Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Today The Role Of The Cheap Chick Will Be Played By...

I am proud to introduce my very first guest speaker at Cheap But Not Easy. She is a talented costumer, fashion student, and co-director for the Bristol Renaissance Faire - Missa from She has very kindly allowed me to reprint an article from her website about costuming on the cheap.

Notice that I said she gave ME permission. That doesn’t mean the rest of the world can go and copy her words, willy-nilly. And if you do, Missa and I will track you down, stake you out over a ant hill, and douse you with inexpensive corn syrup. You have been warned.

But before I let her take the floor, I want to give a quick and heart-felt THANK YOU to Shazam in the Kitchen for this award:

I love you this much, too. The rest of you can read about Mary’s kitchen adventures here

And now, take it away Missa!

Costuming on a Budget: Being a Cheapskate In Merry Olde England

“…there are a couple of things to keep in mind about costuming on a budget. The first, and most obvious, is that you are not going to be able to have everything the way you want it. Some sacrifices will have to be made - maybe you'll have to use a different fabric, or a different color, or less trim, whatever, but you're going to have to come to terms with being flexible.
That means, before you start, make up your design and decide which elements you are absolutely not willing to budge on. Spend the money to make those happen, but be flexible with everything else.
Also, it's going to take longer. You can either pay for your garb in money or time. If you don't have the money, it's going to have to be time, and vice versa. Whether it takes longer to find material because you are waiting for sales or haunting resale shops, or because you are making scraps into trim, it's going to take longer.
Costuming is a labor of love under the best of circumstances, so you'd best be sure you love it enough to make the commitment to finish. There's no greater waste of money than a half finished piece.

Where Does The Cost Come From?
That said, before you can figure out how to cut your costuming costs, you have to know where exactly they are coming from. The most obvious source of cost is fabric, but there are a number of hidden sources that can add up.
The one people seem to forget to factor in, is from accessories (hats, fans, gloves, shoes, etc) that you must buy to complete a costume. Since most people completely fail to take this into account in their costume budget, they end up wondering where they went over budget, or with an accessory-less costume and no money for the finishing touches.
Also, there is the cost of supplies: thread, hooks and eyes, interfacing, buckram or plastic canvas for hat forms, NEEDLES (and you will go through a lot of those if you have any respect for your sewing machine), ribbon for laces, boning, grommets, etc etc etc. While these things, by themselves, appear negligible, they will add up enough to throw off your budget. This is true whether you are working for yourself, or doing paid work for others.
The trim used on noble costume can (and, if you let it, will) cost more than the fabric. It is, I'm convinced, a fiendish plot by someone to annoy me. It's also true. Nice ribbon is fiendishly expensive.
The last great budget drain, and the only one on which I have no useful advice, is: Mistakes. Sometimes, you just have a complete brain fart, and cut the wrong thing. This will cost you a huge amount in frustration, sanity, nerves, and confidence. The least it will cost you is in materials. All I can say is everybody does it. There are no perfect costumers (none that I know or would believe if they claimed so, at any rate).
Anything can be salvaged SOMEHOW, but it can be a horrible experience. Just try not to do that, ok? And don't beat yourself up about it when you do. I cannot tell you how many of my dresses have taken to flying across the room when they dared to jump the wrong way in front of the scissors or the sewing machine, but they always get straightened back out somehow.

My Arwen costume from two years ago. The front panel was an old silk table runner bought at Saver's.

You are probably going to have to buy some of your accessories, if not the majority of them. Add this into your budget. Assess your skills honestly when it comes to accessories: can you make a hat? Can you make the hat form, or are you counting on using a buckram form? Can you make a pouch? A fan? Your shoes/boots? (Yes, someone will see the gym shoes, and walking all day in cheap shoes will leave you very cranky by the end of the day.) What about a snood or biggins? Your basket? Jewelry? A lot of these things can be made or gotten cheaply, but it takes time.

Fabric: The Importance of Color Choices
I was at a fabric store with a friend a while back, and she remarked, somewhat surprised, that all of my fabrics for three different costumes (across three different classes) went pretty well together. This is not an accident, and it's not just that I happen to fanatically like reds (actually, you can tell from my mundanes, I generally prefer blues and greens).
But, my noble gown is red, and the red skirt from my peasant dress works as a petticoat for that noble, or as a nice contrasting underskirt for my green middle class. If you keep a common set of colors across all your costumes, you can mix and match the pieces. A peasant's good skirt becomes a middle class petticoat. A middle class underskirt becomes a noble petticoat. (You might be able to skip across two classes, depending on the age, wear, and appearance of the garment.)
This, of course, works best if you have more than one costume, but it is best to plan ahead and pick some colors you really like from the get go.

Trim: The Worst Thing You Can Do To Your Wallet
As stated, trim is just damnably expensive. It's practically criminal. When you're dealing with a noble gown, needing gold trim, at $3.50 - $6/yd, and you need 12 yards, you're looking at a lot of money. Trims are manufactured with people who need a yard or two in mind. It's not fair to us trim junkies, but that's just the way it is.
There are a couple of things you can do about this. When you must use a trim, figure out how much you are willing to spend on trim, then divide that number by the number of yards you need. This will tell you how much you can afford per yard. I have no luck with this method whatsoever.
All my self control evaporates when I see something shiny, especially if it's in the trim section. (Anyone who has been to a fabric store with me has seen this. It's pathetic. I'm a terror at gem and jewelry shows as well.) Remember that being able to get more of a second-fave, but cheaper, trim means getting more of an impact most of the time.
For those like me, my advice is to do everything in your power to avoid the trim section. (If that means you have to give your mother your wallet and instructions to send the huskies if you're not out of the trim section in 40 minutes, do that. Do not feel at all embarrassed. You're in good company.)
Barring that, try to shop places where the trim is cheaper. Wal-Mart has very good prices on most of their trims, though the selection tends to be limited and oft period inappropriate. The upholstery section is cheaper than the regular trims for the same kinds of gimp, though they will not have those lovely ribbons and metallics.
Hancock, in general, is cheaper than Jo-Ann’s. (Ok, let's be honest, ANYBODY, in general, will be cheaper than Jo-Ann's. We only go there because they carry Europa trims.....)
You can mimic ribbon by making biased tape out of contrasting fabrics. You can use scraps to do this. Buy a bias tape maker - it's much easier that way.
Your other option is to make your trims. (What? Say that again!) Yes, you can MAKE YOUR TRIMS. Again, this is where we trade time for money, but also for authenticity. All those strips you see in period portraits that look like ribbon are, in fact, strips of embroidery.
You can make a large appliqué in the shape that you would have laid ribbon on the garment (decorate it or make it in a contrasting fabric, whatever.) Leave a seam allowance around it, and sew flanged cord on the right side (flange in the seam allowance). Turn back the flange/seam allowance and you will have a neatly piped appliqué.
You can easily sew this down to the main of the piece you are decorating by stitching in the ditch between the pipe and the appliqué body. (Just watch out for boning!) Neat, easy, more visually effective and striking than ribbon, and more accurate (well, ok, except for the part about the flanged piping, but that makes it MUCH easier to sew down).
You will also find that this method allows you to make trim that tapers as it reaches the waist on bodices and skirts, as seen in a bunch of portraits. It also allows you to detach the trim pieces so that you can throw the rest of the costume in the wash every now and again. Much, much cheaper than buying ribbon. You can use thinner (hence, cheaper) ribbon to decorate these appliqués.

Swimmer's costume from last year, which she made from 3 different remnant fabrics.

Scrounging For Supplies
Ok, so there are some things you can't do without - you are going to have to get fabric somehow. The most obvious thing to do is join the teaming hordes of us that wait for fabric sales. Hancock is especially good about having $2/yd heavy cotton sales.
Now, the real beauty of cotton (and don't let anyone confuse you with talk about breathability or durability) is the fact that it takes dye readily. When in doubt, buy a lighter color - you can dye it later.
Your next good bet is resale shops. Take a lesson from the Elizabethans, and learn to remake old garments into new ones. That cheap silk shirt could be the tube of a French hood, or the puffing through your slashes. I found a $12 full length red suede skirt in a resale shop that will be a lovely woman's doublet. Velvet garments can be taken apart and used as trim.
For smaller women, some plus sized women's full length skirts are the right size to be used as petticoats - just redo the waistband. Old leather coats, which can sometimes be gotten in spring and summer for a song, can be used as trim. Resale shops also tend to have cheap, yet beautifully atrocious, costume jewelry. Some of it is remarkably period.
Your next stop should be your closet. If you're like me, you had some brief stint as a consultant, and, after finding you that you absolutely hate traveling and weren't actually getting rich quick or slow, gave up and got a less stressful job. Go through your closet and find anything silk or wool that is showing wear at the collars or cuffs or hems or, well, you get the picture.
First off, you should clean out your closet anyway, but secondly, these things have salvageable material in them. Get a big basket for things like this, and anything clothwise you bring home from resale shops. This is your salvageable scraps pile. (Never let a shred of knit or nylon touch this basket.)
Those super extra bargain clearance fashion stores (typically rather grungy with frightening dressing rooms, flickering fluorescent lights, and incredible prices) are another good bet. I have a bodice made (badly, I admit, but I was in a hurry and it was really early in the morning) from a 3$ suede tank top I got at one of those.
(What kind of person buys a suede tank top, you might wonder? Someone who can't resist anything that's only $3 and knows that she'll sew it into something else eventually. Actually, it was supposed to turn into a pair of gloves, but I never got around to it...)
Lastly, think Scarlet O'Hara and those drapes. Or, for that matter, bed sheets - white cotton percale flat sheets can go on sale very inexpensively, and they're great for shirts and chemises and corset lining (200 ct percale is very sturdy and stable).
When it comes to the hardware part of costuming (grommets, boning, etc), skip the fabric store entirely. Go to the hardware store.

Larue's costume from two years ago, made with less that half the fabric the pattern called for.

ReUse and ReCycle
It is ok to take trim off an old, worn costume and reuse it. It's ok to cut and old skirt down into sleeves, or a bodice. Don't look at it as old and worn, look at it as dying for another chance. This is one of the most period things you can do with your old costumes, unless you actually have servants to give them to.
In Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Janet Arnold details some of the tailoring accounts from Queen Elizabeth's clothes. Bits of embroidery were periodically taken off old garments and stitched on to new ones as 'slips', or appliqué. Back closing bodices were made front closing (don't ask me how, I'm rather boggled myself. Her tailor was a very clever fellow, to put it mildly.) Old short cloaks were made into foreparts in period. Use your imagination.
There are no rules when it comes to reusing things, or using then for things other than their original purpose.

An Honest Budget
An honest budget is your best tool when it comes to bringing in a costume at (or under) budget. Make a design sketch. Write down everything, down to every last hook, eye, or inch of trim you are going to need. Do not forget your accessories. Do not forget your underpinnings, if you have none that can be reused. Don't forget thread and needles. (I estimate at least one package of 14 and one of 16 sharps for every costume I do, and my mother tells me that I don't change them often enough.)
Get a good estimate of fabric yardage - that will save you a lot right there. Factor in the cost of the pattern, if you need one. Now, if you haven't come up with a number larger than you expected, go back over the list and figure out what you forgot to put on it.
This budget does not take into account what you can get cheaply - it's a worst case cost estimate. Be absolutely honest on your skill levels when you make this estimate - if you can't make a hat, plan to buy one, and such.
Once you have this budget, figure out what you can afford to spend. Then figure out, from the first list, what you can get cheaply or what you can live with out."


LaRue said...

She is so cool. I love her stuff.

Excellent choice for topic.

Bionic Beauty said...

Yah for cheap costuming!! :)

I made the silliest mistakes in my first foray. I was sewing my robe inside out and somehow my spatial reasoning was off and I stitched the sleeves shut. Oi. But it was correctable. I also put the wand pocket too close to the robes edge. I still need to go back and pull this out and move it by hand (hopefully before November).

I had never made a costume before last year and now I'm hooked. I was looking at buying a Hogwarts robe but the nice ones were running $200 not including patches or the rest of your accessories. I made my robe nicer and much more authentic for $60. I found my patches on eBay for $8 and I turned an old dart case into a Hogwarts school book with a little hot glue, felt and paint pens. Plus it opens and holds all my gear for a night out. :D

Shayne said...

Great post. I had no idea how expensive and detailed costume making was until this week. Whew. We'll have to see how my first try turns out.