Monday, 22 September 2014

Costume research, a few tips and tricks

Sigismonda And The Heart Of Guiscardo by Moses Haughton
Some time ago I was asked what I think is the most important thing when it comes to making historical costumes and my answer was; research. Even if the aim isn’t to make a period correct garment, it is never wrong to know the subject. I know that many feel that research is boring and perhaps a bit scary, but I think it is fun and sometimes like being your very own private detective. When starting a new period it can be overwhelming and difficult to know what is correct information and what is not, especially with the Net which doesn’t make it hard to find information but rather to make it hard to know which of it that is useful. The ideal is, of course, primary sources, but that may be a difficult thing to do; sources can be in another language or located at a place which is difficult to get to. As I’m currently looking into the 15th century for the first time, I have a lot of things to learn and the very first step is to learn which sources to trust. And because I have been thinking about it a lot lately, here are a few pointers for finding trustworthy information. 

Woman Writing A Letter by Gerard ter Borch, c. 1655
Learn to Google. Think through what you want to learn and select a few search words. Try more than one so you make sure you catch as much as possible. Of course, this will yield a lot of information, but see it at a first stepping stone to get a broad understanding. If, for example, you want to make an 18th century Robe Française, a quick google will show you tons of pictures and links.
Be critical. It’s seems to be a default system that in every group there will be things seen as truths, something that everyone does and which is very easy to take for hard facts. Ask questions! If someone tells you this is the way to do it, the politely ask why, ask for sources. The same goes for blog posts and articles online, don’t just take the information for granted. So ask questions, but ask nicely. People are usually happy to share their sources, but don’t ask things like “Send me everything you know about XWY”. Get to know the basics of XWY on your own first. I don’t mind answering “I’m looking into XWY and I notice you say this or that about it and I wonder where you found that reference”, but I don’t have the time or inclination to do someone’s complete research. If you want to buy a period sewing pattern, do a little research on the pattern company to see what their patterns are based on and what kind of research has gone into the pattern. There are pattern review sites like The Great Pattern Review and a Facebook group; Costumer Pattern Review
Read books. There are tons of good books out there, so a trip to the library can yield quite a lot. Most of us never get the chance to study extant garments, but luckily people like Janet Arnold, has done it for us. Such books give detailed description of extant garments, usually with photographs of it as well as period paintings that depicts similar clothes.  
Man Writing a Letter by Gabriël Metsu, 1664-66
Read first hand sources online. There are several websites that scan original texts, saving you a trip to the library. For example; Google Books, Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg.
Read peer reviewed papers online. Well-researched papers and articles can be found at sites like Some university libraries have free articles in their catalogues, though you will have to search for them.
Theophila Palmer Reading Clarissa by Joshua Reynolds, 1771
Browse museums online. More and more museums have their collections available and one can find both extant garments and period paintings there. A small warning when it comes to extant clothes; if you find something unusual, you may have found something unique, but it can also be due to something being re-made. For example, the Victorians were rather notorious in changing 18th century clothes for costume balls.
Pinterest. A bit of a quagmire, I know. If you pin yourself, try to find the original source of the pictures if you can. For example, if you find a pretty gown on Tumblr and it is originally found at Metropolitan Museum, jump to the Met before you pin. That way you can easily find the original information later. If you re-pin, take a gander on what the pinner says about the picture, it may not be the truth. For example, there is a pretty 17th century gown going round that is said to be an extant gown. However, if you go to the original source it becomes clear that the gown is actually made for a theatre production in the 1990’s. Pinterest is really good for sorting pictures as you can make as many albums you like.
And last; You will make mistakes. You will draw the wrong conclusions. It’s not a big deal, see it as part of the learning process and be happy that you have a knowledge bank that is constantly growing.

Young Woman Reading a Letter by Jean Raoux


Kleidung um 1800 said...

This is wonderful!!!
Thank you for putting it together :)
Research truly is so much fun and it's the best foundation to get to know the people behind the dresses and why they used to wear such fashions. Research means completing the picture around a garment and helping it to come to life again.


Isis said...

Sabine: I'm glad you enjoyed it! Absolutely, it gives deoth and understanding. And even if you decide to derive from how something was actually done, knowing what you make difference and why, makes a difference for the better. As opposed to make a choice based on laziness. :)

Rowenna said...

We're of a similar mind today, hehe! Love this--good basics to get started in the crazy world of costume research. Being critical is truly so important--as you put together all those details into the big picture, it gets easier to look at the common "facts" and ask the right questions!

Anna said...

Wonderful post! And you're so right, it is very much like detective work and a great deal of fun once you get on a roll!

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