Most of what I make is for Halloween so I throw a bit of fantasy in with it. However, I want to make a Civil War dress & when I do, I will be very mindful of what is required. I also have to applaud the section on undergarments. That is a huge pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen so many great outfits that look terrible & dowdy because they didn’t use the right undergarment. It’s so very important. Thanks for posting this!

    • Lizzy says

      i make older work type dresses all the time, and it isn’t that hard; of course I don’t like them perfectly fitted, but but after the first three dresses, it’s not that hard

  3. says

    I disagree with the blanket statement, “have a straw hat on your head that has a flower pinned to it if that’s all you can afford or it’s all you have. It’s better than nothing.” The shape of a hat or bonnet (or wearing a hat when bonnets are the norm) is part of the silhouette. Despite the fact that most women didn’t go outside without a head covering of some kind, personally I would rather see no hat rather than a wrong for the period hat because it distorts the entire “picture”. :) In this case, attention to the hair style is paramount. JMHO :)

  4. A says

    This is all great and all, but- you have to remember. People read these things, think they are “expert” historians and then tear apart people at events. I used to hang out with a crowd and we would attend a 1912 event every year. One year, I was dressed to the nines, and looked fabulous. We all hung out in our group as people snapped photos etc. Suddenly, this girl walks in the room wearing a 1980’s prom gown (you know the ones, the southern belle revival ones). Long story short, most of the women in my group burst out in extreme loud laughter. a few of the “experts” of our group walked over to her. She was basking in the glory of people telling her she looked wonderful. Then they walked up, said , “Hey– you know… that’s a 1980’s prom gown. Yeah… not historically accurate and completely horrendous. – Your sister called… she wants her prom gown back (as they laughed and walked away)”. Needless to say– that was my last trip there. I watched the beaming blond lower her head and with tears in her eyes walk to the other side of the room, and stay out of sight the rest of the night. At dinner, she kept looking around to see if people were making fun of her. I walked up, tapped her on the shoulder and said – “wear what you like. It’s about you… not women tied up in thinking they are experts and the historical fashion police. You look wonderful, and don’t let a bunch of hens make you feel less than you are. You look perfect.” I then walked out of the dining room, gave a nasty look and shook my head in disgust. I walked upstairs and packed my bags to leave the next day. I haven’t been back since. I think “knowing” how to dress is great and all… but some people don’t have sewing skills or the money to buy historically accurate gowns. Then there are people who do– who like to rip apart other people because it makes them feel good. It was sad because to this girl… she was wearing the right thing and felt good. It was the last time that I ever judged costumes. I feel like women who judge costumes are catty– arrogant, and rude. You are there to have a great time– that’s all. By the way– one of those “experts” was hired to costume an entire film… yeah. She put 1900’s characters in faviana and 1980s prom gowns. It was— horrible. I’m not bashing you for writing this, im writing this so that the readers know that its mean to hurt other people with catty comments. If you can’t say something nice… or look at someone nice– don’t look or say anything to them at all.

    • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

      Thank you, A, for taking the time to comment. I feel so sorry for that girl who was probably pushed away from ever dressing up again because of the behavior of others towards her. You are right when most of us do costuming for fun – for ourselves – and we strive to do the best within our budget and skills. No one should say their costume is better than someone else’s or degrade and judge someone who doesn’t “fit the part” like those judging would see it as. When catty comments come out, it only darkens the appearance of the one they are coming from. Some, like yourself, recognize this as something they don’t need in their life and walk away.

      Unfortunately, those people will always be a part of the costuming community. My goal is to combat the negativity and snarky-ness in the costume world by providing a positive, encouraging website and community so that no matter where one is in their costuming journey, they feel welcome here. It is not my place to judge, only guide and teach with the skills I’ve learned and my natural God-given talent of sewing. It is ultimately up to the reader what to do with such knowledge. I simply hope they have fun and share their excitement of costuming to others.


    • says

      As the saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. People who will bash another hobbiest will do it in vintage styles or modern styles. They are low class at heart and have forgotten where they started. And it doesn’t matter what the hobby, whether it be reproduction clothing or motorcycle racing or anything in between. It’s such a shame that the “prom dress” girl was treated so horrendously, but I think you did the right thing by disassociating yourself from such people. They are definitely the exception and not the rule, in my experience.

      • J A S says

        Thank you for the article. I appreciate the knowledge you have researched and shared.
        I agree with A about not judging others if possible. Selective hints to more appropriate items is helpful, but ultimately, praise the effort. Not everyone can afford to have the appropriate undergarments made and the silhouette may not me spot-on, but it’s about teaching others and being unique. wear early 1800s and the figure is less severe than the mid-late 1800s, but I know stays would make a nice difference to the effect. I try to be informative in my “mistakes” and if anyone asks about 1800s clothing, I will explain the best I can and point out my lack of proper stays. I do wear the chemise and petticoats, along with an apron. II look at dressing as a work-in-progress and each year it gets better and more accurate. Wonderful website! I look forward to exploring more.

    • Lady Blackwood says

      Thank you! People forget so quickly that we were all new once and started out with incorrect costumes. There’s always a learning curve for creating a perfect period costume.
      Some of us (me) will continue to be incorrect because I can’t get period shoes that work for me.

    • J says

      I disagree. While I think it’s absolutely vile that they were cruel to that girl, it was a 1912 event and she wore something that wasn’t even in the right century, considering she clearly thought a CW era fake gown was appropriate.

      I’ve been to some very strict, expensive events and nothing ticks me off more than seeing someone dress completely inappropriately for the time period. I am not interested in wasting my time or money getting ready gor an event only to find that soneone else completely disregarded the rules because they felt those rules didn’t adhere to them. Research is your friend, and that girl should have spent time researching that event.

      • RIPLEY says

        I agree that wearing something that at least evokes the period of a period event is important. The only thing I can imagine is that maybe someone invited her and told her that would be good – to just wear a gown or something formal. I have reworked modern bridesmaid’s dresses into passable garb for someone who just needed a participation costume. I also think that when it comes to a group who desires to evoke some historical period in their costume that someone has to let them know when they are off the mark. My biggest pet peeve is when women wear their undergarments as exterior garments( corsets on the outside over a dress trying to evoke a boned bodice I guess,) and when they use shiny poly satin. Good article!

  5. says

    Hi Jennifer!

    I think your best statement was “don’t rush through the process of making a muslin”! You absolutely cannot skip fitting your pattern and expect it to turn out right! Of course that applies not only to costuming, but any sewing projects, but I do agree that with costumes it is especially important.

    Because Victorian gowns take so much work, there is no point in putting so much effort into it if you’re not going to do it “all the way”! And having the period correct accessories is a must as well.

    Happy sewing!


    • Tina Holt says

      Hi Jen nifer and Katrina,
      You are so right about the muslin mock-up. I believe I have thoroughly molested and manipulated every scrap of muslin in the sewing room to make sure I have adjusted my bodice to the right fit before I ruin the wonderful fabric I have waited years to cut into….LOL I think I need a drink. I want to make sure I don’t loose the wonderful lines of the back of the bodice, my shoulders call for a loss of the angle at the shoulder seam in order not to have the sleeves hang way off my shoulders.

  6. Byers House says

    One of the best educational articles I’ve read in a long time. I agree with your reply to A. As a civil war living historian, I too see the “farbs” and their foibles. As a presenter of fashion, I try to educate my fellow historians to constantly be working on their own impression as I do also. No matter how knowledgeable, we all have more to learn. I believe you could write a book (or how about an article) on how to kindly advise historians to do more research and improve their impression without discouraging (and in fact encouraging) them from the hobby. Perhaps those finger pointers could learn a thing or two about being a better role model?

  7. says

    I think another big mistake historic costumers make (myself included) is falling into this trap of needing to have a new outfit for every reenactment/event. More often than not, this leads to hastily put-together outfits that the creator isn’t entirely proud of (due to fit, construction, etc.). Call me crazy, but I don’t think our foremothers were walking around safety-pinning their bodice to their skirt, or duct taping their hems. 😉

    • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

      You are spot on in that we are always needing a new dress because we can’t be seen in the same thing twice. It’s like we’re trying to be celebrities on the 19th Century event red carpet. :-) And I totally agree this idea forces us to cut corners and not take the time we’d really like to to produce our best work.

      For a brief moment I thought what a hilarious site that would be when Queen Victoria is ordering her maid to make sure the duct tape is smooth on her daughter’s hem before they rush out of Windsor on a tour of the local hospital. LOL

  8. says

    My friend and I are trying to start a costume club in our corner of Canada for ladies who like Victorian clothes. (Victorian at Heart) Our concept is for it to be as authentic as resourses and knowledge allow. Sure it would be nice to have 100% silk taffetta dresses but if it is out of your means…a good fake works. Ideally, we’d like members to feel like each outing was an improvement on the last…mastered that hairstyle, figured out how to move in those hoops, fixed that mistake on that dress, eased up on the make up, or sewed something that was more difficult and /or more accurate than the last one….And we’d like it to be a place where you could learn more about the era but still have fun! I hope we can share advice/information without “haters” who make people feel bad!

    • Deborah Lovegrove says

      Where are you? I live in Kingston, Ont. and we have a costume club here. We do occasional fashion shows and outings in period costume. It’s fun.

      • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

        I’m in the Central Valley of California and participate in groups based in the L.A. area as well as in the San Francisco Bay area sometimes.

    • Judy says

      I also live in Canada, but can not find any Victorian groups in our area. I live in Abbotsford BC about an hour east of Vancouver. Love Love sewing Victorian. My family and friends all think me crazy as I have no place to wear them. I can not afford silk, nor can I justify such expense when I have no place to even wear them, so I am using Poly Taffeta, it might not be accurate, but it is what I can afford. I am trying to carefully do seam and trim placement as in the fashion plates. I spend a considerable time, researching what is correct as well as learning new (old) techniques for sewing accurately in the time period. I am just learning to sew 19th century, although I have been sewing for over 40 years. I enjoy reading the forums but they can also be very intimidating with their views on those that do not adhere to exact materials and have me worried and stressed that I am doing it all wrong by using these modern day fabrics, and I will be judged….. for my careful work.

      • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

        Do not let anyone drag you down by their judging opinions. If you enjoy the creative work, then by all means continue it. People remember those who create and not those who sit back and throw nasty opinions at others. Have fun with your sewing! And do it in whatever manner that gives you joy. So glad you’re a part of our community here Judy! :-)

      • Rachel-Lee Wellington says

        Hi Judy:
        If you are still looking for an opportunity to wear Victorian costume, come turn up at one of the “Vancouverites for Steampunk” events. Your costume with modern fabrics will not be judged. We are all there to have fun and we base our designs on a general time period with a dose of “poetic licence” (to greater or lesser degree) or some of us play it absolutely straight with maybe one or two fantasy accessories.
        Note: I am a costumer. I learn what the rules are and then twist them 90 degrees to effect the look I have in mind. And yes I agree with the statement that you need to use the best fabrics that you can afford and that one must start from the inside out with foundation garments.
        I wound up on this page because I used Google for some inspiration regarding bustle placement and design. I might not be making a traditional one but all traditional information is helpful.
        The worst mistake one can make as a costumer or re-enactor is to _not_ buy enough of the fabric you fall in love with for the costume you have in mind. Always allow a few metres more to play with the design, add some kind of surface detail or something else that will set your look apart so that it does not look like the original Simplicity, McCalls, Burda etc. pattern. I start with one of those, not necessarily a costume one, and manipulate the heck out of it.
        And yes the right trim and lots of it in a way that works with your design will make or break the look. Always be aware that sometimes less is more and remember the KISS principle. As your sewing skills evolve so too can the complexity of your costume.
        And ultimately remember to have fun….

  9. says

    Hi Jennifer,
    I too cannot emphasize enough the underpinnings. And the hair. And the accessories. ..that said….Cudos to ANYONE who is brave enough to dress up and go out in public. No matter how not-historically-accurate their outfit may be, you can always find something to praise. And for some people it’s not about the outfit, it may be about the dancing…or the event…or about sharing something with someone you care about that loves to re-enact other times. Cattiness should never be a part of your event!

  10. Viv says

    Hi to all,
    I do 17thC re-enactments and a friend who is a wonderful seamstress makes all my kit and it always looks good because she does her reseach. “No corset – no costume”. She does use the traditionl tailoring techniques and sews the outfit in panels – it gives it a completely different look to those you can buy ‘off the peg’ . I have learned a lot from her.

  11. Kate says

    Great article. My pet hate is people who don’t take into account wo they are and their age /social status if portraying a ‘character’. I’m 39, I’m hefty. I wouldn’t have worn high fashion plate frocks. Same as now, I don’t wear the same stuff I wore as a teenager.
    However, I do feel that there are too many excuses made about ‘Oh but I can’t sew or I’m too slim to wear a corset/it’s too painful’
    We’re representing history, to me learning how to sit/eat and breathe in a corset is part of the interest I have in social history. If you don’t have that interest in getting it right, why not just do am. dram or dress dollies?
    Sorry, might sound harsh but it’s my personal opinion.

    • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

      Oh, I didn’t read that as harsh. And I am right there with you in that we’re trying to learn about historical clothing and the part it played in past societies. Costuming for your age is a good thought. It really helps bring a historical persona to life. But if a 65 year old wants to wear the white debutante ball gown, I won’t stop her as she’s probably having fun with it. It’s all about discovering what best fits our modern age and figure to 19th century styles.

  12. says

    I learned to sew 1860s dresses from a mentor who took me under her wing. Sadly, she has since passed away, so now that I’d like to get back into costuming, she’s not here to guide me and I feel a little lost! I am so grateful for your community here.

    I am sad to say that as a teenager I was a bit of a costume snob. I always wanted to beg people to please wear a petticoat and corset! I am relieved that I never expressed my snobbiness aloud to anyone. Now as an adult it is easier to see that everyone tries the best they can at their own level of ability and learning. No one will ever be 100% accurate, but that’s okay!

    I think a big mistake I make when sewing historical clothes is knowing when to hand sew. I tend to do most things by machine, except my button holes. (I’m still snobby about those! lol) But I think that many times machine sewing does not have a place. I’d really like to acquire more hand sewing skills and the patience to wield them.

  13. says

    As a professional costumer for over thirty years I completely agree with you. I’ve managed to persuade most of my customers into wearing the right underwear (I won’t make a dress that should be worn over a corset or stays without one). However, persuading them to buy or hire a wig suitable for the period, and the right shoes – that’s another matter – only a rare few will do that.

  14. Caroline Sanderson says

    I have been reenacting for 37 years…started with the American Revolution and have progressed forward (somewhat!). I have recreated many pieces of clothing and have done a LOT of research and documentation. I love the hand sewing and have made many of our items totally by hand.
    I think the one thing that irritates me more than anything else, and you have all touched on it above, is when a person learns a little and then thinks they know it all.
    They shut all further information out and are then not open to any new info. I have seen this over and over. So, my best advice is to realize that there is ALWAYS something new to learn as diaries and photo albums and clothing get cleaned out from attics and storage places and show up again. I am continually surprised, and delighted even!

    • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

      So true Caroline! I think we all have those times where we think we know it all. Wrong. Every one of us can learn more. :-)

  15. says

    I make Renaissance/Medieval garb for reenactments, but many of our issues are the same as the problems that face those who make 19th century costumes. The mistake I see most often that keeps people from realizing their “perfect” garb, is not developing their persona completely even before choosing, let along making, their garb. (I make garb for friends as well. However I offer NOTHING that could be called “off the rack.” I have never made the exact same piece twice.)
    It is impossible to create an appropriate look if you don’t REALLY know the individual who will be wearing it. In my case, Lady Carlisle is based on the actual history of Scotland and Carlisle Castle. I have expanded on the histories to fit my situation, but my garb choices, my bearing, and even my accents (yes, Lady Carlisle has two, and for good reason) reflect a complete human being.
    Take the time to get to know your persona, then let your persona choose your costume style, pattern, fabric, trim, accessories, and foundations. And if I may say, the reason Renneis use the word “Garb” rather than costume is because we don’t see our garb the way you would see a Halloween costume. This is our real clothing that we live in, not something we put on just for a party! (And in truth, most of us own more garb than “normal clothing.”)
    Thaks for the great site!

    • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

      I love your thoughts on knowing your persona first. So very true no matter what time period you’re re-creating. Even if one is simply making a basic dress, having a bit of research and mindset about that period helps to bear that dress out from a historical perspective. Although I despise the term “garb” you’re right in that it does indicate more of clothing and less of (Halloween) costume.

  16. ginny says

    Well, I just love your newsletters.
    Yes you are so right about fabrication. I was just in Williamsburg last week and of course visited the dress shop. (I was planning to buy one and had a budget of $400… you never know, maybe one on sale).
    They had four beautiful ball gowns and one would even fit this size 14. It was $1100, purple taffeda over skirt and sleeves and cream brocade underskirt and bodice and yes the trim was nothing short of lavish. I was in love, but on hearing the price I said “but this is not silk , it’s poly” and the reply was it took about six women four months to construct. So, I bought a pattern book. You are right I could tell the difference and when you look past the design, the shine, the construction, it was there.

    • Jennifer Rosbrugh says

      Wow! Ha! Isn’t it amazing how all the pieces come together? Even with synthetic fabric, you can still get a believable costume. I bet that dress was hand sewn too, right? And I can only imagine the extreme high quality of the dressmaking being that it was in Williamsburg. I hope you got some good inspiration from it! :-)

  17. Lea-anne Martin says

    I love your article, but there is one more element we could add…aging your costume. My main focus is Middle Eastern historic re-enactment, and i am faced with the sad task of taking a beautiful black dress with cross-stitch embroidery, and making it look as though it has been worn in the desert for forty years! Sandpaper and cheesegrater at the ready to distress my dress hems.

  18. Deb says

    I have volunteeered as an 1847 widowed seamstress for over 9 yrs. at a local park District. I cannot and would not buy fabric for the prices reproduction is. it’s ridiculous for me as a volunteer to do this and I DO NOT wear a corset. Most of the folks do not although some do. I can’t wear one duet o rib issues and they take it or leave it. I ahd never made or worn one as I’m a seer and not a reader for learning how to construct. No one has one to loan for me to copy. I feel that there are very few folks who could or would pick apart our costumes. if they do good bye. it is extrememly rude and many of us are not rich and make much less than 50K/yr. and perfect costumes are out of reach. I but fabric at JoAnn Fabrics for less than $3/yd. when they have a good sale. For $25 I ahve materials for an entire dress. We use pattern McCall’s 3669 for our time and area. I use muslin mostly for aprons and white cotton flat bedsheets for underpinnings and petticoats. Drawers the same. Since I don’t show off any of those items no one is the wiser. All my sewing that shows is done by hand as I’ve been sewing for 43 yrs. We do the programs to teach others the ways things were done so many years ago and I have personally did almost everything in my life. I feel we do a great job and if we don’t wear a corset or have perfect hair under our daycaps npo one cares. So I think that not everyone had a PEFECT fitting dress anyway so if it’s off a bit it isn’t a something to go crazy over. We may be wearing hand me downs and so they might not be that great. I think those that can have the perfect recreated dress and outfit are no better than those not attired as such. I resent the thninking it must be perfect. It is important but enough to put folks off having fun because their budget doesn’t allow a $1100 dress. That’s so ridiculous and I ahve no idea why it would take 4 ladiies 6 mos. anyway unless they worked only part time at it. I don’t have $10K budget for my helping and teaching others.

    • says

      I think you are actually in agreement; just coming at from a different angle. It sounds as if your approach to clothing your character is spot on. Just because one is a seamstress doesn’t mean she would have access to those silks for herself, and if , as the pattern you noted suggests, that you are a woman in a frontier setting, then fashion came WAY after serviceability. In some instances not having on stays would actually be the more appropriate silhouette, not all women wore corsets, and for a variety of reasons. You would buy the cheapest available, or get hand me downs. You would re-use sheets and table cloths. …but no zippers..uhh uhh don’t care how ‘ zippers!

      • says

        I spent any years doing historical re-enactments of the mid-1800’s. One of our groups decided to hold a “military ball” for re-enactors that could span eighty years of history. The first one held was a fascinating (and to a costumer horrible) mishmash of dress. But each year thereafter people did more research and spent more time (and money) on more accurate clothing. Yes, mainly the ladies who really wanted to “dress-up”. The guys pretty much had period clothing. You see, part of the problem was that for female re-enactors, our roles were pretty much lower on the social scales, we labored in our roles…as women did. Frontier women, camp women, homesteaders wore what they had…to death. (Then they made aprons from dresses and quilts from the worn out aprons. Or they took what was still good and dressed their children.) Yes, I made a ball gown, thanks to period patterns, boning and cartridge pleating etc. For twenty years I still have been wearing the dress, in fact I wore it, possibly for the last time, this Spring. Completely accurate, no it isn’t. But fun to wear, oh my yes! So spend some money, spend some time. Even though I am an old lady now, I still feel beautiful in it.

  19. AJ says

    This article includes some good info, but taken as a whole, gives the impression that *unless* you do *everything* just right, your costume is just not up to snuff and why did you even bother with it. Overall, the article is incredibly discouraging.

    • says

      I don’t think the article is meant to discourage, but rather to point out some areas that people don’t always think about, where a small change here or there might make a big difference in how your costume works.

    • PR1 says

      I agree. While the info is good, the tone and wording only serves to discourage those costumers who do not have the money to buy “quality fabrics” or an abundance of trim or custom corset (or materials). Identifying what is often necessity as “mistakes” speaks of an elitism that counters any purported intention to inspire. It may actually be the case that someone “ran out of money” on their trim or their accessories, and judging there as Biggest Mistakes implies that the only people who can reach that dream referenced at the end are those with immense disposable income and time enough to handsew 160in hem. Otherwise they are, as stated above, “a FAIL.”

      This article is such a disappointment.

      • says

        I am so sorry you did not find the article helpful. It was (and NEVER is) my intention to put anyone down. Everyone on this journey is at various points in their lives. We all have to adjust according to our budget, our skills, our desires. The article is meant to be a guide for those who wish to advance their costuming skills and lists areas that are sometimes overlooked and can be improved. I do not exclude anyone here. I myself struggle with various areas in this list with each project. If an advanced costumer wants to improve their skill, this list is a guideline of bits to work on. It doesn’t mean EVERY item needs to be complete or the “best” or even “perfect” as NO ONE IS PERFECT. If you are a beginner, this list serves to guide you on areas that you can focus on to get better with each project. No one costumer can have the best of every one of these points. And it’s ridiculous if one believes that.

        The goal of this article, and indeed this entire website, is to inspire costumers to push onward, to increase their skills. To be more. It is not a place for criticizing. Each project that falls short of these areas listed should never be considered failures. They are only educational opportunities to increase our skills and connect with others who are trying to do the same. I pray you do not see yourself as a failure with your costuming projects. I appreciate and thank you for posting your comment.

        • Norah says

          I think it’s the headline, focusing on mistakes, that might lead some people feel that if they fall short in any of these areas, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered. If it had been headed “Six Ways to Improve Your Historical Costumes” (or something similar ), I don’t think anyone would have thought anything negative. The article is informative and not at all off putting or critical. I think some people (myself included) see the word “mistakes” and feel criticized, even when no criticism is intended.

  20. says

    Hi Jennifer,
    Great site, and very insightful!
    I agree with you that many young( young, meaning new in this case) historical costumers get tripped up because of the modern thought process. I would add to the list – Age and Character Appropriate Choices! I have an example: A few years back, I recall a living history actor portraying the 1832 daily life of a 44 year old, widowed, mother of 10, back-swamp plantation owner,( an actual historical character, by the way) by wearing a baby pink strapless tulle formal; over a hoop no less!

  21. Elizabeth says

    Hi there all. I haver sent so much just reading all your opinions and what you do. It’s amazing! I love Christian Dior original bustle skirt I originally set out to look for that and then I stumbled on this web site I think it’s amazing to say the least! I am a fashion designer/ tailoress so I do know that period costume is another ball game to ordinary clothes of today . Wow I’m speechless I’m glad I found this thanks everyone. Very interesting indeed. X

  22. Mama Kestrel says

    I agree completely, especially about how we move in the clothes we wear. I try not to think of it as a “costume”. It’s simply my dress. I tend to do Dark Age reenactment (11th c. Saxon). I wear my gown around the house once it’s finished and get comfortable. I won’t move exactly as a woman from that time would (having never seen it), but I will be able to wear my dress, etc. unselfconsciously. I think that goes a long way toward “getting it right”. Of course answering the door in a full-length gown complete with under-dress, veil (which covers the fact that my hair will not grow much past shoulder length) and turn-shoes does tend to disconcert whomever knocked, but that’s just frosting on the cake. :)

  23. Kelekona says

    Mistakes can be made no matter what you are sewing. Modern dress is a little more forgiving with the fit, but you might as well adjust the pattern to your proportions. The biggest thing that screams “handmade” (other than a whimsical fabric choice) is that they don’t iron enough, or improperly, or at all.

    Is the ironing step important in period costume? Would the dressmakers have ironed as they were sewing a dress?

  24. Marie says

    This article covers a lot of important points. One thing I’d like to add is something I’ve seen that many people don’t think of that really affects historical accuracy and throws off the look of a reproduction outfit and that is being tan while representing a time period in which tanning wasn’t fashionable. Too much or the wrong kind of makeup also keeps the costume from looking period correct.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *