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Patternmaking & Sewing Notes
by Don McCunn

Minnie Van Costume

Minnie Van costume
Actress/Model: Lauren Arnold

I was approached to create this costume for an original stage production of "Backstage Stories." This play is written by John Hull who also created the design for this costume. The costume is a corset, briefs, and hoop skirt.

John knew the costume could not be pulled from stock because the skirt had to be large enough another actress could hide inside it. As the setting is the actress' dressing room it is also a skirt that is put on in full view of the audience. The change needed to happen in less than 5 seconds.

Another costume, a slip, was required that could be used for a fast change into just the corset and briefs. The slip had to be designed so that the corset could not be seen underneath it.

This is the kind of costume challenge I really enjoy.

The Design Concept

The Initial Design
Design by John Hull

When I was studying theatre with a focus on acting and directing I also learned the techniques of technical theatre including set, light, and costume design. As a director I did not want to have my vision constrained by available talent.

On the one hand this approach has served me well. But I have also experienced that knowing how to do something can sometimes limit a design concept. So it was a pleasure for me to tackle this wonderfully inspired design by John Hull who is a great designer but not a skilled patternmaker or sewer. Fortunately we had worked together on past projects so he was willing to listen to my input.

His initial concept was that at the beginning of the scene the actress would be onstage in the garments shown on the left. She would then whisk the skirt over the hoops, as he had seen fast change artists do. The important part of the scene was for another actress to be able to hide under the skirt so the change needed to happen quickly, ideally in less than 5 seconds.

I had some experience working with large hoop skirts and realized that the design on the right would need someone to carefully dress it so that it would drape nicely and that could take several minutes. So I convinced John that the hoops should be built into the skirt instead of being separate and he agreed.

John identified the garment on the left in his design as being the bodice of the dress or an undergarment. I felt that a corset was the best option and John once again agreed. The actress, Lauren, was playing another role where she needed to be in a slip then make a quick change into the corset. I realized this would require a special design for the slip in order to adequately cover the corset.

Finding the Fabric
The first step in the process was to determine what size the hoop needed to be for the second actress to hide under the skirt. I did this by taking some hoop steel to a rehearsal, have the actresses stand in place, then shape the hoop to surround them. Because I was using hoop steel it assumed a circular shape which was critical in determining the correct size. It turned out that the hoop measured 168".

This meant that when we went shopping for fabric if it was 44" wide, we would need 4 panels and if it was 60" wide, we would need three panels. I also needed to determine how much fabric would be required for the top of the skirt. Using a nifty Patternmaker Calculator I was able to enter the circumference of the hoop and determine the radius would be 26-3/4".

John and I went to a store we both like and use a lot in San Francisco, Fabric Outlet. I am always intrigued that when I go to this store looking for fabric for a costume that I doubt I will be able to find, there it is on the shelf. I let John do the selection because it was his design. His initial concept was white but I suggested that might look too like a wedding dress. Then we saw a lovely gold lace that we both thought would be great. Fabric selection is such a wonderful and important part of any design process. I had previously purchased some white Lucra for 99 cents a yard that I offered for an underskirt.

We had yet to determine how much fullness we would use for the skirt so I took a wild guess and we bought 12 yards. When I am making a costume, I always get more than I think I will need because there is nothing worse than being in the middle of a project and not having enough. Ultimately we used exactly 12 yards to make this costume.

The other important supply we would need would be more hoop steel than what I had in stock and the casing for it. The only place I have found hoop steel is the online Corset Making Supplies. Fortunately their service is excellent.

Prototyping the Design

Skirt Prototype

There were a lot of details that needed to be worked out to create the skirt, especially the amount of fullness. I was also not sure how a hoop would work when the top was shaped as shown in John's design. I knew it would be a major project and that there would need to be decisions that John should be involved in making. My solution was to start with a scale model of the skirt using my Toner American Model. This model is 1/3 the size of a person.

Ever since I started working with fashion dolls like this, I have been a strong advocate for trying out ideas in a scale version before committing to a full size garment. If you make a mistake in small scale, it is not a mayor waste of time and material.

By taking some guick photos with my phone to look at the difference between no fullness to some fullness, we decided that the skirt should have double fullness. This meant that the initial 168" circumference would need to be expanded to 336". Also having some fullness in the top of the skirt would work well with the lower part of the skirt.

These decisions would have been a lot more difficult to adjust had we jumped immediately into making a full size garment. It also became very apparent that the structure of the top of the skirt was going to be tricky. The angle of the skirt was not the look we wanted.

The Skirt

Skirt Under Construction

You can see in the photo above of the initial construction process some of the problems the skirt presented. The top of the skirt is sewn to the waistband and the lower portion of the skirt is sewn with hoop casing around the circumference.

It turns out several layers of hoop boning were required to provide some stiffness to the circular shape. It was also clear that the top of the skirt needed to be reinforced along the side front, sides, and side back seams so the fabric would not stretch out of shape. Fortunately I did this with hoop casing. This allowed me to add solid rods at these locations that you can see sticking out at the waistband.

Buckram Skirt Support   Skirt Closure

The rods supporting the top of the skirt clearly needed to be anchored by shaping them to the waist-to-hip region of the actress. I did this with the buckram and muslin support shown in the photo to the left. This structure was influenced in part by my experience making hats. I felt the stiffness of the buckram would facilitate the quick change when the actress put the skirt on. I used the clasps in the photo on the right to allow for the quickest possible closure.

The Corset & Briefs

Trial Muslin of the Corset

For the corset I used the body wrap approach similar to the one described in my How to Make Custom-Fit Bras & Lingerie. I modified this approach slightly to use the bullet bra bra cup of the 1950s. I have a period bra that uses just a dart to shape the cup which I find very intriguing.

This approach to making a corset frequently does not require any additional fitting but just to be safe, I did make the muslin version shown above to verify the fit.

It had been a while since I had made a corset. Here is a summary of the six distinct processes.

  1. Creating Fashion Fabric Edging Strips
  2. Inserting the Opening Busk
  3. Adding the Grommets
  4. Sewing the Corset Body
  5. Adding Boning
  6. Adding the Lacing
Corset and Briefs

In the back view above you can see the yellow lacing. These are actually shoe laces which come in a variety of colors and make excellent lacing for corsets. The extended bow is actually called "bunny ears" which allows the corset to be secured by the wearer with no help from a second person.

To complete this costume I used the Fitted Brief pattern described in my new book How to Make Custom-Fit Bras & Lingerie. I attached the garter straps with G-Hooks inside the corset so that they could easily be removed if desired.

The Slip & Leggings

Slip and Leggings

For the other character Lauren was playing it was necesary to cover the corset and net stockings with garments that could be removed for a quick change. Fortunately as she and I were discussing this, she looked at an image of a slip that had a crossover at center front. This made it east to cover the top of the corset at center front. Normally for a slip I would have left the back at the under bust level. But the corset necessitated adding some height to the back of the slip. The slip was made following the instructions for bikini style garments in How to Make Custom-Fit Bras & Lingerie

The skin colored leggings were used to cover the net stockings. They were made following the instructions in my book How to Make Sewing Patterns. We decided to leave then long so that they could be tucked into shoes or slippers.

Copyright © 2017 by Donald H. McCunn