Books are a wonderful source for learning about historic costuming. A common question asked by people beginning in historic costuming is what are the “best” books. Unfortunately, this is a very hard question to answer, but this article will give my best answer.
I have an Excel spreadsheet which shows information for just under 1,000 books and articles related to historic costuming and sewing – I actually own very few of these, but I know which local libraries and friends own many of them. My main interest is woman’s clothing in Western Europe and North America, so my list of books reflects that.
First of all, there are no one or two “best” historic costuming books, but there are lots of very good historic costuming books. This article will discuss some good ones within various categories.
Remember, you don’t need to buy all of these books. And many of these may be out of print, so check used book stores, too. Don’t forget your local libraries (in the Seattle, Washington area are the Seattle Public Library, the King County Public Library and the Drama Library at the University of Washington, all of which have great historic costuming book collections.)
General or Encyclopedic Historic Costuming Books
A general or encyclopedic book that covers a long period of historic costuming is very useful to the beginner. It will help you understand which silhouettes go with which period and get a general understanding. None of them is perfect, so look at several. Some I am familiar with are:
For beginners, I don’t recommend Historic Costume in Pictures: Braun & Schneider because the sketches are of what the Victorians interpreted historic costume to be, and so are not accurate. I also don’t recommend The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Costume and Fashion: from 1066 to the Present by Jack Cassin-Scott, since it is not very complete.
General Sewing Books
If you want to sew your own historic costumes, you will want a general sewing book. There are many to choose from – I use Complete Guide to Sewing by Reader’s Digest. There are many editions of this classic – use whichever you want. Singer, Vogue, and Better Homes and Gardens have published good general sewing books. Remember, the general techniques have not changed much recently, so a used copy is fine.
General Historic Costume Pattern Books
There are several user-friendly general historic costume pattern books that are more “approachable” than the ones in the next section of Patterns or Descriptions of Actual Historic Garments Books. These books are useful to get ideas of historic costumes that are better than Halloween costumes, but not as difficult as patterns of actual historic garments. So I would place these as intermediate level books for the historic costumer.
Books of Patterns or Descriptions of Actual Extant Historic Garments
Extant items are items that still exist, either in museum or private collections. Janet Arnold, the late British clothing historian, did a great deal of study of extant garments – her books are fabulous. Norah Waugh did similar research, and her books are from 1950s and 1960s.
Books of Photographs of Actual Extant Historic Garments
The books in this category have beautiful color photographs and are great for inspiration and on developing your “eye”.
Fine or Historic Sewing Books
If you want to use historic hand sewing techniques, here are three excellent books.
Victorian Costume Books
The Victorian era (1837 – 1901) is a popular period for historic costuming, so if you have a particular interest in costumes of that era, some go-to books, all of which are from Dover Publications, include:
|English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century by C. Willett Cunnington|
|Victorian Fashions & Costumes From Harper’s Bazar: 1867-1898 by Stella Blum|
|Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey by Alison Gernsheim|
Limited Interest Historic Costuming Books
There are many, many books that address a very specific aspect or era of historical costuming. These may be excellent for the more experienced historic costumer, but may not be applicable to the beginner. You can spend a lot of money on books that you may not want later as your inclinations change, and they may focus your interest too narrowly. Don’t hesitate to browse these books at a library or bookstore, but they may not be an appropriate purchase for a beginner. When you find yourself drawn again and again to a narrow focus, then it may be time to spend some money on that narrow focus, but likely not before.
Other Historic Costuming Books
Dover publishes a great many books relating to historic costuming. Check out their over 130 Fashion and Costuming publications at http://store.doverpublications.com/by-subject-fashion-and-costume.html I own several, but not all that I want!
There are many books with fashion sketches from the time period that are very useful, as well as books devoted to specific time periods.
Gathering a personal library of historic costuming books is great fun, but can be very costly. The purpose of this article is to give to those new to historic costuming an idea of where to start.