Tour of the Costume Box: General Notes and a Queeny Wizard

October 16, 2011

Halloween Countdown: 15 days

About half a year ago I realized my nieces are just the age when playing pretend is most exciting.  This reminded me of how when I was their age, the very best pretend-play would sometimes turn electric.  It happened often when I could not only “be” whatever I was “being,” but wear their clothes!  I decided to make the girls a costume box.

The costume box of my youth was (is) a black tin trunk in my granny’s (the live one’s) basement filled with leftovers from my mother’s and aunts’ dress-up days.  Granny understands dress-up.  At nine she fashioned Barsoom costumes for herself and her friends from scraps of lamé and satin; they spent that whole summer running around each other’s yards pretending to be Edgar Rice Bourroughs’ Martians.  All through Granny’s childhood and teens, in fact, whenever she wasn’t sewing clothes and costumes for her dolls, she was sewing them for herself.  The Halloween costumes she made for my mother and aunts involved a yearly ritual of sewing, repurposing, and papier-mâché-ing on a par with Easter dresses for importance.  Later, when my aunts were teenagers and didn’t care, Granny gave away most of their old costumes and other dress-up things to a mother of young children who was going through a divorce–a gift the woman ever after credited with saving her sanity.  I liked to imagine what might have been in that Box Of Yore.  It must have been amazing considering what was left.

The tin trunk was (is) not big.  There were not a lot of clothes in it, but what there were stood out in magnetic strangeness by way of their antiquity.  In Granny’s costume trunk I found weights, weaves, fibers, and methods of decoration I understood had used to be part of people’s normal lives, but which I had never seen or handled in my own.  The first fabrics I loved were costumes.

Are you curious?  Well, there was my great-grandmother’s sheer Spanish shawl from the 1920’s, covered in satin-stitch peonies.  There was the embroidered silk dragon robe sent from China by Granny’s brother in the service, and the impossibly skinny blue-green moire 1950’s cocktail gown with a fishtail flounce, donated by the Cruella DeVille-like “Mean Aunt N___” who terrified my aunts as children.  There was the beautiful Japanese fan still in its disintegrating pre-war presentation box, the Moroccan finger-cymbals, the faux-Edwardian Mary Poppins dress with contrasting-lined bias-cut frills and shiny black buttons up the front.  My favorite as a small child was a Mexican peasant dress with different colors of rickrack going round and round–twirly!  Sadly, the rustling Renaissance “princess dress” of highly polished blue cotton was too big until I was quite old and then quickly outgrew it.  Its skirt was interlined with a stiffening buckram-like stuff, the lining was rose organdy, the sleeves trailed to the knee, and the square neckline was trimmed with perfect wee daisies–so typical of Granny’s loving attention to detail.

That is just a sample.

I could not and would not wish to duplicate the costume box of my youth.  Like Granny, I love attention to detail in garment construction; unlike her, I do not love to sew and would never have the patience to interline a princess dress.  Another issue is utility.  Granny’s costumes were too old and special to wear while tearing around outdoors, but tearing around outdoors is (I always found) a prerequisite for really good pretend-play.  I wanted my nieces to have costumes they could play with anywhere, anytime; yet which still had incorprated the variety of fabrics and real-garment quality of construction that made my Granny’s costumes so magical.

The best outfits for pretend play are ones with mixable pieces, so my other goal was to give the girls lot of components that lent themselves to being draped and tied and swapped out, as well as a few good base garments that fit them.  (Nothing is more frustrating than something pretty you can’t wear because it’s too big and looks all wrong and dumpy on you!)  Most of all, I wanted them to light up with a sense of dramatic possibility the way I would have done if someone had given me a big box of purpose-gathered costumes when I was their age.

So then I sewed and thrift-stored and laundered and mended for longer than I like to admit.  Now that all 26 pounds of costumes are in UPS truck speeding to my nieces, I will share them with you.

Starting with . . .

The Queeny Wizardy Robe

This fabric, which you can’t see properly, is a cross-dyed polyester taffeta that shines black one way and wine red the other.  It came from a set of curtains in a clearance pile at a discount store; I thought the taffeta would be perfect for a wicked queen or wizard.  The matching valance made up into a  pointy princess hat which you will see at a later date.

To cut this thing out I combined different views from Period Patterns No. 16: “Tunics, c. 650-1310 A.D.”–redrawing the pointed sleeves to be shorter, unlined, and more bell-like for lack of fabric.  I refused to set-in the sleeves the way the pattern directions directed.  Sewing the sleeves to the body and then sewing the underarms and side seams in one go with a clipped, reinforced curve worked just fine, so nyah!

Here you can see it with a big piece of iridescent chiffon I squared up and hand-hemmed along the raw edges for a Queen of the Night veil.

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5 Responses to “Tour of the Costume Box: General Notes and a Queeny Wizard”


  1. […] at my weaving blog, here: https://trapunto.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/tour-of-the-costume-box-general-notes-and-a-queeny-wizard/ Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted by trapunto Filed in Uncategorized Leave […]

  2. Nymeth Says:

    “Most of all, I wanted them to light up with a sense of dramatic possibility the way I would have done if someone had given me a big box of purpose-gathered costumes when I was their age.”

    And they will. You got that sense of possibility across so well when describing the costumes on your grandmother’s box. What a wonderful gift.

    • trapunto Says:

      Hello to my first costume voyeur! UPS tells me the box should get there Tuesday. My only fear is that my sister will hurt her back trying to wrestle it over the doorsill…which would make the gift a lot less wonderful for her!

  3. Jenny Says:

    That is a fantastic wizard robe. You are a genius and your nieces are so lucky to have you making costumes for them. And, hi!

    • trapunto Says:

      Hi! I’m not sure they will even know what a wizard is, but I’m sure they will know how to swoosh the sleeves in large commanding gestures, and that is the main thing.


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