Tag Archives: costumer’s handbook

Some Ways That Costumers Transform Actors’ Bodies

Delineator magazine, July 1926.

Hand sewing. Delineator magazine, July 1926.

The many comments I read from theatrical costumers pointing out that our skills overlap —  but also differ from — couture, tailoring, retail fashion and dressmaking got me thinking about one costumers’ specialty that won’t show up in ready-to-wear:  transforming the actor’s body. [That is, transforming it to make it less attractive rather than more.]

Sometimes it is the costumer’s job to make a normally proportioned actress look like this . . .

Illustration by Henry Raleigh, Delineator, July 1929.

Story illustration by Henry Raleigh, Delineator, July 1929.

. . . At other times we may have to eliminate all her curves so that she can play a male role.

Some while ago, I watched a TV show about people participating in a “CostumeCon.” One of the contestants was female, playing a male character, and she tried to suppress her breasts with adhesive tape. (Was it really duct tape?) It was so tight that she had to be extracted from it with scissors in order to breathe. Yipes! Theatrical costumers know there are better ways to do it. (Even researching bust binders from the 1920’s would have been a start!)

“It Ain’t Pretty” — Sometimes

Unlike retail fashion and couture, it’s not always the costumers’ job to make people look more attractive. Over the years, as a designer and a costume technician, I have built costumes (these are just random highlights) to transform

  • a pretty, twenty-ish actress, only 4’10” tall, into a male, forty-ish, hunchbacked dwarf, for Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
  • a curvaceous opera singer into a teenaged boy, for Marriage of Figaro.
  • a trim, healthy actor into a pot-bellied old man in Galileo.
  • a male actor into a female character and back to male again. (A musical version of The Duenna.)

I’ve never worked on Greater Tuna, but that show has two male actors playing all the characters in a small town, including ladies of a certain age and stoutness.

Sometimes a female character goes through several stages of pregnancy in less than two hours. (e.g.,  Stella in  A Streetcar Named Desire.)

Sometimes you have to turn a healthy actor into a seriously obese character, like Falstaff.

Operas often use mezzo-sopranos  or contraltos to play young men.  (These are called “breeches” or “trouser” roles:  Cherubino, Octavian [the Rosencavalier,] Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, among others.)

Sometimes you have to transform a matinee idol actor (e.g., John Barrymore, Lawrence Olivier) into Richard  III (called “Crookback,”  so “deformed, unfinished . . . that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.”)   In grand opera, Rigoletto, the court jester,  is also a man with a “hunch.”

Sometimes a trim young character ages into a plump, sagging, old one — as Queen Victoria does in biographical plays and movies. (And as Henry VIII did, except in a certain recent TV series ….)

There is a trend for male actors to play female roles (e.g. David Suchet playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest) and for female actors to play male characters. (There are far more male roles in Shakespeare than female roles — some modern theatre companies like to equalize them a bit.)

And I mustn’t forget Charlie’s Aunt  (first performed in 1892) — in which a young man is persuaded to pose as a friend’s elderly aunt from Brazil in order to chaperone a meeting of proper young ladies and university undergraduates.

So, part of the costumer’s job is to figure out ways to accomplish these transformations, while giving the actor or singer complete mobility and as much comfort as possible.

Welcome to the wonderful world of “fat suits,” “birdseed boobs,” bust flatteners, “pregnancy pads,” and “body suits” — but not the kind popularized by Donna Karan!

Costumers call all padded suits “body suits” now — the old term “fat suit” is frowned upon. And, like custom tailored suits, cartwheel tutus, and couture garments, making padded body suits requires special skills and a lot of hand stitching.

If the transformation is to be believable — not a joke — you start with plenty of research. Life drawing classes frequently use models who would never appear on a fashion runway.

Life drawing of a model (watercolor), detail of back and upper arm.

Life drawing of a model (watercolor), detail of back and upper arm. These folds of flesh can be duplicated in a body suit.

Observation of people on the street is also useful. In many cases, you need to consult a medical library to understand curvature of the spine, stages of pregnancy, or other medical conditions.

It’s almost impossible to build a good padded bodysuit without a dressmaker’s mannequin which has the same measurements as the actor. (We sometimes pad the mannequin itself, first, to be sure we are starting as “close” to the actor’s body shape as possible.)

The base of the suit is usually a stretchable leotard — with or without sleeves and legs, as needed. A “pregnancy pad” can be built on a scoop-necked, sleeveless leo, or even a camisole/tank top, but it needs a snap-closed crotch strap to keep it in place when the actor sits.

Traditionally “built” padded bodysuits use layers and layers of polyester fiberfill (the kind used for quilt-making), each layer cut and shaped to simulate belly fat, “love handles,” sagging pectoral muscles and fat, and even the fat accumulating on the back and shoulders. (Fat does not accumulate on the front of the body only.) Notice the back-of-neck and shoulder padding on this body suit, which changes a young, erect posture (the mannequin) into a flabby old man’s slouch.

A padded body suit fromThe Costume Technician's Handbook, by Ingham & Covey. Photo by Frances Aronson.

A padded body suit from The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Ingham & Covey. Photo by Frances Aronson.

To build up the “fat,” costumers begin with the widest part of the bulge, cut a large oval of fiberfill, and hand stitch it securely to the bodysuit with stretch stitching (called cross stitch, herringbone stitch or catch stitch.) The first layer must be well secured, because subsequent layers, each smaller than the last, will be attached to the previous ones. The shape is built slowly, 1/4 or 1/2 inch of thickness at a time.

Not surprisingly, an actor wearing all this padding will sweat. Acting, especially on stage, can be very hard work. The suit will need to be completely washable — repeatedly washable, over weeks or months of use. That’s why it can take 40 hours of work to make an elaborately padded suit:  painstaking hand construction. The final shape is sealed in with another layer of smooth stretch fabric, hand stitched for definition. Sometimes it needs nipples and a belly button. And the final layer may be dyed to match the actor’s skin tone.  A zipper will need to be added, and a snap crotch. (Actors need to visit the restroom, just like everybody else.)

Really huge suits — for Falstaff, for example — can be built on a semi-spherical “cage” of boning and fabric, which stands away from the actor’s body and provides some air circulation. The realistic padded structure — belly, “man breasts”, etc. — is built up on top of the cage. Outdoor productions, which rehearse or perform in daytime, can put the actor wearing a padded body suit at risk of heatstroke, so every precaution and opportunity for cooling and hydration must be planned. (Sometimes this includes putting pockets inside the costume to hold ice packs.)

Birdseed Boobs

When we wanted to give a female character large and/or sagging breasts, without a complete bodysuit, we used to make a pocket in each large bra cup and fill them — but not tightly — with flaxseed, which simulates the weight and movement of breasts. Hence the term “birdseed boobs.” Modern silicone has been a big improvement — at least for filling part of the cups. One thing I learned from a friend: never, never put birdseed boobs into storage without removing all the birdseed . . . . Unless you want mice nesting in your costume storage area.

When You Need to Flatten Instead of Flatter. . . .

Many people have a mistaken idea that all opera singers are very large, like this Wagnerian singer of the past.

Not true. I worked with a lovely (in personality as well as looks) mezzo soprano who could have posed for a Petty Girl calendar. She sang the title role in La Cenerentola (Cinderella), but she also sang Hansel in Hansel and Gretel and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro — male roles. When you wear a C cup bra — or larger — just wrapping a band of “athletic support” elastic bandage around your chest, even if you put shoulder straps on the bandage, does not provide comfort and support. You need something that flattens the breasts without pushing them down or making a crease under them — something that supports and distributes the flesh to the sides, as “minimizer” bras do.

Lovely ‘Rochelle’ suggested a method she’d encountered at another opera company — a close fitting, V-necked, sleeveless shell — dyed to her skin tone — with boning on each side running up from just below the waist and over her bust points. (I made several boning channels.)  The boning pushed her breasts up and flattened them, so they looked like a man’s pectoral muscles.  After fitting the coutil shell (which zipped up the back) as tightly as we wanted, I opened the side seams, folded out a long wedge from just below her bust to the waist, and inserted a godet of elastic in each side seam to give her plenty of breathing room. (Some singers and Shakespearean actors learn to expand the ribcage at will, by several inches, creating a vacuum to suck in huge gulps of air.)

Recently, I was amazed to discover that the “Breeches role / opera flattener” we made decades ago had the same fan-shaped boning as this 1920’s bust flattener for older women (the one on the right:)

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

Even if I did “re-invent the wheel,” my flattener was much more comfortable than Duct Tape!

Book Recommendation:  The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey, will tell you how to do many useful things, from corset construction to cartridge pleating and pattern drafting. Click here for more about this very practical book. There’s a whole paragraph about it at the bottom of the post.









Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bras, Musings, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Women in Trousers

My Costumer’s Library: Getting Started

A page from 20,000 Years of Fashion: Packed with primary sources, photos, information.

A page from 20,000 Years of Fashion: Packed with primary sources, photos, information — in color and black & white.

I’ve been seeing some comments, on The Vintage Traveler and other blogs, from people asking for costume research book recommendations, and I couldn’t resist offering some suggestions.

Of course, a library is a very personal thing, and depends on its owner’s personal interests and goals. I helped a good friend list her library on Amazon when it came time for her to move to assisted living. She was a vintage clothing collector, a docent, and a lover of ethnic textiles.  I was a theatrical costume designer. I’ve taught costume design, construction, and costume history classes; I’ve worked as a designer, a cutter/draper (i.e., a pattern maker), and a costume technician. Together, we had between five and six hundred books in our personal / professional libraries, but we had very few books in common!

I, too, sold most of my professional library when I thought I had retired. Ironically, helping to inventory my friend’s clothing collection for sale made me realize that this is the field I know best, and I still have a lot information and experience to share, so here I am . . . .

There are a few books I couldn’t bear to part with (20,000 Years of Fashion, The Costume Technician’s Handbook) — and many I wish I’d kept, like Everyday Fashions of… since I keep checking them out of the library now.

For an Overview of Fashion in the Western World: 20,000 Years of Fashion

For a quick overview / refresher of periods, (American and European) loaded with primary source illustrations — one of the first costume books I bought and one I still have on my shelf 40 years later:  20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, by Francois Boucher. I have the 1973 edition — available online in used condition for under $20. A 1987 edition is also available. A big, heavy, wonderful, information-packed book, densely illustrated in color and black & white.

For Clothing Worn by Ordinary People: the Everyday Fashions series.

For twentieth century American fashions that were worn by ordinary people (not high fashion): Dover’s series of books that began with Stella Blum’s Everyday Fashions of the Twenties (and Everyday Fashions of the Thirties) from the pages of Sears and other catalogs. The series — trustworthy, dated, primary source material — is being continued by JoAnne Olian, with Everyday Fashions 1909-1920, Everyday Fashions of the Forties, Everyday Fashions of the Fifties, Sixties, etc.) These books are packed with period illustrations and photos of women’s clothing, some children’s clothing, menswear, undergarments, hats, shoes, and other accessories, with prices. Every professional costume designer I know refers to these books constantly. Used, less than $10 each.

For Constructing Historic Clothing: Books by Norah Waugh or  Janet Arnold

For an understanding of how period garments were made, as well as some interesting costume history: Norah Waugh’s classic books The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600-1930, & The Cut of Men’s Clothes 1600-1900. For a long time, The Cut of Men’s Clothes was the reference for patterning period menswear. If you want to study the construction of authentic historical garments, these books are a good place to start. The pages are not gridded, however, so the pattern layouts are most helpful when you’re draping on a mannequin. There is a measurement scale on each page — I ended up copying the scale and pasting it to a stiff card / bookmark so I could move it around on the drawings and then pencil in measurements all over the pages. Also, these books are not cheap, even in used condition. I’d say, borrow Waugh’s books from a library and buy Janet Arnold’s books:

If you want to study vintage clothing and/or recreate authentic period garments: Janet Arnold wrote three superb books, all in paperback and relatively inexpensive: the series is  Patterns of Fashion, by Janet ArnoldPatterns of Fashion is available in three volumes. Patterns of Fashion 1: 1660 to 1860 (women’s clothing), Patterns of Fashion 2: 1860 to 1940 (women’s clothing), and Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560-1620. A fourth volume on shirts, smocks, ruffs, hats, etc., is available, but I haven’t seen it. [EDIT 2/5/19: The series is being continued.  Click here.]  Arnold has produced detailed patterns, on scaled grids, with copious notes on the construction and trims, taken from actual garments in museum collections. Another virtue: these books are ringbound, so they lie flat when open! I was able to produce some terrific 1890s costumes (with the help of my high school students) using just this book (P of F 2) plus my own home sewing experience (which included volunteering as a stitcher for a very good costume designer — so I knew about flat lining!) You can find used copies of Patterns of Fashion 1 & 2 online at $20 to $30 each; the later books cost a bit more. If you’re dealing in vintage clothing, understanding period construction — knowing what the insides should look like — is very important.

Primary and Secondary Sources

You’ll notice I keep using the words “Primary Sources.” A primary source is a text or illustration (or garment or photograph) made at the time the fashion was current.

Clothing from Schiaparelli, Vionnet, and Schiaparelli, drawn and published in November, 1928. Delineator Magazine.

Clothing from Schiaparelli, Vionnet, and Schiaparelli, drawn and published in November, 1928. The Delineator magazine.

A secondary source is usually a drawing of an authentic garment, painting, statue, or photo, made at a later date. An example would be John Peacock’s Fashion Sketchbook: 1920-1960 , first published in 1970. Drawings like this can give details not visible in photographs, and are very useful when combined with primary sources. However, not only our ideals of beauty, but our styles of fashion illustration can affect the accuracy of secondary sources in subtle ways. For example, many fashion fabrics in the 1960s and early 70s were stiffer than fabrics from the 1920s. Photos of 1920s dresses show them looking a little droopy, like that Vionnet jacket above, rather than crisp like these.

Suits for 1927-29, drawing by John Peacock. From his Fashion Sketchbook 1920-1960, pb. 1977. Image for review purpose only. Do not copy this image.

Suits for 1927-29, drawing by John Peacock. From his Fashion Sketchbook 1920-1960, pb. 1977. Image for review purpose only. Do not copy this image.

Also, illustrators will tend to select the clothing that is most attractive according their own era’s fashion ideal.

Beware of Using Only Secondary Sources! Anne Hollander has written a big, fascinating book about the difficulty of putting aside our own, modern ideas of beauty and drawing exactly what we see.  Even very scholarly fashion histories that are illustrated with secondary sources can be affected by this unconscious bias. The Mode in Costume, by Ruth Turner Wilcox, is carefully researched, but the illustrations, drawn in the 1940s, sometimes seem to show an uncorseted 1940s figure. The drawings of corsets from Elizabeth Ewing’s Fashion in Underwear are also secondary sources, but they are technical drawings, not noticeably distorted to a 1970s figure ideal.

1940s Drawing of 1879 dress (The Mode in Fashion), and technical drawing of 1879 corset by Elizabeth Ewing, 1971

1940s Drawing of 1879 dress (The Mode in Costume), and technical drawing of an 1879 corset by Elizabeth Ewing, 1971.  Notice the natural bust curve on the dress drawing, impossible in this corset. The bulging “spoon” belly of the period is also minimized.

Straight fronted 18th c. corset (Ewing) and 1940s drawing of 18th c. gown (The Mode in Fashion.)

Straight-fronted 18th c. corset (Ewing) and 1940s drawing of 18th c. gown (The Mode in Costume.) I have made versions of similar 18th century corsets from Diderot’s Encyclopedia, published in the mid-to-late 18th c. They flatten the bust and push it quite high. See below.

Secondary sources can be helpful, but only when used in addition to plenty of primary sources.

An 18th century fashion plate, from Encyclopedie Illustree du Costume et de la Mode

An 18th century fashion plate, from Encyclopedie Illustree du Costume et de la Mode. To be fair, this is later than the black gown above.

We’ve all seen western movies from the 60s and 70s in which the women wear thick, black false eyelashes and have bodices with plenty of breast separation, cut to cling to a modern merry widow or “torpedo” bra. Of course, both the makeup and the clothing looked attractive when the movies were made, but now look obviously “wrong” to anyone who has studied photos of the Old West.

Bette Davis wore lavish costumes both times she played Elizabeth I, but Hollywood just couldn’t commit to authentic, flat-fronted underwear.

Bette Davis in Elizabeth and Essex, 1939; Queen Elizabeth I

Bette Davis in Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939; Queen Elizabeth I

Once I was visiting a “Great House” in England. The tour guide was proud of all the portraits of the owner’s Elizabethan ancestors displayed in the front hall. I thoughtlessly blurted, “Aren’t these Victorian paintings of people in Elizabethan dress?” “How did you know that?” the guide said, shocked that the secret was out. Well, they were wearing Elizabethan clothes, but their faces and hair(and corsets) were Victorian.  Those pictures were not primary sources for Elizabethan dress.

One More Book I Couldn’t Part With:  The Costume Technician’s Handbook
I wore out my copy of The Costumer’s Handbook. The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey, is a revised edition of that book. When you’re exhausted and you need to put in hook and eye tape including a casing for the bone, or a side seam zipper, or you need to cartridge pleat a skirt (or ruff), or want to show someone the right way to sew on a snap, this book’s clear and easy-to-follow diagrams are life –or at least, sanity– savers. There are lots of procedures that costumers need to know, but sometimes many months go by before the next time you need to put in a corset busk, or draft some gussets, etc. The Costume Technician’s Handbook covers everything from flat pattern drafting and fitting problems and alterations, to dying and fabric painting, making hats and shoes and sword carriers, how to tie neckties, health and safety issues, etc. There’s a big bibliography and a list of suppliers. There’s even a website that updates all these sources and includes a shopping guide, links to costume societies, etc. The book is available in paperback. You can find an older edition, used, for under $10. A gem. (Caution: It is not about re-creating historically accurate clothing. It’s about creating well-made costumes for the theatre using sewing machines and modern supplies. Actors generally appreciate zippers.)

These are some old favorites — basics — the books I would pack if I could just carry a few for working out-of-town for the summer. I’ll be thinking of more really useful books for another post.




Filed under 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Corsets, Costumes for the 16th century, Costumes for the 17th Century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Menswear, Resources for Costumers