Unfortunately, with any creative hobby (or any hobby/sport/pursuit really), there is always an element of comparison. It could be that you’re comparing yourself to others, that you are being compared by someone else, or someone is comparing themselves to you. This can lead to either feelings of inferiority or superiority and sometimes these can lead to a community becoming a competition, or turning companions into competitors.
Certainly, I have looked at dresses that other people have made and thought that they were amazing and so much better than mine. I went into a tailspin last year when I started thinking that people were going to think that my first ever me-made dress would pale in comparison to the dress that Liane had made me. I nearly gave up until I realised that yes, people might do that but if they didn’t bother to talk to me and find out that it was my first ever attempt and that I had taught myself to sew while making it, then their opinions didn’t matter.
If you do find yourself looking at others and thinking ‘their dress is better than mine’ then this can put a real damper on the event that you’re attending, and you’re not going to enjoy yourself as much as you potentially could. If you start to worry that your dress might not be as good as anyone else’s that can cause a loss of enthusiasm to keep travelling on your historical costuming journey. From personal experience, I know that you can’t help it sometimes but what you can choose to do is to flip that on its head.
Why do you think that their dress is better than yours? What is it about the dress that you think is better? Is it the use of trims, is it the construction or the fit, the silhouette, is it the fabric choice, or perhaps it might be their accessories? If you can pinpoint what it is about that dress that makes you think that it is better than yours, take that home with you and try to apply it to your own dress or to future projects.
It could be that the dress you’re comparing yours too has a spot on historically accurate silhouette and you don’t feel like yours does. Maybe you just need to add an extra petticoat or maybe you haven’t yet ventured into corset wearing. Petticoats can be incredibly easy to put together – my first petticoats were made by using the skirt pattern. Currently, I only have one petticoat that I have made from a petticoat pattern (Truly Victorian 170), which did take a bit longer to put together because of the extra pieces and all of that ruffling (I also got carried away and made teeny tiny pin tucks on it because I like to make things difficult for myself). But, they can be as easy or as difficult as you like, and make such a difference to your silhouette.
As far as a corset is concerned, I started out with one I bought online which, while not fitting me as well as it should have, did give me a better silhouette than when I had gone without. Now that I have made one for myself and it fits a lot better (it’s by no means a perfect fit and I have plans to make a second, hopefully, better one). Corset making seems quite scary, but if I can make one then anyone can. I love that Julia Bremble wrote ‘if you can sew in a straight line, then you can sew a corset’ in her ebook because it is so true. Actually, sometimes I can’t sew in a straight line and I still made one!
They’re not uncomfortable or restrictive like Hollywood would have you believe (why, Hollywood, why?) and they can take your dress to a whole other level. It took me a while to make mine because I had to make loads of mockups and the thought of cutting into the coutil was scary in case it went horribly wrong. It kind of did, I managed to cut out two right sides for a couple of different pattern pieces instead of a left or a right, and also had to recut one back piece because I made a mistake with the eyelet setting. But in the end, I triumphed and I am so glad that I persevered.
If you think that the dress is better than yours because of the choice of fabric, what makes you think so? Is it made of silk, is the colour prettier, or does it just look amazing next to the person wearing it? I know that a lot of blogs encourage the use of natural fabrics – wool, silk, cotton – but for some of us, wools and silks are too expensive (especially in New Zealand). My Tartan Dress is silk and bought at a sale price, the rest of my dresses are either a faux taffeta or, as in the case of my Antique Rose outfit, cotton (also bought on sale, thank you, Spotlight). I’d love to move towards sewing with wools and silks as I gain the skills, confidence, and bank balance to do so. That’s a personal preference of mine, however.
Obviously, there are some fabrics to avoid, such as that super shiny 1980s satin, and I don’t think that rayon is really going to want to be your friend either. But otherwise, if you’re just starting out or if your budget is limited, then look for fabrics that you like and have potential to look amazing as a historical outfit. What really does help in this situation, is having a good silhouette, and you can always take the fabric up a notch with the use of trims.
The dress that you think is better than yours might have the most amazing trim and you’re suddenly feeling very plain standing near it. Trims can elevate the fabric and give more life to your dress. I’m probably not the best person to talk about trims with because I do prefer a simpler style but I have used velvet, beading, and braid in the outfits that I have made so far. My Shippensburg Dress, for example, is quite plain, colour wise. It’s black. Just black. But there are tucks, and velvet lapels and cuffs, and there is some beading as well. I almost didn’t add the beading but I’m glad that I did because it added an extra texture and made the bodice more visually interesting. The skirts, by comparison, are very plain indeed, I didn’t want it to fight for attention with the bodice.
My Tartan Dress is pretty loud on its own so all I did with that was include a black vest and add some black trim to the overskirt. If I had added black lace or braid, or any other trim to it there was a risk that it would just be too busy.
What about accessories? Is it the accessories that are making you think that that dress over there looks better? Quite often the dress takes centre stage and we forget about the accessories until the last minute. Well-chosen accessories can elevate any dress, just like with our everyday clothes. I love reticules because they can hide away all of your modern bits and pieces and they can also compliment your outfit. If you have a pattern in your dress you could pick one colour from it to make your reticule, you could choose to have it match the colour of your trims, or if you prefer, it can also be made from a leftover piece of your dress fabric.
Hats can potentially be the trickiest part of your outfit because quite often you need to make your own. Sometimes you can find a boater and trim it (I have done this before), or you can deconstruct a hat and upcycle it, creating your own. I have never tried to reconstruct a hat before but I know people who do this. You can also take a look online at places such as eBay or Recollections to find a hat that has already been made and matches your dress. I have made a couple of hats from patterns, one worked out quite well and you will have already seen it many times, and the other I just wasn’t happy with enough to keep. It can seem quite overwhelming, the thought of making a hat but generally, I would say that they’re not too hard but they can be time-consuming.
One of the dangers of comparing your dress to others is that you don’t know the full story. The dress that you’re comparing yours to might have been made by someone who has been sewing for decades. Or perhaps they have been working on it for a couple of years. They may have that magic knack for putting different colours together (something I know I don’t have), or they had help fitting their mockups so that their bodice fits like a glove. Maybe, in an effort to get their dress finished they sacrificed other commitments so they could have enough to create it. You just don’t know.
We only see the final result, we don’t see any of that behind-the-scenes stuff. We don’t see that maybe there was a time during construction where there were tears, swearing, frustrations, and even threats to throw that damn dress into the bin. We don’t know how often the quick unpick (seam ripper) was employed or if the dress we are seeing is the second or third attempt because the first went horribly wrong. For all we know, we may have had it easier during the construction process but have just assumed that everyone else’s dresses came together as if by magic.
Another danger is that of being compared by other people. If someone thinks that one dress is better than another then I can only hope that they keep their opinion to themselves. I cannot imagine how hurtful it is to have a person (historically dressed or not) approach you and tell you that your dress isn’t as good as the one over there. Everyone has different tastes and they might, in fact, like that dress that’s over there better than yours but that doesn’t mean that you have a lesser dress. Someone else might love your dress and think that the dress over there isn’t as appealing. You’re wearing what you like, and what you want to wear so don’t you worry if it’s not to everybody’s taste.
And, please, if you do compare yourself to others from the perspective of ‘my dress is better’ then I’m sorry. Yes, if you like what you have made and you’re very proud of it then that is fantastic. But if you can’t see that everyone else has put in a great deal of effort and has shown quite an incredible amount of bravery by wearing their creations in public then that is very sad. Your dress may very well be ‘the best’ – it may have the perfect silhouette, the perfect choice of fabrics and trims, be perfectly accessorised, and it might very well look like you have stepped out of a time machine but even an incredibly well-made dress can be ruined by a haughty attitude.
Playing the comparison game can be like dancing on the edge of a slippery slope. Being human, you can’t always choose what you feel or how you react and sometimes those comparisons just slip into your mind. If you’re new to historical costuming then it can be very intimidating to see what others have made and to feel like you’ll never be as good as they are. One thing that helped me last year when I was starting out is the thought that if I keep going then in a few years I can look back at my early outfits and see just how far I’ve come. That is the only comparison I will allow myself to make because I’m comparing my work with my work (I also apply this to my half marathon times instead of focusing on where I place).
If you can flip comparisons on their head and figure out just why you have made them, then you gain the power to use them constructively. Next year, when you see that dress, you’ll have the ability to say, ‘I like x about that dress’ instead of ‘that dress is better than mine.’ It’s a much more positive response and hopefully, by looking at other dresses in a less comparative manner, you’ll feel more confident in yourself and be able to enjoy yourself more. And, who knows, if you’ve figured out what it is you like about that dress over there, then you can give the wearer that compliment which might just make their day.