The Biggest Mistake Costumers Make

We focus a lot of attention on sci-fi and fantasy-based costumes on the RPF, but historical costuming can require just as much skill and research (if not more) than the latest Final Fantasy costume. Here's a great article originally published by Jennifer Rosbrugh of that sheds a bit of light on the mindset of the period costumer.


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.

You just earned points!
Login to save points.
Earn your spot on the leaderboard.

You earned RPF Pulse points!

You're on your way to the top of the leaderboard!