A Guide to Basic Costume Research

So you’ve made a t-tunic or two. You’ve borrowed someone else’s garb and thought it was pretty specy. And while I and other people can teach you how to make cotehardies, or bodices or whatever, its really nice to do your own thing. Well this is how to begin.

For all those who attend the Camperdown Campus, you have a wonderful resource at your fingertips: Fisher Library. It has 8 stories of open-access shelves, unlimited internet access (I recommend the periodicals room) as well as the possibility of interlibrary loans.

To begin you need to choose a country and time period you’re interested in. How specific you can be often depends on how much information is out there (usually the later on you are, the more specific you can be). If you want to research costume from a small country (eg. Portugal) you may need to look at costume from larger countries around first. Some people have a persona with clothing, name, armour and gear to match. Some people just research clothing they look good in/find interesting.

You may have done this step already- that’s cool. Otherwise I suggest browsing through a costume book to get an idea of what’s out there. Go to the books with call numbers beginning 391 (level 4? of Fisher), and look through those with titles like ‘A History of Costume’. Most of these books aren’t too accurate, but they’re good enough for getting a general idea and picking an area of interest.

Next I’d suggest seeing if the library has any books just about your area of interest (search the catalogue by subject with ‘Country’ and ‘Clothing’/’Costume’ and maybe ‘Medieval’). If nothing turns up, expand the search a little further, using other names for the country/region. Try different combinations. If you’re getting too many results you may need to limit the search with other key terms. Note down the call numbers of any books you’re interested in and head for the shelves.

Look around on the shelf for any other books of interest that you may have missed in your search (many of the older books have not been catalogued by subject).

Is the book of any good? The best books have lots of information; text (with references and quotes) as well as photos of contemporary artwork/archaeological pieces. If your book doesn’t, oh well it still may be interesting and point you in the right direction. Books that are about costume for the theatre are not going to be much good. Books written before the 20th century are also suspect. Books with no sources/references are suspect. Authors really do make up stuff, and copy misinformation off each other.

Have a read of your books. At the moment the questions you want answered are:

  • What garments did they wear? (including their period names)
  • What are the features? (tight fitting/long sleeved/funny dangly bit)
  • How were they constructed? (rectangles pieced together, lots of tailoring)
  • What materials were they made from? (fulled wool, woven silk)
  • What decoration did they have? (gold embroidery, tablet weaving)
  • What accessories did they wear? (hair, shoes, underwear)

Note down other details too, but this should give you the basics. Drawing pics helps a lot here. Take photocopies of good stuff. Check out the references/bibliography at the end. Note any books which look especially interesting and try searching for those.

Right about now I’d hit the internet. Try searches with ‘SCA’ AND ‘clothing’ AND ‘Your period of interest’. Or try a links site like¬†http://moas.atlantia.sca.org/wsnlinks/. For more specific searches use the name of the garment you’re researching (eg. when I’m researching 12th C French clothing, I search for ‘Bliaut’). You may find some really useful stuff here, but be aware that not all of it is accurate. As usual, look for references/sources, photographs, etc. A lot of SCA stuff is ‘How to’ eg. how to make trews, without telling you much about what style of trews are appropriate to anglo-saxon britain. You might want to keep some of this for later, but a lot of it is just someone’s idea of how it was done- you might have a better idea about how it was done. For information on how garments were constructed you really want to look at surviving pieces.

Keep looking at references and links to other pages or newsgroups as you go.

How you organise your information is up to you. If you like paper you can print and photocopy to your hearts content and write up notes later, or keep handwritten notes as you go. Just keep in mind to always include where you got the information from (title, author, location).

Around this stage or a bit earlier I’d start looking at period artwork. Up till now we’ve been looking at mostly tertiary sources, so its time to get a bit closer in. I’d start with the library and do a search for ‘art’ ‘country’ ‘time period’. As before, note down a few prefixes and head to the shelves. Art is strangely organised at Fisher, so you may have a few different places to look in. (eg. sculpture and illumination have sections to themselves). Don’t forget to browse the shelves around. The internet is useful here in giving you artist’s names to search for too (Try http://www.wga.hu/). Really look at the pictures, and take photocopies if possible. What garments can you see? Who is wearing them (a Queen or a peasant or a saint)? Can you see any seams? How loose or tight is each piece? What colours? At this stage you may have to revise some of your earlier ideas. Keep in mind the artist’s aims- often a detailed and accurate depiction of clothing is not one of them.

Hopefully by this stage you’ve got a few things:

  1. Answers to all the important questions raised above (with pictures too).
  2. Some reliable, trustworthy sources that give you good detailed information.
  3. A list of sources you’d like to find (on interlibrary loan, or from someone else)
  4. An idea on what constitutes a good source of information.

With this amount of information you are well prepared for making some historically accurate garb. You may know enough to jump right in and sew it yourself, or you might approach someone who sews and ask for their help. They’ll be impressed that you’ve taken the trouble to do some good research first, and be in a much better position to help you.


Copyright © 2004, Alison Fernandes. Edited by Chris Collins, 2007