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

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HI, my name is Val. I'm a member of Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles, Dean Emeritus of 2018 Costume College; Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, and a representative of the San Diego History Center. 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.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Countdown to Costume College 2013

July 30, 2013

Yes, it’s Tuesday, and I leave for Costume College  on Thursday morning.  I’ve been sewing like a madwoman. This will be the weekend I get to spend four days with hundreds of other people just as crazy as I am. And I do it all without catnip.                                                                                (Chloe loves her catnip.)
I’m in the usual “panic mode before CoCo” just like everyone else. I’ve been making lists upon lists; adding as I remember something else I need to bring. I have lists from last year but those are of items I normally bring for our room, or food I want to bring. I also make lists of what I’m planning to wear each day, and what accessories are needed for it. I’ve woken up with a start two times remembering something I forgot. Forgetting that black skirt would have made a VERY interesting costume this year, considering it’s a mourning gown and amid all that black, there would be my white petticoat minus its skirt.
I’m really excited about presenting the One Hundred Years of Mourning Fashion there. It’s going to be odd, presenting it in a classroom when we should be on a full stage but I think it will work. I have a couple new people, and am including Queen Victoria this time. And we have an Undertaker. I printed out programs for it to give to the students too. If any of you are there on Friday at 1:30pm, I hope you can make it.
This year I will only have two “new” dresses I made specifically for this event. My favorite so far has been my 1890s Seaside dress to wear to the Sunday Fantasy Tea. You would think this being my favorite that I would have worked on it till all parts were done and complete. Didn’t happen. The dress is done but I ran out of time to make the blouse so I’m substituting another blouse I already have.
Sneak peek: This is my 1890s Seaside dress but is not the blouse I’ll be wearing under it. *This is not the final photo of it completed. You’ll have to wait until I wear it.* And this is the vintage hat I re-trimmed with vintage ribbon.

My other dress for the UnGala dinner on Saturday night (where I join my friends who don’t go to the Gala) is a 1905 purple floral silk voile gown. I really wanted to go crazy with it, but I think it made me a little crazy instead. This is why I didn’t finish the Seaside dress. I decided I wanted to cut out the neckline after adding lace and velvet ribbons to it to make it an evening gown. Oye vey. I don’t think it came out TOO bad but photos on me will tell the story.

I used antique lace that was given to me on the V-neck insert, and on the cuffs. I also wanted to try sewing lengths of velvet ribbon to the skirt but didn’t have enough at this time, and time has run out. It will happen someday. I might try some little bows down the side seams, but that all depends on how much more crazy I want to make myself.
Since this is an evening dress, and hats weren’t worn in the evening *darn*, I had to come up with some kind of decoration for my hair/wig. I found one photo that I used as my inspiration and came up with this. I tried having the feathers hang on either side of my head but I would have spent the evening laughing at myself with feathers blowing in my mouth.

The rest of my wardrobe will consist of my black mourning dress for the fashion show; my blue plaid Natural Form dress, which has now evolved into an earlier bustle dress; and my white with black polka dot 1870s polonaise. These have all been worn before but never at Costume College, so they’re kind of new.
I plan on writing more details of my gowns, and how I made my headpiece but I still have some sewing to finish so I’m afraid I have to leave you hanging here for now. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

MORE ON Fabrics & Photos to Educate Your Eye

July 21, 2013
My last blog entry on Fabrics & Photos to Educate Your Eye  I talked about looking on the internet for photos of extant gowns and fabrics as a way to get used to recognizing if a fabric would work for a certain time period. I wanted to give a shout-out to one of my favorite bloggers who shares her knowledge doing exactly that. Isabella of All the Pretty Dresses has become one blog that I don’t miss reading, and have it coming to me by email so I don’t miss any on the Blog Reader where it lists blogs I follow.
Isabella must spend a lot of time trolling ebay, etsy, and auction sites for these treasures, and I know I do sometimes but it can pull you down the rabbit hole and suddenly dinner is late! and it’s time to go to bed and you never got out of your jammies from this morning! Really, it can do that!
Isabella shares all the photos the seller has posted including their descriptions but my favorite and most entertaining part is her commentary at the bottom. She will confirm or deny its claim to a time period. If it’s right, she tells you why, and if it’s wrong, she tells what gives it away. And this is what I like: she tells you what details identify them. She doesn’t usually pull ones that are multi-labeled Victorian-Civil War-Edwardian but really good ones worthy of our education. I’m still trying to learn the different time periods and it irks me to no end when something is labeled just plain Victorian or 1800s. Man, that doesn’t tell me much. I pretty much can get close to the decade but I’m at the point where I want to get closer, like late 1870s or early 80s, or late 1820s. Granted, sometimes they carried over styles into different years and I can deal with that. But it also gives me documentation that something was still worn in the early years of the next decade.

It was fun when I saw Isabella had posted about one bodice I’d bought on ebay recently. It was really hard to date it from the photos the seller provided and the colors didn’t do it justice. I wrote about it in my own blog where I visually dissected two extant bodices I bought for study. Learning From the Past From Extant Bodices   
I recently purchased another one that I’m anticipating its delivery any day, and so am waiting to see if she came across it too. It was labeled as Civil War but from those puffy sleeves, I’m thinking 1890s, and it has a lot of great interior photos of it. Once I get my next blog on studying extant bodices, I’ll have more of my own to include. Buying these extra small bodices inexpensively is a nice tactile way to learn about the real clothing I’m trying to make.

Monday, July 15, 2013


July 15, 2013
Its only two and a half weeks away from Costume College and I’ve had my nose to the grindstone (or as much as I can do) and trying to get my two new dresses done. The 1890s Seaside dress is done but the blouse isn’t. Right now I’m working on my 1905 silk voile gown which has been scary because I’m actually cutting out parts of the bodice behind velvet ribbon and lace trims. There will be photos of these at a later date, and hopefully they’ll work.
In the meantime, I felt the need to write something and decided to answer a question one of my readers had left where they said they really appreciated the historical information on it, and asking how do you pick the right fabric for a specific era. Yes, it would be easier to find the magical website that says THIS is correct for this time period.. ~~~~~~

I clearly remember being there; standing in the fabric store ten years ago staring at all the cotton calicos trying to decide what would work for a mid-1880s bustle gown. And not having a clue. My brain was more tuned to quilting fabrics after making quilts for years. Turns out it wasn’t a bad tune, as I picked a tightly patterned pink floral calico. But it still wasn’t quite right. I think the pattern was too tight, and over the years I’ve learned they aren’t quite so busy. *I’ll have to tell you a funny story about that first bustle gown later*.

Later I started searching online for historical fabric information and found some photos. From LACMA, this is a sample of a 1780 print.
These are some of my favorite reproductions for 1770-80s from 

Finding photos from extant gowns are the best way to see them. These are from extant 1850 gowns.

These from extant 1860s gowns.

Recently an online auction had these fabric sample books for sale and you can’t get any better than that. Some of them were totally surprising too. These were all 1860s samples. 

This website is not a bad place to start if you want to look at a bunch of reproduction fabrics online. Or purchase them.  - they have a good selection of fabrics broken down by dates, and but they don’t break it down as well. These are all cotton fabrics primarily for quilting but they’re acknowledging costumers as buyers too. The quilt store near me in San Diego, Rosie’s Calico Cupboard,  has a special room in the back specifically carrying reproduction fabrics from 1780s-1860s, and in another part of the store they have 1930-40s prints. They run about $7-$9 yd. Every once in a while you’ll find the 8 yards you need in their sidewalk sale for $5 yd.
But as I said, these are cottons and they’re pricey. So what’s a tightwad….I mean a penny conscious girl to do? How can you tell if that flat-fold cotton for $2.98 yard would work or not? And what if you want brocade, or printed polyester? If you look at fabric samples and extant gowns long enough, you will educate your eye and your brain, and you’ll be able to tell if it would work. Color is important too. I’ve been saving close-up photos of extant gowns for years to be able to recognize if something in that pile would work. The hard part is trying to keep your brain straight and remembering what works for 1795, 1840, or 1860. When I tried picking out rayon prints for 1930s, I did poorly because I’m just not used to seeing them. You can’t do everything. Wait, did I just say that?
You may not find the exact fabric like the extant samples but you can get pretty close.

Now for the funny story about my first bustle dress: It was for my first time at Costume College in 2003 and I was using a Truly Victorian pattern. At that time I barely understood how to make period costumes. Ok, I knew nothing. And I'd never seen any other than online of costume events. I wanted to make it with cotton since it’s so hot in SoCal. I contacted Heather from Truly Victorian and asked about the lining and flatlining the pattern required. I’d never heard of flatlining. Heather told me flatlining was very important but I argued it would be too hot. I have to give her credit because she really did try and talk me into doing it. But I resisted. That was my first mistake. See how loose the bodice looks in this photo from the 2003 Costume College? Flatlining is sewing a supportive fabric to the back of the outside fabric and you treat it as one piece. It would have given some body to the limp cotton fabric and make it look smoother, which was very desirable in Victorian gowns. BTW, I am wearing a corset. 
Heather, who is in the photo with me pointed out I only had one set of darts in the bodice, and it was supposed to have two. I thought they were for different bust sizes, so that was an education for me. She said I could just take a tiny tuck and fake them. Also, see my sad limpy skirt. Besides not having a decent petticoat under it, it had been finished for me by a Civil War dressmaker and she had made it in the circular style of the 1860s not the smooth-in-front 1880s. My overskirt looked more like an apron with the sides being open instead of pleated to the back section. But this was my first gown and I felt very pretty in it. That’s the important part. It also made me want to learn more about them, and ten years later, I’m still learning.
**ETA** I had to add this: Isis Wardrobe recently posted about the use of plaids in the 18th century. She has some wonderful photos and paintings of them. Isis Wardrobe blog
***ETA***Also adding this blog that's a great collection of correctly dated gowns for your visual education. They're taken off ebay & Isabella of All the Pretty Dresses confirms if the date is correct, and if not, why. She has tags to the different era dresses if you're searching for a specific one. Look at the column "Labels" on the right side. All the Pretty Dresses

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Stay Tape Belts; What are they, & What do they do?

July 1, 2013

Stay tape, in costume language, is an inside belt loosely attached to the seams that keeps the bodice from pulling open, or just staying in place. Get it? "Stay tape". Well, that's what it said to me.  I’ve made a few bodices that after I’d been wearing them a while, they get a little loose, bunchy, and ride up. I’d heard about using stay tape belts inside the bodice, and even have one of my extant study bodices with them in it.
This one hooks in the front with a very large hook & eye. The two hooks you see under where it’s attached to the bodice are for attaching the bodice to the skirt. This belt is attached at the bottom of the bodice but not the bottom edge. This other 1897 bodice also shows it above the edge.
I’ve made two 1850s bodices and both hang kind of loosely on my back, one because the original it was copied from has no back seams, and the other is too large for me now. So I decided now was the time to look into finally making stay tape belts. I did a search on the internet and most of what I came up with was the modern plastic stuff being used in modern clothing. *Sigh*, same old story for most costumers; it’s mostly about modern techniques. I knew the historical ones used twill tape & other sturdy tapes but basically they serve the same purpose. I didn’t find anything directly telling me how to do it in historical costumes. I haven’t found out when they quit using them, but I did find out they came back in vogue during the 1950s when ladies bodices again became very tight fitting with big skirts held up by tulle petticoats. Hello 1860s!  And they’re still used in formal wear.

I had a roll of cotton twill tape and began pinning it on to the inside seams of my bodice. First question: where do I place it? Not what seams, but where on it? - along the bottom of the bodice, or at the narrowest part of me? My narrowest part is slightly above my waist and most of my bodices tend to ride up a bit there. Maybe this will solve that problem?
So here is my first try. I laid the belt across the back and did a back stitch at each point where it will attach to the side seams. I decided to temporarily attach them until I could try it on with my corset, but when I tried it on with my corset, it was too high on me. 
So I marked on my bodice with pins where my corset was the narrowest on me, which was basically where the laces went around me. I took out the couple stitches holding the belt in and measured up 3 inches from the bottom edge of the bodice on both side seams. I laid the belt along the back and tacked one side seam to it, then started thinking should I just match it to the width of my bodice, or does the belt need to be shorter? I measured my back and it was narrower than the bodice back. See the problem? I think this needs some size altering later when I have someone here to help me. So back on went the corset. After re-measuring and marking exactly where the belt should be attached to just my side seams, that seemed to make it work. I’m going to leave the belt loose in the back for now.
I took out the next bodice that needed a belt and to make it simple, I put it on inside out, and wrapped the stay tape belt around me and marked on it where the side seams hit. So much easier! This bodice is attached to the skirt so it hits me differently, and also there are no seams in the back. That is how this particular bodice was made, so the tape will only be attached to the side seams. It sits just above the facing I have sewn at the waist.
Of course minutes after I took this photo and was saving it to my computer, Chloe claimed the dress as her new bed for a couple hours. So no further work was to be done on it.
After a few hours naptime, Chloe was up and ready for dinner, and I was able to finish sewing the hook & eye to my belt. I used the flat trouser-type ones that lock into place to hook it closed.
*If anyone knows of a website that tells more about these, in historical context, please comment with the link. Or add your own knowledge of them by commenting. I and other folks would really appreciate it.* -Val