“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”: Books, Blogs, & Bouncing Ideas

One of the questions I get asked the most is:  “Where do you get your ideas?

And THAT is a question that is easier asked than answered . . . because there is no one good answer.

I try to find inspiration somewhere . . . usually from a picture or a description.  Once I know what I want my end result to look like . . then I can start putting the pieces together to move in that direction.  Does it always work?  Nope.  But in the process, I have usually learned something, and by using inexpensive items to begin with, haven’t lost much if I need to start over.

Where to start?

The answer to that depends what you are trying to accomplish.  If you are about to start a show the best place to begin is a study of what you want the costumes to look like.  Study clothing of the era and costumes from other productions and decide on the important components (color, line, etc).

The next step is to start browsing through thrift stores and resale shops . . .look at what there is, and try to imagine what it COULD be.  Sleeves?  they can go.  Wrong length?  You can fix that.  Cool trim?  You can use that for something else.  Learning to look beyond what it IS to what it COULD be is a learned skill .. and takes practice.  I am constantly amazed at the ideas people come up with.

“Beauty & the Beast” was the first show I did this way, and it was more a matter of trying to stay within budget.  I used thrift store garments for specialty fabrics for some of the Enchanted pieces .  . . but mostly, it was the need to suddenly outfit the entire chorus when our anticipated costume source wasn’t available.  You do what you have to do.  But once I started . . I kind of got hooked.

Once the immediacy of that show was done . . . I spent more time researching and looking for other sources and suggestions.  At that point, I really knew nothing about costuming.  Part of the reason I started this blog is because there isn’t a whole lot out there, especially with the inexpensive, “good enough”, limited budget mind-set.  There are lots of good ideas about wonderful historically accurate cosplay and historical costumes . . .but that is not my goal.  When you start reading those websites & references, you can get really caught up in “historically accurate” and basically feeling very inadequate for putting hacked together costumes up on stage.  It is important to keep your perspective . . . if you have several hundred dollars, and 6 months you can do marvelous things.  If you have 6 weeks and that same budget, but need to outfit multiple people in multiple costumes . . .you have to take a different approach.  Other than the end look, really the whole project goal is different . . it is great to have eyelets and hand sewn seams . . until you need to get the costume off in 30 seconds or less . . .hellooooo velcro!

In a future post I will make a list of some of my favorite websites and blogs.  Today, I will talk about some of the books I have found.  I will make a disclaimer right away that if you are an experience costumer, or costume for big-budget/professional productions, these books will probably be way too basic to be of interest.  I would characterize all of these books as concept and idea books.  Most would probably also be classified as beginner books–which is why I like them.  I have included a link to Amazon for the listed books.  You can read more in-depth reviews there as well.  I will try to just give a brief description.
Elegantly Frugal Costumes: The Poor Man’s Do-It-Yourself Costume Maker’s Guide


This book is a good basic book.  The author reviews authenticity, sources of fabric and ideas for sources.  She then spends the majority of the book reviewing ideas for making period costumes from Biblical to the 1950’s.  She also briefly touches on other sorts of costumes, undergarments and construction tips, as well as actually doing the play.

The book has basic pencil drawings (few details), and some basic ideas for upcycling & adapting modern garments.  The author has a wealth of experience and shares as much as she can in a 130 page book.


A typical page . . a pencil line drawing of the garment, with some general pattern shape sizing and written description & tips.

That said . . if you are just starting out, or need some basic background in garment shapes and a resource for ideas . . this is a good book.  My philosophy is that for the $14 I spent on the book . . if it helps me make one or two costumes . . . it is worth the price.  I have read through it a couple of times, and probably will again.  Each time through I have picked up a little something different depending upon my own frame of reference.

In addition to individual costumes, she spends some time talking about the “bigger picture”, like color coordinating the chorus, and how to do a costume parade, and where to start in the process.  There are also similar tidbits and tips from her years of experience throughout the book . . . and to a novice, some of these are as helpful as the individual tips on costume design.

I would categorize this as a general reference in upcycle costuming.

Historic Costumes and How to Make Them (Dover Fashion and Costumes)

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This book has a slightly different approach.  It covers garment styles from Saxon to the 1880’s.  It includes reproductions of original sources (art etc).  It also includes diagrams derived from working patterns and brief descriptions of how to put them together. I haven’t actually used any of them . .but I like that it gives you the pattern piece shapes.  Often figuring out a way to “cheat” your way to a desired look is determined by knowledge of how they got there in the first place.  These patterns would not be user-friendly for anyone without some sewing knowledge.

A typical page . . . historical  reference and line drawing of pattern piece with very limited instructions for construction.

A typical page . . . historical reference and line drawing of pattern piece with very limited instructions for construction.

Also helpful, there are sections for each of the eras highlighting the design elements, and suggesting fabrics, colors and important details.  The book closes with a section on hats.

I found this book useful in reference to the “Villager” look.  It is not, however, a “general” reference.  I am including it primarily as an introduction to Dover books.  Dover has all kinds of historical clothing books.  I referenced one of them in an earlier post when I made a Victorian inspired shawl in a concept costume exercise.  I like them for the pattern shapes and drawings/reproductions of vintage drawings.  I wouldn’t want to actually try to use one for a pattern (although I think you could).  If I needed to do a production of a certain era, I would certainly consider purchasing a corresponding book.  As a rule, they are fairly inexpensive and provide a good basis for the era of interest.  I find having a book that I can quickly reference, or mark up, or decorate with sticky notes to be much more user-friendly than a list of websites and images . .but that is just me.

Stage Costume Step-By-Step: The Complete Guide to Designing and Making Stage Costumes for All Major Drama Periods and Genres from Classical Through the Twentieth Century


This is one of my newest books.  It has actual color pictures!  And color drawings!  I like it!

The author begins by breaking down costumes into “basic shapes” such as rectangles, semi-circles, etc.  She uses diagrams & illustrations to explain that.  This is a great way to start seeing the “shapes” beneath the frou-frou in a thrift store.  She also shows how to adapt patterns, and some “cheat” methods for historical details.  She closes with a helpful section called “Tricks of the Trade” which had some good ideas, including a description for the “Bagging Out” method for simplifying tailored clothes.


A combination of photographs, drawings, and written instructions are features of this book.

Also included is a series of two page illustrations of Period Costumes with important highlights noted.  I found it particularly helpful that there are some “real” examples of professionally made costumes.  Line drawings are great . . but sometimes seeing the real deal is helpful.

Overall, this is a good book with helpful tips and is a good reference for someone starting out.   It is not about upcycling per se, but more about how to make costumes and offering suggestions for shortcuts from her experience.  She has a method for making a full-sleeved shirt that is on my list of things to try.

Costumes, Accessories, Props, and Stage Illusions Made Easy
Costuming Made Easy: How to Make Theatrical Costumes from Cast-Off Clothing
Instant Period Costumes: How to Make Classic Costumes from Cast-Off Clothing


These three books are a series of books by Barb Rogers.  If you want to try one, I would go with the first, as it covers the broadest variety of costumes, hats & some props. The first book is a general overview book.  It has a little bit of everything.  The Period Costume book is just that with sections from Egyptian to the 1980’s.  The Costuming Made Easy book has sections for common musicals, Christmas, Storybook & then “Quick & Easy”.

These books have merit in terms of beginning to help you “see” the potential in thrift store garments and how they can be changed, layered, adapted and altered.  The biggest problem with these books is that the pictures are all in black and white and fairly small.  Each costume shows the original garments and the finished costume.  She also accompanies this with line drawings to show how she cut & reattached.  I get frustrated because I want to see more detail, and I would like to see a better pictures of the completed costumes and methodology.  That said . . . there is a wealth of ideas in these books on how to upcycle.

Pictures are small and difficult to see details.  Line drawings help along with written "steps", but they are pretty general.

Pictures are small and difficult to see details. Line drawings help along with written “steps”, but they are pretty general.

The author is also not a believer in sewing . .so she glues almost everything (which makes me personally crazy).  Some of the ideas are intriguing . .for example, using dots of hot glue to hem, and then just washing it out with hot water later on.  I personally am not a fan of gluing, and I would rather sew when I can . .but . .we each do what works for us.  She comments often that if the glue starts breaking down you just re-glue.  I have looked for the brand of glue she likes, and I found the glue (once), but I have not been able to find the glue gun for them (oval sticks) for less than $25.  So, I will reserve judgement on the gluing thing . . .

The idea of using lining to supplement skirt fabric is one that came from these books.  I utilized that technique in one of the 1950’s upcycles I previously blogged about, and am using it on a current project.

When you read reviews of these books, either people tend to love them, or they hate them.  I am sort of in the middle.  What I do think they do well is to encourage the reader to start thinking outside the box.  This methodology also helps deter me from getting too hung upon the idea of  keeping fabrics/constructions methods etc historically accurate (as I tend to start leaning that way when I read historical costuming blogs).  Some of the negative things on Amazon say things like “only if you want to do a high school performance” . . and I think PERFECT, that’s ME.  I will concede, I do find myself returning to these books when I am looking for inspiration.  So, that tells you something.

I will also say that there are many ideas that I want to explore.  For example, she shows how to combine a suit jacket and either skirt or pants, to make a historical jacket–a frock coat, tail coat, cutaway jacket, Continental soldier outfit, etc.  The directions tend to be “Cut the legs off.  Glue them to the back of the jacket”.  So, there is a lot of room for trial & error!

If you are really interested in upcycling and trying out thrift store costuming . . . I would give one of these books a try.  And again, even if you really don’t like the format . . if you can get one or two good ideas out of the book, then, it probably is worth the cost.



If anyone reading this has a book or blog they’d like to recommend, I’d be thrilled to have suggestions.  Someday I’ll write a post called “Books I don’t like, and why”.

So. . .the “Bouncing Ideas”?  Of course . . everyone needs a crazy friend or two to call up and say “Hey!  What do you think . . .?  Or . . “How about trying this???”  I have a few.  You’ve seen some of their work in some of these posts.  Commenting on blogs works too . . . most people are excited to talk about their projects and toss around ideas.  Or your kid . . you can torture your kid a lot.  Or make them model stuff for you,  Or walk through thrift stores.  Or listen to you mutter to yourself.

Update:  If you are looking for some “friends” . . . in the last several years a number of costuming related facebook groups have popped up, some targeted at community, schools and other non-professional groups.  I have also started a FB group “Costumecrazed Sewing Circle”, where we exchange ideas, ask for help and admire our accomplishments.

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