Juliet Jacoby, a 17-year-old from Colorado, found the prom dress of her dreams for $149 (£104). But deciding it was a little pricey, her mother found what she thought was the same style costing only $35 (£24) from another website. What she got was NOT what she bargained for! This is an all too familiar story that I see in the world of costuming, too! I hear the horror stories constantly!
Peruse Etsy or Ebay, and especially Facebook, or sites like "AliExpress" and you will find plenty of "under" priced costumes, bridal, evening, or fantasy gowns. They all sell for much less than what the fabric alone would cost. When you see those listings this needs to be a RED FLAG! A sign for you to walk away!
Whether it's for a historical reproduction, a prom dress, bridal gown, or a cosplay costume, a quality silk ranges in price from $15 to $30 a yard. The fabric in the original gown as shown in the article is silk taffeta. Retail, a silk taffeta will be priced on the high end of that scale. Wholesale you're looking at perhaps half that. A gown such as the one represented in the article would take no less than 10 yards. Do the math. 10 x $15 = $150, if the fabric is purchased at wholesale cost. If it's not purchased wholesale then the cost of fabric would be $300. That's just for the main fabric! That doesn't include the lace, the silk chiffon for the sleeves, the notions, the lining, and the under structure (corset) that needs to be built into the bodice to produce the gown she thought she was purchasing. There is NO WAY a consumer can expect a quality made gown for $35. In fact, there is no way to produce that red gown for the $149 price! The corset alone built into that gown would cost no less than $300 in labor and supplies.
Unfortunately, there are more substandard options being sold on the internet than there are quality, including Etsy and certainly on Ebay and Facebook. Facebook is a great way to follow a specific designer's work, but these fast fashion sites like AliExpress and others don't allow you to interact with the designer, but the same applies for many vendors on Etsy. For example: I saw a listing on Etsy for a reproduction of the green coat worn by Richard Madden in "Cinderella" being sold on Etsy for $99 from a vendor in China! They showed a garment in the listing that looked like a half decent reproduction, but they have no real online presence for a customer to follow them to SEE their garment in the stages of production. Yes, fabric is cheap in China, but I PROMISE you when that garment arrives it will look nothing like the sample picture they used! I PROMISE YOU!
This bait and hook tactic is being used by disreputable vendors to lure "bargain" shoppers with pictures of beautiful garments priced dirt cheap. But let me educate you on one point: quality fabrics - even those purchased in China - will cost more than the overall price tag of $99 for the finished product, and so will the labor! Chances are if you purchase such an item you are supporting a sweat shop who pays their workers pennies a day and rather than getting "this" (see picture on the right above, you get THIS (See picture below left). They are selling this so-called "costume" from a vendor in China on AliExpress for $118. This same coat is listed in MY store for $518 just for the labor! Why? Because the labor to create an authentic, quality tailored 18th Century men's tailcoat takes WEEKS to construct and you need to know how to tailor - unless you want something that resembles a pair of pajamas as you see in the picture below.
Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I have nothing whatsoever against the cultures of the countries I referenced. I'm basing my comments solely on my research of listings I have found online, and on Etsy, Ebay, and Facebook, and feedback from consumers who've been burned, in addition to my own 30 years of experience as a seamstress and 15 years experience in historical costume design.
When you choose a designer or a garment based on a bargain price you WILL NOT receive a true bargain. A bargain isn't a bargain if what you purchase isn't the same quality that you would see if you hired a reputable designer whose work you can personally vouch for.
Let me give you another example to help you understand how these companies cheat you.
This gown to the right was featured on a scam alert page on Facebook. The retailer was "Rosewholesale." The original gown was made of Guipure lace. Guipure lace retails for $130 to $250 PER YARD! A gown like this will also have an underdress sewn into it. There is likely to be some lightweight boning in the bodice. You can see there is a HUGE difference between what was ordered and what was received, and this is an all-too-common story. They use pictures of beautiful gowns to lure you into a sale, and then send you something that looks like the dress "received" in the picture to the right. If you want quality, you need to be prepared to invest in it. There are NO short cuts or bargains for quality fabrics and more especially for talent and construction.
Look, I'm NOT about the hard sell, and don't make it a habit to tear down anyone's choices, but I truly CARE about my clients - and all of you who follow my work - so when two fellow reenactors recently posted pictures of an Italian Renaissance gown (Eleonora of Toledo) they were considering that was being sold by a vendor on Etsy from Kiev, Ukraine, I couldn't keep silent! As a professional I could immediately see the construction issues in the sample. I could tell at a glance that it did not have the appropriate supportive inner structure sewn in to the doublet lining necessary to hold up the infamous medici collar. Even though the photography was very professional and the model was beautiful, I could see what the layman's eyes could not.
I completely understand that my schedule is busy and sometimes clients, or prospective clients, can't wait for an opening. Often times it is a case of the "Id" in our psyche being too strong to delay instant gratification rather than wait and plan a gown and make payments on it (which I offer). I don't expect my clients to ONLY hire me for their historical clothing or costuming needs. So rather than criticize their choice, I instead attempted to give them some suggestions for them to pass along to the seamstress to add to the inner structure of the bodice so that what they were purchasing wasn't two pieces of fabric slapped together with decorative trims and labeled "Italian Renaissance Costume. The problem is that most people don't speak the same language as a designer. For that matter, some designers don't have the same experience or knowledge about construction tips. There is a difference in someone on Etsy who makes historical costumes as a "side job" and those who have actually studied fashion design and historical clothing construction. I'm not ashamed to say that I am in a constant state of learning! Where my designs stand out is in the lengths I take to produce actual "clothing," instead of producing "costume." There is a difference. Costume is an antiquated word used for referring to an ensemble or a set of clothes, but in our society it has come to mean something else entirely; too often it refers to something that is flimsy and apes a certain character or era but is not made for long-term wear and certainly cannot hold up to the rigors of reenacting. These costumes are great for a fancy costume ball or Halloween, but they will not hold up to the dirty environment at fair, repetitive wear, and sweat!
Trying to communicate the changes I knew this Italian gown needed in the under structure in order for their investment to be protected proved to be too difficult so I let it go. I KNEW when the gown arrived they would understand, but that is a hard lesson to allow people you care about to experience, and bottom line is that my "advice," no matter how well intended, is more often looked upon as intrusive. People don't want their bubble burst. They have the picture of THAT gown in their head and they don't want to hear anything negative, so I have to sit back and let them discover it on their own. But I HATE it! It's difficult for me to sit on my hands and hold my tongue and watch my friends invest $400 on something I KNOW is substandard workmanship or something that won't hold up to long term wear. But many times people can't see "long term." They see my prices, or another comparable designer's, are double and they want it "Now," rather than to wait, budget, and make payments on an ensemble that will last many, many seasons at faire. (Provided you care for it properly and don't wad it up and stick it in a bin during the off season!)
The simple truth of the matter is that this is my livelihood. This is what I've spent the past 15 years researching and educating myself about; aside from the 30+ years as a seamstress. As such, I am hooked in at a level that your average do-it-yourself reenactor or amateur costumer is not. I have the benefit of networking with professionals in all levels of the industry, including film and theater, and many of whom are leaders in the industry and have access to the scuttlebutt and horror stories that people experience around the world with these fast fashion websites. So if you will permit me, let me offer you the fruits of that knowledge and research.
There are so many times I wish I could download the knowledge I have into all of you so that you can be able to "see" through my eyes and know what real quality looks like so that you can understand that this is not an attempt at self promotion. While I can't download all of that experience, I can give you some things to consider when you hire someone for a historical reproduction, or when shopping for a prom dress, wedding gown, a cosplay costume, or something for a fancy costume ball ordered on line.
As a consumer, these are some things YOU need to look for when shopping for ANY clothing on line - be it bridal, cosplay, or prom, but more specifically historical costuming:
1 - Where are they located? -
I personally would be wary of hiring a costumer (or clothing designer of any kind) that is not located in the same country where I live. Not only do you lose valuable legal recourse should you get burned (and believe me, you will when you allow "price" to be your only deciding factor) but there are some hurdles that present themselves that I will outline below. When your designer is located outside your country of origin fitting is tricky and can get expensive if they use the same methods I do! So unless you have vetted that designer, I would find someone local.
2. Are they offering "standard dress sizes?" I do not construct my garments on a one-size-fits-most standard dress size. You can't! Not for a gown with a fitted bodice, or for a bustledress, etc! My work is custom fit and constructed for each of my client's individual measurements. The first red flag should be when a vendor does NOT offer that service. I insist on a muslin mock up for my bodices. I drape a pattern off of a duct tape body form that my clients mail to me. Using this and their measurements is the ONLY way I can produce the most accurate fit.
3. Do they have pictures representing their TRUE work?
While this has been an ongoing issue with bridal, evening, and cosplay, it has become an issue in recent years for vendors to steal photos of historical costumes from reputable designers and use those stolen pictures to advertise their substandard work. This is what happened in the examples I showed previously. Bait and hook. And when it arrives and looks nothing like what the picture does you've just lost your investment. Good luck getting your money back. It is very rare. Unfortunately, the biggest offenders hail from China, but India and Korea are offenders as well. My advice, stay OFF AliExpress or any of these fast fashion sites.
4 - Are they knowledgeable about historical garment construction, or are they a seamstress dipping their toe into the "historical" pond to try and cash in on what they think is a lucrative side job to bridal or prom dresses?
I saw another listing on Etsy from a bridal designer who took a modern corseted strapless gown and covered it in pearls, added a silk chemise and a french hood, labeled it "Renaissance" and tacked on a price tag of $2,000.
There is MUCH more to historical clothing design than sewing skills! There are construction and fit issues that are unique to each and every era, and your costume designer needs to have experience in that regard if you want a quality made garment. There is a plethora of information that even a professional seamstress will have NO knowledge about unless they did the appropriate research. Making a corseted gown and sewing on pearls does NOT make it historical!
5 - Do they use historically accurate patterns, or are they using Simplicity or McCalls, but don't have the knowledge to alter it to make it more historically accurate? Do they even KNOW that these patterns are not historically accurate? Can they draft their own patterns?
If you're a reenactor chances are it will matter to you if your ensemble is as accurate in styling as you can get. If you just want a "costume" for a fancy ball, cosplay, or Halloween of course this won't matter. 90% of what I see being sold on Etsy have been made from Simplicity and McCalls patterns and they don't look anything like an authentic historical garment at least not for the Renaissance and many of those from the Victorian genre. Your designer should know the difference between Medieval, Elizabethan, Early Tudor, Cavalier, Colonial, Rococo, Georgian, Regency, Napoleonic, early, mid, and late Victorian including Antebellum and Civil War, and Edwardian, and they need to know how to hack a commercial pattern to make it more historically accurate.
6 - Are they knowledgeable about fabrics for the era their work represents? Are they only using 100% polyester fabrics they purchased on the clearance table?
There is more to design than fabric, but fabric can make or break a design - as shown in the examples I've offered you.
I'm not a member of what I call the "garb gestapo." Many elements in my designs would not pass the muster of those who are purists. Some people balk at my use of Rigilein boning which I use to make boning channels, but did you know our very talented, and lovely "American Duchess" uses zip ties for her corsetry and stays? It's purely a personal choice. There is no right or wrong if it works for YOU and it renders a suitable outcome. I tend to lean toward what I know will make it more durable AND comfortable to wear. But the one thing I do NOT make substitutions on is quality and I press for the use of quality fabrics, not what's on sale. Where I do fudge on historical accuracy, I try to make sure it would be in the realm of "possibilities," for that time period and I pay attention to detail work such as custom drafted sleeves, and supporting my silks with flatlining, etc. Look, I am constantly improving my techniques; constantly adding products as I make new discoveries, often through trial and error. I can't lie about that. There are things I do differently now that I didn't do a year or two ago - such as using fusible batiste linen. It isn't available here in the USA, and when it is it is marked up triple the cost that I purchase it in the UK. I didn't learn about it until I took a couture corsetry class from an instructor in Israel. I now line ALL of my silks and brocades with it to help add support and durability. It is used in all of the high end fashion houses. While it costs a bit more than the synthetic Pellon interfacing, it is made of natural fibers and it won't trap in heat.
7 - Do they have an "on line" presence? How accessible is the seamstress or designer who actually does the work?
Do they have a website? Are they on Facebook - actually post their own updates? Do they have a blog, etc.? Are you able to "see" their works in progress behind the scenes, especially YOUR order, to prove they are who they say they are and to make sure they are producing the garment you envisioned.
I recently offered to assist a woman who had hired a seamstress to make her gown but there was no communication with the client "during" the construction of her gown. When she saw pictures of the finished work she was hysterical! She had a deadline for an event in only a matter of weeks and the dress was nothing like what they had originally discussed. The seamstress had made changes without consulting the client. I saw the pictures and it was a hot mess.But there was more wrong with it than the changes she'd made. She used a McCalls pattern. I can spot them at a glance. It wasn't even CLOSE to an authentically styled Elizabethan gown. It's times like that when I wish I had a clone, because I hate seeing people paying hard earned money for work that looks like they purchased it at their local Halloween shop; however, I'm often too busy to help them.
So communication is a must! Can you communicate with your designer one on one, or is the person you contact regarding an order merely a facilitator? In other words, are they someone who only handles "sales" but they have nothing to do with the actual design and construction.
You should be able to see pictures of construction and follow the work to make sure you're getting what you paid for and that it meets your expectations.
8 - How long have they been in business?
There are vendors from some of the locations I referenced - including those in the USA - who open and close their stores frequently due to high volume complaints. They misrepresent their products using stolen photos, or photos of a "sample" that does not represent the exact garment you will receive. When they are flooded with complaints, they close their Etsy or Ebay store and open another one in another name, and you have no recourse for receiving a refund.
I am not picking on businesses from other countries. There ARE reputable businesses, and there are disreputable businesses here in the USA! I'm simply offering you facts and a warning for "buyer beware." But experience has shown me that there is a higher risk that you won't get what you expected when you shop from fast fashion ads on Facebook or other sites on line.
That said, reputation in the costuming business does not always offer a guarantee! There are people in this industry who are well known among the costuming community who are disreputable. I have a client who found me after being burned by a well known matron in the costuming community who also has an Etsy store. She took my client's money for a gown, and my client shipped her fabrics to her. Months went by and she NEVER completed the gown order! She's an older/elderly woman and was having health problems at the time, but when she was back on her feet she did nothing whatsoever to make it right for this client. Repeated emails requesting a refund went unanswered, while she continued to take orders on Etsy! After a year or so, my client finally sent her another email requesting that she just return her fabrics back and to forget about giving her a refund. To this day my client has never heard back from that designer! Every time I see this woman posting on the historical costuming and corsetry pages I follow I have to bite my tongue and remember to be a lady!
9 - Get it in writing!
I always write up a work order, and I make sure my clients understand that their deposit is non-refundable. Make sure you have a contract outlining your gown details, your deposit, and any and all financial arrangements, and make sure to read the contract! I have only had one client whose order I had to cancel and that was due to them defaulting on their contracted payments - and then it was only after I had given them three chances to bring their account current and honor their contract. When I did cancel the order I sent their fabrics back at my expense! I want to add that I hate it when I have to keep someone's deposit because they canceled their order! It has been RARE and when it has occurred I usually try to work with them so that that investment isn't a total waste, but that isn't always possible.
There are no guarantees when shopping on line, but there are steps you can take to lessen the "risk" of buying from vendors who you have no previous rapport. But I can say this - - AVOID these fast fashion sites like the black plague!
One more thing I'd like to add:
10 - Listen to the advice of your designer!
There are some real horror stories I and my fellow designers can relate. Mostly from brides, but I've had some clients that make me question WHY I got into this business. Unless a client has studied at a design school they will more than likely NOT have the same knowledge of style, body proportion, color, and coordinating fabrics and shades as a professional designer would have. You hired her/him for that knowledge...why would you ignore their advice?
One of the biggest nightmares I recently encountered was two years ago. This clients did not listen to my advice and bought fabrics without consulting me, and without ordering swatches even though I harped on that issue repeatedly! She was convinced that her vision would work and nothing I did could convince her otherwise. She had a color pallet she had downloaded from the internet and that was her only consideration when choosing her fabrics. If they looked "close" to the card when viewed on line, she purchased them. I had spent a year on and off consulting for her "dream gown." It was supposed to be a peacock themed Elizabethan gown. My design sketch was exquisite! I sketched several versions before we both agreed on the design. I listened to what she wanted, and using my knowledge came up with what I knew would be THE gown for her. I'd seen pictures of her. Knew what shades would complement her complexion, body type, etc. She loved the design. Loved the color scheme and detailing, and when she was finally ready to commit she sent in her deposit. When it came time to purchase her fabrics and ship them to me, she completely disregarded all of my expertise and previous advice and purchased a different fabric than what we had originally discussed! - silk velvet! Which is a very delicate fabric and not something that would stand up to the rigors of reenacting long term. She didn't order swatches for the "coordinating" fabrics for the sleeves, sleeve lining, and forepanel. She matched her colors by looking at them "on line," rather than viewing the fabrics in person. When she shipped her fabrics to me I found myself peering into a box that looked like a court jester's costume.
(See the photo to the right. There was also an electric blue polyester faux silk she wanted me to use as well but I didn't photograph it.)
She wanted EACH of these silks used in the gown - one for the sleeve lining to show through the panes, one for the lower sleeve, one for the forepanel, and ALL of them used for piping in various areas throughout the gown. Incidentally, she stated she didn't like peacock blues and greens. WHAT??
We were already two weeks into her allotted time slot (she had waited until two weeks before construction was to begin to begin shopping for her fabrics). I tried to fight for the integrity of the design she had initially contracted me to make - a peacock themed gown - but she absolutely refused to concede that a gown with these FIVE different colors of silk would NOT render the "vision" she had in her head.
As a side note, unless it's a floral or print, there should never, EVER be more than THREE separate colors used in any ensemble! - But the color of your shoes counts as one color, so usually we keep it to two colors.
A reputable designer will KNOW fabrics, know colors, know how to use a color wheel to find coordinating and accent colors, and be able to guide you on what fabrics work best for your respective gown. Be willing to compromise your "fantasy" for reality. Designers are "artists" - at least THIS one is - and if you're willing to share the reins you'll be happier with the result, rather than holding rigidly to the fantasy in your mind like the client I referenced above. Unless you have a picture of a gown you want reproduced, a reputable designer will have the integrity to tell you when it would be a hot mess.
There are times that my "sketch" just doesn't translate into reality, and I have to make changes in order to maintain the aesthetic and quality of the garment. If your designer is worth their salt, they will not be afraid to tell you "No!" - LISTEN TO THEM!
Don't be afraid to ask questions! Don't be afraid to ask for references! Read their Etsy reviews - if you're shopping on Etsy. Ask if they have a Facebook page. Do your due diligence for your investment. Don't be afraid to ask for pictures or pictures of their current works in progress. But more importantly, please rethink making "price" the deciding factor. I cannot stress that enough.
I know that my fees may seem exorbitant at first glance, but you have to consider the "service" and the CUSTOM factor into that purchase. Truth is, I don't charge half what my ensembles are truly worth because I want to keep them within the range of possibilities for ALL of you. If I charged by the hour my gowns would retail for no less than $6,000 and up. There is no substitute for quality. The red gown in the article (pictured at the top of this blog) would fetch a price for no LESS than $1000! That doesn't include cost of labor and materials to drape and pattern a muslin mock up necessary for an accurate customized fit! Even if you order a gown from a reputable design house alterations need to be made to fit it to your particular body and alterations can run anywhere from $150 to $300 and up.
If you're purchasing a gown or costume on line for LESS than what the fabric alone would cost, you need to be prepared for huge disappointment. The same applies for a gown that is half the cost of a reputable designer. A quality historical reproduction will cost more than $400. When I say "quality" I mean:
- Does it "feel" sturdy in your hands?
- Are the seams and edges clean?
- Does it lay nicely against the body or are there "puckers" in the fabric?
- Has the designer used something like fusible linen batiste (my preference) for silks and silk brocades to aide in giving it more structure?
- Is there buckram and light boning in the stomacher (front) portion to give that smooth appearance?
- Is the hem done by machine or is it hand stitched and pressed?
- Is the trim sewn by machine or hand stitched?
- Are the grommets couched? - or are they simply set in what amounts to two layers of fabrics and pull or tear away after lacing them a couple of times?
There are MANY more things I look for, but I could be here all day!
If the designer you chose doesn't use these techniques then they are scrimping on the inner construction or the quality of fabrics to make more profit. Either that, or she/he is making half what their labor is truly worth to try to undercut other designers in hopes of directing sales to their store. But again, is it really a bargain?
Most reputable seamstresses and designers charge $20 to $40 per hour. Bridal is usually priced out at the high end. Historical reproduction clothing is every bit as intricate as bridal - if not more! There are construction techniques that your average seamstress doesn't know, especially someone working in an industrial setting in a sweatshop somewhere in China making pennies an hour. They are focused on production, NOT customized fit. There is a REASON that couture gowns cost as much as they do!
If ever you are in doubt PLEASE contact me and I will steer you in the right direction. If I can't help, I will try to find someone who is available.
Furthermore, if you have been burned by a disreputable vendor or you want to do your due diligence on a vendor you're considering using, check for reports on Better Business Bureau, and do some research before purchasing from a new site. Unfortunately, the BBB cannot really help you with a purchase made in China or the Ukrane, but with perseverance and an eye for detail, you should be able to avoid losing any money to these substandard vendors!