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, May 20, 2014


Yesterday was one of those days that reaffirms what you do is welcome, appreciated, fills you with pride, and above all inspiring you on to new heights. I speak of a simple fashion show with an appreciative audience and a great set of models. We all need approval, pats on the back, and compliments to tell us what we do and the gowns we work so hard to create are amazing. And that encouragement is what keeps us going. *takes a bow*

We returned home last night exhausted after doing two fashion shows for the annual fund raising Victorian tea of the Alpine (CA) Women’s Club. It was the centennial celebration of their Women’s Club in a building built in 1899. Previous fund raisers have done much to repair and renovate the old building, most recently the new landscaping in front of it. I was told the ladies had to deal with powerful winds and high temperatures while planting flowers in the flower beds. But in the end it was very refreshing to look at.
My theme for this show was Fashions through Time: 1810-1910. I originally started with 12 models, one of them a man, plus our narrator and a gentleman escort. Sadly a few days before the show we lost our man due to travel, and one model due to health issues. You were both missed. But I still had most of the decades covered and we carried on.

I showed up at the clubhouse the day before to bring two dress forms I brought to decorate the stage, both dressed in underpinnings that Shelley Peters and I provided to show the audience what was worn under our gowns. When I arrived, the ladies of the women’s club were busy ironing all the tablecloths for the tea and their set decorator was putting up greenery and flowers on the stage for us. It’s a small stage and our show was only to be 30 minutes long so it was perfect for our needs.
On the day of the show the weather had started to drop down from the 90-100 degree temperatures but was still warm with a good breeze that helped a bit. The room was air-conditioned, and we had our own a/c unit on the stage too. My models in chronological order were 1810- Birda Nichols, 1837- Mary Drobnis (wearing my teal and cranberry gown), 1858- Shelley Peters, 1860s- Catherine Frazier, 1875- Cindy Piselli, 1880- Lynn Adams, 1883- Dyan Paquette, 1884- Deana Sommerville, 1896- me (in my Seaside gown), 1905- Diana Marquez.  
Nancy Smith, our narrator, stood on the left side of the stage and each of us were brought out individually by Russell Smith, our escort. When we finished he would come out with the next model and walk the other one back out. In the end Russell was also requested to do a turn on the stage, which he gladly obliged us. As our finale, we all returned back on the stage for group photos.
Then we came down the stairs onto the main floor and walked among the tables for about 15 minutes. A lot of the guests were dressed in Victorian costume too and they were all thrilled to get close-up views of our dresses, and I have to say the compliments we were receiving were downright amazing. Some shared memories of a similar dress worn by their mothers or grandmothers. We began hearing requests of please come back next year.

At the end we all stood back up front where the President, Carlette, gave us a formal thank you and said we’re hoping you will return again next year as this is the best show we’ve ever had. She put the microphone in front of me and I said yes, we’d love to. And that got loud applause. Other comments heard was the best show in the hundred years they’ve been operating (ok, one lady was close to that age) and another was the best show she’d seen in the 21 years she’s been coming.
We started gathering outside as people were leaving and had multiple photos taken of us on the front porch. I believe the lady on the lower left in orange is Karen, a new member of our guild who hasn’t been able to attend any meetings or events yet, but she’s a member of the Women’s Club and helped serve at the tea.

After all the ladies from the first seating had left, a couple tables were set up for us and we had our own afternoon tea.

Then we had an hour to rest before the next seating and our show. So we gathered back on the stage behind the curtains with chairs and chattered away.


While I was taking a photo of the ladies waiting outside to go onto the stage, I caught a woman wearing white walking by in the background who was so surprised to see us, and she pulled out her camera to start taking our photos.
 Once again we repeated our performance for the next seating. And again received many many compliments on our gowns, and how impressed they were with our sewing and quality of time periods.
As I mentioned, we returned exhausted, hot, and yes, a little sweaty. This morning I woke and thought more about yesterday, and it all started to fill me with so much pride in a show so well done with all the models and narrator. And we were treated so well too. This made me feel rejuvenated and excited to get back to work on the many projects I have waiting. But in a couple days I’m going on a cruise so my imagination will be doing most of the work during that time.
       **Thank you to those who provided extra photos of our event**

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Beginner’s Guide to Fashion Shows--- Part 2

To read Part 1, go here

                          Fashions Through Time  1810-1910 
                   Presented by the San Diego Costume Guild
This is the artwork I did for the program I’ll be printing up for the fashion show this coming Saturday in Alpine (CA). I do it on a Word document, using the landscape/sideways page layout so all this will be on the right side of the page and can be folded in half. On the other side of the same paper will have the list of models and the year of their dress, along with acknowledgments of our Narrator, Gentleman Escort, Backstage Manager, Dresser, and the Writer/Director.  Any special acknowledgements would go here too.  This time I’m also including a request of the guests that if they take any photos, if they would email them to me. We’ll see if that works since our response using business cards is kind of slim.
I print them in black and white to keep the costs down. I think an average cost for about 100 two-sided documents is $20. At our local Staples, I’m able to drop my sample off one day and pick it up the next. If they’re not busy, sometimes they say you can come back the same day. I usually wait until Wednesday to put in my request just in case there are changes in the models lineup. After that, it’s set in stone. But be prepared for the last minute “real life” things that occur, which happens. Just be sure your Narrator is notified so she doesn’t end up describing a ghost on stage.
I also print out a list of the models in numerical order with a short description of what they’re wearing (blue bustle) and blow up the letters to a size 72 font in Bold. These are taped on the wall (using blue tape) near where we enter on stage, and one in the back of the dressing room or wherever the models can see it ahead of time so they’ll know what order they are. I bring a felt marker with me and do a quick map of the stage/floor layout and where they will walk. This works well if it’s the first time you’ve been to the location. In this particular show, I was able to draw one out ahead of time and can just print that out.

I give our Narrator a copy of the entire narration along with stage prompts about 4 days before the date so she can work on it ahead of time and maybe print it out in larger text or whatever makes it easier for her to read. I usually include prompts of when a model is brought out by the Escort during the narration, or takes a pause while she reads some extra narrative.  She and our Escort already have a way to signal each other and her signal to the model when she’s done reading their narrative is “Thank you _____”. This tells the model her time is up and the next model is coming out. For my show I’m having each model wait when she’s done and our Escort will come out with the next model, and then walk her off.
Considering we have a small space to work in this time, once I get to the site on the day of the show I have to look and see if there’s enough room to do this. It may not work. But it’s one of those things that are easily changed at the moment. Sometimes you just have to fly by the seat of your pants. I had written up a whole program of who would do what and when, but over the weeks I’ve weeded things out, cut out fiddly stuff, and fine-tuned it. I’ve realized I don’t want this so complicated that it causes confusion. A simple guideline works better.
If you’re lucky to have someone volunteer as a backstage manager or have dressers, it’s good to have a couple things ready for emergencies.  Water in bottles, and a sewing kit, safety pins and bobby pins are greatly appreciated by the models. Often we just help each other and we do fine. But we totally appreciate having someone to help us dress if needed.
When I plan on being in a fashion show I start pulling out everything I’ll be wearing the week before the show, even if it’s just a piece of it a day. I either mentally walk through each item I put on, starting with my undies, and write it down, or pull it out. I’ve even opened up a photo on my computer of me wearing the dress so I can see what all I was wearing, right down to my jewelry, wig and hat. Don’t forget the hat pins! Almost every show I’ve been in I always hear someone in the dressing room asking if anyone has one they can borrow. I stick mine in my bonnet that I’ll be wearing. Hmm, maybe I should put an extra one in the repair kit I’m bringing.  It doesn’t hurt to send out a reminder to your models to start getting their kit together.
So that’s it for three days and counting. I’ve already had to send a few corrections on to our Narrator but that’s to be expected. Back to some sewing now.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Beginner's Guide for Fashion Shows, Part 1

Earlier I’d mentioned I would write up a guideline for putting on a fashion show, in my case historical costume. Some of that has already been written in a previous post but as I’ve gotten closer to the date this next show is, I’m fine-tuning some of the details of how to put this together. Some of this may be repetitive but at least it all in one place now. And I included photos so you don’t feel like “oh my gosh, I’m back in school again”. Since I don’t have any sewing to report on because of *real life* stuff lately, this seems to be a good time to write this puppy up. *Oh wait, yesterday I started finishing those little girls Civil War dresses I started in March! Finally broke through that wall.*
This will actually be the second show I’ve put on but the first was a “show within a show”. That was my "One Hundred Years of Mourning Fashion" that was the second half of the Riverside Dickens fashion show. It was by no means a lesser scale of work though. I’ve been a backstage manager at the same time as being a model so I have that experience under my belt too. I’ve yet to be a narrator because I want to play dress-up with everyone else so I have my favorite narrator, Nancy, to do that for me. J  But she likes to play dress-up too, so along with her husband Russell, they look awesome along with the rest of us. I also want to give a shout-out to said Russell, our gentleman escort, who has so many times helped us up and down stairs in our long skirts so we don’t fall flat on our faces. We’ve come close a couple times though. I guess that fits into the cheer of “Break a leg!” when you’re going on.

 So what do you need to start? First, a request to do a fashion show. Our costume guild has been contacted a couple times by different groups, such as women’s clubs and historical societies, to provide a fashion show or at least show up in costume suitable to the event theme.  We don’t charge for it but we do like to be fed a bit if possible. At the least, the director/you should provide water for your models, and something to nibble on.
Second, you need a theme for your show. You may be asked to do a specific type or time period by the requester. We seem to be asked just to do a show and the theme is left up to us. The easiest is to do a time line showing a progression of the changes in fashion. Or it can be a creative theme, such as women’s /men’s recreational activities; famous authors and characters from books; or famous people in history. You can do fun ones such as a couple vignettes onstage, like a group of ladies sitting around a table having tea or playing cards, and each one gets up to walk around in her dress.  Then a lady’s dressing room or dress/millinery shop, and showing different ladies being dressed or arriving to shop or visit. Instead of just writing a description of what the model is wearing, you can weave a story around it. One of the shows I’ve been in is in a historical town and I thought having each of them walking down a well-known street or visiting an historic building in the area might be interesting, and adds some familiarity.  The point is- you don’t have to just walk out on stage. You can do things to make it entertaining. So far is it sounding like YOU are doing the writing? Most likely, yes you will.
 Music isn’t necessary but can enhance the show if you use it at the beginning. But keep it soft and not when the narrator is speaking. Some sound systems don’t work very well and you don’t want someone in the back yelling, I can’t hear you! 
Third, you need some models and costumes. You can either put out a general request to your costume group, or contact specific people and see if they’d be interested. Make it clear what you’re looking for as to the dress, and the date, times and location of the show. Keep a file with all emails coming in for reference. I also cut and paste information given to me by prospective models onto a document to work with.
You may have to be flexible so that if you lose a model or they back out, you can smooth over that gap. In a chronological time period-type show it wouldn’t hurt to have duplicates, like two 1880s, in case one has to back out and you still have one for that spot. Smaller groups are easier to work with when you’re just starting out because when you get to where you have to wrangle 20 or more models, it becomes major work.
Fourth, if you’re unfamiliar with the location, and possibly can, see if you can visit the location. See what the layout of the stage and dressing rooms are, and how you will enter and exit, both on stage and afterwards. Take photos if you can, and do sketches of possible routes of where the models will walk. Check out bathroom locations and note them. Sometimes we need to use those restrooms as our dressing rooms. Walk through yourself where the models will enter the building when they arrive, and where they will enter and exit the stage during the show. One of the stages I’ve been on in a church has a big podium in the center so the models need to know that they should walk to both ends of the stage so everyone can see them.  And check out the parking situation for them. Make note of all available areas that they can park. In some cases, this pre-visit may not be possible, and you’re just going to have to wing it when you arrive. But try arriving a little earlier to get the lay of the land  so you can share it with your models when they arrive.
Find out if the venue or event coordinator has any stage decorations that can be used, such as greenery, flowers, trellis’, tables, chairs, etc., or if they have their own stage decorator they’re using.  Be sure not to distract from your models though. They should be the centerpiece. You may be lucky and already have a natural background you don’t need to mess with. But let me give you a photographer’s tip I learned while taking my photography classes in college: greenery brings out colors better in your photos. So if you can have plants, etc., on stage, the dress colors will look brighter, and skin tones are greatly enhanced by it. I always try to take photos of people outside next to plants or trees.  Look how bright and colorful we all are after our show outside.
I still have four days until my show at the women’s club on Saturday so I’m still finalizing all the narratives, floor plans, and programs. As soon as those are done, I’ll write Part 2 for this, and it will probably be much shorter than this was. Promise!