Vintage Sewing

Wall Street Journal article about vintage clothing

By on May 4, 2012

There is a very interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal about the explosion of vintage clothing used in television shows today – and how much they cost to produce and how hard they are to find in original versions. I do not know if you will be able to link to it but I hope you can because it’s very worthwhile and inspiring reading. Here is the link:

I have also cut and pasted the story – although they have a very cool slide show of clothing, if you can access the site. Here is the text part of the story:

Get Me Wardrobe

An explosion of period pieces on television has sent wardrobe supervisors racing to unearth fedoras, hoop skirts and spats. How dressing the stars has gotten so complicated—and expensive.


Last winter Delphine White went hunting for clothes that could conjure New York City in 1864, the setting for a new cable TV drama called “Copper.” But the costume designer came up empty at a rental warehouse in Los Angeles, where the racks reserved for 19th-century gowns looked like the aftermath of a Black Friday sale. They’d been raided by four other productions trying to recreate the same time period. After she found nothing but more dregs in London, then Rome, Ms. White broke the news to “Copper” producers that most of the show’s featured costumes—600 dresses, frock coats and union suits—would have to be custom-built. Their wardrobe budget nearly doubled.

As more TV producers are firing up the time machine, lured by the impact of shows like “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey,” wardrobe departments are coming apart at the seams. John Jurgensen reports on Lunch Break.

In an era of niche audiences, period dramas can confer boutique qualities—awards potential and cultural buzz. Hoping to emulate the cachet of stylish shows like “Downton Abbey” “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire,” major networks are firing up the time machine. Shows under consideration for next fall include a high-society romance set in 1895 New York (from the creators of “Grey’s Anatomy”) and a drama about families exploring the Oregon Territory in the 1840s. Starz is gearing up for shows set in Renaissance era Europe (“da Vinci’s Demons “) and 13th-century Asia (“Marco Polo”) and announced plans Thursday for “Black Sails,” about Captain Flint, a notorious pirate from “Treasure Island.”

As producers look for eras that haven’t been mined for the small screen, wardrobe departments are starting to fray at the seams. Wardrobe supervisors are more important than ever, but their jobs are also more complicated—and dressing the part is expensive.

To create the sexy cocktail dresses and slim suits that parade through a luxury Miami hotel in 1959, the new Starz series “Magic City” spent more than $1 million for its first season. That’s roughly the costume budget for a big feature film, but “Magic City” had to stretch that amount over eight hourlong episodes. Costume designer Carol Ramsey and her team dressed about 500 people per episode.

In the first episode, the seductive character Lily Diamond appears at a New Year’s party in a curve-hugging white gown crusted in white beads. Making the dress from scratch required crushing beads along seam lines with a hammer, then rebeading outside seams by hand. More challenging, actress Jessica Marais wasn’t on set for fittings until a week before shooting began. The tally for the dress, including built-in corset, 10 yards of beaded chiffon and overtime labor: $7,000. “That took the entire shop working four days, and we’ll never use that dress again,” Ms. Ramsey said.

For the new Starz series ‘Magic City,’ set in 1959 Miami, costume designer Carol Ramsey’s team worked around the clock to make this beaded chiffon dress; ‘big overtime’ contributed to its $7,000 cost.

While advances in cameras and computers continue to cut the expense of visual effects, there’s been little streamlining of needle-and-thread work. “To my knowledge there’s no technological equivalent for good tailoring,” said Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik. In the pay-cable channel’s effort to build the prestige of its original programming, it’s counting on period dramas to “transport audiences to another world.”

Costuming represents all the challenges of doing cinematic spectacle on a TV budget, while the historical-accuracy police scrutinize everything. One Scottish viewer complained of a “Downton Abbey” hunting scene in a letter to the Daily Telegraph: “No driven-game [shooter] in the ’20s would have been seen wearing leather gaiters. All would have worn plus fours, stockings, leather boots and, possibly, light-coloured spats.”

Last fall, ABC’s “Pan Am” launched with much fanfare for its homage to ’60s style, as seen in the painstaking reproductions of the airline’s sleek stewardess uniforms. Costume designer Ane Crabtree proudly recalls a scene from episode three: In 1963 Berlin (simulated on New York’s Upper West Side), the six lead characters strut down a street in outfits designed to evoke their personalities.

By episode four, however, her budget was getting squeezed as “Pan Am” flagged in the ratings. With no money to send her staff on scouting trips, Ms. Crabtree went on solo weekend missions to a costume supplier in the Catskill Mountains. To keep up with story lines that took characters to new lands each week, “we reused stuff from other countries, hoping it would pass,” Ms. Crabtree says. To garb villagers in Port au Prince (episode eight), she bleached fabric worn by extras in Jakarta (episode four). “I had to cheat, which is sacrilege to me.”

ABC aired 14 episodes of “Pan Am” before putting the show on hiatus. The stewardess uniforms and 100 custom-made costumes sit in a warehouse in Queens until the network announces the show’s fate later this month. (When a series ends, non-rental costumes are typically sold off or swallowed up by the studio’s wardrobe department.) Another period show from last fall, NBC’s “The Playboy Club,” only lasted three episodes. Some 60 bunny outfits, created by “Chronicles of Narnia” costume designer Isis Mussenden for up to $3,000 each, were handed over to Playboy Enterprises as part of the company’s deal with 20th Century Fox Television.

Eddie Marks wanted to buy those bunny outfits. The president of Western Costume, he runs a North Hollywood rental house that some designers describe as the industry’s Wal-Mart for its dominance and size, 120,000 square feet. The company has a wing devoted to hats, in-house cobblers who make shoes from scratch, and a vault protecting pedigreed costumes that staffers have discovered in the racks (recent additions include matching kilts worn by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in “Road to Bali”). Western Costume has long supplied TV productions with police uniforms and other contemporary staples, but Mr. Marks says period TV has taken off in the last five years, with such productions now accounting for about 30% of his historical costume rentals.

It can cost up to $250 to rent one dress and about $200 for a man’s suit, generally for 15 weeks. Those fees, as much as pricey custom-made pieces, are what jack up the total cost of a costume drama. That’s because the look of every anonymous extra must pass muster for the period.

On HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ Steve Buscemi’s custom suits are outsourced to a Brooklyn tailor, but the show’s costume designers have also built a kind of 1920s department store.

Shooting on “Magic City” wrapped last fall, but Ms. Ramsey spent about $100,000 to hold on to rented costumes until season-two production starts later this year. One reason: to keep the outfits from popping up on rival shows. For the same reason, Ms. Ramsey keeps a close eye on shows like “Mad Men.” She spotted Betty Draper (played by January Jones) in the same ivory-colored chiffon cocktail dress that she was planning to put on a “Magic City” character. “We yanked that right out,” she says.

For its first original drama, BBC America chose a setting little seen on television: Civil War-era New York. “Copper,” set to premiere Aug. 19, is about an Irish-American detective (Tom Weston-Jones) navigating the violent Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan, but the story also travels to posh uptown and then-rural northern Manhattan. Executive producers include Tom Fontana (“Oz”), Barry Levinson (“Good Morning Vietnam”) and Christina Wayne, a former AMC executive who shepherded “Mad Men” to the screen.

Inside a former auto parts factory in Toronto, a maze of faux tenement houses and shops recreate squalid Five Points. Fog machines cloud the air and horses clomp through the set where dingy clothes hang on laundry lines and extras wait around in tattered coats that look to be made from old blankets.

Ms. White, the costume designer, works in a bright fitting room with big mirrors. Reference drawings and photographs cover the walls. A picture of Billy the Kid hangs next to ’70s-era Mick Jagger and Robert Mapplethorpe, both decked out like urban swashbucklers. They helped inspire the main look of Mr. Weston-Jones’s character, who wears a brocade vest and leather coat with no outside pockets, in keeping with the style of the day. (Brass knuckles get stashed inside his hat.)

Ms. White is on an international scavenger hunt for materials. In the fitting room hangs a 19th-century Chinese skirt that she’ll dissect for its embroidered silk. She bought it in a small Ontario town, but declines to name her source. Bins overflow with moleskine from London, linen from Montreal, lace from Italy.

Near a “breakdown” area where textile artists powder clothes with chocolate-cake mix and cornstarch to create a weathered look, five pattern makers and seamstresses work full time, surrounded by racks of costumes for orphans and prostitutes. Much of their time is devoted to dressing the character Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith), a headstrong British socialite. For a crucial ballroom scene, they spent 150 hours constructing a white gown that required hand-cut patterns, three layers of skirts and 500 beads sewn into its rosettes to catch the light. Including labor and 20 yards of tulle, the dress cost about $3,800.

With Elizabeth donning four such get-ups per episode, most girded with corsets and hoops, the demands of dressing her have shaped the show. Mr. Fontana, the show’s co-creator, says he has rewritten scripts—consolidating scenes and merging two days of action into one, for example—to reduce the number of Elizabeth’s costume changes. “If we do two less, it looks like we didn’t spend enough money,” he says. “But at some point you have to say, this is enough costumes in the course of an hour.”

It also helps when the costumes are cool. Fashion buzz about “the ‘Mad Men’ look” was a promotional jackpot for AMC, which included two branded clothing lines from Banana Republic, with input from series costume designer Janie Bryant.

“Copper” wants designers to take note of a colorful brothel owner. “Whether it’s a Marc Jacobs or a [Jean Paul] Gaultier, hopefully she will be their muse,” says Ms. Wayne, whose Cineflix Studios produces the show for BBC America.

With its splashy showgirl scenes and backgrounds teeming with extras, HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” is seen by its competitors as a big spender on period TV. Yet costume designers for the Prohibition-era show say they’ve learned to build costumes relatively cheaply, especially because they’re not putting women in hoop dresses and puffy sleeves. In the pre-flapper styles of the early ’20s, “there’s a simplicity to the shapes that has saved us,” says costume designer John Dunn.

Adds his “Boardwalk” co-costume designer Lisa Padovani, “Manpower is the cost, not the ingredients to make the clothes.” Shortcuts are required: Attentive viewers will note that even the lords and ladies of “Downton Abbey,” for example, repeat outfits from episode to episode. Costume designers say dipping back into a character’s “closet” adds realism, while cutting costs.

The “Boardwalk” team costumed the pilot episode of “Mad Men” before the show got picked up and moved to Los Angeles. Mr. Dunn grew up in a Chicago suburb wanting to act and direct, but changed course after a production of “The Playboy of the Western World” in college, where he discovered that “through costume, you get to play all the characters.” In New York, he assisted veteran designer Santo Loquasto and got schooled in the theater world’s historical looks and threadbare budgets.

For a time he dyed materials in costume shops, where he learned not to take fabrics at face value. That came in handy on the first season of “Boardwalk.” The designer’s team built an elaborate dress for a canny widow played by Kelly MacDonald, but something looked wrong. The chiffon didn’t hang or move as it should. Mr. Dunn tested the fabric by burning a swatch. It bubbled at the edges, revealing polyester. The World War II-era synthetic is banned from the “Boardwalk” world.

To show solidarity with the natty “Boardwalk” actors, Mr. Dunn says he ratcheted up his own wardrobe, and now wears buttoned vests and vintage ties. He dreads buying clothes for himself, he says, but he recently spent an afternoon shopping for “Boardwalk” at the biannual Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show.

Mr. Dunn walked past a promising booth because he already knew the owner’s prices were inflated. In a cramped stall where one vendor sported a bow-tie, newsboy cap and sock garters, the designer tried on a straw boater hat. It fit his own “pin head” snugly, meaning it would be too small for most actors—a constant challenge with clothes from the distant past, when humans were more petite. In another aisle, he paid $385 for a flowery chiffon dress with its ankle-length hem intact. It was a find, considering how many women hacked off their dresses in the mid-’20s when hemlines rose.

Most vendors saw the “Boardwalk” team coming. One vendor led Ms. Padovani down a deserted hallway to a room where he’d set up three racks and two tables of gear—a private pop-up shop for the “Boardwalk” buyer. “Oh, doctors’ coats. Yes, please,” she said as she whipped through the hangers. She handed the vendor an armful of stiff, detached-collar men’s shirts ($150 each), stocking up on tough-to-find duplicates that are key to a violence-prone show.

By the team Mr. Dunn left the sale for a night shoot in Staten Island, he and his team had spent about $30,000. That sum included an unexpected splurge: three boxes stuffed with antique lace for $15,000—a bargain, the designers said, because the stuff typically sells for $150 per yard. It wasn’t bought with a specific scene in mind. Instead, these sundries would be added to a growing stockpile on the show’s Brooklyn set, where Mr. Dunn’s 60-person team gets about a week to prepare each episode’s outfits after a new script arrives. He says, “We had to create our own little factory and department store from 1923.”

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Vintage Sewing

Pattern paper advice please

By on December 1, 2011

Hi everyone,

I am having a hard time finding a good pattern making paper on a roll.  Amazon does not seem to have anything quite right and art supply stores seem to have paper that’s too heavy weight for pattern making. Can someone – anyone – give me some suggestions of where I can buy pattern making paper (it doesn’t have to have dots). Thank you!


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