Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Drool-Worthy Costume

How does one make The Drool-Worthy Costume? This is the subject that came up in a recent conversation with my friend lana/Lily.

We both know excellent costumers and seamstresses who make fabulous gowns that have superb construction. Their choice of fabrics, the fit, the copying of period seams placed correctly, the hand finishing - all make for a grand historical ensemble.

Their undergarments as well whisper of days gone by while they cover or add to their natural head of hair to represent what our ancestors wore. They indeed know what they're doing, or have studied and researched enough to create that "just stepped out of the portrait studio" look.

We can hardly find fault with their work. Their creativity is ripe and the fruits of their labor are bright.

But then for some of these spectacular clothes, as we stop and admire and gaze and wonder, something catches us for that briefest of moments - in all its fabulousness - something seems missing. Or it's just - I can't put my finger on it....

Why doesn't it look right?

It seems just slightly off.

What is it? You know what I mean. The magic is not there.

Say you are making your dream dress, copied from an extant (existing) garment. You study, you plan, you search, you find. You sew, you tear, you wash, you iron, you cut, you sew some more, you rip out, you stitch, you hem, you attach. After hours of work it's done. It is beautiful.

But why doesn't it look like the original? You analyze every detail you can find about the special gown. You've copied it exactly. But then why does it not look the same? What's missing?

Where's the magic you saw in the book or on the screen? Did the clock strike midnight and my fairy godmother's spells worn off?

This is the surpreme question that so many historical sewers ask themselves and strive to grasp. We set out to achieve that ultimate costume only to have it fall just short of greatness - the handkercheifs are ready, but no drool comes. What's wrong?

This can be answered in many ways. What are your thoughts?


Jennifer said...

I think it has a lot to do with proportions.

The design, whether your original or copied, is somehow lost in translation. The garment is not revised to be seen the same on a body of different size.

A gown on Keira Knightley in The Duchess would look terribly different on Meryl Streep if not proportionally altered. The whole picture must be taken into account when designing a new costume.

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

Well, I know that I somewhat resemble Mary Todd Lincoln as opposed to Nicole Kidman. If I duplicated her blue dress from Cold Mountain, I'd be disappointed as hell when I looked in the mirror.

I think that's another reason why these 'copies' have 'something' off about them. Often, we try to emulate an image that's so different than the image we ourselves convey. If you don't 'look' like Nicole Kidman, that blue dress is never going to look right, no matter if made by by you or the original sewist.

Anne said...

I think the key to making a great costume is finding the right materials. And in my oppinion it is very difficult to find the perfect materials for period costumes. Many of the materials that were used before are not available anymore or cost too much.

Jennifer said...

Oh, how right you are Anne! Today's silks are not the same tissue thin taffetas that they used. Nor the organdies; and while you're at it, the thin wools.
Oh for a 19th Century authentic dry-goods store!

And Robin, if we looked like Nicole Kidman, I think most of our costumes would come out gorgeous. Just because. :-)

But I think you do have a point that we are trying to re-create a design that was intended to look a particular way on some other type of body. (I'll keep that dream of looking like Nicole some day....)

AlohaAroha said...

Fabric and materials definitely help, as do the correct proportions and the right body for the gown, but I think the biggest thing is the intangible thing we call genius.

Some people have amazing technical skills, but their work just doesn't speak to you, while others may not be as skilled in measurable ways, but their work always captures the essence of an era and a mood. And even those who consistently create drool-worthy garments have off days. Not all of Monet's works are masterpieces after all.

Jennifer said...

Very well said, AlohaAroha!
I think we're our own harshest judge too. Personally we all have our favorite costumes and those that fall flat in our eyes, despite others views of them.

Even if someone makes a spot-on copy of a "magical" gown, it's entirely up for subjective review. The beauty lies with the beholder. Some people are swayed by original garments, whereas others faint over well done film costumes.

Amber said...

I totally agree with all of you. Fabric and a good (realistic) understanding of your own proportions to the proportions of the time.

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

I just remembered a pet peeve of mine when visiting reenactments...

Lack of proper underpinnings!!!!!

Your dress won't fit correctly without a corset...

If your hoop is a commercial bridal/prom hoop, your dress will flare out too far, the circumference too wide...and the proportions of how these commercial hoops are spaced affect the shape. Instead of a graceful bell shape, they often look more triangular.

And if that hoop is on backwards, well, it hangs too long in front, looks awkward.

And too many girls forget the proper petticoats to hide the bones of the hoop skirt.

Your dress could be the most fabulous in the world, but if you forget a corset, wear an improper hoop and/or forego the petticoat, you will look a sight.