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:


  1. This is very helpful! Thank you, Madame!

  2. Greetings!! is very usefull and inspired.

  3. I've shared your post with the members on my pattern review group, as many say they are new to costuming. I hope it helps them. I've been there.

  4. On #2, there is a point when research becomes procraftination--something for new (and experienced) folks to be aware of and try to avoid.

  5. Thank you for the advice, now where do I start ..lolll

  6. Thanks for the article. But, I find myself stuck at #1 -- Pick an era. I love 'em all!! Might have to put picks on the wall and throw a a dart....

  7. Thank you for posting this! It's good to know that I haven't been procrastinating - just doing my research! It's also good to know that even the experts make mistakes :) I'm starting with hand sewing as I don't have space for a sewing machine ��

  8. I love that you gave guidance on asking questions. I would like to add that other costumers do not owe you guidance. Most of them are very generous in giving expert advice and great tutorials. But no one owes you an answer. I have seen too many temper tantrums on wonderful pages where someone doesn't get the exact amount of help they demanded. Thank you to all who give the gifts of time, resources, documentation and resources that we enjoy today.