A career in Fashion History

I recently responded to an inquiry from a college graduate who is interested in pursuing a career in historic costume and fashion history. She asked me several great questions about careers in historical costume. I thought I would share our Q&A for anyone who might be interested in getting into “the business.”

Q: First of all, what are your recommendations for pursuing my interest in fashion history? As you have already realized, compared to other professions, careers in fashion history are far and few in between. However, they are not nonexistent. Fashion History careers range from living history interpretation to museum curatorial work to teaching. I would suggest joining The Costume Society of America. They have lots of great academic/professional conferences and do list job openings in the field of fashion history across the nation.


Q: What are your recommendations for pursuing my interest in fashion history? I have not found many graduate programs in the country for this subject. Do you know of any programs out there that I may have missed?
UNC- Chapel Hill has a great program in costume. You may wish to check out Kent State University in Ohio. And, Ohio State has a a highly reputable film school.

Q: And if not, are there certain books that you could recommend to me (I’m sure there are hundreds) that would give a good general overview on fashion history?
Survey of Historic Costume by Phyllis Tortora and Keith Eubank. It is a very broad overview, but it is a great introductory to the history of western fashion. The Janet Arnold pattern books are great for looking at historic garment construction. But my favorite is Costume in Detail 1730-1930 by Nancy Bradfield.

Q: Your website mentions employing ‘historical sewing techniques’. Can you expound upon that for me? You also mentioned in your artist statement that you are a self-taught seamstress, so I was wondering if you had taught yourself all of these methods or if they were learned at some sort of institution.
Historical sewing techniques primarily refers to the cut and draping of a garment that is consistent with the period from which it originates. I do also try to use as many actual period stitch applications as possible when making historical garments. However, there is a fine line between “sewing historically” and making reproduction historic garments. Many historic sewing techniques require hours and hours (and hours….) of hand sewing. This is OK if you have lots of time and are creating say a couture art piece. However, when making garments for resale (or under deadlines), this is just not always feasible. Therefore, I try to replicate historic construction techniques as closely as possible when appropriate.

I learned about period sewing techniques by looking at original garments (in person and in books) and then I just went into my studio and tried to replicate what I saw. As for sewing in general, my mother taught me to sew when I was 13 and in college I worked in the University costume shop.

Q: Do you purchase the fabric for your garments at a general fabric store? Or do you go to a specialty store or order online?
Finding appropriate fabric is a big issue. Cities like NYC and LA still have viable fabric markets. However, in my part of the world, garment sewing is becoming an obscure hobby and domestic fabric suppliers are drying up faster than you can say “Welcome to BigMart.”

In the past I experimented with purchasing materials online and have had a mixed experience. Sometimes I got what I expected, sometimes I did not. Many online retail fabric stores purchase lots of discontinued fabrics and tend to run out of your fiber before they can process your order.

Right now I work exclusively with two wholesale distributors here in the US. One specializes in reproduction cotton prints.

Q: Are they worth the time and money when constructing a period garment, or can they easily be replaced by modern-day substitutes?  It depends upon your intended end use. I am a historical costumer who specializes in authentic period attire. My primary clientèle is museums. If I were creating something say for theater, I might be able to use substitutes. 

However, it is my personal opinion that spending the extra money to purchase high quality, period appropriate fabric is worth it. I am serious believer in doing things right the first time because if you don’t, you will only have to go back and redo them again later.

Q: As for your patterns, do you draft them yourself? Are they altered from patterns you have collected over time? Or do you use patterns you have found in books, on the web, or at stores?
When I first began over 17 years ago, I primarily altered commercial patterns I had in my collection because they were already graded to fit different sizes. Now, I have a more in depth understanding of pattern drafting/size grading and am able to work from my own patterns. This has allowed for greater creativity in my designs.

Q: How did you began this career as a freelance historic costumer? I realize it is not your only method of income, but how did it all begin?
I do not think I chose a career as a historic costumer as much as it chose me. My fascination with historic clothing began when I was about five or six. In elementary school, I used to sketch Edwardian style dresses instead of doing my lessons. In middle school I made my first dress. In high school I sold my first dress. In college I studied History and Historic Textiles. I also studied abroad and worked in the theater’s costume shop. 

I earned degrees in History and the Visual Arts and then went on to earn a Masters degree in Visual Arts Education. In 2000, I launched my website. Since then, I have devoted most of my time to the study of historic dress and began developing my own designs based upon my research. I also teach part time at the local university.

Q: Did you know people in the film industry that would frequently commission costume pieces from you? Also, do you know anything about being a Historic Consultant for films/plays/etc.
My website has been my main source for business. Yes, I do network within the film and theater industry but the majority of my work comes directly from my website. Publishing scholarly articles about historic clothing and displaying images of my work online has been my biggest asset.

In closing, here is some advice:
Get connected– network amongst professionals already working in the field. Find a mentor if possible.

Stay active– Read, research, learn, and create!

Create a portfolio– design and create four or five garments that are exclusively your own and make them available for view by professionals already working in the field.

Promote yourself– Let people know you are out there and are willing to work!

Be business savvy– Knowing how to recreate historic clothing is important, but knowing how to run a business is imperative!

I hope this gives you a little direction in your pursuits!
My Best!
-SJ


(This is a repost from my blog: September 2011)

About Susan

Hi! My name is Susan and I am a historian, seamstress, teacher, mother, and wife. My passion for history has manifested itself in the art of recreating clothing from different periods of time. Growing up in the American South, I am heavily schooled in the art of recreating clothing from the 19th century. After nearly a decade of immersing myself primarily in the Victorian period, I found the need to branch out and explore other periods of time. However, it is my connection with the American South and the clothing of rural America that continues to be the driving force behind my designs.

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