“Best” Historic Costuming Books

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:

    20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment by François Boucher      An excellent book!
  The Book of Costume by Millia Davenport
  A Concise History of Costume by James Laver
  Costume 1066 – 1966 by John Peacock     This book just has sketches, no text.
  European Costume: 4000 Years of Fashion by Doreen Yarwood
  History of Costume: From the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century by Blanche Payne      An excellent book!
  The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Fashion by Ludmila Kybalová, Olga Herbenová, Milena Lamarová, translated by Claudia Rosoux
  Survey Of Historic Costume: A History Of Western Dress by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank      This was my textbook in a historic costume class that I took.  It is a good book but it is fairly pricy, and in my opinion, not worth the high price.  There are several editions with different covers.

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.

   Patterns for Theatrical Costumes: Garments, Trims, and Accessories from Ancient Egypt to 1915 by Katherine Strand Holkeboer      This is a very approachable book of patterns.  Note that the word Theatrical in the title means that some artistic license is made with these patterns, but good for beginners to look at.
    Evolution of Fashion: Pattern and Cut from 1066 to 1930 by Margot Hamilton Hill and Peter A Bucknell
  Period Costume: For Stage & Screen, at least 5 in the series by Jean Hunnisett      These books can be considered as advanced general historic costume pattern books, since she has studied many extant (those that still exist) garments.  She is British, so her writing may be a bit difficult to understand.  These books are pricy, but worth it.

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.

  Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction C. 1660-1860 by Janet Arnold
  Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction C. 1860-1940 by Janet Arnold 
  Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, C.1560-1620 by Janet Arnold 
   Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540-1660 by Janet Arnold 
   Costume in Detail: 1730 – 1930 by Nancy Bradfield      Sketches, not patterns, but lots of detail.
  New cover of above book
  The Cut of Men’s Clothes, 1600-1930 by Norah Waugh
   The Cut of Women’s Clothes, 1600-1930 by Norah Waugh
   Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh

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”.

  Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century      From the Kyoto Costume Institute – very beautiful!   There is a 1 volume edition and a 2 volume edition.
  The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet and Pingat by Elizabeth Ann Coleman      Beautiful haute couture garments from c1890-c1910.
  Fashion in Detail From the 17th and 18th Centuries by Avril Hart and Susan North
  Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston
  Underwear: Fashion in Detail by Eleri Lynn

Fine or Historic Sewing Books

If you want to use historic hand sewing techniques, here are three excellent books.

  Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire B. Shaeffer      Claire Shaeffer is a treasure! Both the original and the revised edition are great.  This is the revised edition.
  This is the original edition.
  Plain Needlework: A Guide to Nineteenth Century Hand Sewing by Melissa Roberts      This is an excellent book to learn hand sewing from.
  Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques by Kristina Harris, ed.      Originally published in 1905 by the Butterick Publishing Company under the title Dressmaking, Up to Date construction techniques

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.


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