Construction notes · Costuming

The Night Circus

Fifth unit of uni and finally a big project! The task was to design and make a costume for a character from the novel “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy reading the novel itself as it lacks a lot in characterization and pacing. However, it seems that one either likes or hates this book, so if it’s on your reading list don’t let my opinion deter you from giving it a try.

My group chose the character Isobel, a Tarot card reader who falls in love with the male protagonist but ends up being led on and finally rejected as he loves another woman. I put my initial moodboard next to the cover, however the eventual design ended up with a very different aesthetic.

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Liberty & Co. Ltd. dress from the V & A, ca. 1895

The design borrows a lot from the Aesthetic Dress movement, this one example in particular heavily influenced our dress. Even the colour bears an uncanny resemblance to our main fabric which was not a conscious design decision. I suppose it was just meant to be!

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Initial design sketches by Beth (left) and Evie (middle + right)

As it is a group project I can’t claim credit for the whole costume, so I’ll try to list what everyone’s responsibilities turned out to be as clearly as possible.

Fabric Dyeing: Evie Haigh (withrosemarygreenandbrightx on instagram)

Fabric Pattern Design: Bethany Mudge (bethgrace_costume on instagram)

Fabric Printing: Beth and Evie

Costume Design: Beth and Evie

Pattern cut/draping: Me

Construction: Me (Leader), Beth (Assistant)

Flower Crown: Flowers by Evie and Iona Croskell, beadwork by Harrison Moseley, veil by Evie, assembled by Evie

Model: Beth

Progress pictures are either mine, Beth’s or Evie’s.

 


 

Alright, time for some construction notes and progress pictures!

Following the good old rule of sewing costumes from the inside out I made the petticoat first. There are more than 20m of ruffles mounted onto the base which is taken from Period Costumes for Stage and Screen by Jean Hunnisett.

The pattern for the base skirt is also taken from that book, it has a really pretty back design with box pleats. Although it is NOT supposed to be an Aesthetic Dress, we used light cotton lawn to keep the flowy aesthetic of the Aesthetic Dress movement. That is honestly slightly problematic because the ruffles of the petticoat press through the thin fabric but luckily most of it was covered by the drapery in the end.

Evie dyed all the fabrics in one weekend, most of them with natural dyes so the costume smells slightly like freshly mown grass.

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Beth’s super pretty print designs

These are Beth’s drawings. It’s still not the final design, during draping we decided to omit the striped fabric and instead added a Shibori fabric (Evie’s work).

The bodice was a feast of shirring and hand-sewing. I cut two rectangles about 50cm high and as wide as the fabric (130cm) and divided the back piece into two parts to allow for a back closure. The bottom part was then shirred by hand-stitching 8 rows, the stitches spaced 0,5cm apart. At this point I have to thank the lovely Beth who took it home over the weekend to do this, according to my calculations she did over 4000 stitches by hand!

 

The sleeves are partially smocked to fit them around the biceps and wrists. Don’t worry, I made accurate dot markings, they’re just not visible in the photo. I came up with the pattern by roughly determining the length with a measuring tape draped along Beth’s arm and applying that to the basic raglan sleeve shape I had in mind. Since the neckline is held by a drawstring there was no need to be accurate.

The bodice was draped on the stand and the gathering strings for the shirring pulled taut. I cut away the armholes and neckline and sewed the channel for the drawstring. The bodice was then pinned inside out to the model (Beth) at centre front+back and side seams, the drawstrings were adjusted slightly to perfectly mold around her waist area and finally fixed.

I draped calico onto this to determine the hem curve and give the pleats stability from the inside, one is basically a waistband that goes all the way around and the other is a triangle shape in both front and back. The excess fabric at the hem was tuned inwards, trimmed and stitched to the reenforcing calico. The top edge of the calico was then painstakingly hand-sewn to each individual pleat to ensure that they stay in place:

The bodice closes in the back with buttons and loops in the waist area and a little bow where the drawstring comes out at the top.

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The overskirt was also draped loosely on the stand first and then refined and attached to the inside of the bodice hem once the latter was done. Here it is still pinned to it very loosely. At the bottom you can see Evie’s beautiful free motion embroidery: She draws the motive (in this case a floral one) and machine sews it on dissolvable fabric, an ingenious technique. The hem of our skirt even has real dandelions and lavender sewn into it, it’s worth smelling.

The veil for the headdress was done the same way, here it is:

And we’ve arrived at the end! I am very happy with the result and can proudly say that I can now consider shirring and smocking as part of my skill repertoire. It was a pleasure to work with the ladies, I think our different specialisms combined in the best way possible and I’d love to work with the two again. Beth looked absolutely ethereal during the presentation, so of course I’ll have to share the photos.

The bottom picture was taken by Beatriz Duarte.

Thanks for reading!

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