While this site (and our Facebook page and Twitter feed) are really about movie and TV historical costume critiques, we get a lot of questions about how to make historical costumes. Understandable, because a subset of our audience is historical reenactors and living history buffs, much like we are, and some of you also make costumes for stage and film too. So when watching a movie set in, say, the 1780s, you may wonder where would I get the fabric to make that dress or how would I pattern that bodice or does anyone carry feathers like in on that hat.
We don’t claim to have all the answers, but since you keep asking, here are a few of our favorite resources. This first post will be kind of general, and in the future we’ll have resources for specific time periods and maybe specific types of products.
Note: None of these business are paid to be included here (though if you’d like to sponsor us, let’s talk!). This is our personal opinion! Your mileage may vary!
Costuming Reference Books
It all starts with research, and anyone making historical costumes will want a few general reference books, in addition to specialty books about the eras you’re most interested in. For many of our podcasts, we have specific resource posts full of book recommendations and reference links relevant to that specific time period or genre. For example, in our resources for Elizabeth (1998), we list our fave books including Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d and The Tudor Tailor, so I’m not going to repeat myself. Go clicky the linkys!
As far as general reference books for historical costume, I will say that you need these on your shelf, if you don’t have anything else:
By Janet Arnold:
- Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction C. 1660-1860
- Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction C. 1860-1940
- Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women C. 1560-1620
- Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear, and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540-1660
This is where cultural archeology meets theater — here you will find intensely detailed history with a well-educated guess at how to recreate the clothing. Each of these books begins with research into the fashions of the period, supported by contemporary sources, and then the main section of each book is an analysis of a series of extant garments of the era, from the inside out. Detailed measurements are provided, and you can scale up from these actual garments to create your own very historically accurate patterns.
By Jean Hunnisett:
- Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress, Medieval-1500
- Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800
- Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress, 1800-1909
- Period Costume for Stage and Screen: Dominos, Dolmans, Coats, Pelisses, Spencers, Calashes, Hoods, & Bonnets
- Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Outer Garments: Cloaks, Capes, Stoles, and Wadded Mantles
These books are the more practical, written by a highly skilled TV and film costumer (Hunnisett worked for the BBC, including on the Elizabeth R series). Each book has a brief historical overview, and then features very usable patterns (which still need to be scaled up) for how to make garments that look historical but may take theatrical shortcuts in some minor areas of construction. No zippers or velcro, but maybe not as perfectly accurate seam lines, for example.
All of these books can be found new on Amazon or second-hand on eBay and elsewhere, plus your local library may have copies.
Historical Costume Patterns
Yes, Virginia, there are patterns for historical costumes. No, I don’t know which one is best for what you want to make. But I did launch a website a zillion years ago where you can find reviews of said patterns — it’s The Great Pattern Review, hosted and maintained by the Greater Bay Area Costumer’s Guild.
Currently, they have over a thousand reviews in the database! (Daww, and to think, it was just a bunch of scrappy hand-coded HTML files based on a handout at first.) People review patterns from Alter Years to Winego and everything in between, as well reviews of the patterns in books including Corsets & Crinolines, Costume Close-Up, and Patterns of Fashion (the ones described above).
Many patterns made of historical clothing are by small companies, but in recent years the “big three” pattern companies of Simplicity, Butterick, and McCall’s have made attempts at historical pattern-making, and some of those are reviewed too. Whether from big companies or small, these patterns can vary wildly in skill level required to use them, how well the patterns work, and how well they’re researched. That’s why the Great Pattern Review is useful — you can hear how real people used a pattern first. There’s still no guarantees, but every bit of information in advance can help.
Wondering where to buy the patterns? Take the name of the pattern maker noted in the database, pop it into your favorite search engine (I hear Google is handy), and see what happens!
Fabric and Trims
It would be impossible for me or anyone to advise you where to find historically accurate fabric and trims for every era or use. I just want to point out a few general techniques. First, search everywhere online. Seriously, you have to hunt. There is no one magical historical fabric website that everyone shops at. There’s a few places that have certain things, but the stock and prices vary. I’m not being cagey, I’m just telling like it is.
Here are just a few places online where we might shop for historical costume appropriate fabrics…
- B. Black & Sons – www.bblackandsons.com – Good for wools.
- B.R. Exports – www.puresilks.biz – Silk (including taffeta) in many colors. Also sells on eBay as “pure_silks”.
- Burnley and Trowbridge – www.burnleyandtrowbridge.com – Run for reenactors. Good for wools and linens.
- Dharma Trading Company – www.dharmatrading.com – Sells dye goods but also has excellent white and black linen and silks.
- Fabric-Store.com – www.fabric-store.com – Good for linens.
- Renaissance Fabrics – www.renaissancefabrics.net – Run by a historical costumer and friend of ours. Good for silks, damasks.
- Silk Baron – www.silkbaron.com – Silk (including taffeta) in zillions of colors. Also sells on eBay as “silkbaron”.
- Wm. Booth, Draper – www.wmboothdraper.com — Run for reenactors. Good for wools and linens.
Things we look for: natural fibers, since that’s what was primarily used before the 20th century, and natural-looking colors for eras before mid-Victorian (when the acid-bright aniline dyes were invented). That said, there are some really excellent synthetic blends available — you just have to beware of that telltale plasticky sheen that makes us joke “poly baroque satin” or “JoAnn’s Casa Collection.” Fabric weight is also important. Thin, flimsy materials don’t hang properly in historical costumes and can look cheap and inaccurate. Mid-weight and heavier weights (or lining lightweight materials) may give skirts a more period fullness, for example.
When it comes to trimmings, it’s easier to say what to avoid than what or where to buy it. Avoid modern items such as pre-ruffled lace, obviously nylon lace, colored lace (historically, most lace was white or occasionally black), and lurex/mylar/plastic-looking metallic trims and laces, as a few general examples. Also, beware of skimpy trims — if you’re recreating an upper-class fashion, you will need scads upon scads of trim for the final effect to look historically accurate. 15 or 20 yards is not uncommon. This trim can be simple, such as a plain braid, but there may be a ton of it on, say a Renaissance doublet or a Victorian bustle gown. When thinking of trimming, don’t forget about beading, gems, and jewelry, and all the accessories you might want to make too.
A few places online we might start hunting for all that trim and stuff…
- Bulldog and Baum – www.etsy.com/shop/BulldogAndBaum – Run by a historical costumer and friend of ours. Good for vintage silk ribbons.
- Calontir Trim – www.calontirtrim.com – Run by/for SCA people. Good for medieval to Renaissance metallic trims.
- Cheeptrims – www.cheeptrims.com – Requires a minimum order and you have to hunt for the not-cheap-looking stuff, but good for bargains on basics like braid and Venice lace.
- MJ Trims – www.mjtrim.com – Good for a variety of trims.
- Farthingales Canada – www.farthingalescorsetmakingsupplies.com – Good for corset-making supplies.
- Farthingales Midwest – www.farthingalesla.com – Good for corset-making supplies.
- Fire Mountain Gems – www.firemountaingems.com – Good for beads and jewelry makings.
- Hats by Leko – www.hatsupply.com – Good for millinery supplies, hat forms, buckram.
OK, that — plus the obvious eBay and Etsy — should get you started. Now it’s your turn! Share your favorite general resources for costume research, patterns, fabric, and trims in the comments below. And remind us of what historical periods we should cover with specific resources.