Category Archives: Fashion History

All things you ever wanted to know about the history of fashion!

Careers in Costume- job postings

Looking for a career in Costume? I stumbled upon this site the other day. There’s multiple job postings across the nation. All levels- from costumed character positions, summer internships at Colonial Williamsburg’s dressmaker’s shop, and full design positions!

Go to: Jobs in fashion
Do a search for “costume” in the “what” box

View current positions!

Great weekend finds!

This past weekend, I visited the local used bookstore. I always cruise through the fashion section to see if they have any books on historical clothing or textiles. This particular bookstore used to have a section dedicated exclusively to historical clothing, but since it is not a big genre for them anymore, they did away with it a few years ago. So now I typically skim the fashion/cosmetology section in hopes of finding something useful. This week I did!
I am always looking to expand my historic textile knowledge so I picked up a few books on the subject.  My most exciting find was Queen of Fashion. It has been on my “books to read list” for quite some time.
I also visited a local children’s consignment sale. It is a HUGE sale and only happens a few times a year. I found these adorable navy blue suede mary-jane style shoes for my little girl. They are made by Gap and are perfectly authentic for historic impressions. She can wear these with any of her 1800-1890s dresses!
Overall, it was a great weekend for great finds!

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)

Inside an extant bustle era gown

Maybe someday somewhere someone will publish a book documenting the inside of period garments- the parts that get overlooked- the parts that are so very valuable to historical seamstresses everywhere.  A book something akin to Fashion in Detail except it will feature detailed images of seams, stitch techniques, and structural applications. But alas, until then, one will only gain this knowledge by examining original garments in person- making mental notes or sketching it out in a notebook.

In the past, I have been fortunate enough to have been allowed to view small collections around the South. Garments ranged from the early 19th century to the 1920s. And whenever possible, I have acquired extant garments for my own personal collection.

Recently I purchased a bustle era gown from Past Perfect Vintage in Kentucky. It most likely dates to the 1880s and was definitely reworked about 10-15 years later to reflect the silhouette of the fin de siecle.

When looking for period pieces, I am drawn to everyday garments- pieces that were worn on a day to day basis. To me, these garments tell me the most about the past.

Fully lined bodice with no boning

The bodice of the gown was originally hand sewn. There are approximately 5 different type of stitch applications and threads used throughout this gown. This tells me not only was this gown reworked but also repaired (and possibly sized down) over the years.

Repair work
Curious thick red threads hanging at side seams
Hand stitched button holes

The hand sewing on this gown is impeccable. Whoever made this (original) gown was a very talented and meticulous seamstress. Not only are the button holes flawless but all the hand stitching is uniformly applied. The inside seams are whip stitched with the tiniest little stitches- one almost needs a magnifying glass to see them.

Sleeves may have possibly been reworked at a later date.
The armscye has a hand sewn binding.

However, whoever reworked this dress was not quite so fastidious. Most of the restyling was done to the skirt. And it has a lot of issues.

Very crudely cut edge

A variety of machine stitches on the reworked skirt

More possible repair work
Combination of hand and machine gathers
Definite machine sewing

The skirt length was let down- meaning, the original skirt was probably 2″ shorter than it is now. This is consistent with the preference for shorter hemlines in the 1880s. One can see the original hand sewn hem and the line where it originally was.

Comparison of the original hem

I estimate whoever wore this gown was probably 5’7″ or so based upon the current skirt length. I inquired about the provenance of this gown and the owner of Past Perfect Vintage stated the original owner of this gown purchased it in 1994 from the Bunker Hill Trading Post (near Connersville, IN). Connersville is a small city in rural SE Indiana, about mid way between Indianapolis and Cincinnati. So it is most likely a southeastern Indiana or possibly southern Ohio piece.


Wherever this dress originated, it was definitely meant to be worn- and it was… for many years! A great example of how “old” garments were restyled and refashioned as silhouettes changed.

An extant 1880s cotton bustle gown

I found this gown at Past Perfect Vintage via the Vintage Fashion Guild’s blog. Past Perfect Vintage is a purveyor of antique fashions and a source I have used in my Costume History Pages.

Here are the details:
Antique 1880s Victorian Bustle Print Cotton Dress 
This 2 pc dress is c. 1885 – 88. The fabric? A lovely brown on ochre cotton print with an overall leaf pattern. The fitted bodice is darted with a 23 button front closure and all the buttons are amazingly present. The bodice has a stand collar, self fabric reveres, and pleated tails. The skirt ha a left side front opening, three tucks across the front and gathers at the back waist to accommodate a bustle. We show this over a wire frame and a petticoat. It would look bets with a smaller bustle pad, or a shorter frame. The skirt may have been restyle ca. 1891 to a slimmer line. The skirt is slightly faded compared to the bodice. 

Labels: none

Size: Bodice: Bust: 32″
Waist: 24″
Shoulders: 13″
Sleeves: 23″ 
CB Neck to Waist: 14 ¾” 
Skirt: Waist: 26” 
Waist to Hem Center Front: 41” 

Condition: Very good, and strong. There is a scattering of small spots on the left shoulder as shown in close-up, and there are light areas and a water stain on the back of the skirt a shown. The skirt has not closures, it was possibly pinned. There is an odd piecing at the waist that is covered by the bodice. This has not been laundered, being cotton it would be possible with care. 

All images/details courtesy Past Perfect Vintage.

I purchased this dress through their Etsy shop. I look forward to studying this gown more closely in person!

Time for Elegance

One of my favorite freelance costumers now has a website! If you are not yet familiar with Fanny Wilk- owner of Temps d’ Elegance, her costuming is absolutely exquisite.

  
She creates period women’s clothing from the Renaissance up to the 20th century. Her 18th century work is especially breathtaking. 

You can view more of Fanny Wilk’s work on her new website, Facebook page, or Blog!

Q&A: Getting started in "the business"

I recently responded to an inquiry from a recent college graduate who is interested in pursuing a career in historic costume and fashion history. This individual is a local resident and 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.”
(Names and other identifying information have been omitted for privacy reasons.)
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 simple living history interpretation to museum curatorial work to teaching (although this is the smallest field). If there is a large film network in your city, you may wish to connect with them. You might want to contact your state film commission and connect with professional theater groups as well. Also, one last recommendation is to join the Costume Society of America. You have to pay an annual membership, but 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?
I do not know of any of TN state schools that offer degrees in costume or fashion history.
I do know that UNC- Chapel Hill has a great grad program specifically in costume. Kent State in Ohio has a great fashion design program and opportunity for curatorial work. And, Ohio State has a a highly reputable grad film school. I recommend these because I know people who have graduated from these programs and have gone on to be successful in their field of study.
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?
I still reference my old college textbook all the time- 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. And my all time favorite book 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 it is from. I do 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 on a deadline), this is just not always appropriate. The labor cost would be too high. Therefore, I try to replicate historic construction techniques as closely as possible within reason. I machine sew as much of the garments as possible. If I am making something prior to 1840, I typically hand sew any thread work that will show on the outside (i.e. hems, button holes, etc.)
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. My mother taught me to sew by machine when I was 13. I also worked in the University costume shop in college.
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. With massive amounts of cheap imported garments, home sewing is becoming an obscure hobby and domestic fabric suppliers are drying up faster than you can say “Welcome to BigMart.”
Over the past year I have experimented with purchasing materials online and have had a mixed experience. Sometimes I got what I expected, but oftentimes I did not. Most of the online retail fabric stores purchase lots of discontinued fabrics and they tend to run out of your fiber before they can process your order.
Because of this issue, I am currently working with a wholesale vendor who carries period prints and fibers. I am seriously thinking about extending my business by offering reproduction fabrics for resale.
Q: Are they worth the time and money when constructing a period garment, or can they easily be replaced by modern-day substitutes?
It is my personal opinion that spending a little extra money to purchase period correct fabric is worth it. I am a 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 existing 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. Before I was limited to just what was already out there. But now the possibilities are endless!
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. It was then that I began labeling them with the name “Maggie May.”
In high school I made my first dress- a really bad 18th century gown inspired by the movie Last of the Mohicans. When I graduated, I wanted to attend an art school in Atlanta. However, our local university offered me a full scholarship. It was a tough call, but I made the choice to accept the full scholarship and declared myself a history major. The university had a Fashion Merchandising program and a professor with a PhD in Historic Clothing and Textiles. The History department was gracious enough to allow me to focus my JR and SR year studies specifically on Historic Costume and Textiles under the tutelage of this professor. While there, I also earned a degree in the Fine Arts and worked in the theater’s costume shop each semester. It was during my experience in the costume shop I learned the most about Costume Design as a profession.
I sold my first historic costume when I was a Senior in high school. During college, I operated a “sutlery” and offered my clothing for sale at local Civil War re-enactments. In 2000, I began my website and started branching out beyond the Civil War Era. Since then, I have worked for dozens of museums, a few films, and one major television network.
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. I do know a few individuals in the film industry, but all work comes directly from my website. Publishing scholarly articles about historic clothing has helped establish my reputation as a historic costumer and that is how I have come to work as a historic clothing consultant for a variety of films.
In closing, here is some advice:
Get connected- network amongst professionals already working in the field.
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 to professionals
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!
Hope this gives you a little direction in your pursuits!
My Best!
-Susan Jarrett