are three basic types of documentation for you to consider: Primary,
Secondary, and Rumor.
Primary documentation consists of actual garments and photos of garments
from any given era. Descriptions of garments from costume scholars such as Janet
Arnold (Patterns of Fashion) and Nancy Bradfield (Costume in Detail: 1730-1930) also count as primary documentation.
Patterns of clothing that were published in many Victorian women’s magazines and tailor’s books from the
1500’s have been republished; such books are good sources. I also include
engravings from catalogues of stores which sold the garments. Those engravings
may be slightly idealized, but people bought the clothing with the expectation of wearing what they saw in the catalogue.
Secondary documentation can be found in fashion plates, which are very idealized,
in engravings found in stories printed in the time period (if they refer to that time, not to history), in portraits and paintings
of living (at the time) subjects, and in some post-era books devoted to clothing and paintings. Each of these sources have a distinct bias, but that bias can be determined and compensated for.
the bias may not be easy to see unless you have studied the clothing involved. A
bustle on a medieval dress will show you the Victorian influence, but mild Georgian paniers on a Victorian dress were a real
Victorian fashion. With a bustle.
of earlier clothing done during the later Victorian era tend to look corseted with curves (pre-1800 corsets look stiff and
straight), and often have a bit of a bustle. The Edwardians liked to add the
pouter pigeon bust. The Roaring Twenties artists often “simplified”
the lines of the clothing into straight, flapper-like frocks. Redrawings of clothing
done in the 1960’s tended to be lithe and willowy. These are all generalities,
but they give you points to watch for.
you get redrawings of redrawings … at that point you are in trouble. With
each “interpretation”, new inaccuracies creep in. The Victorian and
Edwardian costume historians were firm believers in using redrawings to create their new works, probably because it was so
hard for them to get access to the original work. I’m told John Peacock’s
drawings are of that genre, but I don’t own any of his works to double check for you.
Whenever I find I am dealing with a redrawing, I add it to the Rumor category
unless I can compare it to the original source.
Rumor, more politely known as tertiary documentation, consists of poorly
researched or heavily biased redrawings of old portraits and statuary. Victorian
versions of Medieval clothing can be hysterically funny – if you know the period well.
Costume interpretations drawn during the 1920’s can be jaw-dropping (did that toga really hang like a flapper’s
frock?). If you are just starting out, you might take the work of Carl Köhler
(History of Costume) and Herbert Norris (Tudor Costume and Fashion) as historically correct. Which
they are – part of the time.
historians have a bias, but the earlier the work, the heavier the bias will be. Check
the copyright date, and double check any secondary source that is more than 10 years old.
(Now I’m showing my bias. You probably should double check any secondary
source.) Compare it against the original, if you can. But keep in mind, even people who drew from life had a bias. They
wanted to flatter, or to distort (in the case of satire), or they simply did not understand what they saw. This last problem was especially true when the artist was trying to portray a different culture, but it
was also true when the artist was unfamiliar with the mysteries of fabric.
of garments do not count as documentation. Every sewer adds in the bias and techniques
from their own time. A reproduction, no matter how old or well done, was probably
intended as a masquerade or theater costume, not as an historical tool.
out the local library. You will be very lucky if your library has more than a
few costume related books, but it is worth the time. Remember inter-library loans. Usually such a loan is free or has a very small fee.
It is worth borrowing an expensive book before investing.
the internet, but be wary. Much of what you will find is opinion, not fact, but
don’t let that stop you – sometimes you’ll find amazing things that you can verify elsewhere. Double check anything that seems questionable with known sources or institutional sites. Museums and research libraries are good resources, and many have searchable sites.
in antique clothing have photos on their sites – amazing, wonderful photos! But
beware, often the clothing is misdated. Two of my favorite sites:
Antique and Vintage Dress Gallery -
Woodland Farms Antiques -
your local history museum. Many small museums have a few items of historical
clothing. They often have newspapers and magazines – check out the advertisement
sections. Take along a digital camera, because many museums will not take photocopies
of antique paper, but they usually will permit photographs.
your own library. I suggest you get a couple of overview books first, and then
specialize in a favorite period. Branch out later as finances permit –
books are expensive. Dover has published a series of reasonably priced books,
but you still want to look them over before buying them. They have a few editors,
such as Carol Belanger Grafton, who put out books full of wonderful engravings without a single date or identifying feature! Pure frustration to a costume historian.
of your documentation.
Be concise! The judges have very little time to go over your documentation, but they need to see
enough to show that you know a great deal about your project.
of a few pictures – original engravings or photographs of garments – to illustrate your point. Point out how your outfit matches – or deviates from – the original. Briefly show the techniques you used, if they are different from modern methods, and where you found documentation
of those techniques.
from your costume in your documentation. Describe how this fabric may be different
than the original and why you chose to use it. For example: You used rayon instead of silk due to the cost of that weight of silk.
If the look and hand (or general hang and feel) of the fabric is close, judges will not hold it against you that you
didn’t buy the $75 / yard brocade. Try to use natural fabrics when you
can, though. Polyester rarely looks quite right.
a little different. Write the introduction to your documentation in the form
of a letter, or as the preface of a novel. Keep the joke short, but give a bit
of flavor to your character.
to consider the person wearing this costume.
Who wore this type of outfit, where, and why? No one wore a ball gown
to a skating rink – unless it was a masquerade on ice! Don’t look
foolish or ignorant by wearing velvet in a drudgery situation – unless your character is wearing worn-out fourth hand
clothing. There is an exception to every rule, and if you are aware of the rules,
you can have fun breaking them. Just document it!
Books I recommend for your library - the books I use most
Bloomingdale's Illustrated 1886 Catalog, Bloomingdale Brothers,
1988 (My most worn costume book)
Costume Close-Up: 1750-1790, Linda Baumgarten & John
Watson, Costume & Fashion Press, 1999
Costume in Detail: 1730-1930, Nancy Bradfield, Plays Inc., 1993
(A must have!)
Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg, Linda Baumgarten, Colonial Williamsburg, 1986
Englishwomen's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, C. Cunnington,
(My 2nd most worn costume book)
Fashion in Detail: From the 17th and 18th Centuries, Avril Hart and Susan North, Rizzoli, 1998
Garment Patterns 1889, Jules & Kaethe Kliot, Lacis, 1996
The Guide to Historic Costume, Karen Baclawski, Drama Books,
1995 (Gives museum reference numbers!)
Hispanic Costume: 1480-1530, Ruth Matilda Anderson, The Hispanic
Society of America, 1979
History of Costume, Blanche Payne, Harper, 1965
Illustrated Catalog of 1891, Jordan & Marsh, Dover,
Patterns of Fashion, c1560-1620, Janet Arnold, Quite Specific
Media Group, 1985 (This series is a must!)
Patterns of Fashion 1, 1660-1860, Janet Arnold, Drama Books,
1977 / 1993
Patterns of Fashion 2, 1860-1940, Janet Arnold, Drama Books,
Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, Janet Arnold,
W. S. Maney & Son Ltd., 1988 (Expensive,
but worth it!)
Tailor’s Pattern Book: 1589, Juan de Alcega, Costume
& Fashion Press, 1970/1999 (A must for 1500’s)
Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper's Bazaar: 1867-1898, Stella Blum, Dover, 1974
The Visual History of Costume, Aileen Ribeiro
& Valerie Cumming, Costume & Fashion Press, 1989 / 1997
A Visual History of Costume: The Eighteenth Century, Aileen Ribeiro, Drama Books, 1983
The Well Dress’d Peasant, Drea Leed,
Costume & DressMaker Press, 2000
The Workwoman's Guide, A Lady, Opus Publications, 1838 / 1986