Getting Started In Historical Costuming Series #1 – Choose One Historical Period to Begin

I am getting asked this question a lot, which means it is time for a series of posts on this subject.

I am limiting the scope of the information to historical costuming – it is not the only type of costuming out there!  There is Steam Punk, Cosplay … many variations and some crossover.  But to keep things simple, I’ll stick to historical costuming, which means (to me at least):

The design and creation of clothing that is a historically accurate reproduction of clothing worn during a known period of history.

There is a lot of wiggle room here – we all differ on our definitions of historically accurate, sometimes even from one project to the next.  It is also an ongoing process of discovery.  Especially with the availability of quality images of museum collections online, we are always learning something new.  This quality and quantity of information did not exist when I began over 25 years ago.

So, you want to start?  First Question: What historical period do you want to start with?

You may be like me and answer “all of the above”.  But realistically you have to start with one.  This choice will be part personal preference and part opportunity; some historical periods have more resources available than others.  It is not much fun to sew outfits and have nowhere to wear them.  You will want to consider groups that already exist for the periods are interested in.  

Reenacting vs Costuming

The easiest people to find in most places are the reenactors.  I am including volunteer interpreters at historical sites in this group because both of them have interests beyond just costuming.  Reenacting is focused on re-creating a specific war, while historical sites interpret a period of history that is relevant to their site.  In both cases the costuming is part of the larger goal, so if you join one of these types of groups you must remember that. For this to be a good experience you need to be interested in more than just the clothing.  It may be military history, home making practices, schools, or other institutions and situations.  Read the websites and other materials put out by the group and only join it if you feel their interests and missions are compatible with your own.

These groups have their own mixes of personalities.  Some are very welcoming to newcomers and others can be downright catty and mean.  Spend some time with them before you commit and make sure their goals and group culture are a good fit for you.  Nobody should make you feel bad because you are a beginner, or want something different from what they do – we were all beginners once.  If you encounter people like that, run and don’t let them steal your joy!

I started with a Civil War Reenactment unit.  It is the most popular reenactment period so it is not difficult to find a group to join.  Since then my interests have changed and now I belong to a French and Indian / War of 1812 group.  If you go this route, keep in mind that your group will have its own standards and you will need to work within those guidelines.  Reenactment groups involve a lot of other activities – like camping – and usually travel.  You will need to buy additional gear to participate fully – eating utensils, plates, mugs, tents, camp equipment, weapons, etc.  I personally do not like camping and always stay in a nearby hotel.  In camp, I represent a seamstress and that is how I get a lot of my hand sewing done!  If it is a large event and I am going shopping, I can dress as a fine lady without looking out of place. 

If war is not your thing, volunteering with one of your local historical sites is a good way to go.  You will not need to buy a ton of gear other than a few personal items for your impression.  You will need to fit in to and enhance their program in some way – it is not fair to expect them to just give you an opportunity to dress up.  However, many of them welcome costumed guests on their main event days, just be sure to check ahead of time.  If you do come as a costumed guest, please wear an outfit of the right period.  Don’t stick out like a sore thumb in a Civil War dress at Rev War living history day.  They will not welcome you if you detract from their event.

Decide Who You Are

Before you can start to narrow down your choices further, you will need to have an idea of the type of person you want to portray.  If you are fascinated by period laundry techniques and want to develop a laundry display, you will not need a wardrobe of ball gowns!  Some of us (myself included) go at this backwards and decide to portray a certain type of person BECAUSE we want to make a certain outfit.  But in order for that to work, you have to have a good idea of what venues are available and what their requirements are, so that you do not find out $2500 in that your group does not want a Victorian ballet dancer.

Beyond that, having an idea of who you are portraying will give you some targets to go after as far as fabric and trim choices, accessories, etc.  It will narrow you choices and help you focus, and help you avoid buying a lot of things that you like individually, but don’t go together well.

Costuming for Its Own Sake

If you are lucky, there may be groups in your area specifically for historical costuming, a gathering place for those who want to make and wear historical clothing for its own sake.  They can have their own events, join with other sites’ events, or even have timeline events where people can wear clothing from more than one period to one event.   There is a national group, The Costume Society of America (if you are not in the US check for a similar umbrella organization for your country).  Check to see if they have a regional group near you.  There are also large single events dedicated to costuming like Costume College – a great opportunity to learn and show off that outfit from a period you cannot find anywhere else to wear!

1690’s Gown – Not Many Places to Wear!

If there isn’t a costume group in your area, you can always start one!  I did this and now we have the Pittsburgh Historical Costume Society.  Here is a great blog post on how to start a group from American Duchess – Where to Wear – How To Throw Your Own Costume Events

STOP!  Do Some Research and/or Find a Mentor

You will need to decide how historically accurate you want to be, based on the guidelines of your reenacting unit/historical site and your own personal preference.  There is a huge market out there for “costume” historical wear and I use the term in the worst sense – “costume” as in Halloween!  Some of it is even sold at larger reenactments and other places you would expect there to be some standards.  This is why it is a good idea to spend time researching before spending any money.  Buy or borrow some good books on your chosen time period.  See if your reenacting unit / historical society has information for new members.  Look at images of original garments online (Met Museum and V&A are two of my favorites).  There are also great Pinterest boards out there – just make sure they are pinning originals and not copies sold on Ebay or Etsy.  Not that there are not good vendors out there, but to learn you want to look at originals. 

My Pinterest Boards – Original garments only

Movie costumes are great eye candy but are often wildly inaccurate and are not recommended for learning the ropes UNLESS you are going to an event that is into fantasy or movie costuming, like Costume CON.

If you show up at a Civil War Reenactment in this, you might be shot on sight.

If you show up at a Civil War Reenactment in this, you might be shot on sight.

Ideally have a mentor, or at least an active online group focused on your chosen time period, to go for advice.  You will have lots of questions!   When you go shopping at a large event, take your mentor with you for advice before you buy anything.  Garb is expensive and it is no fun to find out later that the item you bought is historically inaccurate and now you are too embarrassed to wear it!   It is better to attend a few events in street clothes and go slowly rather than have this experience.

Next Post in the Series – Make It or Buy It?

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