Accurate period-appropriate costumes are an important thing to me, and to Bygone Theatre. I spend a considerable amount of time researching vintage fashion, and then even more time trying to figure out how to make it work on a budget. For a simple breakdown of what I’m looking for in terms of costumes for Rope I’ve created these costume boards.
I am a fan of very specific colour schemes. While I could easily do the show with all the actors wearing any colour that suits them, when I first start planning a production, one of the first things that pops into my head is the overall design and the colours that I want to use. For Rope, I decided to go with what I’ve been describing as a “bruise” palette; dark blues, purples and greys, along with accents of green.
Bruises typically have some yellow in them too, but I am avoiding warm colours in the costumes. Instead, I will have gold and brass accents, bringing in some warmth along with the metallics that were popular in the decade. I am keeping the actors mostly monochromatic, so to add interest I am using a lot of texture; wool, tweed, velvet, satin and detailed bead work will keep things visually interesting and stop them from looking too “flat”.
Leete Stetson stars as Brandon Wyndham; dashing, devilish and debonair. Brandon is described as not being “dressed”, ie. he is in casual attire. However, he still needs to look fashionable and expensively dressed. I am planning on putting Brandon in the very trendy Oxford Bags, along with a thick wool sweater and a bow tie.
Nicholas Arnold plays the quiet, anxious, gifted but shy James Kelly. Like Brandon, James is wearing a more casual outfit at home, so I am planning on putting him in a vest without a jacket. The script gives me a few specifics to work with; he needs a waistcoat with pockets and a tie pin, which means he will be wearing a neck tie.
Jamieson Child plays the crippled poet, Rupert Cadell. While Rupert comes to the party “dressed” in formal attire, he is not the type to be overly concerned with fashion, and so I picture him in slightly out-dated, less expensive clothes. Also, being a writer, I can’t help but picture Ernest Hemingway when I think of him.
Chelsey MacLean plays party-girl Leila Arden. Leila is celebrity obsessed, superficial, and overly concerned with her looks. I see her in a typical flapper style; lots of jewels, lush fabrics, and a stylish cloche hat.
Producer Matt McGrath is playing boy-next-door, Kenneth Raglan. Kenneth is young, college educated, preppy and well-off. He is embarrassed by showing up to the party “dressed”, which means he is in more formal clothes than Brandon and James. I want him in blue as well, but whereas James has a lighter blue with browns and Rupert has blue and black, Kenneth will likely have matching suit, vest and pants, all in a dark greyish blue.
Is played by Elizabeth Rose Morriss. Miss K is a little older and considerably more conservative than Leila, so I’ve chosen a less-flashy dress style for her. Rather than cover her in beading and fringe, I am looking for a fabric with a simple pattern; likely something floral. I think she may wear a wider-brimmed hat.
Miss Jefferies, The Maid
Caitlin Robson is playing Miss Jefferies, the maid, who will be wearing the traditional uniform. Black dress with sleeves, a white apron, decorated with lace, and a white, ruffled headpiece.
When dressing a period show, it is important to remember that it’s not just the clothing the audience sees that makes the look authentic. To really capture a realistic period style, the proper undergarments need to be used to help achieve the accurate shape or silhouette.
For those doing a show set in the first half of the 20th century, the following crash-course may be of some assistance.
The ideal silhouette of 1900
A woman with an “hourglass” silhouette
A Slip, gartered stockings, and corset
1900s underwear ad
Petticoats of the early 1900s
Circa 1900 – A knit chemise
Circa 1900 – a woman in drawers, chemise and corset
A combination of chemise and drawers, early 1900s
As you can see in the photos above, the early 1900s embraced a truly “feminine” shape; big hips, large breasts, and a very cinched in “wasp waist”. The look was not quite as extreme as it had been in previous decades (where, in some cases, women may have had ribs removed to try and make their waists smaller, though this idea is debated), but it still required tightly bound whale bone corsets and layers of heavy petticoats. Little attention was paid to the breasts; push-up and padded bras did not exist, instead the curved upper torso was created by cinching in the waist, so that while the upper body appeared fuller, it did not yet have the definition that would be seen in later decades.
Beginnings of a slimmer, straighter silhouette
A slip circa 1910
1910 underwear ad
1918 underwear ad
As the century progressed, silhouettes began to transform into a leaner, straighter shape, and the corsets and bustles of the previous decades mostly disappeared. What corsets were still in use now were longer, coming down past the hips and up to just under the bust, helping to achieve a streamlined look. The waist line rose to an “empire waist”, just below the bust, and as the ankles were now often visible, the length of slips shortened. As the petticoats slimmed, bloomers were replaced with a closer fitting underwear, more similar to what we see today. It is also during this time that we see a change in the overall aesthetic of undergarments; they were truly becoming lingerie. Machine-made lace was more readily available, and so decorative underwear could be purchased for a more reasonable price. The ads of the time no longer looked like a textbook page on what was available, but began to embrace the beauty and sensuality of the products.
1920s underwear ad
1920s brassiere: no push-ups yet
Fashionable, colourful garters from the 1920s
Corset ad from 1923: creates that slim, “girlish” figure!
Multi-coloured stockings from the 1920s
Patterned 1920s stockings
The 1920s saw the change from a “womanish” figure to a “girlish” one; the bust, hips and waist were slimmed to a straight, narrow, almost boyish look, and hemlines shortened dramatically. We begin to see some two-piece undergarments, but the bras still are not lifting or defining the breasts. As hemlines were shorter, decorative garters and stockings became popular. Tube-like corsets were used to help curvier women attain a straighter silhouette.
1930s underwear pattern
This sensual 1930s ad introduces a bare mid-riff that was uncommon even in under garments until this decade
A “posture” corset from the 1930s
Girdle with garters
Smoothing, slimming girdles perfect for a 1930s “wiggle dress”
1930s boudoir shot
Two-piece undergarments were the norm come the 1930s and slips were less common. Curves again were being embraced, and women with round, curved hips were adored. Tight-fitting girdles were sometimes used to shape the hips, and early versions of the bras we wear today are seen. Hollywood began to have a major part in the popularity of women’s styles, and ads of the decade catered to those looking for a glamourous silhouette.
Many women sewed their own clothing and undergarments during the war
War-time rations meant less material, and so shorter dresses and slips.
When possible, the curvy femine silhouette was still ideal; it was emphasized by the tailored styles of the decade.
Light-weight undergarments for women who were now actively working to support the war effort.
A slimming garment that could be worn under pants.
The war had a major effect on women’s fashions as many materials were rationed. “Make do and mend” was the motto, and women were encouraged to sew their own clothes and update their old ones to match the current styles. The limits on fabrics meant that a more angular, fitted look defined the decade, and hemlines were once again shorter, hitting just below the knee. Military styles were popular, and women’s suits came in fashion. Nylon was one of the casualties of the war, as it was needed to make parachutes, and so nylon stockings disappeared from the stores. In an effort to maintain the look, some women drew black “seams” up the back of their legs, giving the illusion of wearing stockings. As many women went out to work in factories, they traded in their dresses and skirts for trousers and overalls, a style that required more form-fitting underwear. Silk was also unavailable because of the war effort, and so slips were less common. To make up for the simplicity in clothing, women’s hairstyles became more elaborate, and accessories were used to decorate an outfit rather than wearing a whole new garment. While there were new styles in 1940s undergarments, keep in mind that many would not have been purchasing them, and would have likely used what they already had instead.
This photo suggests that, with the proper undergarments, a women can eat what she wants and still maintain a perfect hourglass figure.
Bras of the decade were full and, because of the method of manufacturing, rather pointed.
A typical 1950s bra.
While many still wore stockings with seams, new “seamless” stockings were starting to appear on shelves.
Decorative slips and feminine lingerie.
Bouffants: petticoats that were full at the bottom to push out full, a-line or semi-circle skirts.
Examples of women’s petticoats for evening gowns.
When the war and its rations ended, fashions embraced the new availability of fabrics, and the female silhouette returned to a fullness it had not seen since the turn of the century. Fitted tops showcased a full bust, and pointed bras lifted and accentuated the breasts. The waist was cinched with a girdle, and full skirts were ballooned with petticoats and bouffants. Stockings were again available, and new “seamless” ones were on the market. Underwear ads became increasingly sexual, and there is a noticeable turn in the marketing which now aimed itself more at men (purchasing for their wives) than women. Most women were back in the home, and so fashion could again take place over practicality. The ideal women was one who, as Audrey sings in “Little Shop of Horrors”, “cooked like Betty Crocker and looked like Donna Reed”; feminine, fashionable and a devoted wife and mother.
Lower-cut underwear and more comfortable, stretchy fabrics.
Low-cut tops meant the demi-cut bra was now a wardrobe staple.
This ad projects an image of powerful sexuality more than it advertises the garment itself.
New colours in women’s underwear
Short silky slips.
While many in the 1960s still embraced full skirts, girdles and push-up bras, as feminism blossomed many in the fashion world began to lean towards more natural silhouettes and more comfortable clothing. Skirts got very short, cut high on the thigh, and so slips and underwear shortened as well. Late in the decade and into the 1970s, some women stopped wearing bras and by that point most had long abandoned the corset or girdle. When dressing the 1960s, there are several ways you can go, so before looking for undergarments, ask yourself; is your character a Glamour Puss? a Hippie? a preppy teen? There are many ways to go.
While we here at Bygone tend to focus on the first half of the 20th Century, when it comes to underwear, earlier periods have some of the most interesting articles. Want to learn more about women’s unmentionables? Check out some of these articles:
We’ve all had that disappointing moment, when, in dressing a period show, we realize how difficult and more so, how expensive authentic period fashion can be.
While one of Bygone’s mandates is to keep our costumes as authentic as possible, in some of my other productions I’ve had to bend the rules and work with modern clothing that mimics the shape and style of period pieces.
In this blog mini-series, I will demonstrate some simple methods for achieving period-esq looks on a budget. If you’ve got some tips of your own, feel free to share them in the comments!
The 1920s Silhouette
Chances are, when most people think of the 1920s, the first image to come to mind is that of the “flapper”. A drop-waist, lots of fringe, knee-length skirt and swinging beads. While this look works for “party girl” characters, or those in a musical, it is not the style that was worn by the majority of women. Still, it is a great stepping stone for a basic women’s silhouette. Let’s examine some basic silhouettes here:
Fig. 1 – Here is a 1920 silhouette from the Fashion-Era website. Early in the decade styles were still fairly conservative. Hemlines reached below mid-calf, exposing no more than the ankles, and empire-waists were still common. Sheath-style, tube-like dresses that gave the women a androgynous look were popular and floppy hats, low on the brow, were often worn (see my blog on hats for more details).
Fig. 2 – Another silhouette courtesy of Fashion-Era , this time from 1922. Note the drop-waist. Flowing, light-weight fabric in the skirt.
Fig. 3 – By the middle of the decade, hemlines were shorter now reaching mid-calf (but still always covering the knee). The drop waist was still fashionable, and the skirts were still often made of flowing fabric.
Fig. 4 – Not an authentic silhouette, but one immediately recognizable as being from the decade. Now the hair is cut short, rather than pinned up, in a style associated with Louise Brooks. Still a drop-waist. Here the skirt seems to be made of fringe or even feathers. The hemline is higher than what would have likely been seen (the knees were rarely revealed).
The Roaring Twenties saw a wide range of colour in fashion. While only a few decades earlier, most women were wearing dark, dreary colours, the 20’s featured clothing from pastels to bold primary colours. Gowns were generally monochromatic, layering colour-on-colour details and relying on beading or embroidery for variation, rather than mixing colours. This helped to create the long, lean look that was the signature style of the decade.
Fig. 5 – Bold, dark colours for the winter months. Note how the dress itself is nearly entirely one colour – at the very least, monochromatic. A contrasting hat was sometimes worn, and most shoes were black leather.
Fig. 6 – Salmon colours, emerald, and lots of blue. Again, mostly monochromatic although note the high-contrast in the yellow and black gown, and the mixing of natural fur with a bright pastel.
Fig. 7 – More pastel colours for the summer months, and again, blue! Shoes for summer frocks were often of lighter, brighter colours that matched the dress. While there is a lot of detail on the gowns, they continue to be primarily monochromatic.
Fig. 8 – Mixing various shades of the same colour for some visual interest, but still keeping the look monochromatic.
Fig. 9 – Bold, Art Deco inspired styles. Black and white high-contrast gowns with accents in red or pink give a startling, stylized look.
Again, nearly any colour could be used for the 1920s, just remember to avoid any complimentary colours within one outfit for a more authentic look. For additional info, The Vintage Traveler blog has a great post on dating vintage fashion with colour.
A variety of fabrics were available in the 1920s. The majority of things that we purchase today were available then, with the main exception being “stretchy” fabrics (no Lycra in the 20s!). While daily wear was likely simple cotton dresses, I will briefly go over some fabrics that those who do not sew may not be as familiar with:
Chiffon: Made from cotton, silk or synthetic fibers, this sheer, light-weight fabric is woven in a way that puckers the fabric slightly, giving it some stretch and a rough feel. Available in a wide variety of colours it is most common in evening wear and can give an elegant, floating appearance.
Satin: A light-weight, flowing fabric with a glossy front and dull back, satin is another popular formal wear choice. Often associated with nightgowns, this fabric hangs loose and looks stunning when draped. Also available in many colours.
Taffeta: Generally more expensive than the previous two listed, it is a crisp, smooth fabric with a bit of a sheen. Stiff and able to hold some shape, taffeta can be used to create things from corsets, to gowns that maintain a consistent shape. Many colours, but generally less variety (at least in local fabric stores) than the other two, likely due to the cost.
Velvet: A thick, woven, tufted fabric, generally made in deep, dark colours. Smooth and soft, the fabric is associated with nobility and high status, and so the high price tag shouldn’t be a surprise.
I won’t go into too much detail for these, as it is not my area of expertise. However, for a great resource on what fabrics to use, and how to combine them, check out this site.
How-To: 1920s Style in Modern Day Fashion
So what to do with this information now? Certainly those with the budget can source out authentic patterns (Vintage Vogue has a few) and buy expensive fabrics, but when working in community theatre this is rarely an option. To give you an idea of some affordable, modern day pieces that can be used to imitate 1920s fashion, check out my design boards below:
A great resource for affordable dresses is H&M. While the styles you will find here will generally be too short or two revealing to be a really authentic 20s look, there are some dresses that can be a good starting place. Whether you buy a gown that already has a waist, or go for a more loose-fit, flowing style, give the dress a 20s flair by adding an exaggerated drop-waist. A simple way to do this (especially for non-sewers) is to add a sash (remembering to keep it monochromatic!) out of something like satin, tied low on the hips. For those with more sewing knowledge, sleeves could be fashioned out of chiffon or additional beading could be added. Throw on some retro pumps, a few strands of long beaded necklaces, and crop the hair (whether by pinning it up, or cutting it) and you will quickly and cheaply achieve a 20s look.
The community theatre costumer’s best friend is of course, the thrift shop. When trying to create a 1920s look, I generally go for 1980s and 90s fashions. As you can see in the board above, many of the styles of those decades incorporated the drop-waist, as well as large collars, lengthy sleeves, and an overall loose look. You can find these types of dresses in your local value village, or, if you happen to have some old patterns lying around, can make them and tailor them as required.
Finally, online resources like ebay and etsy often have real vintage, or vintage styled clothing. They are worth a look, at least for inspiration, if not to actually purchase the garments. Costume and party stores will often have flapper costumes, but these are generally very stylized and won’t do if you’re trying for a serious period piece. However, the cost is sometimes low, so I keep these in mind for things like dance numbers that require a lot of performers. When trying to do a cheap flapper look, simply create a headband with a feather accent, wear it low on the brow, include a sleeveless, straight-fitting tank top and a low-riding skirt, preferably out of fringe or something that moves. Throw on some cheap plastic beads and voila! Not a look I often need for my shows, but it does in a pinch.
So there you have it! A brief how-to on 1920s women’s fashion for theatre. There are tons of great resources out there, and to be honest, I usually start with a simple google search for my inspiration. Do you have any great 1920s resources? Share them here in the comments, or on our facebook page!
My Mother and I recently signed up for the Millinery course at Stratford Off The Wall, the place where I took my Faux Food class this past September. Over the course of the week, we will learn how to make either fascinators or buckram or soft-form hats. As the two of us do all the costuming for Bygone, I thought I should look up some authentic period pieces for inspiration, in hopes I can make something for a future show. There are so many styles of hats that were seen during the first half of the 20th century, that I decided to put together a very simple, very brief history for any other costumers out there who need a quick reference guide. Hope it helps!
In the early Edwardian period, hats were a fashion accessory, rather than a necessity. Most were kept fairly small, sitting on the top of the head atop a pile of hair. More masculine styles had begun to emerge during the 1890s, and some of these were still popular during this period. Women were seen wearing traditionally male styles such as the “Boater” or “Trilbys”. Bonnets had grown out of style, and women preferred hats that soared above the head, sometimes called “3 Story” or “Flower Pots”.
During the 1910’s, hats began to grown again in size. The brims grew increasingly large, often reaching past the wearer’s shoulders. To keep these large pieces steady, hat pins, sometimes over a foot long, were used to secure them to the hair. Large plumes and floral pieces adorned hats of this period. During the First World War, however, hats began to decrease in size, fitting closer to the head and sitting low-down on the face, giving the woman a youthful appearance. Hats became more plain, as it was seen as unpatriotic to be concerned with ones appearance during this time.
Continuing the trend of the previous decade, hats continued to get lower on the brow and closer fitting on the head. The “cloche hat”, a bell-shaped piece that covered the wearer’s head almost entirely, became a staple of the period. Rather than tall feathers or blooms adorning the hats, design was seen through elaborate detailing in shape, with felt molded into waves and curls. Most hats of the period, particularly later in the decade, did not have brims.
The 30’s saw the re-appearance of brims as well as a shallower crown to accommodate the full, curled hairstyles that were popular in this decade. As parasols were now out of fashion, wider brims became popular to protect the wearer from the sun. Towards the end of the decade, hats became taller and were perched on the top of the head, similar to the way they were in the early years of the century. Women’s fedoras (traditionally a male style) also became fashionable when paired with a tailored suit.
World War II shaped the look of 1940’s women’s fashion. Because of rations, clothing was often utilitarian looking and closely fit, using as little fabric as possible. Hat materials, however, were not rationed, and so the decade saw the emergence of a wide variety of hat styles, overly adorned and frequently elaborate. Feathers, veils, and artificial flowers graced the tops of wearer’s heads, and the term “piece de resistance” or “resistance piece” implied that the fashions were in a way patriotic, and in protest to the Nazi occupation (a very different outlook than that taken during the First World War). “Doll Hats”, similar to some styles seen in gothic fashion today, were also worn. They sat a-top the wearer’s head, very small and very far forward on the brow, reminiscent of some Victorian styles. The turban was another look, one that covered all or most of the woman’s hair, and that was pulled up into a ‘v’ at the front of the brow; sometimes coined “v for victory”, once again connecting fashion with patriotism.
Post WWII saw a decline in the popularity of hats as many women chose to now leave the house without them. In an effort to keep afloat, the millinery industry began to create variety and extravagance, making hats the “must have” piece to top-off a formal outfit. While most hats remained close to the head, “pancake” and “cart-wheel” hats, wide-brimmed, flat pieces that perched atop short hairstyles were also popular.
The 1960s saw a greater decline in the wearing of hats, although the popularity of Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat extremely fashionable for some time. The decade’s higher, fuller hairstyles meant that hats needed to be small and sit on the top of the head. Fashion in the 60s was increasingly geared toward youth, and so hats began to be viewed as a thing of the past. Towards the end of the decade, hats as a daily accessory, except during the cold months, were nearly extinct. Brief re-emergence’s have been seen since then, but for the most part, the hat as an everyday accessory died out in the 1960s.