August 9, 2019

How to get started with Historical Costuming

One of the questions I get frequently is "How do I get started with Historical Costuming" which is a question that is so broad and overwhelming that I struggle to answer it.  There are 100 followup questions that need to be asked before I can even begin answering it so the challenge starts early.  Hopefully this will be a good resource for people who want to dip their toes in this wonderful, expansive community!

It took me 15 years to get to this point :)

How To Get Started with Historical Costuming:


I'm joking, but this is actually true. The most important thing is just to do it. You can throw this whole guide away and just google "how to make a petticoat", pick up and needle and thread, and just make a dang petticoat, and go from there.  But if you would like a bit more guidance...

How to Get Started with Historical Costuming with A Bit More Information:

I'm going to start this guide with the assumption that you know how to sew just a little bit at least.  When I started historical costuming, I had a tiny amount of sewing knowledge under my belt.  I had taken a costume class when I was in college and had learned the basics of sewing machines, used exactly 1 commercial pattern, and had hemmed a bunch of pants.  I wasn't even close to being an expert but I wasn't totally new to it.  If you don't know how to sew just a little bit you can still do this, but know you will be learning how to do *TWO* new things, not one.  Sewing and historical costuming are parallel but separate skill sets.

1.  Pick Your Era

One of the reasons the question is so hard to answer is because "historical costuming" can mean anything from Byzantine Queens to WWII pilots and the steps you need to take are wildly different.  You need to start by decided what you want do start with.  Do you want to make a Regency dress for a Jane Austen Festival?  Do you want to make an Edwardian day dress for a picnic?  Is there a Revolutionary War battle near you and you'd like to dress up? Do you just want to start sewing without an event in mind? All of that is great!  I recommend starting with a specific decade and focusing in there.

2. Start Researching

The first thing you need to do, before you even pick up a needle (and especially before you spend any money!) is to start doing image-based research. Look for paintings/pictures and extant garments from your chosen decade so you can start to get a feel for the period. Start a pinterest board and keep track of the images you find that inspire you, but DON'T TRUST PINTEREST CAPTIONS!  There is a lot of misidentified items there so it can be dangerous if you're using that as your primary search engine, but look for pins that link back to museums, wikipedia, etc. And create your own pins from your research across the internet and don't forget to use citations when you create them! Pinterest is a great way to keep yourself organized.

3. Use Social Media

When I first started costuming, there wasn't really social media.  There was Livejournal and about a dozen costume blogs.  Most museums didn't have their collections online. There was no instagram.  Facebook was a thing but only college students at harvard were using it. I had to actually go to a physical library to get books (THE HORROR). The explosion of social media in the last decade+ has been the best thing that has ever happened to historical costuming. There is just SO MUCH information available now! Use this to your advantage!

A: Instagram - this community has been very active in the last few years and I'm constantly inspired by the costumers who I see there. Even if you don't want to join instagram and participate, you can still use the hashtags to see what other people are doing.  The #HistoricalCostume and #Costuming hashtags are active and receive a lot of posts.
My Instagram:

B: Facebook - Facebook groups are a great way to connect more personally to other historical costumers.  I don't know all of the groups out there, but use the search function to find groups with your interest like "18th Century Sewing" "Historical Costuming" and  "Regency Costuming" for example.  There are many groups.  Join every one you can find and then see which ones are right for you. Don't feel bad about leaving a group if it isn't what you need or you don't find the posts helpful.
My Facebook:

C: Blogs - Five years ago blogs were where the action was in historical costuming. Unfortunately that isn't really the case anymore but there is still an incredible amount of information available and you should use it.  Use generic search terms to find blogs you are looking for (ie. "1770s dress blog") and start clicking links here and there. You'll find great resources and many blogs that are still active.
My blog: You're here!

D: Youtube - This seems to be a medium in infancy when it comes to costuming, but there are some really great resources out there.
My Youtube:

4. Ask Questions

Once you've found those costumers on instagram, facebook, or blogs, don't be afraid to ask *specific* questions.  Try not to ask vague questions that are hard to answer, but most costumers are happy to give details about what they have created and shared.

Bad: "How did you make that?"
Good "Did you use a pattern for this?" "What stitch did you use here?" "Did you have a specific inspiration image for this outfit?"
NOTE:  If this thing you are seeing comes with a description, please read it before you ask the question.  There is nothing worse than someone asking you a question that you have already answered.

Bad: "How much did that cost?"
Good:  "What is the typical cost for X type of fabric that you are using here?"

Bad: "Where did you learn to do this?"
Good: "Do you have any blogs/resources that you found helpful when you were making this dress"

Bad "Can I borrow this dress?"
That is seriously a question I get and there isn't even a good version.  JUST NO.

Something to keep in mind - very experienced costumers will probably not be using the same resources as a beginner costumer. An experienced costumer may say something like "I based it on this extant gown" or "I used one of the diagrams in Patterns of Fashion." Once you have some experience you too will be able to use these types of resources, but it will take some time. Don't get discouraged if you ask an advanced costumer and the answer isn't helpful. Have faith in yourself that you will get there eventually and ask some people who are more at your level in your sewing journey. Finding a group of peers who you can learn with is incredibly beneficial and helpful as you all learn together.

5. Start Sewing (finally!) (Well...sort of)

It's no coincidence that this step is so far down the list. You should arm yourself with information before you get started. More importantly you should arm yourself with the knowledge of how to get information before you get started. You will have a lot of questions as you progress and you need to learn how to answer those questions. Because you have done the first 4 steps you will now know what to do and where to look when those questions arise!

I'd recommend starting your first project with a pattern.  I'm not going to recommend anything specific here but this is a question you can ask in your facebook groups you've joined or you may come across the answer in one of the blogs you have read.

But here's the hard part:  don't start with the dress.  I know!  I KNOW!  It's what you want to sew - the pretty thing, the fancy thing, the thing that is actually a garment you can wear.  But you *must* start with the underwear first!  Assuming you are doing anything from like the 1400s to the 1910s, you need some type of corset. The foundation garments are absolutely critical to the dress fitting properly and it looking decent on you. You cannot escape this step.  If you can afford to buy a corset or stays then that's probably a good place to spend some money. Yes, they are expensive, but a good foundation garment is an investment that will last you years and years. If you're low on funds or high on confidence then you can absolutely make one yourself. A set of stays was the very first historical thing I ever sewed because I didn't know they were supposed to be hard. They were hideous but they got me through my first few years of reenacting just fine. It can definitely be done.

You also need petticoats to go under the dress and depending on the period, may need additional foundation garments like hoopskirts or bumrolls.  This is where your research comes in - by now you will have hopefully learned what goes under the dress you want to make and you should start with that. It is CRITICAL that these items are made before you make your dress because you will need to fit your garments over these items.  If you try to make the dress and then the undergarments it just won't fit properly and you will be disappointed and disheartened (just guess how I learned this!). Undergarments not only create the important foundation for your outer garments, they also will give you some practice sewing before you start on the harder stuff.

6. Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember is that this takes time, diligence, devotion, and attention. Like any other skill you will not be good at this immediately. You will be frustrated. You will make catastrophic mistakes. You will ruin projects because of carelessness and silly mistakes. You will cry and throw your projects across the room (if you are anything like me). In two years you will hate the first thing you made. You will feel like you have no idea what you are doing. But keep at it - I promise it will get easier and better.

Historical costuming is a marathon, not a sprint. I've been doing this for 15 years and I still make things that don't fit me, I still abandon projects because they aren't going well, and I am still learning new techniques. The wonderful thing about this hobby is that you will be able to learn for the rest of your life. There is a passionate community of people who want to see you succeed and make lovely things and learn from you. No one will care that your first dress isn't perfect. Are you worried about that?  Don't be. We all remember what it is like to be a beginner and I promise you that most of us will just be really proud of you for making something. You cannot learn and improve until you start, SO JUST GET STARTED!

Generic Multi-Era Links you may find useful:

My Amazon Book/Took Recommendations (note that these are affiliate links:)

Redthreaded Corsetry and Patterns:

Historical Sewing with Jennifer Rosbrugh (multi-era tutorials and classes):

Burnley and Trowbridge Fabrics and Notions:

Renaissance Fabrics (good for other eras too!):

Historical Sew Fortnightly:

Costume College (an annual conference held in California):

The Fashionable Past/Koshka-the-Cat's Blog:

American Duchess Blog:

January 20, 2019

An 18th Century Ballet Costume

When I started musing about costumes I wanted to take to Carnivale in Venice, I immediately knew an 18th Century ballet costume was going onto my list.  I'd always love the frothy, impractical silliness of these costumes but had never had a good excuse to make one.  But it seemed perfect for Venice!

There's a large series of ballet costumes painted by Jean-Frederic Schall in the 18th Century, and while they are obviously stylized (um...look at those waists!) they provided my main inspiration for my dress

Starting out I only had two specific ideas: I wanted it to lace up the front (so much easier for getting in and out of!) and I wanted to use up stash fabric.

Because each element is an individual piece, this was a great project for using up scraps and small yardage, including trim!

Here are the pieces of this outfit:
Underskirt of striped silk taffeta
Overskirt of pink taffeta
Bodice of yellow taffeta
Separate puffed sleeves of cotton organza

The real trick to this outfit is the volume of the skirts.  The foundations of this outfit are my pocket hoops that I wear with my francaise gown AND my largest but roll, which I typically wear with my 1780s gowns.  This gives full volume all the way around.  A thick quilted underpetticoat is put over the supports to smooth the lines between the two supports and fill in the gaps.

Pockets Hoops
Paired with my largest false rump!
 And then I have a quilted cloth underpetticoat that goes over all of it.  This fabric came from Renaissance Fabrics and they currently have an ivory in stock.  This stuff is AWESOME for making underpetticoats!

Once the underpetticoat is over it, everything is nice and smooth and you can't see the differences between the hoops and the rump.

Next comes the petticoat of gold and yellow striped silk, which is just a simple shortened petticoat.  It closes only at the back with one tie and I concentrated the volume at the sides and back.

Over that goes the pink petticoat.  This one was made a bit shorter that the striped one, then I pulled up four puffs (two in the front and two in the back) and tacked on a ribbon bow.  The pink petticoat closes in the FRONT only.  I just have it safety pinned so that no ties hang out of the front of the bodice.

Over that goes the bodice of the outfit.  I just used my basic 18th Century bodice pattern that I use for most of my gowns, but made it sleeveless, cut the waist a bit higher than normal (to allow for maximum puff from the skirts!) and closed the front with eyelets instead of pins. The center back seam is boned with a piece of synthetic whalebone.

The sleeves are simply a MUCH wider version of my regular 18th Century sleeve with two gathering channels sewn in and it drawn up to fit my arms.  The sleeve was then attached to a cotton tape and tacked down into the armseye of the bodice. 

This is worn with my American Duchess shoes:
My hair features buckles and hair pads from JennylaFleur:
And I'm wearing earrings from me, Dames a la Mode:

Et voilà!

March 31, 2018

New Reproduction Historical Rings

I'm very excited to announce that I now have historically-inspired rings available for your reenacting and historical costuming purposes!  These rings are modeled after ones seen in 18th century portraits.  They are made with Quartz stones - a nice way to get the large size of the rings in the period without the cost of a large gemstone- and real Pearls.  They are all made with Vermeil, which is a fancy term for Gold-plated Sterling silver for those of us with metal allergies.

My new rings are available on my Dames a la Mode website.

Here are a few of the portraits that I used as inspiration:

Portrait of a Lady, 1760, The Bowes Museum
She's wearing what looks like a large oval pink or red stone.

 The  Comtesse de Ceres by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun ,1784
The Comtesse is wearing a large square-shaped blue stone

Doña María de la Luz by Miguel Cabrera, 1760.  The Brooklyn Mueum.
She's wearing several rings, including two large single stones - one on each hand!

And don't worry, Gentlemen!  There is also some evidence that you can wear these large rings, too!

Detail of L'Ecriture by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1752.
Would you like to see more examples?  Here's a link to my Pinterest page of rings in Georgian art - and you'll also seem some examples from other time periods, too!

Shop all of my available rings on my website:

December 28, 2016

It's time for Georgian January!

I'm delighted to announce the 2nd Annual Georgian January Instagram Challenge!  I hosted this Instagram challenge for the first time last year and was blown away by how much fun it was.  I've been looking forward to doing it again all year! Want to join in? It's so easy!  

-First, make sure you have an Instagram account (sign up here if you don't have one: and follow me @Dames_a_la_mode (  If you don't have Instagram, feel free to join in on whatever platform you have- your blog, facebook, pinterest!  The whole point is to discover the beauty of the Georgian Era, so don't let the lack of Instagram dissuade you, just keep in mind that you may miss out on some of the social aspects of the challenge. 

-Second, each day check the theme and post an image related to that theme.  The only rules are that it has to be constrained within the very broad confines of the Georgian Era, 1714-1830.  I know that the Georgian Era technically describes a part of British history, but I'm not playing by those rules.  Any place goes...the time frame is the important part. It  can be literally anything that is in any way related to the Georgian Era.  Last year we had art, clothes, cartoons, jewelry (of course!), reenactors, historical seamstresses, keepsakes, buildings, places, animals, and people!  Go crazy!

-Third, make sure to use the hashtag #GeorgianJanuary in your posts and tag me so I can see what you're posting.  And then explore the hashtag.  I can 100% guarantee you that you will see beautiful and inspiring things that you have never seen before and find new like-minded Georgian lovers to follow on Instagram.  

We're in for a wild ride this time, because last year when I did this I think I had in the neighborhood of 1,000 followers and right now I'm up over 15,000, so hopefully that means we will have A LOT more people joining in on our Georgian adventure!

And now the important part...the themes:

So start thinking about your images now and get inspired!  I can't wait to see you all on January 1st!

December 3, 2016

Historical Christmas Wishlist!

Do you have a history-lover or reenactor in your life and you're stumped about what to get them?  Are you drawing a blank on what to add to your own wishlist?  Here are some of my favorite ideas for historically-themed holiday gifts this year!

$30 and Under:

Historical apothecary from LBCC Historical:  I adore the historically inspired cosmetics and apothecary goods from LBCC!  I personally use a lot of them in my costuming AND everyday life.  A favorite in our house is the "Fine Salve for Beautifying the Face" which does everything from moisturizing my lips to keeping Mr. Dames a la Mode's hands from getting chapped due to winter bike riding!

Jane Austen Teas from Bingley's Teas:  These delightful teas are on regular rotation in my teapot.  My personal favorites are Longbourne Wedding Tea and Lizzy Bennet's Wit, but each one I've tried is delicious!

Antique Ribbons from Bulldog and Baum:  There is SUCH promise in a length of ribbon.  It inspires my creativity and makes me itch to make something beautiful.  Bulldog and Baum has some of the loveliest ribbon you'll find anywhere!

Patterns and Guides from The Old Petticoat Shop:  I've taken several of Jennifer's online classes and they are so helpful.  This Corded Petticoat Workbook looks like it would be so helpful!

Reproduction Regency Pearl Earrings from Dames a la Mode: I based these earrings off of several 19th Century portraits, but they are truly timeless!

$30 and Up:

Replica Jane Austen Cross from Dames a la Mode:  My custom-made crosses are as close as you can get to Jane's in size, shape, and color!  A must-have for any Jane Austen lover.

Reproduction Muffs from The Lady Detalle:  Her stock changes frequently, but she's just added a lot of gorgeous portrait muffs that are delightful!  The Duchess of Devonshire one is my favorite!

Silk Fabric from Burnley and Trowbridge:  Angela has outdone herself with her latest find of beautiful silk plaids!  And the price is amazing too at only $15/yard!

Handsewn Cap from Flying Heart Millinery:  I own one of these beautifully-made caps and if you've ever cursed while making tiny rolled hems, you'll know that the price on these is excellent!

Silk Satin Cloak Kit from At The Sign of the Golden Scissors:  Everything you need to make up a beautiful 18th century cloak!

An Agreeable Tyrant Exhibition Catalog:  You've probably heard the buzz around this new Federal-era fashion exhibit at the DAR Museum in DC, but if you can't get there in person, this exhibit catalog is an excellent consolation prize!  Lots of images, great information, and even patterns!

$100 and Up:

Historical Corsets by Redthreaded:  I have a pair of her Regency Long Stays, which are my favorite undergarment I own.  And I'm really eyeing her new 1860s Gored Corset, too, which has a beautiful shape!

Historical shoes by American Duchess:  I won't even admit to the quantity of American Duchess shoes I own and will only say that they outnumber my everyday shoes by a considerable margin!  I'm lusting after her new Victorian side-lacing boots!

Reproduction Collet Necklace from Dames a la Mode:  Available in dozens of colors...take your pick!

Many wonderful things to choose from!  What's on your list this year?

March 15, 2016

Gallerie des Modes Inspired 1784 Gown!

I made something and I LOVE IT.  That hasn't happened to me in ages and it is blissful!

This weekend was the 5th Annual Francaise Dinner which for the last two years has been held in Alexandria, VA, and the beautiful Gadsby's Tavern.  As you can tell by the name, the idea is to wear a Francaise gown, but it's also a good excuse to wear something frivolous and ridiculous.

 I've been sitting on 10 yards of silk taffeta for a while that was set aside for a very specific Francaise gown, but the reality is I HATE making them.  I think they are a pain and I really don't like the style all that much, so eventually I threw up my hands and said "I'm gonna make this instead"

Gallerie des Modes, 1784
I really adore this dress.  It is so impractical with the giant skirts and so weird with the narrow ribbon banding and the yellow sleeve blocks.  I happened to be conveniently hoarding a whole lot of purple silk taffeta, and while it wasn't the lovely lilac of this gown, it was a gorgeous plumb color.

This dress was supposed to be one of those easy ones, but with one of the worst cases of sleevils I've ever dealt with, it ended up like all the others:  the desperate panic of two-hours-before-the-event sewing.  A group of us got ready at a hotel in the hours before the party, so while I managed to have the gown itself done before I left my house, I walked into the hotel room with a spool of thread and a piece of yellow silk and proceeded to make it right there on the floor of the hotel room (I'm embarrassed to say I'm famous for doing crap like this...when will I ever learn?!).  BUT! Thanks to the lovely Carolyn, who hemmed the petticoat for me, I ended up with a totally wearable gown. There wasn't even a single safety pin in it anywhere, y'all!

Obviously the biggest feature of this gown is the giant puff of skirt and even though I cut them impractically long they STILL weren't long enough!  I upped the puff factor by using three widths of fabric in the skirts instead of the usual two.  It's wide fabric, too- 58"!   There is a hell of a lot of silk pleated into that waist!  But the result was perfect.  I'm only wearing a small bum pad and my marsailles cloth underpetticoat for bulk, but that is about 85% skirt you see there.  It was so light and fluffy!

There really isn't much rhyme or reason to the puffing- about an hour before I put it on I took 5 big tucks in the upper part of the skirt and tacked them down.  I didn't even measure or anything.  Having this much fabric was very forgiving!

Laced my stays too tightly, haha!  Nice to know I can breathe a little deeper next time I wear this!

It still need a little more work to be perfect- the petticoat needs a band of ribbon and I need to move the location of the sleeve bows so they face outward more- but overall I'm just thrilled with this gown.  It was so fun to wear and easy to move in, since I wasn't burdened by heavy or awkward skirt supports!

ALSO: Best hair I've ever managed by myself, hands down!  I was really excited by how good it turned out!  

December 4, 2014

An 18th-Century Photoshoot

I had the absolute pleasure to be a model in a recent photoshoot in Fredericksburg, Va with my dear friend Jenny-Rose of the fabulous Jenny la Fleur (who, incidentally, inspired me to get into costuming a hundred years ago!).  She just finished cosmetology school and is an WIZARD with historical hair styles.  (She's the one who did my 1790s hair last year).  She and her friend Treneka, of For the Joy Photography, were looking to collaborate on a photography session and they asked me to come along.  Always a sucker for having my hair done (and getting professional photos of my Georgian Jewelry), I agreed readily.

I arrived Saturday afternoon and was immediately given a glass of champagne and airbrushed makeup (the secret to looking pretty!).  We had such a fun time, and I thought I'd share some of Treneka's exquisite photos!

I wore my "oh this old thing" crossbarr'd silk gown (which is still my favorite after a lot of wears) and my beloved green shoes from American Duchess.

Photos: For the Joy Photography
Hair and Styling: Jenny la Fleur
Gown and Jewelry by me, Dames a la Mode

Can you even believe this amazing hair?

Here's a little background shot of Jenny-Rose fixing me up!

And, lest you think all of my pictures look this good, I can assure you that Treneka had to delete about a thousand where I am making faces like this one :)

What a fun and wonderful day!  Thank you for the laughter, ladies, and for making me feel like an absolute princess!

February 13, 2014

Millinery Flowers as Trim on Regency Ball Gowns

The Drunk Tailor and I decided on a whim (spurred by a wonderful Southwest sale) to head up to Massachusetts for the Dolley Madison Ball hosted by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers.  I used to live in the Boston area but hadn't been back in over three years, so it was a wonderful opportunity to visit friends and play in Regency clothes in on fell swoop!

I had grand plans to make a net ball dress, but the silk organdy I was using was so infuriating that I couldn't bring myself to finish.  Instead, I re-purposed by well-worn Laure Bro white voile gown.  I decided to actually use some of the hundreds of paper millinery flowers I have taking up space in my house, and went to the fashion plates to gather some inspiration:

Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1813

Ackermann's Repository of the Arts, Ball Dress, October 1816

Journal des Dames et des Modes, Ball Dress, 1808.

Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1808

Journal des Dames et des Modes, Ball Dress, 1809

Journal des Dames et des Modes, Ball Dress, 1821.

La Belle Assemblee, Court Dress, 1819.

La Belle Assemblee, Ball Dress, June 1811.

The Lady's Magazine, Ball Dress, November 1825.

Journal des Dames et des Modes, Ball Dress, 1804.
They are all lovely gowns, but in particular I loved this last one and that was the one that gave me the most inspiration. Unfortunately I didn't bring enough flowers with me to do the arrangement of the flowers up the center front of the gown.  That was poor planning on my part, having just packed a bunch of flowers and leaves without really seeing how many I would need to do this arrangement.  I also used paper lilies instead of my roses, but overall I was very pleased with the effect!

These are the lilies and paper leaves I used, both of which are available in my Etsy shop

Each festoon was 1 cluster of five lilies, with three leaves on either side.  I used a few extras to accent the ribbon tie (inspired by Quinn's post on adding some variety to where we tie the ribbons on our Regency gowns!) and to stick in my hair.  We joked that I was the Regency Frieda Kahlo all night, but I think the overall look was pretty lovely, if I say so myself!  I feel like I capture the look of the fashion plates, and I think the flowers in the hair is what really put the look over the top!

As you can see, I accessorized with one of my Collet Necklaces, just like so many of the ladies in the fashion plates!

And a silly dancing fashion-plate pose, of course!
Action shot!
We had a really marvelous time.  The music was wonderful, I was really impressed with the quality of the costumes, the setting in a historic hall was perfect, and everyone was very friendly even though I messed up the steps in every single dance.  You know it has been a good time when they play the last dance and you think "What?!  Already?  But we just got here, didn't we?!"  I'm ready to go back again, and if you are in the New England area you should really make an effort to attend one these functions.