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Costuming For Larger Figures

Madilayn de Mer

One thing in the SCA that you can count on is that we all have to clothe ourselves in our chosen garb. For some people, this is simple - those (especially females) who are a size 8-14.

For novice sewers, especially, the problems come when you have a larger figure to work with. Fear Not! - Madilayn is here to help you.

I really know what I am talking about here - I am not afraid to admit that I am a size 26-28 mundane size and I make my own clothes, and have been big all of my life. So, if you are sewing for yourself, or are going to make clothes for a larger lady, please read this. You may be an experienced sewer or just a confident person, and read this and say "I know that", but this is mostly aimed at those who are having difficulties, or just don’t know where to start.

I personally like pre 13th century clothing, however for pure sexiness there is nothing to beat Italian Renaissance (in my opinion and that of several other Ladies I have surveyed)!

Firstly, and most importantly, don't be afraid. We larger ladies are fashionable! (I need to give a bit of history background here – if you don’t want to know or already know, then skip on – but it is interesting – so I would urge you to read.)

In medieval times the larger lady was in much demand – after all it meant that she was able to afford to eat well, and she looked fertile (all fertility figures are big – no sticks there!). Many of the outfits we wear look their best on larger figures. So be confident and make that georgeous gown you saw in a portrait – just follow these simple guidelines.

The first thing is to take measurements – real measurements. I know that we are all guilty of taking fake measurements (suck in that gut!), but fit is what makes an outfit, and to get the proper fit, you have to start with your correct measurements.

Get a friend to do it – wear a good bra (that gives correct support), or the bra that you wear most to events. Don’t wear a girdle, or anything that will "hold you in". This will not give a factual measurement.

Take basic measurements – bust (round the nipple line) across the back (breathe in so that your back expands – this will give you a measurement at full expansion), waist, hip, and around your neck and also the upper arm and wrist. Then take 2 length measurements – one from the nape of the neck to the floor – going over your backside. The other from the hollow in your throat over the bust to the floor. You will find that these 2 measurements are different, but it is vital that you use them when making gowns – especially if the gown only just touches the floor. Otherwise it will ride up back or front and the hemline will be very uneven when you are wearing it. When your gown is on a hanger, the hemline will be uneven. It’s made to look good on you, not on a clothes hanger -- not a good look for anyone.

Record these measurements, and re-take them every 6 months or so – especially if you don’t do a lot of sewing. Things change.

Now, at this point I have to go into some details (brief) about body styles:

Added to this, you may have a small or large bust, and be high or low waisted and be long or short in the trunk.

I can hear some people asking why is this important – it is important because it all determines what you will look your best in!

As an example – I have an hourglass figure, but am rather long in the trunk, & have a large bust size. I look good in a high-waisted Italian Renaissance gown – but would not look good in a low waisted one, as it would not suit my particular body type. You may want to experiment with calico mockups to find a look that suits you. "Rectangular" figures, for example, look marvellous in Tudor, Tudor transitional and (some) Elizabethans. All larger ladies (and gentlemen) look good in houppelandes.

So, take a really good look at yourself – in a bathing suit or your underwear – and have a friend also do the same. Ask yourself these questions:

Have your friend also answer these basic questions – you may be surprised how different the answers will be. Don’t be upset or hurt – often other people know better than we do what we look good in – after all, they are looking at you. A mirror (even the best one) distorts slightly, and does not show our true colouring (how many times have you put on makeup and discovered when you got outside that you looked either like a clown or death warmed-over, even though it was good when you looked in the mirror).

The other thing is that larger people often have some preconceived ideas of what they look good in (I am big so I must wear a sack, and it had better be in dark shades so I don’t look as big). Nonsense! If you look terrific in bright yellow – you will look terrific whatever your size! If you love Pink – wear it! If you feel good about yourself – you will look good.(remember – we are drawn naturally to colours that suit us – so wear your favourite colour).

Now: you are a beautiful woman who is going to have a wonderful new gown made. Sacks are not an option here! You have a fashionable figure, and want to show it off and be the best looking and best dressed woman in the hall! (but only if I’m not there!!! – after all I am wonderful and stunning and know I am the best looking woman in Lochac!).

Decide your style – look at what you will be wearing underneath: will I need a corset? What sort of chemise will I need? Petticoats, Bum Roll, Farthingale? Remember – the fashion calls for bum rolls – wear one. Also take a bit of time to look at the accessories you will need (very important, accessories. They finish an outfit).

Underwear is the foundation of the garment – it is mostly what gives the garment its distinctive line. You will soon find out when you make and wear a Tudor that without a farthingale and bum roll, you just don’t get the right line and it does not look as good. The same goes for a corset (I personally don’t have anything at present that requires a corset, but my friends who do say that you do get used to them, and they aren’t really all that uncomfortable).

You will also have to look seriously at how the garment will be closed – if it is to be laced then you will need to look at reinforcing for both the eyelets and also for where the eyelets are situated – more so than for a smaller person. In fact, whatever your size, you should always bone where the eyelets are going – this will give extra strength. Look at what you are using to lace the garment – don’t use anything that will stretch (a quick tip here: football boot laces (Editor's Note: Nylon sneaker laces, for the North Americans in our midst!) are great for lacing gowns – plus please, don’t kill me for suggesting this!).

When it comes to buying the fabric, don’t trust your size 8 friend who says "I got this ‘Bethan out of just 3m of fabric". It won’t work for the larger figure. Work on how many drops of the full width of the fabric you will need. (eg: skirt: 6 drops 140cm long of 120m wide fabric = 6 x 140 for the amount you will need). Remember to allow for seams and shrinkage – especially shrinkage. Over-estimate in both your buying and cutting – after all it is easier to take in than add more.

You may discover (especially if making tunic-style garb) that you will have to include gussets or inserts under the arms down to bust level to give you some extra room – or maybe putting a seam mid-front and mid-back. This is OK – as you then get a lot of lovely fullness in the skirts of your early-period gowns, but it does mean some fitting is required.

In fact, fitting is the secret for good looking clothing – whether for mundane or SCA –regardless of size. Skin tight may look good, but if you can’t move or breathe, then it’s not really much use. Always allow a bit of "wearing ease". If it is fitted well, then it will not be noticed if it is not absolutely skin tight (allowing for wearing ease also means that tighter garb will not creep up and bunch around the waist – so will look better anyway!)

I suppose what it all comes down to is the following points:

  1. Accurate measurements
  2. Good fitting
  3. Positive self image

We are the ones who are fashionable in medieval times – not those poor skinny undernourished things (how will they ever carry children?!). Not only that, but in our period, conspicuous consumption was the order of the day. The more material you used, the more affluent you looked (if you can’t afford 15metres of silk brocade for your Tudor or ‘Bethan underskirt – cheat a little bit – buy what you need which will be seen, plus at least a 5-6 inch under the overskirt, and then use a similar weight and colour material for the rest of the skirt that is not seen).

Now, just a couple of points in closing. Experiment in calico or other cheap fabric. It can save a lot of time and heartache later.

Some styles that look really terrific on larger figures are:

See – there is really nothing that you cannot wear – as long as you are realistic in your measurements and fit well.

As to fitting – find a good friend to help you – one who you know will not deliberately stick pins into you (only accidentally!).

Finally, accessorise! It will really finish the outfit off, and a style that you may feel looks strange, doesn’t when it has the right "bits" with it.

I hope that this article has been of some use to people, but please feel free to contact me with your thoughts.

Madilayn de Mer is a Norman lady who lives with her maternal grandfather and cousins in Carslile during the early 13th Century -- whilst her father is in the Holy Land killing infidels and sending her back interesting bits and pieces (this cotton stuff is terrific!). Whilst waiting for her father, she spends her time doing embroidery and sewing.

Megan McConnell is a Collections Officer with Suncorp Metway Ltd (a Bank/Insurance company with its base in Queensland) and has been there long enough to accrue long service leave. In my spare time, she surfs the net, reads, and does embroidery and sewing.

Lady Nastasiia Ivanova Medvedeva