Consider this: a costume can cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars (totaling materials and supplies, labor, plus any fabric modification such as dyeing and distressing, not to mention the designer’s fees and all the craft items and accessories that complete the look). Adding up the value of all the costumes, whether for a large opera or a small play makes it clear that costumes should be viewed as an investment, not just in the current production but for use in the future as well. This ongoing use of our costume stocks is the best kind of “recycling” and part of being responsible to our budgets. Opera companies in particular know this and construct costumes with future use in mind. Productions are remounted several times over the course of a decade, sometimes two, and in the construction process allowances are made for the future of a costume by constructing it with alterations in mind.
No costume can fit every size person, but almost every costume can be altered to fit a person who is two to three inches larger, smaller, taller, or shorter than the original wearer. The first step is to determine the best alteration points, and then make it easy to access the seam allowance. (You will find this technique in all Period Corsets® garments as we want our customers to have flexibility in altering and re-using our items in your stock, whether through an easy-to-alter side seam, or extra tucks in the length of a petticoat). By including extra allowance and establishing consistent alteration points, you can make garments that can be used over and over for a range of sizes, both for your theatre company and as part of a rental stock serving the larger theater community in your area.
Here are some basics on the best places to alter garments (future blogs will give more details and specifics).
The side seam is the best alteration point in garments for the torso (bodices, doublets, coats, and vests). By altering a garment from the side seams, you keep the balance of the garment intact. The front and back shoulder widths maintain the same relationship to the body of the garment, as do the sleeves. When the body is altered, the sleeves must be altered the same amount; each sleeve needs to be let out or taken in the same amount as each side seam. Leave the same amount of seam allowances in the sleeves and the side seams.
Garments for the lower half of the body (skirts, trousers, petticoats) are best altered at the center back. Fullness in period skirts and breeches can usually be let out or taken in at the center back without throwing off the balance of the garment. The side seam of these garments can sometimes be a good alteration point if it is accessible (trousers with side seam pockets are not easily alterable at the side seam, but some styles of “peasant” breeches are easy to construct with side-seam alteration points). Leave the same amount of allowance on each side of center back of these garments.
Garments for the upper body, for example a bodice, can sometimes be lengthened from the shoulder, but only if the armscye and neckline allow. In many cases, the neckline is finished into a collar making alteration very difficult if not impossible. Vests, if constructed without the back neck “strap” continuing from the front, are easy to lengthen from the shoulder. Also, these garments can be lengthened from the hem, depending on the shape and how it is finished. A bodice with a shaped hem, finished with piping or binding is usually unalterable, as are breeches finished into a shaped knee-band.
It is relatively easy to leave additional length in hems of trousers, skirts, and dresses for lengthening. Leave an even amount of hem allowance in these garments.
Difficult places to alter:
While most garments can have some degree of alterability, some parts of garments are very difficult to alter. Armscyes in a well-fitting coat must be trimmed under the arm and at the front curve to allow for movement, and so cannot be altered (not in a temporary way). Also, seam allowance left across the shoulders can be constricting to the wearer. Collars and facings often make necklines unalterable as they must be completely trimmed and clipped to sit properly. Tailored and lined garments have their own challenge—mostly because of the amount of handwork involved, but also because pocket openings often interfere with the alterability of seams and darts.
Look to the future, but remember the present:
While the goal is to construct costumes with the future in mind, this must be secondary to the initial use of the garment, so don’t be disappointed if you are unable to construct a garment for every possible future alteration. Also, use some common sense in your choices: if you are making a coat for a gentleman who is 6’4”, don’t be concerned about leaving much length—it is unlikely that someone 6’6” will be next to wear it. Likewise if you are making a bodice for a woman with a 24” waist, do try to leave as much seam allowance in the side seams without distorting the finished garment; the next wearer will likely not be that tiny. But the costumes in the “average” range, meaning most of the costumes you construct, will likely be used and re-used most often, so leave allowances to alter these garment a few inches smaller or larger, shorter or longer than the original size, for use in your upcoming productions.