There are so many different places and ways to find inspiration for your next historical costume. Sometimes you see a dress, whether it’s a real dress that has survived or one that has been captured on film or canvas, or a depiction of one in a fashion plate, and you just know: it has to exist in your wardrobe. It sparks something in your mind. You must make that dress. Maybe it’s a colour combination or a type of fabric that sets you in the path towards creating a new dress. Inspiration is everywhere and you can get inspired in so many ways.
The beauty of extant garments is that they are clothes that were worn and have survived to the present day. So much can be learned from these, such as the construction, fabric colours and patterns, and types of embellishments used. Sometimes it’s the whole dress, sometimes it’s part of it such as the sleeves or the trim that can inspire you.
Of course, if you’re able to see an extant dress with your own eyes that’s brilliant but if you can’t, that’s okay. Why? Because so many museums have their collections displayed online these days we have the advantage of seeing extant dresses from the comfort of home. It’s always helpful when they show more than one angle of the dress and when it’s possible to zoom in on the details.
I was so inspired by a bodice belonging to the Shippensburg University Archives and Museum that I couldn’t think of making any other style for my Shippensburg Bodice. I used a different colour fabric but everything else pretty much stayed the same. If you’ve read my post about it then you’ll know that since I couldn’t go and study this bodice to learn how it was made, I was sent a whole lot of photos (and was completely blown away by such kindness).
A couple of projects that I’m about to start working on have been inspired by extant garments. The soutache and beading on a cape served as inspiration for the design I will be using on mine and a beautiful bodice by the House of Rouff that plays with texture has inspired me to attempt a very similar bodice.
I am a huge fan of fashion plates – they’re just so pretty! I’ve found a dozen or more fashion plate dresses that I wish were in my giant dress-up box right now, please. You do have to remember that fashion plates are like today’s magazine fashion spreads.
It’s so easy to find fashion plates online – especially on Pinterest. Every time I think that I’ve seen them all, I come across even more. And you can find all types of dresses too – day dresses, ball dresses, outdoor dresses, wedding dresses, etc.
The fun thing with fashion plates is that if you’re taking inspiration from them and creating a dress based on or influenced by one of them you’re totally being historically accurate in doing so. Women would find a dress that they liked and take the fashion plate along to the dressmaker or would make it themselves.
Like extant garments, photographs show us real dresses that were worn in the time period they’re from. Unlike fashion plates, where the ladies are stylised similar to how models are in magazines now, photos show people of all sizes and ages too. So if you’ve been looking at extant dresses and fashion plates and they’re not speaking to you, maybe you’ll find a photo of someone who looks more like you and get inspired.
Like photographs, paintings from your era are another way to find inspiration. Unlike in photographs where you can’t easily figure out the colours, paintings give you a great opportunity to get inspired not only by the dresses depicted, but to also get inspired by the colour schemes.
I am such a fan of Tissot, and I love the fact that he reused dresses in different paintings so you actually get to see different angles which isn’t something that usually happens. I have been inspired to make the black and white striped dress that features a few times but only have made it as far as studying the details and making notes. All I’m waiting for right now is to find the right fabric and to have enough time to invest in it.
I absolutely love books – I always have – and I own a lot of historical costuming related books (don’t believe me? Here’s a list). Quite often when I’m looking for inspiration or ideas I pull a whole bunch of books off my shelves and flick through the pages to see what catches my eye.
Some of these books have extant garments, photographs, fashion plates, patterns, or a mixture of these. Because sometimes details can get lost on a computer screen, books give you a clearer picture of dress details. Books that reprint parts of magazines that ladies of the time would have read also provides the opportunity of being inspired just as they were.
Also, they tend to be a bit more reliable than the internet as things on the internet can get a bit mixed up if they haven’t been properly credited or the true information can get distorted if it gets continually pinned and copied and pasted.
The House of Rouff bodice that’s serving as a huge source of inspiration for an upcoming project is featured in two of my books and I’m quite certain that I saw it in those books before stumbling over it online.
Sometimes you find inspiration from another source before heading along to the fabric store to purchase what you need but sometimes inspiration can strike when you’re browsing fabrics.
This has happened to me before when I fell in love with the tartan silk that I used for my Tartan Dress and Tartan Trimmed Dress. I was simply visiting fabric stores and getting samples of any fabric that sort of took my fancy. Once I had purchased the fabric I started to get an idea of what the dress would look like and found some fashion plates that inspired me.
Last weekend I was wandering around my local fabric store when a bolt of corduroy caught my eye. It was probably the colour that made me stop but as I turned away I suddenly remembered the extant House of Rouff bodice that I liked. This fabric would work perfectly I thought as a wave of inspiration washed over me and I grabbed the bolt (fortunately it was also on sale) and marched it straightaway to the counter.
Other Historical Costumers
Now, I’m not saying that you should go out and copy another historical costumer’s outfit stitch for stitch but it’s totally okay to take inspiration from garments other historical costumers have made. Imitation is supposed to be the best form of flattery but there is a fine line from being inspired by and outright copying.
Perhaps they’ve used flowers on their ball dress and you think that’s a good idea and add flowers to yours. It might be that they’ve combined two colours perfectly together and you can visualise your own outfit using those colours. Or maybe they’ve sewn a dress from a particular era and you get inspired to try that era for yourself.
Films and Television
It pays to be careful when finding inspiration from film and television costumes. Quite often these won’t be historically accurate as filming budgets don’t always allow for it, the costume designers have gone for a historically ‘inspired’ look or have done what they want to rather than research and produce outfits that fit within the era or the style of dress. They quite often take liberties with the costuming, sometimes because they want a particular look and historical accuracy be damned, or because they want to reveal something about the character.
I don’t often find any inspiration from this outlet and am always pleasantly surprised when the costuming comes close to accurate. I recently watched Lizzie Borden Chronicles and The Alienist and definitely wanted to make a whole wardrobe of 1890s dresses pronto. No singular outfit jumped out at me but it was the general feel of the costumes that put me in the 1890s fashion frame of mind.
Of course, if you absolutely fall for a costume and really want to make it then go for it. If you can find a way to alter in some way to make it more historically accurate then that’s fantastic. Maybe it was just a colour scheme or fabric that a costume has that inspires a completely different outfit.
Basically, you can find inspiration anywhere. And from more than one source too. Sometimes the inspiration can hit you straight away and at others it sort of floats about in the back of your mind until you find another piece of inspiration in another place. Perhaps you can’t act on that flash of inspiration when it strikes (yes, sadly that can happen) but don’t let it go! Draw a sketch, save that picture, get a fabric sample, scribble down notes somewhere. It may fade over time, it may morph into something else, or it might live on your bucket list and one day make it into your dress up wardrobe.