In my last two posts, I discussed thrifting Steampunk costumes for my character Madame Belle. Although Belle’s style tends toward Steampunk socialite, many of the techniques I used can be used no matter what kind of costume you want to make.
Top 5 Pieces to Thrift
1. Crinolines. I buy any crinoline that costs less than $5. If it doesn’t fit in the waist, you can always sew a channel and run a drawstring through it.
2. Formal gowns. You can turn a formal gown into a skirt or use all that fabric on a different project. The trick is to buy good material; thrifted formal dresses often cost less than half what a comparable amount of fabric would.
3. Vests. For Steampunk especially, vests can take the place of corsets for daywear, and they can be converted to waist cinchers. Only buy vests that are made entirely of one kind of material, not the kind that have a plain back made of lining fabric.
4. Skirts. If you want that layers-on-layers look, go for full skirts, not A-lines, and mix and match knee length skirts and longer. Keep a lookout for very long skirts, too. I’m pretty sure the skirt I wore for my ball gown was meant to be tea-length; I’m just so short it went to the floor on me.
5. Beaded dresses. If it looks like a mother of the bride or a drag queen wore it, snap it up. These dresses are often in large sizes and constructed like a tube, so they give you lots of fabric to work with. You can repurpose the edges as trim, or cut large sections out to use as appliqué.
Jewelry, Gloves, Hats For some reason, I have very little luck with accessories at thrift stores. The jewelry is almost always overpriced, so I buy most of my costume jewelry at garage sales. I’ve done well on hats and gloves at garage sales, too.
Corsets. There’s no question that a custom made corset is far superior to an off-the-rack one. But if you just want a corset for costuming and not for regular wear, a ready-to-wear steel boned one works just fine. Avoid anything with plastic boning, though.
Bits and Bobs. Keep an eye out for accessories like parasols (mine came from a garage sale), small purses (ones with chain handles work well), and belts. I have a metal link belt I’m planning to use as the base for creating a chatelaine for Madame Belle.
My Favorite Cheats
1. Cutting the top off a dress to turn it into a skirt. If the skirt is going to be worn under something else, like a corset or vest, I’m not picky about getting the waist perfect. I mark the cut so the hem will fall in the right place, then make a simple band for the waist.
2. Tarting up existing pieces. The pith helmet looks much more fashionable with a length of tulle tied around it and a brooch to hold it in place. A skirt can be fancied up with rows of trim salvaged from curtains. When in doubt, embellish.
3. Using Gem-Tac to turn beaded fabric into embellishment. The beads are sewn onto a fine fabric; if you cut those threads, you get beads everywhere. So before cutting the fabric, turn it over and spread Gem-Tac over the back of it.
4. Wearing open-necked blouses. Totally not done in the Victorian era, but tightly buttoned shirts make me feel like I’m being strangled, and Steampunks don’t care about historical accuracy. Top one with a snug vest, and you’re well on your way to a Steampunk outfit at rock-bottom cost.