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Historical Costuming - jump right in!

How to get started in historic costuming

First, choose what you want to make:

That’s pretty obvious! But it can be a bit overwhelming.

The three main strategies that people use to get started are:

  1. Pick an era, and make a complete outfit for that era, from the inside out.
  2. Pick a simple item that can be used for multiple eras, and start with that.
  3. Just make the pretty dress, and hope it fits once you make proper undergarments (or buy the undergarments, and make the dress).
How to Get Started in Historical Costuming
Miss Priscilla’s first historical dress, based on a pattern in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion

Here are some tips for doing each of those:

1. Pick an era, and make a complete outfit for that era, from the inside out

This is the most commonly suggested method for getting started. Pick an era, identify the garments and layers for that era, find patterns for each garment, and get working.

That’s how my friend Nina got started two years ago. She settled on Regency, bought patterns for all the pieces, and worked her way through each garment following the pattern. Now she has a full, beautiful, Regency ensemble:

How to Get Started in Historical Costuming

There are a few eras that are traditionally considered easy to start with, because there are lots of patterns for them, they don’t require a huge amount of supportive undergarments, and fitting is reasonably straightforward.

Some easy starter eras are:

Regency: for a start, you’d want a chemise, stays (corset), petticoat, and dress. From there you can add spencers for daywear, sleeveless spencers for balls, and make bonnets and other headwear. Burnley & Trowbridge had a great range of patterns, and suitable fabrics.

Late Victorian (1890s): a basic outfit can consist of a chemise, corset, petticoat, skirt (the Scroop Fantail Skirt can be used for both petticoat and skirt), and a blouse or bodice. Make an evening bodice and a jacket, add hats (for daywear) and accessories and you have three full outfit. Wearing History and Truly Victorian are a good place to start looking for patterns.

1910s: Obviously this one is a favourite of mine! I’ve done a whole series of blog posts on Building your own 1910s-WWI era wardrobe, with links to all sorts of patterns, including my Rilla Corset.

WWI era corset, 1910s corset, Rilla corset, corset pattern

If you’re a little more ambitious, you could work on an era where there aren’t so many patterns:

Medieval (second half of the 14th c): This one is a little harder, because to really get a good fit, you have to drape it on yourself. And it’s really hard to make it look nice if it isn’t mostly handsewn. There are links to all the sources I used in my portfolio for my 1360s dress.

Of course, you don’t have to start with a simple era! If you want to dive right in and make 1660s (chemise, boned bodice, petticoat, skirt), or some other era without nearly as many resources, and that doesn’t scare you, go for it!

While you can go it alone, a piece of advice based on my own experience. It’s definitely easier to sew from existing patterns, and as long as it’s a good pattern to start with, you get a better result in a much faster timeframe, with less tears and frustration. The money you spend on a pattern is often saved in time and materials.

If planning a a whole outfit is too intimidating to contemplate, why don’t you…

2. Pick a simple item that can be used for multiple eras, and start with that

I just tempted my friend Jenni into joining our monthly historical costuming sewing day. She loves the idea of the costumes, but was a bit daunted by starting a whole outfit, and even a chemise seamed (heh heh) a bit much.

So I suggested a fichu: I use mine for 18th c, for Regency, and in a pinch it can even be a Medieval head covering:

How to Get Started in Historical Costuming

We cut out a linen triangle at 1:20, and by the time we packed up at 5, she’d hemmed both short hems, and half the long hem.

A day later she could say she’d finished the first piece of her historical wardrobe!

A reproduction 18th century fichu,
This one’s mine, but Jenni’s looks just like it.

I’m recommending that she make a Regency shift next.

In a pinch you can wear a Regency shift under 18th c, Medieval, most decades of the 19th century, and up until the 1920s. Obviously it’s a cheat for most of those eras, but if you aren’t aiming to be a reenactor, it’s hard to beat a ca. 1805 shift for time-travelling versatility.

Linen Regency chemise

Picking a simple item lets you practice stitches, get the feel of construction, get the satisfaction of ‘making a thing’ without it taking weeks, and build up a lot of the pieces that make an outfit look complete, but that a lot of costumers (cough cough, me) often neglect.

If all that sounds terribly boring, you can:

3. Throw caution to the winds and make the pretty dress to start with

It’s not the most recommended way of starting out, because dresses rarely fit right without the proper undergarments, but…

If chemises and corsets are really too uninspiring, and the thought just puts you right off costuming, it’s your life, and your time, and your sewing. Start with that pretty dress if that’s what you need to do.

Medieval is very forgiving of dress-first, because it isn’t worn with any super-supportive/body shaping undergarments. You’ll probably end up wanting a shift to keep your outer fabric from getting sweaty/dirty, but you can get the fit right without one.

The NZSEHR 2019 in 1360s Medieval gowns

Regency and 1910s aren’t too bad for making your dress before your undergarments. I can wear almost all my Regency & 1910s makes without my stays/corsets underneath them. I’ll even confess to making two Regency dresses before I’d manage to make stays that I was happy with the fit and silhouette of.

Don’t tell, but neither of us is wearing actual Regency stays in this photo…

Both my Regency & 1910s certainly look better with the correct undergarments, and I’m going to be re-making the bodice of my 1810s Kashmiri dress to fit properly over stays (and also because my ribcage is getting bigger with age, sigh). But they are wearable, and look very pretty to the general public.

As long as they make you happy, that’s what matters!

3v2 Make the Pretty Dress, but buy the boring/scary things

The less-risky alternative to sewing without the proper undergarments (if corsetry scares you), is to buy ones already made! There are a ton of makers out there, of varying quality and price range, who can create the bits you don’t want to make.

Redthreaded sells very beautifully made, reasonably priced corsets and stays that will give you the right historical silhouette.

Costume College 2019
Angela of Burnley & Trowbridge at Redthreaded’s Corset stall at Costume College

You’ve chosen what you want to do to get started. What next?

Costume diaries are your friend!

I made my first actually-attempting-to-be historical outfit 17 years ago, following Drea Leed’s classic ‘Constructing a 16th Century Flemish Outfit’, and Festive Attyre’s (sadly no longer live) amazing dress diary.

Mid-16th century Flemish workingwomans dress
This was my ‘smiling isn’t historically accurate’ stage…

Whenever I start a new project, I often begin by browsing blogs, like Demodé, The Fashionable Past (aka. Koshka the Cat), Modern Mantua Maker, and Katafalk and others (though more and more blogs are dormant these days – wailey wailey) just to see who else has made a thing, and what resources they used.

It’s very reassuring to see someone else make their way through a process, to know it’s possible!

But if you’re following a costume diary and a pattern, and are running into things that confuse you, or you’re still stuck on the ‘where to find patterns’ part, you should:

Join Facebook groups and other community discussions

The best way to get personalised help as you’re starting out is on a FB group or other community board, where there are a ton of people, and whoever is online, and has the time at that moment, will answer any question you ask.

A lot of people message me* through this blog asking for help getting started, or with a specific project, and I can’t always answer, either because I’m super busy at the time, or because it’s not an era I’m really expert in. And, if I forget to answer because a message comes when I’m super busy, I feel terrible. I want to make this hobby accessible, but can’t always manage to respond to everything. And every personal message I answer is time taken from public blog posts that could help lots of people. Sometimes I turn personal questions into posts, but that isn’t always possible.

I know a lot of the other more visible costumers feel equally torn between making the hobby accessible, helping one person or helping a lot of people, and taking care of themselves, their actual work, and their private life.

But if you join a FB group ( The Historical Sew Fortnightly; Elizabethan Costume; 18th Century Sewing; Georgian, Regency, Empire, Biedermeier Clothing Construction Support Group; 19th Century Sewing; Historical Pattern Reviews 1700-1929; or 1900-1925 Edwardian-WWI Era Fashion & Costuming, to name just a few of the dozens of groups out there), they are just full of people willing to help new costumers.

Ask a question, costumers all over the world see it, and answers pour in (usually, especially if you follow my tips below).

Costume College Friday
Fabulous people I met on the internets…

Matsukaze Workshops did a comprehensive list of historical costuming FB groups a few years back. There are even more groups now!

Not into FB? There’s /r/HistoricalCostuming if Reddit is more your thing.

Facebook groups and open messageboards can be frustrating, because you aren’t always sure how much the people answering know the era and craft (some people just really love to be helpful, and answer questions even if they don’t really know the answer…), but they are still pretty darn useful.

In addition to getting questions answered, you see what other people are making, get introduced to new terms, pattern companies, websites, and events.

There are a few things you can do to get better help in community groups:

Be polite and pay attention to the rules.

Every group and message board is its own little mini country, with its own laws and standards of politeness.

When you join a group, read the rules/Terms of Use.

Some group allow outside links, some don’t. Some groups are strictly “aim for as close as you can possibly get to exactly how it was made in the period” some are “whatever you want as long as it looks vaguely historical”. Respecting the guidelines of the group you’re in will make people much more likely to help you. Respect the era of the group (i.e. don’t ask for help with a 1750s Madame de Pompadour dress in the 19th c group…)

It’s often a good idea to lurk (or better yet, say hi and then stick to complementing people on their makes) in a new group for a few days or weeks, to get a feel for the group, and what’s ‘polite’ within that group.

When you do start asking questions, make sure you’ve done as much research as possible beforehand, and be as specific as possible in your question

People are usually delighted to help, but they aren’t mindreaders, and they aren’t google. Do some preliminary research (like this post!) and try to narrow down what you really want as much as possible.

Instead of asking:

“How do I make a historical dress”
(way too broad and vague)

or even

“How do I make a Victorian dress”
(because that still covers 63 years and a huge number of different styles)


“Can you point me towards some resources for making an 1870s day dress” (Hooray, you’ve narrowed down your date range, and the kind of dress you want!)


I’m just getting started, and working on a Regency wardrobe. I’ve found these 5x patterns for Regency stays/corsets. Which of the five would you recommend?


I really love the dress in this painting by Winterhalter. Can you help me identify the garments shown in the painting, and where to find patterns to make a similar look?”

Countess Alexander Nikolaevitch Lamsdorff (Maria Ivanovna Beck, 1835–1866) by Franz Xavier Winterhalter 1859 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, DT2553
Countess Alexander Nikolaevitch Lamsdorff (Maria Ivanovna Beck, 1835–1866) by Franz Xavier Winterhalter 1859 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, DT2553

Questions like those will help people give you the answers you need – and are more likely to attract accurate answers.

If you’re stuck on a specific sewing step, there are even groups for most of the main historical sewing pattern companies. So you can join them, and get clarification on how a pattern should fit, or what a particular step means. If you search the group, it’s entirely possible the question has already been answered!

The internet is awesome.

If all that is still confusing (especially it’s all-ness), you can:

Take a class or workshop!

These aren’t available everywhere, but you might be surprised at how much is available if you look around. My small (210,000) city has had a some form of workshop that would teach you to make a reasonable Victorian corset on average every other year in the last year.

Being on the internet, and paying attention to groups, and seeing if you can find one for your area, will help you locate more classes. Obviously I’m not a huge fan of a lot of travelling due to its carbon footprint, but many classes are scheduled over the weekend to make it easy for people to travel & take them. Or, if you have friends who are interested, you might be able to get a teacher to come to you, instead of having to go to them.

If travelling or getting a teacher to come to you is not a possibility, there are some fantastic online classes, like Historical Sewing.

And in an absolute pinch, a good standard sewing teacher will be able to help you interpret and fit a good historical pattern.

Hooray! You’ve made an outfit, now what?

Now you need an event to wear it to! And that’s the topic of my next post…

Sew & Eat Historical Retreat

*I’m just going to put this out there. I hate it when people message me on Instagram for information, because typing complicated answers on a phone is not fun, nor is hunting up a lot of links. I don’t want to ignore anyone, but IG is not great for answering anything but the most cursory questions. 🙁

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

Rate the Dress: Romantic Era Warmth

We’ve been having very spring-y weather in Wellington, by which I mean changeable. It’s very four seasons in one day! Wind, rain, sun, and then back again.

So I’ve picked a Rate the Dress for changeable temperatures – although it probably wouldn’t do well in a good spring shower.

Last Week: an 1860s day dress in bright blue

Last week’s bright blue 1860s number had two distinct pools: it’s fabulous (but badly displayed) and; those shoulders and sleeves are just terrible under any circumstances.

The Total: 8.7 out of 10

Not bad, if not as brilliant as the colour.

This week: a 1820s dress & spencer ensemble

So many of you loved last week’s bright blue, but you know I’m always a fan of white-on-white texture, or (in this case) palest blush on ivory texture.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

This 1820s ensemble consists of a dress, and a spencer to wear over the dress.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

The silk fabrics, light colour and elaborate trims suggest both pieces were for very fine occasions. By itself the dress could be worn to dinners, and even country balls: the addition of the spencer makes the outfit suitable for formal outdoor wear and church.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

The dress features a moderately low, square neckline, trimmed with half-bow ‘leaf’ shapes that mirror each other as they frame the neckline, coming together to form a flat bow shape at the centre front.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

Typically of late teens and early 20s fashion the dress is cut without a train and features a padded and quilted hem with elaborate trimming that mimics the neckline trim.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

The long sleeves of the dress are trimmed with more bows and half-bows, forming a faux cuff, or a band holding the sleeve snug to the arm.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

Long sleeves suggest the dress was meant to be worn as formal daywear, or for dinners, as ball dresses or evening dresses would have had shorter sleeves. However, some period writing suggests that in the country, and further away from fashionable centres, women were more likely to blur the rules, so a dress like this might have been worn to a ball.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

With the addition of the spencer, it might also have been worn to a wedding – perhaps even the wearer’s own. It’s certainly fancy enough, and while white wedding dresses wouldn’t be de rigueur until after Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding, lighter shades were common for wedding attire in the 1810s and 20s, even as the overall fashion palette moved away from Regency white.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

So, what do you think of this ensemble? Another boring example of the early 19th century obsession with non-colours, or an elegant expression of texture and restraint?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

A reminder about rating – feel free to be critical if you don’t like a thing, but make sure that your comments aren’t actually insulting to those who do like a garment.  Phrase criticism as your opinion, rather than a flat fact. Our different tastes are what make Rate the Dress so interesting.  It’s no fun when a comment implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with it, or who would wear a garment, is totally lacking in taste. 

(as usual, nothing more complicated than a .5.  I also hugely appreciate it if you only do one rating, and set it on a line at the very end of your comment, so I can find it!  And 0 is not on a scale of 1 to 10.  Thanks in advance!)

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

Costumes and Kunekune pigs

I was very excited when the intro guide to our cottage for our Sew & Eat Historical Retreat said that we could put all the food scraps in a bin for the pigs. I’m always a fan of anything that keeps food out of the rubbish (food waste is a huge contributor to climate change – food rotting without air creates carbon).

I was even more excited when we arrived, and it turned out that the pigs were pet kunekune pigs, not farm porkers destined for the slaughterhouse. And we could feed them and pet them!

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency


Kunekune pigs are descended from domestic pigs that were brought to New Zealand from Asia by whalers or traders in the early 19th century. They are now a unique breed of their own, from isolation, or crossbreeding, or because the breeds they descended from have since gone extinct (as has happened with so many breeds of domestic farm animals in the last 200 years).

Kune means plump in te reo Māori, and when you double up a word in Māori, it doubles the meaning, so kunekune means really plump – fat and round and roly-poly. And that’s definitely what kunekune pigs are!

In addition to being adorably round, kunekune have thick bristle coats, little dangly wattles hanging from their lower jaw, the sweetest smiles, and absolutely adorable personalities. They are particularly sweet, chilled, friendly, pigs. They make fabulous pets, but don’t make particularly good eating pigs.

They are quite small as a pig breed goes (topping out at 200kg compared to the 400kg that many farm breeds reach), and take a long time to come to their full size (2-3 years, compared to 6-12 months). In modern farming the goal is to get your animal as big as possible as fast as possible. Kunekunes fail this test in every way – which almost led to the total disappearance of the breed.

As farmers focused on better yields in the post WWII era, and traditional Māori farming became less and less common, kunekune pigs fell out of favour. By the late 1970s they were almost extinct, with as few as 50 left. A couple of conservationists, including the man behind Staglands here in Wellington, noticed that the breed was at risk, and gathered all the purebreeds they could find, and rescued the breed.

They were much luckier than many breeds: dozens of varieties of pigs across Europe (and I think, Asia, though there is less information on that) disappeared in the 2nd half of the 20th century, as farming became standardised and farmers focused on ultimate yields and animals that could withstand large scale industrial farming operations, rather than animals bred for the specific weather and land conditions of their area. The same thing happened to huge amounts of plant and animal varieties, severely impacting the diversity of agricultural varieties.

Today kunekune pigs are super popular as pets on farms and lifestyle blocks, both here in NZ and overseas. I met my first kunekunes when I was first in NZ as a student. We stayed at a backpackers in the Far North that had a litter of piglets during the term break. Pretty much the cutest thing you’ve ever seen!

Fully grown kunekune aren’t quite as cute, but they are still pretty wonderful. The two on our farm were named Bert & Ernie. They had a huge lovely lush paddock to root around in (kunekune are possible the only true grazing pigs that can survive on grass alone, like a sheep or cow), trees and a barn to shelter in, and were pretty much pigs in clover.

Despite all the grass, they were delighted to be fed additional treats, running across the paddock to their trough if you beat on the food bucket.

We fed them at the start of one walk, and left the bucket hanging on a holly tree.

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

We came back to get it later in the day, and Miss Priscilla decided she wanted to see the piggies again. So she beat on the bucket, and the boys rushed out of the barn and across the paddock, eager for another round of goodies.

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

(just look at that happy piggieface, sure it’s about to get a treat!)

But of course, there were no treats, just an empty bucket!

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

And some sad, sad piggies…

(just look at that disappointed face, wondering where its treat is!)

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

So after teasing Priscilla mercilessly for being horrible and deceitful, we had to go back to the cottage and cut up a couple of apples for Bert and Ernie, and then trot back up the lane and feed them so they wouldn’t think we were awful and untrustworthy…

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency
The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

And then we got to feed them properly, and I got to give them scratchies and snuggles.

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

Spending time with a pig breed that has been in NZ since the (late) Regency era while wearing Regency clothes seems quite appropriate, even if the fashions and the pigs never interacted in their own time.

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

Also, the piggies were just so cute and lovely!

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency

Happy piggies, happy me!

The NZSEHR 2019 in Regency