So often when we are creating a new outfit we spend most of our time thinking about planning the dress. The colours, the fabric, the patterns, the trims and embellishments… The dress is what we all focus on – it’s the biggest part of our look – but it’s not a solo act. There are the supporting players that can really compliment the dress and make it shine.
You know how some people look as if they have stepped out of a photograph/painting/fashion plate? Their outfit looks so authentic and complete and they have that head-to-toe wow factor? What have they done and how do they do it?
They think about and wear enough accessories. They have their gloves and their hats and the right sort of bag and shoes. Maybe they’re armed with a parasol or fan. Their hair and makeup are historically appropriate, as is their jewellery. Perhaps they have a shawl to wrap about them or a muff (one of my favourite cold weather accessories! ) if it is chilly.
When we get dressed for a normal day we don’t think twice about throwing on a coat or a scarf, wearing earrings or other jewellery. We are wearing clothing, not a costume and so the trick is to turn our costumes into clothes.
So, how can you level up your costumes with accessories?
Unlike earlier in the 20th Century, we don’t wear gloves unless it’s winter so they’re harder to come by. You can try and make your own, but vintage or, at a pinch buy them from a store specialising in formalwear and accessories. Yes, they can be a bit of a pain to remove while eating offered food or if your phone isn’t sensitive enough to a gloves touch and you want to take a photo or message a friend to ask them where they are. But, if gloves were worn religiously in your time period then they’re worth the occasional hassle.
Hats, Headwear, and Hair
Hats or headwear is essential to completing your look. I know not all period dramas adhere to this so it can be easy to think that maybe you’ll be okay without one. But, up until the early 20th Century, you weren’t properly dressed without a hat if you went out during the day. It’s like walking out of the house today without wearing your skirt/trousers/top.
It is possible to alter an existing hat or you can make your own, which isn’t as scary or difficult as you might think. I have made a few hats since starting my historical costuming journey and I’m definitely improving with each one. The advantage to making your own is that you can use leftover dress fabric or trim so that it ties in with your outfit perfectly. Or, if you don’t like a matchy-matchy look you can choose a complementary or contrasting colour (check out fashion plates and paintings – they did it so you can too).
At night, when a hat is inappropriate to wear, consider adding something to your hair like a comb, flowers, ribbon, or feathers. Again, have a look at images from your outfit’s year/decade to get an idea of what was used and how.
Keeping in line with this, hairstyles are also important for creating that period look. Styles change so even if you like the 1840s middle part and looped braids it will look odd if worn with an 1880s bustle dress. It can take time and practice to dress your hair in many of the different styles that were worn. Fortunately, wigs and hairpieces are period correct so if you don’t have a lot of time (or a lot of hair) these can come to your rescue.
You can find several tutorials on YouTube that can walk you through different styles. Quite often I curl or braid my hair and pin it up, sometimes I do both, and at other times I just arrange it in a bun. Volumising shampoo and conditioner are my best friends when I’m going to be wearing my hair historically and, if you are going to be using a curling iron be sure to use a heat protecting spray first – no one wants to accidentally frizzle their hair.
Probably the best piece of advice I could give is to make sure that you have plenty of time, there’s nothing quite so stressful as battling with uncooperative hair when you know that you don’t have much time.
Study images of your particular year/era of dress to find clues as to what type of jewellery and how much to wear. Some modern costume jewellery can pass muster but if you’re lucky enough to find some reproduction jewellery then that’s brilliant. I recently bought a couple of pairs of earrings from Dames a la Mode and loved them so much I went on a bit of a spending spree and doubled my collection of useable historical costume jewellery.
When looking for jewellery try and stay away from anything plastic-y. Opt for more natural elements such as glass or pearls, and silver or gold/gold plated metals. During the day keep it simple but you can wear a few pieces come evening.
Of course, when you’re attending events you’re going to need somewhere to stash your modern bits and pieces like car keys and phone. Again, look at images from your era to see what they used. I love using reticules and when I wore my Bastille Dress I fell in love with the fact that I had pockets and could tote things about with me, hands-free, and no one knew. Reticules are a great way to use up leftover fabric or you can make up a bag with a metal clasp. Or look for pretty purses/small bags you can hold onto or carry on your wrist.
Sadly, not everyone can afford to buy a pair of gorgeous American Duchess shoes so do your best when looking for footwear to go with your outfit. You might think that your feet will be safely hidden under your long skirts so you could get away with just about anything but they will be seen – probably best not to wear crocs? I used to have the cutest pair of brogue heels that I used to wear before buying a pair of boots from the Funtasma brand. They do have a zip closure but they look the part from a distance. If you do a little research then you should be able to spot what modern shoes can pass closely enough for your decade.
Accessories for Warmth
Not all events occur in the spring or summer months and sometimes even then the day might be cool. For cooler days and during autumn and winter you can add some warmth by accessorising with a shawl, cape/cloak, or a muff. A shawl adds an extra element of interest to your outfit, as does a cape or a mantle. And, of course, who could resist a muff? Not only does it keep your hands warm but it also provides a perfect solution of what to do with them when someone asks to take your photo.
Accessories for Keeping Cool
Not only are there accessories for keeping yourself warm but there are accessories for keeping cool. A parasol can compliment your outfit and also keep the sun off if you are attending an outdoor event. You can buy one and use it as is or you can cover the frame with a fabric of your choosing. Truly Victorian have created a pattern for covering Parasols though I haven’t tried it yet so I don’t know how easy it is.
A fan definitely a must-have accessory on a hot day or if you are going to be doing a lot of dancing. I would be lost without mine during a ball! Colour choices are almost endless so you can almost guarantee that you can find one to go with your outfit.
Not exactly an accessory, but well worth a mention. Obviously, a modern smokey eye, bold lipstick, or a vintage cat eye is going to look out of place if you’re wearing anything from the start of the 20th Century or earlier. If you’re going to wear makeup keep it simple and true to the period. Less is more, especially if you’re not sure.
Other Finishing Touches
I don’t wear glasses so don’t feel like I can offer much advice here. Obviously, being an expensive everyday item, it would be a lot harder to change for one or two days in costume. If you’re comfortable wearing contacts then you wouldn’t have to worry about frames but I know that some people can’t or don’t like contacts. If you already have a pair of frames that can pass for being at least slightly historical then that’s great. After a quick Google, I can see that you can buy historical style frames that you could get lenses fitted for by your optometrist if you really wanted to look head-to-toe accurate. But, ultimately, if it’s a choice between not being able to see much and being able to see and admire everyone else’s amazing outfits I know what I would choose.
To follow on from that – sunglasses weren’t mass produced until the end of the 1920s so do look a bit out of place if you’re wearing anything earlier than that.
The most important accessory that you could probably wear is a smile. And why not wear one? You’re dressed historically, in a garment you’ve made, at an enjoyable event, and with good company, so I’m guessing that you’re happy about it, right?
Accessories are also a brilliant way of changing the look of your outfits without too much work. You can make a new hat, or wear a different pair of gloves, or perhaps change your bag. Not only that, but some accessories can pull double duty and work with more than one outfit. You can really have some fun with your accessories and they’re also great side projects if you want to make something but don’t want a big project to work on.