So lately a bunch of my friends have been posting photos of their very first costuming attempts to compare to their current work– I couldn’t help but think of my own first real attempt at a costume, which was prompted by my first outing to the Northern California Renaissance Faire at age 15. I’d gone with my family and was immediately entranced with the whole idea– I knew I wanted to go in costume the following year, so started looking for options.
It started with a satin bridesmaid’s dress that I bought on sale and decided to modify (starting a long tradition of upcycling clothes into costumes that I continue to this day). After consulting books of historical clothing designs and promptly throwing historical accuracy to the wind in favor of something that would look “pretty,” I sketched out a design and conscripted my mother into teaching me how to use her sewing machine so we could make this:
At the time I loved it. Even in retrospect it’s not *that* bad. Sure, the shiny bridal satin is glaring and I still cringe at how, not knowing any better, I mimicked slashed/paned sleeves by literally appliquéing leaf-shaped pieces of the pale blue brocade onto the sleeve puffs, but the brocade was nice, the gold trim was lovely (craft stores just don’t carry trim like that anymore!), and I put a ton of work into hand-stitching 500+ tiny plastic seed pearls onto it for effect. The hat was purchased that day at the faire, but before that I’d made a gold mesh caul for my hair that didn’t look half bad, even by my current standards.
The costume is still hanging in the closet of my old bedroom– I’m fairly sure it no longer fits, but in a few years my daughter may be able to use it to play dress-up!
23 years later, I haven’t made any more attempts at fancy Renaissance wear (the Faires here on the East Coast are mediocre at best), but I’ve done cosplay, fantasy, steampunk, and tons of historical stuff. Here’s an array of everything I can find pictures of so far:
Compared to the pashmina dress, this one was a breeze to put together– a welcome change! Things got a little fiddly when it came to piecing the bodice front– because the diagonal stripes on my fabric were not at a 45-degree angle, it was a little more complicated to mirror them at the center front. Since I had to cut the pieces on a slight bias (both of them, to get the V-shape I wanted), the edges were prone to stretching and wiggling out of place; after trying three times to get the V perfect, I declared that my result was *good enough*.
Given the hassle in matching the V in front, I really didn’t want to have to deal with matching the stripes on multiple pieces for the back to make purely decorative curved back seams. This was particularly true since I was going to have a drawstring back that would mostly obscure those very same seams. I decided to just cut the back pieces as one so I could dispense with the piecing and just worry about matching the diagonal stripes along the center back line.
As part of my Regency wardrobe, I wanted to make a white chemisette to fill in the necklines of some of my gowns– most notably the pashmina gown, which I specifically made for daywear.
Taking my cue from several other bloggers, I started off with the chemisette pattern A from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion I. It has a mostly-plain front with some tiny tucks at the shoulder line (not pictured in the illustration but they’re there in the instructions), and a triple-layered mushroom-pleated collar.
I did end up making a few structural edits– I widened the base width of the back, which otherwise would’ve been oddly pointy (and would not have matched the illustration at all), and did only two ruffles at the collar since my fabric was a bit heavier than what would’ve been used back then. And I didn’t bother cutting the neck band on the bias because it seemed wasteful and other chemisettes in the book had their neck bands cut on-grain, so it didn’t appear to be crucial.
Anyway, not having any graph paper on hand and not feeling inclined to figure out how to print out different sections of the original scanned pattern on different sheets of paper, I used a good old ruler and my knowledge of geometry to draw out the pattern for the chemisette. Honestly, I wouldn’t have done it if the pattern weren’t so simple, but at least on this occasion it worked out well.
The main body went together easily– I did a narrow double hem on the open sides and made my drawstring channels on the bottom with no problems. Then I had to figure out how to handle the neck ruffles.
To go with my fur-trimmed wrap I needed a hat to wear outside. Unlike all of my other bonnets, however (which are made of straw), this one needed to be winter-appropriate, so I took out my extra velvet fabric and got started.
I picked up a basic cloth-covered sun-hat at Goodwill (brand new, tags still on!), mostly to use its nice, wide brim.
I wanted the brim to frame my face without being too sunbonnet-y, and I wanted to have a nice big crown with room for a nice hairstyle that wouldn’t get squished. Something like this (apparently it’s called a capote):
I also really like the ruching on this bonnet from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice:
To go along with my winter Regency pashmina gown, I needed some winter-appropriate outerwear to take with me on the sleigh ride. However, I wasn’t up to sewing a pelisse from scratch in my limited timeframe, so I decided to wear a modern full-length black wool coat and just add a fancy fur-trimmed wrap to wear over it.
I wasn’t ready to learn how to sew real fur pelts, so at first I looked into faux fur; but when I added up the cost of an appropriately luxurious faux fur (the good stuff is expensive!), an outer layer, a lining, and an inner layer for warmth, it seemed like an awful lot of effort and money to sew something from scratch.
So I decided to cheat.
Since most of my Regency gowns were made for dance events or picnics, I’ve generally accessorized them with more formal items or bonnets. While these are appropriate for the occasion, I realize that I’ve been neglecting a standard piece of headwear for adult women– the cap.
Women (at least once married or deemed spinsters) would wear them pretty much all the time, whether alone (indoors) or under bonnets for outings. They could be made of plain or embroidered muslin, or even lace.
I thought that it might be nice to have one, either to cover up a not-so-historical hairstyle or just to add an extra touch of realism to an indoor outfit. The second cap pictured above is my favorite, with the embroidered net and delicate lace ruffles, so I started with that as my inspiration.
To add some interest to the design of an otherwise relatively plain dress, I decided to add a small puff to the top of my long, straight sleeves. Not only that, but I wanted to ruch the puff to give it even more texture and dimension.
I wanted to use existing patterns for long sleeves and puffed sleeves– the problem was, my sleeve patterns are completely different shapes. As in, my puffed sleeve pattern is symmetrical and my long sleeve pattern is cut so that the seam is set towards the back. I decided that rather than try to convert my puffed sleeve pattern, I would use it anyway and rely on the fact that the whole thing is going to be too short for the difference in seam placement to matter.