Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

How Much?

How much does good historic clothing cost, really?

“My Dear, it was HOW much?” (Southworth and Hawes. Editorial liberties taken with all captioning.)

It’s a topic that comes up quite frequently in living history circles: how much does a good repro dress cost? Or bonnet? Or corset?

And then there’s usually a pretty good ruckus of people saying it’s highway robbery, or skin-flint cheap, or loads of variations on that theme. And since I wear a few different bonnets in the mid-century world, I have Opinions. Several. And since I own this site, I’m able to share them in permanent form. So, read on, MacDuff!

What Makes it “Good”?

There’s a certain amount of work that goes into any project, regardless of its accuracy. Since I’m not really keen on wasting time, money, or materials, my definition of “Good” is “looks as much like originals as possible, with the same geometry, materials, techniques, and finishing.” If the item is at a lesser standard than that, it’s just not worth my time, effort, or money.

Particularly where budgets are slim, it’s too expensive to waste time buying or making Make Do. Better to go for a simple, accurate item that will last.

But It’s a Hobby!

Yes, it is. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Most folks, though, claim to be doing living history to preserve it, to educate the public, to introduce the community or kids or whomever to our foundational roots as a society. And once we lay the “educational” moniker on things, we also take up a burden of academic honesty and ethics that mean we need to kick it up a notch or five, with solid research and application, so what the public sees is actually history, not pleasant fantasy or flat-out fiction.

If you’re only making historically-inspired styles for your own use in your home, then go for whatever you want. If you’re in public, or attempting to educate others, that’s a different goal, and the effort and baseline go commensurately up. It’s a hobby AND it’s a thing worth doing Just Like They Did It. Our baseline is that Original Cast, not “other reenactors.” Anything less is just not worth it.

(There are other opinions on this matter. You’ll find those opinions elsewhere.)

Why Do Makers Charge So High?

Not to be unkind, but: they willingly devoted hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of hours to acquire and master skills you’re not willing to learn for yourself. So, they deserve to make more than they would flipping burgers and asking if you want fries with that. A good historic maker is using antique skills that you do have to work to acquire. The workman is indeed worthy of his hire. There’s nothing unethical in charging $15, $30, or even $50 an hour for skilled work, particularly if it’s rare skills. If you don’t want to pay that, then you’ll need to work independently and acquire those skills for yourself.

Private professionals also have to cover all their business costs in order to take commission work from their clients. They have to be able to keep the lights and heat on, feed a family, pay both the employee and employer portion of all city, county, state, and federal taxes (and hooooo boy are some of those amounts high, such as private medical insurance costs!), maintain and repair and upgrade all their equipment, spend time on marketing and bookkeeping and communications. Whatever they charge per hour, consider that they *might* net half that amount, after their business costs. Sometimes. Not always.

Individual makers have to set their own rates. If you feel they’re too high, there are options (see below). If you feel they’re too low, give them a healthy cash bonus at the end of the project to let them know you appreciate their work, even if they say they’re doing it out of love, or just to pay for their own hobby fun. I guarantee you, I’ve never met a maker who was rolling in the lucre from supplying the historic community. Ever.

Is It Really Worth It?

Yes, sometimes. A quality item from a skilled professional can be very much worth a higher-than-average cost. Of course, a high price does not guarantee a good finished project! It really does pay to do your own research, so you know what you’re looking for in your repro items, and know what a red flag looks like if you see one. A maker who charges $800 for a cotton print “ball gown”, and touts how wonderful the machined gauging is? Oh, Red Flag.

It’s Just Too Much. What Can I Do?

Here’s the happy thing: you have so many, many options!

If you are willing and determined to learn to do a running stitch by hand and a whip stitch by hand, you can make your undergarments, a dress, and quite a few bits of outerwear. If you’re willing to learn to do a straight stitch on a machine, you can get many parts done very quickly. Anyone with determination and willingness can learn to sew well enough to make good, serviceable, accurate historic clothing for themselves and their household.

And I do mean it: anyone. I’ve had people who were legally blind in my workshops. If they can do it, you can. I promise.

With running stitch by hand, you can do seams, install piping, create waistbands, and prep gathering and gauging. You can put up a hem, add hem tape, and baste on collars. Add a whip stitch and you can set skirts of all kinds, add a seam “finish” to your cut edges, attach hooks and eyes, and finish off piping seam allowances for a very tidy inside look.

Yes, there are a lot of pieces to a woman’s wardrobe. You’ll find most of them covered in The Dressmaker’s Guide. And quite a few elements are available as free patterns in the Compendium, excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide. We’re excited to get to add to that stack over the winter, too, with some great new sunbonnet styles from private collections and museums (it’s so cool when we ask to share something, and the owners say Yes, do!)

Aside from the undergarments, aprons, shawls, and headwear found here on the Sewing Academy, there are some great bits of documented usefulness around the internet. Need garters, for instance?

If you’re not feeling confident now, take some workshops from The Sewing Academy (click the tab up yonder), or the Genteel Arts Academy; both instructors are portable. Check your local area for workshops through historic sites, or ask them to sponsor a series. Get involved with a group that does sewing days, and has members willing to mentor you in highly-accurate practices.

I’m Not Keen on Full DIY. I Need Help!

That’s fine, too, and totally historically accurate! Most skilled historic dressmakers, for instance, will let you hire them to do just a bodice fitting, or do the bodice construction for you while you to the skirts, or just do the sleeves for you because you hate drafting and setting them.

Many excellent historic milliners will provide you with a totally finished and trimmed bonnet, a ready-to-trim bonnet, a partially finished bonnet, or just a bonnet kit and supplies. You have options.

Using a professional for just part of the work is very normal for most skilled makers, and it can be a very budget-friendly way to go for you, too.

But I Want Spendy Gorgeousness. Can’t They Just Charge Me Less?

Well, no. That’s a great way for the professional to burn out or go bankrupt. If you’d like their spendy gorgeousness, save up. It’s okay to wait on a splurge. Longing and anticipation are two very valid mid-century activities. Once you have a basic wardrobe with undergarments, skirt support, a corset, and a dress, you really don’t need 40 more dresses. Take your time, and research and save to add perhaps one piece a year, or every other year, as things wear out. Just like they did in the period. Odd, how that works out so nicely!

But Shouldn’t They Be Charging Less, Really? I Mean, It’s For Education (And Stuff)!

Well, no. They probably ought to be charging more, given the hundreds of hours of effort behind every project they take on. Charging adequate prices on skilled labor means they get to do things like putting money in savings so they can retire someday, or take a family vacation, or even take the odd sick-day. Those are not high-falutin’, snobby goals. Promise.

Summing Up

You’ve hear the old adage: Fast, Good, or Cheap: Pick Two.

It applies to historic wardrobes as well.

You can have Fast and Cheap, but it’s not going to be Good, and then you’ve wasted everything that went into it.

You can have Fast(ish) and Good, but it’s not going to be Cheap, because you’ll be paying fair skilled-labor rates to a professional, and if they’re sensible, they’re going to charge you extra for the Fast part. This stuff takes time, whether it’s a $3/yard cotton print dress or a silk ballgown.

You can definitely have Good and Cheap, but you’ll need to invest time in your own basic sewing skills, and work at it in tiny increments, making time for it in your schedule. It is 100% do-able, though it may take awhile! Clothing does not have to be perfectly stitched in order to be perfectly historically-accurate and very serviceable. (You can also buy used good items from others, and remodel them… that’s another mid-century norm we can use to our advantage, and it’s a whole ‘nother set of postings.)

Nearly 1700 words is straining the limits of tasteful blogging, so I’ll wrap up with this:

Doing it well is worth the effort (yours) and money (yours and that paid to select makers). Don’t denigrate it. Or, if you feel like denigrating it, just hush for awhile. Other people are working hard to do a good job, and it’s rude to bother them.

If anyone would like to add comments, please do link up your very favorite, very accurate resources for either a skilled historic maker, or a great DIY option!

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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