My Costume History is moving!

Hi all, and apologies for the radio silence – it’s been a busy couple of months. One thing I’ve done in that time is update my portfolio website, which now includes my blog and all previous posts from My Costume History. I’ll keep writing, but for future posts please visit me at rebeccarom.com/blog. Stay tuned!

macnure sketch with chain

Current project: Captain M’nure from Ubu Roi. Details coming soon!

 

Fairy Tales and Maggie Thatcher

Alackaday! It’s been far too long – sorry folks, got carried away with Christmas. Anyway, moving swiftly onwards…

My second conceptual costume design project of the course was Sleeping Beauty by Rufus Norris. This version is pretty nuts, featuring a flatulent fairy and a child-eating ogress among others. I was thrilled about designing it though, as I have a thing for the 18th century (as you may have noticed) and this would be the PERFECT opportunity to unleash a bit of period fantasy. Edmund Dulac! Kay Nielsen! PANNIERS!! I immediately pulled together some mood/research boards…

I excitedly showed them to my tutor, and she was… not impressed. In fact, she was pretty insistent that I do something contemporary, especially since I had gone period with King Lear. As it turns out, indulgent period fantasy is a big no-no at Royal Welsh College. Following the rather tepid reception of my Shakespeare design, I realised I didn’t have a choice in this. Contemporary it was.

My new concept started with Fairy Goody, the filthy, farting fairy that casts the infamous spell upon being spurned by Queen Beauty at the naming day celebration. My Fairy Goody became White Dee from Benefits Street. The rest soon fell into place: Margaret Thatcher became my ogress, Boris Johnson my ogre, and a Made In Chelsea/Bullingdon Club/posh knob became the prince (also the ogress’s son).

I was able to salvage some of my original 18th century inspiration for the palace characters: King Beauty – well-meaning but useless; Queen Beauty – a snob obsessed with cleanliness; and Princess Beauty – an overprotected teen not allowed to grow up. I threw in a 50s twist because I found a bright green and pink vinyl covered sofa from the era that I just couldn’t ignore, and it was a natural progression from the Kim Woodburn inspiration image for the Queen.

I also collected images for the forest creatures, ogre, and Prince of Questions (who is really just a narrative device. He turns up being chased by the ogre at the start of the play, and because Fairy Goody needs a prince to break the spell, she tells him the whole story).

Ok you get the idea. I don’t have individual scans of my drawings, but here are some photos of the resulting designs:

I’m now home for the holidays, working at Eureka! and eating lots of chocolate. It’s nice to be back in my comfort zone – my mark on King Lear (48%) really knocked me for six. But something clicked with Sleeping Beauty. I’m going to revisit Lear during the break, and hopefully design something more compelling to show my tutors in the new year.

Onwards and upwards!

King Lear on Mars

First off, apologies for the radio silence these last three weeks. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in my first conceptual costume design project of the year: King Lear.

Results first:

final sketches

For those unfamiliar with the story, King Lear is about aging, senility, madness, family, cruelty, and loyalty. Lear, in his old age, decides he can’t be bothered to actually rule the kingdom anymore and wants to remain king in title only, so decides to split up his kingdom and give it away to his daughters in accordance with how much they say they love him. Goneril and Regan are all over this, waxing lyrical about how much they love their father, but Cordelia doesn’t want to play that game and is just like “dude, Dad, I love you like a daughter, you know that, I’m not gonna say I love you more than any man ever cuz uhh I’m gonna have a husband someday and that would be weird” (I’m paraphrasing). Lear gets pissed, banishes Cordelia (who conveniently goes off to marry the king of France), gives his entire kingdom away to Goneril and Regan (and to their respective husbands, Albany and Cornwall), and then sh*t goes from bad to worse because the elder two sisters are dicks who don’t want to deal with their dad getting senile.

There’s a parallel story going on about Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund – Edmund is the illegitimate son who convinces Gloucester that Edgar’s out to kill him, so Gloucester banishes Edgar who has no idea that Edmund is the one who set him up. Gloucester and Edgar end up wandering the heath together, Gloucester blinded after a scuffle with Cornwall, and Edgar disguised as a crazy beggar to avoid capture. All but three characters end up dead. I could go on but I won’t because time is of the essence and you’re all busy people.

colour story

colour story

So the first step in designing (after a rather lengthy and involved breakdown, that is) is deciding what themes to focus on, and to decide when and where the story makes sense. For me, the whole set up is crazy – on what planet is this a good idea?! None. None that are recognisable to us anyway, which is why I chose to set my Lear in a post-apocaplyptic environment. Maybe a giant meteor had hit the earth, filling the atmosphere with ash, turning the sky orange and the sun red. This mega disaster also fits in with the idea of entropy; that is, that the universe is constantly moving toward a state of complete chaos. The world of King Lear is chaotic and senseless; there are no gods to return things to an ordered state; the good guys end up as dead as the bad guys. It’s unjust, but it’s nature.

My original idea was to start with classical ancient Greek design for Cordelia (simple, rational, unfussy), and Byzantine extravagence for Goneril & Regan (ambitious, selfish, extravagant). I would have happily gone for a straight period piece – in fact, that’s where I was heading in my mind – but Tina (our tutor) advised against going too period as it would alienate a modern audience. I looked a lot at fashion designers like Alexander McQueen, Isabel Toledo, and Yohji Yamamoto (in fact, Cordelia’s dress is exactly Isabel Toledo’s design, just in different colours). My reasearch ended up looking like this:

And for the dudes:

Interestingly, at first I thought I had Goneril & Regan completely sussed and the men would be problematic. As it turns out, I had an easier time arriving at final designs for the men and a much harder time with the elder sisters. After finalising the designs and producing my line drawings, I sat down with all my swatches to work out exactly what would be made of which fabric before rendering. I wanted a really tight colour palette that reflected all the burnt oranges and reds that occur in volcanic sunsets:

My main approach, without being too period, was to focus on garments that could be simply constructed and cut from a single length of fabric (square cutting from week 2, anyone?!). I figure that in this post-apolcalyptic environment, resources are limited and they have to be clever about using what they have – hence the Asian style trousers for the men, and the Medieval dresses for Regan and Goneril. I attempted to update the look with quilting and cording for the men, along with motorcycle-style boots, but in the end I don’t think it came across that well.

After presenting my work to the tutors and first year BAs yesterday, the feedback was that my designs are a good starting point, but the post-apocalyptic, scavenged element could be pushed a lot further – at the moment they feel far too period. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that I designed Lear’s coat to be an updated version of a Henry VIII gown (week 3 anyone?!) – a big sweeping silhouette with a yoke back and oversleeves, but also a massive collar and lapels to update it and make it look more modern. Maybe I should have given Goneril and Regan short cap sleeves? But then that would have felt too casual.

I was super excited to present my work yesterday, but came out the other side a bit deflated and disappointed that I couldn’t express myself better. Yes, I said “post-apocalyptic” and “scavenged,” but really that’s not what I wanted for a group of royal, powerful characters (which I did explain, saying that if I had explored the working classes or peasants of that world I would have incorporated more scavenged elements).

What I should have said, but didn’t, was that the strong period reference was an intentional choice to show how humanity has had to start over again, and this is the point they’ve got to with that’s available in their environment. Maybe watercolour on banana paper (yes, it’s made from bananas) wasn’t the right rendering style to evoke a simmering, dystopian future where things are about to spiral out of control. Maybe I should have said, it’s King Lear on Mars.

But it’s all a process – as MA lighting designer Joe rather succinctly put it, we didn’t come here to be told we’re brilliant designers. So next time, I’m going to practice my presentation ahead of time to make sure that I can confidently express my complete idea, rather than a half-baked on-the-spot version that makes it look like I didn’t achieve what I wanted. AND I’m going to spend more time drawing and experimenting, because as I’ve discovered in the last two weeks, that’s where a lot of the ideas come from.

costume rendering

Mad as a Hatter

Week five was MILLINERY! I was excited for this week – making hats was always something I’d wanted to try, and it would be the first completely new skill I’d learn at RWCMD. The 3rd year BA’s (who did it last year) told us that we’d get to choose three hats to make: one felt, one straw, and one covered. With that in mind I spent the weekend researching Edwardian picture hats – but how on EARTH was I going to choose?!

So those were my options for a straw hat. Then I had to think about what to make for my felt hat – initially I wanted to make a bowler, but after seeing everyone else’s choices I decided to go for something more whimsical. Cue this fantastic 1940 Schiaparelli number:

Schiaparelli hat

Which then left the covered hat. I had initially figured my Edwardian hat would be covered instead of straw, so I didn’t have any ideas. That is, not until I saw Ellie’s picture of a Tudor headpiece, which reminded me that hey, the hat I make doesn’t have to be 20th century! Enter the Medieval heart-shaped hennin:

Once we had all chosen the hats we were making, it was time to stretch our felt hats on the block. Ruth, our tutor, said that millinery is a bit like cooking – it’s all about timing, and it’s best if you have a few things on the go at once. Felt takes the longest to dry, so that’s where you start.

First, you take a wool felt capeline like this (or if your hat doesn’t have a brim, you can get a wool felt piece that’s just the lump in the middle called a cone)…

wool capelines

…and stretch it over the most appropriately shaped block for the hat you want to make. Then you work out how deep you want the crown to be, mark it with some elastic, and cut and flatten to brim; like so:

20141020_122820

It’s exactly the same process for the straw hat, again starting with a capeline if you want a brim, or just a cone if your hat doesn’t have a brim. By lunchtime the dye room was awash with hats on blocks!

Then it was onto the covered hat. I showed Ruth my reference pictures, and her instruction was “work out a pattern” for the heart-shaped bit. The idea of drafting my own pattern was daunting for about five seconds. Then I remembered what we’d been doing for all of week three, and once I applied the same flat-drafting process it really was pretty simple. Result!

After creating the heart-shape, I molded two separate side bits on a smaller block. In retrospect I think this method resulted in something too horizontal and bulging, but oh well, live and learn. Molding the buckram (that stiff hessian-looking stuff) was pretty gross – it comes on the roll glued together in two layers, which we had to peel apart. You have to dampen the buckram before you can mold it (actually, you have to do that with the felt and straw too – completely saturate them in hot water before putting them on the block so they mold more easily), which means the glue gets really sticky and slimy. Really not pleasant, and not altogether different from papier mache.

Did I mention millinery is a messy business?

Once I had the side bits, I had to make a close-fitting cap for the whole structure to sit on. This basically comprises of Frankensteining a bit of buckram molded to the top of the head to a wide rectangle cut on the bias that wraps around the head, and then trimmed down to get rid of the pleats/bulges before sewing it together by hand. At Ruth’s suggestion, I painted the side pieces gold, the idea being I would eventually embellish them with gold braid and get that net-like effect from the exposed weave of the hessian.

Then came time to pad out and cover the heart bit. NIGHTMARE!

20141022_152209

It really shouldn’t have been that hard. It was literally just glueing the fabric to the buckram – but my god those curves were awkward. I ended up staying til 7.45 that night getting it neatly glued and pinning on the inside layer of fabric before bringing it home to slip-stitch (which took approximately three episodes of Masters of Sex). It sucked. But I did it!

Anyway, after working on the hennin late into Wednesday night I came in on Thursday ready to go back to my felt hat. I had wired, bound, and sewed the crown of my straw hat to the brim in between working on the hennin, resulting in this understated (read: unfinished and undecorated) little number:

I’ll get around to decorating it sometime. Maybe. Probably not. Anyway, felt hat! First thing was to delicately take it off the block and trim down the brim to the appropriate width. After trimming, it needs wiring and hand-sewing around the edge of the brim to bind it. After wiring and sewing the brim, Ruth helped me pleat it to look like the picture before leaving me to sew on the crown.

My hand-sewing under the brim is really pretty shoddy, but the felt was thick and my fingers were sore and by Thursday afternoon I can’t say I was particularly bothered anymore. Not that you can really tell in the photo…!

20141023_153201

If I were to do this one again I would scale the whole thing down – I was imagining a much daintier hat, but just went with what Ruth suggested for the brim based on what we could see in the photo. One of these days I’ll put a band on it to hide the janky handsewing around the crown, and hopefully attach a fantastically Surreal bow!

Once the felt hat was done (or as done as it was going to get – Dot and I had a field trip on Friday, so we only had til the end of the day on Thursday to work on our hats), it was back to the hennin. Of the three, this is the one that isn’t actually wearable because it is still in bits. However, I assembled those bits and got a photo which I think lends a decent impression of what the finished product would look like:

And yes, I was kind of going for the whole “evil Duchess” thing.

duchess

This week, I am in the building NEXT DOOR (gasp) with the four MA Performance Designers working on a Shakespeare costume design project. Now I just have to figure out what the heck King Lear is all about…

MA Week 4: Corsetry

I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous going into corsetry week. Our tutor, Jill Salen, has literally written the book on corsets and as I’d made two before, I feared she (and the rest of the class) were expecting great things.

Fortunately for me, having made corsets before meant I got to choose a corset from another period, so I chose to remake these linen jumps from 1790:

It doesn’t look like much in the picture, but when it’s on a body it’s really stunning. Also, as there are only ten boning channels, it wasn’t completely unreasonable to do by hand in a week. But more on that later!

And then we had a rather relaxing overview of corsetry – what a busk is, different materials used for boning, metal eyelets vs hand-worked ones, and so on. After trying the reproduction of the linen jumps, Jill said I’d have to take out 1″ on the double at the centre front, 1″ on the double at the center back, make the side back smaller, bring up the armhole 1/2 an inch, and take 2″ out of the shoulder straps. Get on with it then!

Mine was decidedly more effort as I first had to go to the library and get the original pattern from the archive. As it was two A2 sheets, I then had to copy it the old-fashioned way with some tracing paper (33p per sheet at the SU shop! Useful). I had the pattern copied by lunchtime, and then after lunch set to work grading the pattern and making a toile.

Turns out I am reasonably ok at grading patterns down to size, as the toile was very near bang on. In retrospect – as in, once the corset was completely made – I realised I should maybe have taken my inch out of the corset front from the middle, rather than just hacking an inch of the centre front as it affected the shape at the front. Still, live and learn. By the end of the day, I had my graded pattern:

graded jumps pattern

graded jumps pattern

A few more tweaks first thing Tuesday morning and I was ready to cut out. I got linen for the outside and a striped cotton for the lining – I wanted something that felt Georgian, or at least our 21st century idea of Georgian. I got a metre of each, because WHO KNOWS I might cock up and need an entire metre, but nope. I could have gotten away with half a metre:

cutting out in linen

Still, now I have some lovely linen for another project!

Once it was all cut, Jill let me sew it all together on the machine – HURRAH (I thought I’d have to do it all by hand, as sewing machines didn’t exist in 1790)!

Although it sounds easy, this was a tricky step. I had to pin and tack the layers right sides together, making absolutely sure that all the seams matched. The I machine-sewed around the finished edges (forgetting to leave my boning channels open – d’oh!), very carefully going around the points where the tabs separate. I didn’t realise this, but you don’t cut out the fabric in the shape of the tabs – you cut it whole, and then cut a sigle line into it, sewing around it much the same way you sew a gusset, or a placket (start about 1/4 inch from the line, sew diagonally toward the point, take two stitches across the point, and back down again about 1/4 inch away from the line). It took about half an hour to do on the machine, and by the time I had gotten around all the tabs I wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off hand-sewing it after all.

Bagging it out was a job and a half. It got a bit hairy in the middle, very much looking like the monster from an It Came from the Sea 50’s B movie:

IMG-20141015-WA0007

There’s no elegant way to do this.

But after about an hour and a half, I got there! This is where it gets fuzzy – I can’t remember if I started stab-stitching at the end of Tuesday or Wednesday. I think it was Wednesday – again I tacked all the seams to make sure they lined up exactly, stab-stitched the seams, and then stab-stitched around the edges (leaving the centre fronts open). Thursday morning I finished the stab-stitching, and then started on the boning channels. These were tricky because I wanted them to be EXACTLY STRAIGHT which I found really hard to do. Back-stitching itself is quick, easy work – evenly back-stitching in a beautiful straight line is not. As such I had eight of ten channels done by the end of Thursday, and by Friday morning was worried I wouldn’t finish the damn thing by the end of the day.

 

But I DID IT!! I finished my last hand-worked eyelet at 5.30 on Friday afternoon, and after a bit of faff and help from Dot I got my lacing in.

If I were to do it again (which I totally can, cuz I have plenty of fabric left over), I wouldn’t change much – but I would definitely do something about that seemingly GIANT tab on the side back piece (and try harder to make my centre fronts match). I think I’ll also go back and back-stitch directly down the boning at the centre front, rather than follow the parallel line as I have done.

I’m bummed I didn’t have time to make a second corset, as most of the girls did this week, but Jill will offer corsetry again sometime later in the year. Anyway, I’m glad I gave these linen jumps the love and attention they deserved!

Next week: millinery.

MA Week 3: Britches ‘n Hose

Teehee, I love a good pun. Sorry guys – I didn’t even make any hose (though some of the other girls did and the results were fantastic), but I really couldn’t help myself. Anyway, yes, britches (or breeches) and hose! Or as this week was actually titled, men’s pattern cutting. We worked from a book called Pattern Cutting for Men’s Costume by Elizabeth Friendship, and it’s a similar method to how I drafted Ben’s tailcoat pattern at NCC. Instead of drafting straight to a specific pattern, though, we started with basic blocks and adapted those to different period patterns throughout the week.

We started on Monday by drafting blocks for bodices, sleeves, and trousers:

men's basic blocks

On Tuesday we all adapted our basic two-piece sleeve into a period two-piece sleeve (which is just wider at the top, really), and then each chose three patterns to start drafting. Karen wanted us to get through as many periods and styles as possible, so we all chose a different doublet, coat, and trousers or breeches to draft and then make up into toiles by the end of the week. It doesn’t sound like a lot but oh man, after two days of pattern drafting my brain had pretty much turned into mush.

I chose to draft a high-waisted doublet, Henry VIII-style gown, and Venetian breeches, like so:

I’ve always had a thing for Cavalier fashion and so HAD to do the Charles I doublet, and wanted to make the gown since it was so different from anything I’ve made before. The Venetians I bagsied by mid-week because they were super-simple (like, one pattern piece simple) and I was worried about falling behind – the gown kind of took over for a day and a half.

We used a size chart provided in the book and had to do everything in METRIC, which was a bit weird at first but annoyingly quite simple when it came to halving measurements and getting down to the millimeter (as opposed to the 1/16th inch). My head agrees that metric is easier, but I’m all imperial at heart.

I had my doublet pattern drafted by the end of Tuesday, and started on the gown pattern first thing Wednesday. It took until about 2.30 that afternoon, at which point I drafted the Venetians. I stayed late, started early, and only took half a lunch break nearly every day this week, because I know my own pace and wasn’t confident I’d get it all done by Friday afternoon. But lucky me, Ben was coming to visit at the weekend, and of COURSE I’d drafted everything to fit him (I brought his measurement sheet that I’d used at NCC – useful!), so I HAD to finish.

I had everything cut out by mid-morning on Thursday (which was no mean feat – the gown pattern pieces are HUGE), and got the gown mostly made up by Thursday evening. I say mostly because I was stumped by the hanging sleeve and decided to leave it til the next day, so I started on the Venetians.

The gown’s construction is really quite simple, although I had to add some extra seams because the pieces were too big to cut out on the straight grain all in one go. The tricky bit is figuring out the overlseeve, which is just a rectangle pleated up to fit 2/3 armhole measurment at the top, and then pleated at the bottom to fit the slash on the hanging sleeve that arm goes through. Confused? So was I!

I spent about an hour experimenting with different types and sizes of pleats to get it down the required amount, but it was so worth it in the end! You can see on the form that I made it a bit long – I didn’t have an exact neck-t0-knee measurment for Ben, so I went with my usual method of overestimating. You can always chop it off, but you can’t add it on again…

Anyway, time for the fun part!

I feel obliged to mention that I’m least happy with the high-waisted doublet. It didn’t come out with the flamboyance I had hoped for, which I realised today was the result of re-shaping the top of the shirt. I got confused when reading the pattern as it seemed to imply I should cut off the front corner so the shape matched the bottom edge of the bodice, but all that did was give the doublet a rather boring straight edge at the bottom instead of the dramatic pointy bit, as rocked by Charlie I.

Also, I set my sleeves in crooked as I got the idea into my head that the shoulder seams and the overarm sleeve seams should match. I don’t know where that came from, since I have set a few sleeves in my time and should have known better! Never mind, it was one of the last things I sewed and frankly was I thrilled to have both sleeves attached the right way round – and it looks alright from the back I think (though perhaps the skirt could be longer).

But oh, the GOWN. It’s only half a toile that’s too long with one sleeve and no facing on the collar, but gee whiz I am pleased as punch with the result. I wore it on Friday (we all wore what we made) when we went through them all, but it just came to life on Ben – which makes sense, since it’s a men’s pattern for a man with a man shape. I mean, we all know that Henry VIII was a hefty bloke, but that toile just proves that with the right cut you can make anyone look massive (in the best possible way).

Ben hanging sleeve

Coming up: corsetry!