An imperative part of designing costume design is the research involved in how to construct the costumes. This area of expertise is usually handled by talented workrooms filled with cutters, drapers, and stitchers. Using the wealth of period knowledge out there: from books, to pictures, to museum exhibits, workrooms bring accurate life to designers vision to life using. The most complex techniques involve drafting period patterns from primary source manuals as dressmakers and tailors would have in the actual historical period.
Of course, this has not always been a feature of the process. Before the 1980s, costumes were designed to reflect the current styles and trends to make historical periods more palatable for audiences.
If we could have added a fourth picture it would be a 18th century design by Erte, Adrian’s predecessor. He was let go from MGM because they wanted more realism. Even though his period costume strikes a 1930s air–in reality–Adrian actually cared more for period shape and fabrication than previous designers. He uses the 1930s elements to relate to his audience.
Now, look at Milena Canonero’s interpretation, obviously much more accurate, but there is a deviation in makeup. The hair is pretty on point. People, especially at Versaille, had access to human hair wigs that were styled and powdered with a light starch to be white, off-white, and subtle pastels (That’s right, those candy colors are real!) The makeup, however, is softer for the same reason as in the 1930s, to relate to the audience. As you see in the below video, using more period products it’s harder to get a blended look that we prize today.
Even though the period makeup is quite beautiful, it would look a little less than glamorous in a film with an all-star cast. The period correct makeup does make an appearance once in the movie, perhaps to show the formal tradition of versaille. Notice that it’s worn by the older characters, perhaps to emphasize that Marie is shakin’ things up! (Also after using lead based paint for a while, your skin gets to be kind of jaundiced and saggy… but that’s another story.)
A while back, I did research for Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill set in the 1880s. The things I learned about the 19th century were bodice construction, primarily.
How do you make a 1880s ensemble? Post 1885 to be precise. How does one begin the research?
Well, you start with a pattern which you can draft, drape or enlarge through slash and spread, depending on your time and skill. Clothing makers of the time used all three techniques:
Tailors usually draft. It’s their way. They get close by two-dimensional draft and then alter in the third dimension. we think the tailor drafts have value, even to someone who doesn’t understand how to draft them fully, because they show what they prize in the period silhouette and where they put it. For instance, the elongated waist in post 1885 bodices dips down up to two inches from the natural waist in front, probably to create a little shape on the body, despite the all enveloping cage on the backside. Sleeves are set in farther than most set in sleeves today, perhaps to provide adequate movement with such a tight fitting silhouette. Going through these drafts at least once would improve your draping and fitting quite a bit.
High-end dressmakers drape clothing. It’s the most natural way to get a custom fit. Draping and pinning the clothes to a form or directly to a body gets an exact fit. However, it takes a high amount of skill from the whole team, more fittings, and a great deal of knowledge about the silhouette. This can be gleaned from the tailor draft. (But if there was a period text about it, that would be interesting) Again, when looking at the back, is the fiddle-back a design line or a dart? Where does one pinch in when draping. Successfully draped 1880s dresses are very beautiful. Take a look at these Worth models:
Notice that the dresses are for two very different figures and sizes. The pattern design is quite beautiful. The red dress really displays the elongated waist under the rib-cage.
Dressmakers who didn’t have cutting skill, altered pre-made patterns which is what costume designers often do, hence most costume books provide 1/4 or 1/8 scale patterns that can be enlarged and fit. This is a quicker way and can produce really good results with good fitting techniques.
Proper fit is also pretty reliant on well formed undergarments. As we’ve addressed already, the waistline is elongated below the ribs in this period. Learning to enlarge or draft a corset from the time period is a necessity.
From chemises to drawers. From corsets to crinolines. Every piece that gets made has a purpose. Look at this 1872 breakdown. I love this breakdown beacause it talks about the participles of dress and how they work together, function wise.
There are a few things that helped us theatre-wise, but are not necessarily the standard, like the combination petticoat bustle (lower left), much different than the tornure at the upper left). They allow us to make one piece instead of two, but have less control over the specific shape.
Then, of course, there is the sewing. From the 1850s to the 1940s, western dressmakers, primarily in England, France and the US developed modern dressmaking by hand and by machine. In high-end firms, dresses have been made the same way for over 100 years, gently folding in technologies, like stretch material and zippers, as they come about. When I looked to the period manuals, I recognized modern couture techniques. Simplifying them for the grueling pace of the theatre is necessary, but in high-end firms, like Sartoria Tirelli, the work is still done by hand.
The 1885 bodice is flat-lined in satine or muslin, boned and close with a series of hooks and eyes on plackets. There are different rules for finishing tailored garments, dressmakers suits, and day-dresses and evening gowns. While, I won’t get into the actual sewing in this period, in this article, I will say that the last and may most interesting part, is reading about how people felt about their clothes and observed trends.
Finding words about clothing is paramount for understanding how garments should fit and move. Finding magazine articles and caricatures can allude to the hardships and triumphs of period clothing. People loved the combination petticoats because of their ease of wear. Less twisting than some of the separate pieces. Women found time to spend without their corsets, too! Going to the country, in their private times. Different waists were worn for different occasions, much like today!
Lastly, there are some amazing people who have really developed the field of historic costume cutting: Norah Waugh and Janet Arnold. Norah Waugh books are just exciting, and pretty thorough for being written mid-20th century. Janet Arnold is like the Indiana Jones of costuming. Anyway, you can’t go wrong with starting with their books. Here are a few great late-Victorian resources on cutting:
Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques by Kristina Harris
Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh
The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 by Norah Waugh
The Evolution of Fashion: Pattern and Cut from 1066 to 1930 by Margot Hamilton Hill, Peter A. Bucknell (This book is out of print, search hard!)
The Keystone Jacket and Dress Cutter: An 1895 Guide to Women’s Tailoring by Charles Hecklinger, Kristina Seleshanko (Preface by)