This is a photo diary of my costuming "travels"; where I've learned and struggled to make historical costumes for myself. They're not always pretty, but always fun. most of the time. And I want to share with others what I learn along the way. **You can find me on Facebook, or have my posts delivered to your email by signing up at the lower part of the right column.**

About Me

My photo
HI, my name is Val. I'm a member of Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles, Dean Emeritus of 2018 Costume College; member & Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, a representative of the San Diego History Center, & an honorary member of SITU (Someplace in Time, Unlimited) in Seattle. I make my own historical costumes but don't sell any unless I get tired of one.The eras I've made so far are 1770 up to 1918. My favorite is the 1880s bustle.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do You Participate in Historical Fashion Shows?

I don't claim to be an expert on fashion shows but have been in quite a few, averaging about 6-8 a year, and have produced a couple. So I have some experience and decided to share that since I get asked questions about it.
First, from the writer/producer/director's standpoint: it's time consuming, sometimes tedious, and like pulling teeth to get the information you need to carry on. My favorite term to describe this is like “herding cats”. Besides being the sheep herder, I've been one of those “cats”.
Once you've picked a theme, with the easiest being a time line of historical costume, you need to gather the ladies that want to be in your show, or can be coerced to be in it. Then comes the hard part; getting descriptions of their costumes, and hopefully you might have some that know how to write their descriptions into a narrative that can be read and be entertaining to the audience. Most of the time you will be the writer. Its your show and you have the controls but I'm sure it helps immensely to have another writer. You first need to know what their gowns and accessories are. Because I've worn some of my gowns multiple times, I keep a file with the descriptions so I can just use those again.

I'm currently organizing a fashion show for next month for a womens club, with a fashion time line, and asked for dress descriptions of the models. Blue Victorian gown with gloves and jewelry doesn't take you very far. So I wrote up a questionnaire for them to fill out. Until now I was only sharing this with my friends who run fashion shows or are in them but decided it wasn't a state secret and many of my costume readers have themselves been in them and would benefit from it. Its not copyrighted so feel free to share this and add to it to fit your needs.
  1. Year of dress (approximate if not known but with a time span like 1900-1908)
  2. Pattern used (if known)
  3. Fabrics used & color/colors (if known)
  4. Trims on dress (types and show where)
  5. Style of dress (type of bodice/ skirt/ overskirt/ bustle/ neckline & sleeve shape/ men's jacket and pants.
  6. Underpinnings worn with skirt (hoop skirt/ corded petticoat/ multi-petticoats/ bustle/ pannier)
  7. What or when would it be worn for? (day time/ dinner or evening/ ball gown/ promenade/recreation)
  8. Bonnet/ hat/ or head cover (style, shape, materials, color, trims used)
  9. Accessories worn (parasol, gloves, jewelry, watch-- describe them)
  10. Anything you'd like the audience to know about your dress- did you make it, your first attempt, favorite pattern, for a specific event)
  11. If possible, include a photo of your dress or you in it, so the narrator has a visual reminder of what you're wearing. 
At the end tell a little bit about yourself- are you in a guild or costume group? How long have you been doing this? Are you a docent? But make it short unless your narrator needs to lengthen it. The entire description shouldn't be longer than one minute.    
 For the narrative portion of the show, if you have a theme that tells a story, the description can fit into that, such as women's activities. For the one I'm in this coming weekend, in Port Townsend, WA, I decided to write my description for my Seaside gown that would include a name of a recognizable street in the area. So my narrative ran something like “you might see this lady walking down Water Street in her Seaside gown”. But it was pointed out to me that a “lady” wouldn't have been walking on Water Street unless she was looking for business. Ooops. So that portion is going to be corrected for the show. But I thought that might be fun to include street names like that, especially in an historical area. There are many ideas you can use for the narrative instead of just a dress description. Little vignettes are fun too. A group of ladies sitting around a table, gossiping, playing cards, or drinking tea, and each takes a turn on the stage as her description is read. We've been lucky sometimes to be on a stage that plays have been put on and are able to use their props. Other times we've provided a couple props but this only works if you have someone in charge of them and can set them up. That's too much to ask of your producer and models.

Our guild doesn't charge for providing fashion shows but we do usually ask that we be fed with something light. It doesn't have to be fancy, and most of us prefer to have it set in back as a buffet where we are so we can eat at will when we have a moment.

It helps the director/narrator to have a backstage manager to keep everything moving in a timely manner. Have a couple copies printed out of the lineup, in LARGE PRINT as some of us won't have our glasses on, and post it near the area where you line up to go out. The manager should also keep the director/narrator up to date if there are any last minute changes to the line up so you don't describe any ghosts onstage, or the wrong person. An idea that came up at the last show I was in was the director/narrator had the description of the model along with a photo of the dress on it so she could immediately see she had the right one.
 Along with your manager, it REALLY helps if you have someone that can volunteer to be a dresser and help the models get dressed, or with last minute emergencies. Hopefully they're familiar with wearing corsets and other historical garments so she has experience with the unusual clothes we wear. She should be prepared with a sewing kit with lots of safety pins.

If food is not something that's available then the organizer of our group will bring water and something for nibbling on. We don't want to have anyone fainting on us. Believe it or not, its hard work getting in and out of these dresses. At one show a couple of us volunteered to bring some fruit, meat slices, little finger sandwiches, and deviled eggs for our buffet.

BE READY AND DRESSED ON TIME. While you're dressing, keep your voices down. Guaranteed those in the audience will most likely be able to hear everything from backstage.
Here's my favorite tip for the models: carry a prop. Having something in your hand to do something with, rather than just walking around. This especially helps the Nervous Nellies or first timers. I feel like I have gorilla arms with them just hanging there. I've used a parasol, and even opened it up onstage, and once carried a hankie and bouquet of flowers when I was the weeping Miss Havisham of Great Expectations. But remember you may be removing your bonnet or shawl, lifting your skirt to show off petticoats, etc, or any number of things to point out parts of your gown, so don't overextend yourself.
BE READY AND DRESSED ON TIME. Nothing screws up a show more than when someone is late or not ready. Some of us are crazy enough to wear two or even three outfits in a show, so they have a bit of an excuse.
It really helps if you can have a gentleman “dressed to the nines” that can help you up stairs onto the stage or down the stairs if you have them, or even walk you out onto the stage to be different. His job is to listen to the narrator and when its time for you to step out, he takes your hand. If you don't have one, then your backstage manager is in charge of making sure you are ready to go out on time.
I don't wear my glasses when I'm wearing my costumes, so I'm almost entirely dependent on the manager or our gentleman to let me know the narrator is nodding at me to come out. If you are lined up with the other models, you can always ask the one behind you to prod you on, but make sure they're paying attention.  
When you walk out on stage be careful of your skirts if you're walking up steps, head to the center and stop. Let them get a good look at you. SMILE! Then SLOWLY walk from end to end of the front of the stage and stop at each end so they can take photos of you. Try and stay near the front. The lighting may not be good near the back, and you want some good photos of yourself too. Go back to center stage and slowly turn so they can see all of you. LISTEN TO THE NARRATOR. If she's describing a part of your dress or hat, move your hand to indicate that portion. If its a large stage you may still want to walk to each end so they can see you there. Its your job to check out what the stage and seating looks like and be prepared to work it, girl. It doesn't hurt to flirt with the audience. Turn the back of your dress to them and look over your shoulder saucily at them when its being described.
Remember if you move too quickly they can't take a photo of you.
When the narration is over, and the narrator thanks you, (which is your cue to step down) I often dip a short curtsy to the audience. If the Queen is seated in the front row, that's a requirement.



  1. Oh yes, the joys of producing/modeling in a show. I have learned these things also over the last few years. So glad you are the backstage manager for me!

  2. Thanks so much for this post and the guidelines, great idea and very helpful!

  3. A fabulous post and enormously helpful! I've been hauled up on stage unexpectedly and never knew quite what to do. Now I feel better prepared for surprise stints as a model.

  4. Oh this sounds like so much fun! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Very interesting. Appreciate you sharing your expertise..
    Rochelle, ATAA

  6. Thanks Val, the guideline for the dress descriptions was very helpful. I was writing a description for my dress and felt a bit overwhelmed with trying to keep it simple yet informative. It helped me to stay focused.


I would love to hear if this was any help to you. Pretty please!