How to Find Treasures in Your Costuming Stash

I absolutely love period shows. As a matter of fact, anything from 1900 through the forties is my favorite. Some of my favorite shows from this time period that I have directed are Death of a Salesman, These Shining Lives, The American Clock, and To See the Stars, just to name a few. Once I have chosen a show from a specific time period, I need to go to my costume closet first to see what I have on hand.

There are certain things I look for to fit certain time periods. Once you get a grasp on those basic characteristics, you will find that a dress that was donated to you in 1996 might actually have the style of a 1920s dress. You will also see quickly how, with just a couple of alterations, you can make a modern suit fit the time period.

I first get an empty clothes rack and start digging. I pull any dress that jumps out at me as time period appropriate. For early 1900s, skirts were often all the way to the floor, bodices were shapely and well-boned, and sleeves were quite tight at the top but flared out from below the elbow. The shirt-waist style was very popular as well.

One popular image from this time period was the Gibson Girl. You can see in the gallery above that it was a shapely s-bend corseted dress. Although very structured, the bodices began to move into a more relaxed shape. Thankfully so, as most students I have today are not into waist training!

By 1906, skirts rose just above the ankle and the corseted look relaxed into a more casual style. If at all possible, I tend to lean towards this style of dress for girls for the comfort and ease of movement onstage. The waist shape was still there, but not extreme. This makes it easy to take in a shirt or skirt to fit an actor's natural waist and voilà! A period costume. 

You would be surprised at how many skirts you may have that could work for a specific time period. A simple hack I use for (almost) every costume is accessories. Look for belts, hats, gloves, purses, brooches and the like. Accessories can really turn a plain skirt and top into a full costume. I love to use accessories to not only legitimize a costume, but also deepen the character. Is she rich? Would she be dripping in jewels or a working class girl with the bare essentials. Keep each character and their story in mind as you costume. Here's a few ideas on early 1900s period accessories. 

A little side note: I hate to date myself, but I was alive and well in the eighties!  The shirtwaist look was reborn for a moment then, so keep your eye out for that. 1980s shirts will be easier to get your hands on than true 1900s clothing. 

By 1915 with more and more women of all classes involved in war duty, skirt hems began to rise to the calf, and with a new more circular silhouette, soon to be dubbed the war crinoline. The saying was “while the war gets longer, the skirts get shorter.” Drop waist dresses were in fashion.

Years ago I had a bag full of Gunne Sax dresses by Jessica McClintock from the 1980s donated to our department. When I was preparing for a 1920s show, I pulled them out. I was shocked to see how many of them fit right into what we were doing. The dropped waist could be very casual and could also be ultra-formal. Below is a very casual modern-day dress that I found at Goodwill that worked beautifully for the twenties.

Simple, clean lines and a (drab) gray color. It was perfect for a poor, working-girl character.

Simple, clean lines and a (drab) gray color. It was perfect for a poor, working-girl character.

You could actually dress this one up with a long set of pearls, a ribbon and flower around the waist and maybe a headpiece. We chose to keep it simple for the character. 

This past year while producing Arthur Miller’s The American Clock, I searched and searched for beautiful beaded flapper dresses for a singing number onstage. Some dresses I found were up to $400 dollars! Too much for my tiny costuming budget. In my search I found that Amazon carries many of these styles. I bought the following two dresses for thirty dollars each, and they were gorgeous on the girls. The sparkle worked wonderfully under the stage lights. Everyone thought they were authentic.

For These Shining Lives, I made several drop waist dresses from a very basic pattern and then embellished them with ribbons, pearls, flowers, etc. I found several hats styled to fit the early 1900s at Target two years ago! You never know when you are going to run onto time period pieces. Keep your eyes open all the time.

As we move into the thirties and forties, women wore more suits and were known as “big-shouldered broads” because of their shoulder pads. The 1930s came in with a bang—the Wall Street Crash. The Flapper days were over and even wealthy women had to start being a little more frugal. More tailored, angled skirts and jackets were popular. As they say, fashion circles in and out, so you might really look at women’s suits that you have from the 80s and 90s to find pieces that will fit. The shoulder pads came back in the 80s, so sometimes you can find things that fit pretty well. Joan Crawford wore it best.

For men’s suits, it can be as easy as adding a button. The suit below was one from the early 80s that had two buttons, but by adding one more button to the top, you will totally transform this suit back to an early 1900s time period.

Sometimes just adding a vest, a button, and a hat will give you that early time period feel. Think about accessorizing men's costumes the same way as women: it should authenticate it and add depth to the character. 

Never underestimate the value of Goodwill and your costume closet. Beautiful time period pieces can be made with just a few small changes.

What are your go-to hacks for costuming period shows? We wanna hear! Tell us on Facebook.  

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