Book Review: Creating Historical Clothes

 creating historical clothes cover

As I mentioned in my first book review for Worn Through, I believe the recreation of historical garments is a useful way to get closer to the study of dress, especially as museums tighten their research policies. Both the making and the wearing are direct and physical interactions with the experience of historical clothing, if imperfect for reasons you can read in that first post. Jill Salen, who has written a series of books that instruct on re-creating extant garments from museum collections, takes painstaking patterns from these garments in the fashion of Janet Arnold; the patterns are laid out on a graph with minimal instruction but awesome detail. While providing the intellectual material to recreate the garments, the books of Salen and Arnold as well as the classics of Norah Waugh and the new classics of Jenny Tiramani provide a material culture context for the field. Even if you’re not a seamstress, it is fascinating, as well as helpful, to see how all the pieces fit together (or at least what they look like year by year).

Batsford, which published Salen’s books, has an expanding library of pattern books that help the vintage lover, the renaissance fairey, and the costumer re-create their desired clothing from the 16th century through the 1980s (!). The approach of each book is as unique as the writer, and I will caution that the quality and usefulness varies. I recently received two books from Batsford, and Vintage: Dress Patterns of the 20th Century by Anne Tyrrell is one of the less useful of the many I’ve had the chance to peruse as both costumer and reviewer. It provides very basic patterns and information that require a high level of skill to carry out, and patchy information. I can’t imagine why anyone would go to all the trouble to scale up, alter, and draw patterns from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when more interesting designs from those decades in a wider range of sizes are frustratingly plentiful in thrift stores and online? It’s even easy to buy reproduced 1920s and 1930s patterns on Etsy, for example. The measurements on which all Tyrrell’s patterns are based, 34-26-36, seem a bit on the small side for a book that should cater to the “average” woman in the 2010s; I’m within the zone of average and would have to up those measurements by 3-6 inches. With its introductory/overview tone, I suppose the target reader would be an accomplished seamstress with mysteriously little access to or prior knowledge of vintage patterns.

Creating Historical Clotheson the other hand, contains much of the same information I learned in Cutting and Draping at NYU. A comprehensive but compact sewing course is offered here, again not for the beginner but rich and instructive. It assumes the reader will be logical and have experience sewing and maybe some experience constructing their own patterns. The format is 2-D, paper drafting; there is not a lot of information about fitting toiles and making consequent adjustments to the pattern. The best way to gain those skills is through empirical practice.

Detail from page 156 of "Creating Historical Costume" by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Detail from page 156 of “Creating Historical Costume” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

The author, Elizabeth Friendship, acknowledges the excellent resources that predate her work, but notes rightfully that many of the exacting patterns taken from extant garments are limited and limiting, as they only depict one or two styles of each selected time period. Friendship’s pattern book takes a different tack, offering foundational patterns intended for the costumer and costume student that can then be altered, enhanced, and finished according to a storyboard and research. The title is telling: this book is all about creating, less about historical research. The patterns are probably “accurate”–we don’t get a finished view, or even an intended view, as the patterns are clean canvasses for the user’s creativity–but they are not intended to be strict re-creations of historic garments. They will give the look, and probably generally the feel when made of the “right” fabric and worn with the correct underclothes.

Chapter title page from "Creating Historical Costume" by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Chapter title page from “Creating Historical Costume” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

The 16th-19th centuries are addressed in separate chapters, and the introductions offer three pages of text as well as relevant contemporary paintings and fashion plates. Some individual patterns also include a painting for reference, in case you need a reminder of how finely Watteau painted the “sack-back” gown you are hoping to construct or just how wide 1860s skirts could grow.

Detail from p.84 of "Creating Historical Clothing" by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Detail from p.84 of “Creating Historical Clothing” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Included is a short list of visual resources, such as Gheeraerts the Younger, van Dyck, Ter Borch, and le Clerc for the seventeenth century, and a glossary of terms specific to that period. Friendship is also careful to suggest further research in the notes for some patterns, such as for the “Corset 1730-1740.” She asserts that her pattern is “a simplified version of the corsets of the period. If a more authentic corset is required, consult a specialist book.” (134) [1] With extensive diagramming and notes, the instructions are encouraging.

Diagram about "Taking Measurements" (p.13) from "Creating Historical Clothing" by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Diagram about “Taking Measurements” (p.13) from “Creating Historical Clothing” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

The book’s introduction offers a wealth of guidance, from measurement charts and a diagram on where to take them to historical stitches and even how to calculate the proper dimensions of a sleeve cap. Next are a slew of basic patterns: bodice and various sleeves, basic skirts and trousers (there are no trousers in this book), as well as how to move darts, making strapless and low-cut bodices, how to adjust for a large bust, and more. Which crash course is followed by 150 pages of patterns and information. NB: only women’s dress is represented here; for men’s see Further Resources.

Detail from "Creating Historical Clothing" by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Detail from “Creating Historical Clothing” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Having the basic drafting instructions in the same book makes for easy reference, and I suggest reading them carefully before beginning, perhaps more than once. The diagrams are well-marked and fascinating, but may require an eye used to looking at drafted patterns and pieces.

Is this relevant for fashion historians? If you’re interested in the evolution of, say, the bodice throughout the history of Western Fashion, this is an interesting study. All of the patterns are based on a classic sloper, or bodice, and creating a pointed front or an intricately pieced back will give the practitioner a practical knowledge. And again, the sensory, experiential knowledge that comes from having made and/or worn such a garment can be useful. As mentioned above, this book assumes additional research will be conducted on the time period, and Friendship offers a short bibliography.

Detail from page 174 of "Creating Historical Costume" by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Detail from page 174 of “Creating Historical Costume” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.

Creating Historical Clothes is an excellent resource for the “students and teachers of costume and costume makers” the author identified in the introduction; had it come out ten years earlier it would have been in my personal library as a costume design undergrad. An accomplished costume designer herself, Friendship is said to have a “unique method of drafting patterns,” presumably what we are taught in the book. The fashion historian interested in the material cultural aspects of dress (like me) will also benefit from the opportunity to think about the construction of historic dress from a piece-by-piece perspective. I prefer documented extant garments, which serves a more direct research purpose, but Creating Historical Clothes is a detailed and modern resource for understanding and making historical garments.


[1] May we suggest Jill Salen’s Corsets and Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines?

Lead Image Credit: cover of Creating Historical Clothes by Elizabeth Friendship. London: Batsford, 2013.


Further Resources:

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of patterns for men and women, 1560-1620. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Arnold, Janet. Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction, 1660-1860. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Arnold, Janet. Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction, 1860-1940. London: Macmillan, 1993.

Arnold, Janet and Jenny Tiramani. Patterns of Fashion 4. Hollywood, CA: Quite Specific Media Group, 2008.

Friendship, Elizabeth. Pattern Cutting for Men’s Costume. London: Methuen Drama, 2008.

Mikhaila, Ninya and Jane Malcolm-Davies. The Tudor Tailor. London: Batsford, 2006.

Salen, Jill. Corsets: Historical Patterns and Techniques. London, Batsford: 2008.

Salen, Jill. Vintage Swimwear: Historical Patterns and Techniques. London: Batsford, 2013.

Tiramani, Jenny et al. Seventeenth-century women’s dress patterns. London: V&A Publishing, 2011.

Tiramani, Jenny and Susan North. Seventeenth-century women’s dress patterns 2. London, V&A Publishing, 2012.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. London: Routledge, 2004 [1954].

Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Men’s Clothes: 1600-1900. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1964.

Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1974.

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