Curiosity In Costuming

One of the ‘buzz words’ at my work is Curiosity. How can we make things easier/better for the customer and those employed by the organisation? What can we change or stop doing?

It has occurred to me that curiosity is such an important aspect of historical costuming. Creativity and curiosity are linked and curiosity leads us to research, to try out new techniques, to grow and to learn.

So, how can we feed our curiosity?

The New Dress Moritz Stifter, 1889

How did they do it?

Look at how garments were constructed during the time period in which you are sewing. What techniques did they employ – did they use flatlining? What trims did they use? How did they combine fabrics? What was their aesthetic? How did they embrace it? What skills did they use/utilise? What colour schemes or fabric patterns did they chose?


By studying how our 19th Century dressmakers approached the design and construction we can get a better idea of how to approach it ourselves. It’s so easy to get stuck in our modern mindset of how to trim a garment, or we instinctively use modern sewing techniques (after all, I know that’s how a lot of people learned how to sew to begin with). So, by investigating how a garment was constructed or a trim utilised back when these garments were everyday clothing we might be able to get a little closer to historical accuracy if that is our goal.

If you really want to try and get in their heads, have a look at etiquette guides or advice given in ladies magazines. What advice is given about colours or prints? Even in the nineteenth century they subscribed to particular colours suiting different skin tones, and I have seen it recommended that smaller ladies stay away from large prints.

With fellow historical costumers who all created their own garments

How do others do it now?

Not everything that historical seamstresses did or used is available to us today and some elements fashionable then may look ugly or unappealing to our modern eye. So as well as looking at historical garments and techniques, we can also look at how our fellow historical costumers create their garments.

How do they construct them? Do they use only historical techniques or a combination of historical and modern? How do they utilise modern fabrics since today’s fabrics are made and act differently to those available in the past?

How do they interpret fashion plates, photographs, and extant garments? I love it when historical costumers blog about their thought processes and how they take their inspiration and develop it into a complete garment.

Also, I’m always curious to know how they overcame any issues they stumbled across and solved them. If I’m deciding on purchasing a new pattern or attempting to scale one up from a book, I always google and see if anyone else has already made it up to see how the drawing translates into the actual garment.

La Mode Illustree, 1873

Other questions to ask.

What elements make a dress look complete? Maybe you’re technically finished a garment but feel like there’s something missing. Play about with different ideas until you find that finishing touch. Maybe it’s a trim or other embellishment, or maybe it’s an accessory that will complete the look.

What happens if I do this? Often we can be halfway through a project when we start wondering if we should deviate from the plan. You can either stick with your plan and carry on, or, you can give yourself permission to try something else and experiment. It might not work and you might return to your original plan but at least you’ve been able to satisfy your curiosity. On the other hand, it might have been a brilliant idea that ends up elevating the project into something truly wonderful.

Another question you can ask is why you costume or why others do? It’s quite eye-opening when you ask lots of historical costumers why they do it because the reasons are so varied. Some people do it because they like dressing up, others enjoy the challenge, some want to try and get a better understanding of how our ancestors lived, and there are so many more reasons. Finding out why members of our community do what we do reveals a range of motivations and goals and helps us to understand each other better.

The Game of Billiards, Charles Edouard Boutibonne 1869

Positive Side Effects of Curiosity

Being curious can have so many benefits, as well as so easily sending us down a rabbit hole into a new era, new area of interest, or off on a completely new journey. We can open up a whole realm of possibilities that can elevate our look (perhaps by wanting to know more about hair care and styling, or about lesser known accessories) or find a new hobby that compliments this one. We may want to know more about what life was like in the years we costume, and delve into history books. Or maybe we want to know what rules of etiquette existed, how to dance, or even learn to play a musical instrument.

One never knows quite where they will end up when they unleash their curiosity.

There are so many ways that we can fuel our curiosity to improve, develop, and better understand our historical costuming endeavours. We can learn and grow our skill set not only to benefit ourselves, but also by talking to other historical costumers and sharing our knowledge and the results of our curiosity, we can benefit each other.

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