Design on a Dime: 18th Century Clothing Edition

For those that know me, I like fancy clothing. Especially 18th century clothing. Who doesn’t? The movies love to portray the romantic images of balls and court society with men in wigs and silk outfits covered in embroidery and lace. That stuff’s damn nice. For a living historian, most of us can’t afford that kind of clothing to be made. Some are talented enough to do it themselves, but at the expense of having a life.

As a fledgling college student, I find myself wanting to do things right, wanting to portray something bourgeoisie (Classy yet subtle. Not street vermin), but wanting to do this all on the budget of a street vermin and finding time in between writing papers and sleeping. So I endeavoured to create a civilian suit for this upcoming 2015 reenacting season. An all blue wool ditto. With 5 yards of French Royal Blue wool, 3 spools of linen and silk lace, and 3 wax cakes, I figured I was all set to make a suit. All to the tune of $172. What else could I possibly need? Turns out, everything.

Coat (reverse), ca. 1765, British (probably), silk (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art Front View

Coat (reverse), ca. 1765, British (probably), silk (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art Front View

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (oil on canvas), Anton von Maron (1733-1808) What appeats to be a velvet blue blue ditto.

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (oil on canvas), Anton von Maron (1733-1808)
What appeats to be a velvet blue blue ditto.

I forgot buttons. So I repurposed some old buttons on a double-breasted waistcoat that was a gift. It fit poorly and was a bad pattern and 20 buttons just can’t go to waste. I covered those ugly buttons in scrap wool and made myself some very pretty (if I may say so) cloth-covered buttons for nothing.* 20 isn’t enough for the whole suit so more buttons have to be purchased. (25 more to be exact but at $0.75 a pop, they are at the least of my worries.)

Then today, it turns out I need a pair of knee buckles for the breeches. I was hoping to get away with just buttons but a certain tailor said they just won’t do. There’s a $28 purchase. Sure, they’ll probably last me a lifetime and I can use them on other sets but still, another expense I forgot to calculate.

For those keeping track at home, the total cost so far on this suit is $218.75. Most folks that reenact see that as a pretty reasonable price for a 3 piece suit. I’d agree. Those not in the hobby think that’s an absurd amount of money for out of date clothing. I’d probably agree with them there, too.

How do you do this cheap? Do it yourself. What if I can’t sew? Gee, you better learn how.

I’m EXTREMELY fortunate to be in a unit where everyone (especially the sergeant) has just about mastered the art of sewing. I don’t think I could even come as far without the sage guidance (and millions of “Questionable Moments”) of these people. The amount of panicked emails complete with pictures they get is ungodly and I’m sure they cringe when they see my name pop up. When I’m no longer in debt to them, I’ll have to buy them something pretty. Still, I received a workshop to learn how to make a frock coat as a Christmas gift this past year. Cost for that was $115 which is an excellent price for a sewing workshop compared to what other places go for.

The centre seams are complete along the fall bearers and flap linings. Half a waistband on!

The centre seams are complete along the fall bearers and flap linings. Half a waistband on!

Now we’re up to $333.75. That’s about two semesters of college books for me.

But how could I forget the cost to have the material cut? I’m not skilled enough to follow a pattern nor have the patience to do so. The coat ended up being $90 ($50 for it cut, another $30 for lining material, and $10 for some thread.) and the breeches are probably gonna be about $65 ($40 for cut, I figure $25 for lining material.) The yet to be cut waistcoat is gonna end up costing about $60 I assume for the cut and lining. We’re only $548.75 in the hole so far? What’s the big deal?

Missing a body linings, buttons, and button holes, an upper collar, and pleats the worst is yet to come.

Missing a body linings, buttons, and button holes, an upper collar, and pleats the worst is yet to come.

And alas, I had to get a new pair of shoes and new stockings. The shoes were a steal at $60 (buckles included) from a former reenactor and the stockings were $52 but they’re hand sewn and so nice! Fortunately for me, the shoes were for Christmas and the stockings for Valentine’s Day. I’m also gonna need some new cloth garters to hold those stockings up which should cost me about $4 to make.

I’ll also need a new unlaced hat with the proper brim height to the tune of $120.

If you haven’t passed out yet by the figures I’ve thrown out, the grand total of this total wardrobe is….

$784.75

I can feel my heart pounding as I type that. This damn hobby isn’t cheap. Granted only $549.75 came out of my pocket, that’s still a nice chunk of change. Most reenactors will tell me that’s an excellent price to pay for a suit made for me. The whole wardrobe is a little more than half the price of a new musket or a whole used one. I’ve spent less than that on college books in my 4 semesters.

As I sit in the lounge with the rest of the history majors and try to convince them that “This hobby can be done on a budget! You should totally join!” and watch them give me the look of disbelief, I understand why. This can be such a daunting thing to grasp to a new person in the hobby, hell; it scares the daylights out of me and I’ve been doing this for 7 years.

But as I sew the garments, there’s a sense of accomplishment I get from putting them together and seeing less and less pieces of random fabric and seeing something that kind of resembles an article of clothing. All these years, I’ve been wearing hand-me-down clothing not made for me or stuff made for me that belongs to the regiment. It will be nice to actually have something that’s mine and made by me.♦

*Just don’t turn them over or take them off the coat. It looks like a mangled spider’s web on the back.

♦You’ll know if it’s made by me by the bloodstains I leave somewhere hidden on the garment. I always say, “No project is complete until you’ve made a blood sacrifice to the sewing gods!”

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One thought on “Design on a Dime: 18th Century Clothing Edition

  1. Pingback: L’Hermione: Boston “Been there, Didn’t do it, Got the T-Shirt Anyways”; | The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the (In)Famous Mr. Hiwell

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