The Ladies' Tea Guild

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dickens Fair costuming for women, part 2: fitting thrift store garments

Cathy Decker. Image from April 1864.
Here are some costume alterations tips; your goal for the finished outfit is to achieve the same "look" as if you were making a set of historic reproduction clothing! To alter a blouse for your Dickens fair costume, you should try it on, turned inside out, over your torso support undergarment (corset or Merry Widow) and any undershirt you plan to wear underneath, in order to fit the blouse so that it looks like a Victorian bodice. To make the blouse into a fitted bodice, carefully make the blouse smaller only between the waist and bust in front, between the armpit and waist on the sides, and between the shoulders and waist in back, by pinching the fabric into vertical, symmetrical, pleats or darts, and pinning the darts in place with safety pins. Make the blouse lie as smoothly as possible, and as closely as possible to your figure, without the fabric pulling or straining. It is easier if a friend is there to help you do this (especially the back), but it can be done in front of the bathroom mirror, too.

When the pinning and fitting is done, carefully take off the blouse and, keeping the darts in place, sew the darts down on the inside of the blouse. To fasten them with fabric glue or iron-on adhesive, follow the instructions on the package, positioning the drops of glue or piece of adhesive inside the darts so that it can't be seen from the right side of the bodice (the side that will be seen when the blouse is worn). If you want to avoid sewing or gluing, you can just leave the safety pins holding the darts in place by themselves, making sure they don’t show from the outside. When you wear the blouse, tuck it in to your skirt waistband.

To alter the matching skirt, put it on over the support undergarment, your underskirt and hoop skirt (if you have one) and the fitted blouse bodice. If it is too large, use safety pins to make the waistband close as firmly as you can, or sew on a dress hook and bar. If the waistband is too small, see if you can pin or sew some matching fabric at the waistband opening to cover the gap and allow the skirt to close securely. If the skirt has a pocket or two made of the same fabric, take the pocket apart and use the fabric to fill the gap. If not, safety-pin the skirt opening closed as far up as you can, turn the gap to the back, and make sure to wear a wide belt or sash to cover your waistline when in costume. If the skirt waistline is so much smaller than your own waist, that the gap in the skirt opening can't be covered just by a belt, then you'll need to make or improvise a decorative belt with a bow, hanging ends, or a flounce at the back, big enough to cover any gaps. (Tips for making a decorative belt with flounce will be in a later post!)

Try on the skirt again, over your hoop and petticoats, and make sure that the skirt hem covers them completely, and reaches at least to your ankles. If it drags on the floor, turn the hem to the inside so that it is 2 inches above the floor, and sew or glue it in place. You can even use duct tape to fasten it in place if it will stick to the fabric of your skirt. If the skirt is too short, look for an old sheet or tablecloth in a solid color that matches or coordinates with the rest of your costume (or plain black), and cut a strip from it that is long enough to match the hem of your skirt (plus 2 inches), and 1 or 2 inches wider than you need to reach from the skirt hem (as it came from the thrift store) to a point 2 inches from the floor. You'll need to have someone help you measure when you are wearing your skirt over the petticoat and hoop (if you're wearing one). Put a 1 inch hem in one long side of the tablecloth strip using needle and thread, fabric glue or duct tape, and then sew or glue the other long edge to the bottom edge of your skirt. Also, sew or glue the short edges of the strip together, tucking the raw edges to the inside and making sure that the tablecloth strip lays smoothly and no stitches or raw edges show when you wear the skirt. You can glue or safety-pin a line of braid or other trim on your skirt to cover up the seam between the skirt and the contrasting extension, if you like. You can then use the rest of the fabric in the tablecloth to make trim for your blouse bodice, to tie it in to the design!

Sleeves, collars and accessories will appear in later posts!

The official Dickens Fair costume guide
Dickens Christmas Fair website
Kay Gnagey’s 19th Century Costume Research Center
Elizabeth Stewart Clark’s Sewing Academy


Katherine said...

Thank you for your articles! I am working on dresses for myself and daughter and haven't the time to research. The tips you give are very helpful!

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

I'm glad to help! This is just stuff I've learned over the years working on my own costume and working on costumes with a local community theater group.

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)