Sewing vintage circus costumes – the epic journey!

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Over the past eight years of circus performing I have botched, slaved, shed blood, sweat and tears, and sacrificed many long nights to sewing my own costumes.

My latest project was possibly one of my most ambitious to date – to create two 1940s vintage dresses and accessories for my show ‘Life On Wheels’. These had not only to convey a sense of character and era, but to be suitable for aerial and roller skating circus shenanigans. And they had to be ready in two weeks.

One of the things I like most about costume making is the combination of complex problem solving with physical making and creativity.

The problems I faced with this project were many; how to make them look authentic yet stylized? How could I make them easy to move in and wash? How can they be safe and durable? And what about going upside down in them without flashing our pants?

My first thought was to trawl the vintage and secondhand shops for something I could adapt. I found masses of inspiration at Scarlet Rage Vintage in Couch End (http://scarletragevintage.blogspot.co.uk/). This treasure trove has tons of reasonably price, beautifully preserved, vintage pieces. This little visit made me realize that Dr Google alone was not always the best form of research!
However most of these dresses were delicate and likely to be torn apart when faced with aerial equipment.

An interesting bit of information from the owner was about colour – in the 1940s red was very rarely worn. It was seen as a shocking, chosen only by women of ill repute, or jazz club singers, and besides, the dye was very difficult to get hold of during the war years.

This was a bit of a blow as I had set my heart on making the piece very stylized, with the two central characters always dressed in varying shades of red and blue. Two bright, bold, primary colours that marked them as the centre of the piece and heightens the drama of the costumes.

In the end I decided to go with style over authenticity – sorry vintage fanatics!

Next stop was the V & A costume rooms one of my favorite places in London, and free to visit year round. I filled my phone with photos of buttons and lace, popular cuts and tailoring of the era, whilst imagining an unlimited budget and months of time…

Time to get practical. After a bit of ebay trawling I discovered a brilliant seller, vintage pattern shop: (http://myworld.ebay.co.uk/vintagepatternshop?ssPageName=ADME:X:RTQ:GB:1181), and finally picked two beautiful 40s patterns.

One was for a character who, although working-class, is a bit of a social climber, so I picked up something a bit glam for her. I imagined she might have made it from an old pair of curtains in her spare time, hoping no one would realize. The second was a bit girlier, motherly. These costumes will serve as the base wear of the characters from an age range covering 18 to 80, so they need to convey many aspects of their personalities over time, helped by additional accessories such as aprons and headscarves.

I cant recommend this seller enough. The patterns came with a very clear booklet of instructions/sizing conversion charts/measurement sheets and garment diaries. All our questions were answered straight away and the patterns sent out in a rush when we said what a panic we were in to get them. Brilliant.

The fabric I bought from Goldhawk Road – a literal goldmine of good value specialist fabric shops. I would particularly recommend A1 Fabrics for their upstairs haberdashery and trimmings department, and Fabric House for a massive range of patterned stretchy material.
I decided to go for a lightweight jersey. Not authentic, but with many plus sides. Washable (circus costumes have a tendency to get pretty sweaty!), lightweight enough to hang well, two way stretch (perfect for wearing over a bulky harness and allowing for lots of movement). I then used bright coloured silks for the trimmings and bias binding because, well because I have a weakness for pretty fabrics!

The next challenge was the knicker flashing issue. I decided to experiment with culottes (shorts that are baggy enough to look like full skirts). I found instructions on making the pattern on this blog (http://petitmainsauvage.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/those-culottes-tutorial.html) that was simple and clear and seemed to work wonders.

After many attempts at dodgy pattern cutting in the past, ive learnt the value of a large cutting area – a big table or even floor area, so you don’t get confused. Setting up a proper cutting area, sewing area and ironing area has made my costume all nighters so much better! As has radio 6 music.

Another problem I encountered at about 2.30am one sewing night was that the sizing on old patterns bares no relation to modern sizes – people were pretty tiny back then! Realising this, luckily just in time, I then did the classic mistake of over compensated so much that I made both the dresses enormous! Well better to big than too small…

In addition to the dresses I made small aprons, headscarfs, and ordered vintage bed jackets from ebay, for different scenes. As the rehearsals for the show get underway im sure there will many more additional bits and bobs to add to the characters long lives, all chosen in varying shades of blue and red to give the characters a clear separation and difference as we show the passing of time. Another interesting extra we picked up were some roller skating tights – the verdict is still out on whether these make us look as bit too sci-fi, or whether they make the skates blend into the costumes…

I tend to find my costumes evolve over time, with extra little bits being added on or adapted as we find out what works best, and what needs changing through rehearsals. In our technical rehearsal I was horrified to realize that although the culottes worked for short periods of the choreography, in one section where I was upside down for a prolonged period of time we were still showing too much! No! For future performances I will have to add on either coloured shorts as part of the dress, or even make a feature of it with some frilly knickers that we want to be seen! For now a leotard underneath the dress does the job.

After all those long nights I was very pleased with the results, and the comments were that they complimented the piece very well. Each costume project is its own steep learning curve and this one with its research, zips, buttons, gatherings etc. has been a worthwhile up-hill struggle!

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