Thursday, April 1, 2010

Beware! The Dreaded "Costume-y" Look

[50s costume from Amazon, yours for the low price of $35.95!]

Have you ever noticed how often people use the words "retro" and "costume-y" in conjunction with each other? It's a classic Project Runway proclamation: the judges are always thrilled when a contestant manages to make something that is vintage-inspired without looking like a costume, as though that were some superhuman feat. I'm of two minds on this matter. Sure, retro can look costume-y. But can't any iconic style, whether it's Western or Boho Chic or Hip Hop? What is it about vintage that makes it get singled out?

On a basic level, I agree that there is such a thing as retro looking costume-y. Exhibit A: I give you McCall's 6101, a costume.

And I also certainly agree that there are cliched signifiers of vintage that can make a retro ensemble look somewhat artificial and must be used sparingly: like cherry prints and gingham. (And yes, I love both of those things.) Then there's a commercialized form of retro, like in the way Hot Topic is a commercialized form of punk. Exhibit B:

But I think people forget how truly modern and enduring some vintage looks can be, whether it's an Audrey Hepburn black sheath or Katherine Hepburn trousers. I think perhaps what people are reacting to when they call something costume-y is a lack of that timelessness. Let's face it, some things just haven't passed the test of time, and I think poodle skirts are probably at the top of that list.

Personally, I've never really worried about this issue in my own style and I think the way I've managed to avoid the cheesy costume-y look is to modernize the fit of my garments to a certain extent, as well as too stay away from anything that screams packaged retro, like plastic cherry print wedges. (Ugh.) But hell, if someone wants to dress like the leading lady in her own private production of Bye Bye Birdie, who am I to judge? (Well, okay, I might judge just a little.)

What about you? What qualities do you think make something look like a costume? Do you worry about your own retro clothes looking costume-y? Do you consciously try to avoid it? Do you think the word is overused in relationship to retro looks? Do tell!


  1. I definitely have this fear! It took me a while to wear a 40s-style headscarf without feeling too costume-y (even though I do usually go for the 40s head-to-toe). I think any look that is considered to be 'iconic' of a period has the danger of seeming like a costume, but by adding personal touches that aren't quite so recognisable you can avoid it.

  2. I fear costumey a little too, but I find that by mixing styles together you can avoid it. And I agree certain styles are so iconic that they always look iconic. But for me? It's hats. I can't do hats because they make me feel like I'm wearing a costume. Almost anything else goes!

  3. This is exactly why I like mixing and matching things so much: it helps to avoid the cliched "costume-retro" look (e.g. the poodle skirts. If I ever go for an appliqued skirt, it will not involve poodles, musical notes, or anything remotely "pop culture 50s". Instead it'll probably be something wacky like an amazing lobster and fish skirt I spotted on Etsy awhile back.). Sometimes, if I start to feel too much like a caricature, that's when I start to analyze why I do: is something in my outfit/makeup/hairstyle too costumy (in the real sense of the word)? Inevitably, it's a risk anyone who does more of an alternative style runs the risk of: being perceived as in costume by the general public. One of the questions I most often am asked when I'm in full 40s get-up is: "are you in a play?". Which may be the reason I've lately been drifting back more towards my previous "soft vintage/romantic" style. ;) rofl (No, not really: I just am completely changeable and have Fashion ADD.)

    Still, I think ultimately it depends on what the person wearing the items is comfortable with. More eccentric, theatrical personalities are those that are less concerned with looking outright "costumed" in wearing pieces that have become distinctly ingrained in our modern minds as "iconic". Whereas most people interested in vintage style, I have found, have a certain knack to mix both the iconic and everyday ("classic" if you will) pieces into a harmonious whole.

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  4. I don't really think about whether or not something I want to wear might look costume-y or not. And I don't think it's really possible to decide when an outfit looks like costume in general. I think it all depends on who is wearing what.

    I know a woman who wears skirts that are fifties inspired, but somehow, they way she combines them with her other garments, the way she wears her accessoiries and the way she looks in total, it's not costume-y at all. It's just her. And she's gorgeous. If I were to dress myself in a skirt like that on the other hand, I think I would look like was dressing up indeed in a costume. Because it just doesn't fit my style, my look.

    I don't really focus on one era when I sew my clothes. I don't either follow fashion closely. I don't wear what's 'in' at the moment, I just try to wear what's 'me'.

    I think that as long people dress in a way that's close to who they are they can pull of a lot of things. Although, having said this, i have to admit that there are people about who I wonder whether or not they are realistic about who they are when they look in the mirror. But ofcourse, this could be a matter of taste...and maybe even a matter of lack of taste in me, who knows? ;-)

  5. How I see it...A costume can be defined as "a distinctive style or dress" Vintage style clothing is a costume by that definition...ALL of it .....plain or cherry.
    Each of us has our own "style" or our own COSTUME!

    Also I LOVE to look outrageous and it makes me simply CRAZY to look like a sheeple...if that means I look costume-y and others need to judge me for it....then that's THEIR problem!! I would describe my style as VINTAGE-TRASH-GLAM-ROCK N ROLL if there needs to be a label on it. I do wear a poodle skirt and I rock it HARD! Of course I will wear it with a wife beater just to make your head tilt.- BB.

  6. I've found there are two steps to avoiding the costumey effect:

    Step 1: Avoid cheap materials. Quality shows.

    Step 2: Own the look. Confidence matters.

    I used to do historic costuming for reenactment and the big difference between the people who were great interpreters and the people who looked like refugees from a renaissance faire was not the clothes but the attitude.

  7. I won't say it's something I fear, because as long as I feel comfortable, I would wear it. That said, I'm not a vintage gal inside out, and I find it fun to be more rockabilly about it, with all the costume-y look that goes along with that. My ordinary pencil skirt and cardigan sometimes make me feel overdressed at work, and that's why I would say it might depend on the surroundings. Or who'll be the judges. But I would say seeing people consistently in one (or a personal) style (no matter what style) is fascinating, and those with the personal touch are the ones that don't appear costume-y. So I agree with others here: The personal touch may do the difference.

  8. I would estimate that 90% of my sewing is from vintage patterns, but I always seek out modern fabrics and prints when I do it, and I think that for the most part it works to avoid looking costume-y. I also will use a modern shoe or a modern hairstyle, and I don't wear makeup which also helps keep the look towards "non costume".

    I prefer sewing vintage (mainly 1960s styles) because I love the looks of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy; I am not a huge fan of the modern patterns or RTW offerings in the stores. So I might make a suit that looks like something Jackie would wear, using a vintage pattern, but then I modernize the fit and omit the pillbox hat (although maybe I am still too obvious, as I made one suit outfit and showed it to a guy friend of mine and his response was "where's the pillbox hat, Jackie?" and I didn't tell him it was a vintage pattern.) Hmm...

  9. I have to say I was guilty of wearing "costum-y" vintage throughout my 20's but then, at that age, I think a girl can get away with it. Now I don't consciously try to avoid it I'm just much lazier! I think you're right about the timeless issue. If you stick with timeless shapes and fabrics it works and if you go for the cheese it will look costum-y.

  10. I definitely worry about looking costumey. I work in commmunity development financial service and while my office is pretty casual (ie no suits), I feel as if there's only so far I can go with vintage and vintage inspired pieces.

    That said, I started working off vintage Vogue/McCalls/etc. reprint patterns and basically trying to make them look like the envelope. From a lot of blog reading I'm learning ways to better incorporate things into an every day wardrobe.

    I've also started designating Friday as my "dress up in a slightly whimsical fashion day" instead of casual Friday :)

  11. @nora
    don't think I can really say it any better. I really think it is all about wearing the clothes and not the other way around. I swear, I know someone women that could somehow wear the Amazon costume and make it seem chic and cutting edge. Personalization and personality make all the difference.
    melina bee

  12. this is a fantastic question and one i think people struggle with whether they sew their own clothes or not. for me, the pieces i put together are so eclectic that i'm constantly flirting with the costume line, and it's always a coin toss which side i will land on. regardless, i can only echo approvingly what i've seen here already: own the clothes, own the look, and enjoy your day.

  13. What 'nora said "Step 2: Own the look. Confidence matters."

    Anything will look costumey if you don't have the confidence to carry it off.

    Even those plastic-y cherry print sandals can be worn without looking costumey if you wear them right (not by me though.. I'm not a fan of those particulr shoes).

  14. The costume thing is always a risk for sure. I like to sew things that are inspired by the 50's and 60's without being too literal. If I choose a retro-looking pattern, I will sew it out of a very modern print. Or if I have some retro-looking fabric, I will sew it into a garment that has a more modern shape.

    I also agree with what others have said about mixing things up. One or two vintage (or vintage-inspired) pieces in an otherwise modern outfit can give the retro feeling without being such a literal interpretation of a retro look.

  15. I get asked quite often when I'm out and about 'what's with the costume?' 'why are you wearing fancy dress?' but to me a 40s/50s dress or outfit with a headscarf isn't fancy dress or a costume, it's just what I wear, it's my style. And that's without a cherry print in sight! Everyone has their own opinion of what is costumey. Each to their own!
    Lottie x

  16. I completely agree with the others who've said that mixing in one or two decidedly modern pieces or accents can easily mitigate costume-ish-ness.

    And 'nora makes a great point. No one will even THINK "costume" if you wear what you wear with total confidence.

  17. Although I have been sewing for many years, I am new to vintage sewing. I have only made a handful of vintage patterns so far. I am drawn to all of the lovely vintage styles but yes, I am afraid that some of them will look costumey. But I totally agree with you- any of the iconic looks can have a costumey vibe and it just depends on how you meld the fit, fabric choice, and pattern together. This is a skill I don’t quite have down yet but am working on it. I am an excellent seamstress but don’t always have the eye for the right fabric!

  18. If I like it, i'll wear it. I already look like a cartoon character anyway with this crazy red hair and adding faux bangs or victory rolls just fuels the fire :) I try to buy/make classics but I also love novelty prints (working up a black dress with red bandana skull fabric right now!) so in moderation, it can be fun to be daring. I would avoid the poodle skirt at all costs however ;)

  19. I definitely fear the 'costume-y' look, so to avoid it I always either pair a vintage item with a modern one, or make the vintage pattern in a modern color scheme. I enjoy the final effect! Vintage, without overwhelming. :)

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  21. Isn't it interesting that most of us automatically understand "costume-y" as something negative?

    (It's OK to wear a little something vintage, but not to look like you stepped out of "The Women.")

    Aren't all clothes costumes, however? Is it a question of looking too "theatrical?"

    Maybe that's an entry for another day...

  22. I've just recently started looking at vintage patterns and what has shocked me the most is the number of patterns that are from the 30s, 40s and 50s that would actually be considered very appropriate for today's style standards. In fact, my first vintage pattern is one that could easily be hanging in Anthropologie, selling for well over $100. And this pattern is over 40 years old!

    I think you're right that when most people think vintage or retro, they are thinking of whatever is stereotypically thought to portray a certain decade. Sure, the 70s had some crazy polyester prints and some wide-ass bell bottoms, but that is also when the wrap dress was born as well as several other styles that have stood the test of time.

  23. Perhaps this is why Emma Pillsbury is so successful...she manages to convey her vintage love but not also pigeonhole herself into a particular era by mixing everything. Costumes to me always seem to use really cheap fabrics to knock off these old looks and seem to be the cliche sort of thing you think about (or are told EVERYONE wore) poodle skirts (ick). If you showed up to a party dressed like the Baroness from The Sound of Music, I doubt anyone would accuse you of looking weird or too costumey...her look transcended all that and she's not the only one.

  24. To me, it's the timelessness issue. "Classic" implies that the style has lasted over a length of time into the current day. "Costumey" is when a style very clearly applies only to a specific time in the past. Which by it's definition is then "costume" because it's not current style.

    Whether or not that's a BAD thing is a completely separate issue. I think that totally depends on your personality and your intent.

  25. I have worn vintage clothes for many years and found that combining vintage with modern keeps the vintage from looking costumey.

    However, it can be fun to dress in a vintage outfit that is "costumey" for the right event. If I go to a 1920's event, I dress in 1920's clothes which will look costumey but so does everyone else.

    Both have their pluses.

  26. stitchywitch--I wear hats fairly regularly, though for going out in the evening, not just to work. The key for me is to wear with the hat with an otherwise modern outfit. Usually, I put on jeans, a plain top, and my sparkly hat--my jewelry is usually giant and wacky during the day, but toned down with a hat. Cute shoes and a patent bag or a clutch and I'm good to go.

  27. The issue really comes down to what the clothes do for the wearer. If they distract from her personality, her uniqueness, then they are a costume in the truest sense of the word because they mask her personality and replace it with an idea of what the person might be.

    However, if the clothes make the wearer stand out and enhance her personality, then they mask nothing and serve only the purpose of framing the picture.

    This is best illustrated by the difference between say, the Lady Gaga/Katy Perry vintage look and the outfits of Chloe Sevigny and Sarah Jessica Parker. Arguably, the former are always "in costume" and you really have no sense of who the woman behind the get-up is.

    In my estimation, that is when a look is too "costume-y" and when clothes become things that are hidden behind instead of simply things that are worn.

  28. At the grand old age of 38 I think I'm too old to get away with the more outlandish interpretations of vintage that could be labelled costume-y. I don't live in fear of this look because I think I know what I can get away with and if it doesn't look right I'll forget it. My blog has cherry print on it but that's as far as I can go with that pattern! These days I favour pared down classics more Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn as you refer to in your blog.

  29. Hi, Gertie... This is totally off the subject, but I saw this post on Ann's "Gorgeous Fabrics" blog and thought of you...
    Wouldn't that look pretty with your red roses fabric?

  30. I agree with the other comments that state confidence as key in wearing vintage well. You also need to be comfortable in the fashion style. If you feel as if you a wearing a costume, it will look that way.

    I like the site and absolutely love buying their clothes, but have to really hold back on purchasing some of the items. While they look completely gorgeous on the model, I would look like a complete freak in a full leopard print 40's dress suit. (And where would I wear that to anyway? I am actually trying to think of a reason so that maybe I can justify wearing it comfortably.)

    My fiance is a complete inspiration in respect to just wearing what you want and wearing it with confidence. He looks amazing in his 1930's suits or 50's letter man's sweaters. But he will get people that comment on them (good and bad) when we go out. But he wears it with such comfort and ease that he looks great and people's stares or comments never break his confidence.

  31. I think the "costume-y" look probably happens when the person trying to emulate a certain style - be it 50s housewife, hip hop, or cowboy - isn't very educated about that style or the people who wore/wear it, so they pull at stereotypes or bits and pieces from pop culture. See: Kenley's hip hop outfit from PR Season 5.

    I don't like attention so while I don't want my clothing to look garish or from a cheap theater production, I also don't care about any stranger's opinion of how I dress, because I do it to make myself happy. The very fact that my skirts fall below my knee is enough to garner stares, but I'm not going to shorten or 'modernize' them to avoid it. I don't actually want to mix vintage with modern, I'm rejecting modern fashion for a reason. I will still get stares for my tattoos, anyway.

    That's all me, though. I don't care for telling other people how to dress (besides my own parents), so if they're into rockabilly or emulating Ann Margaret I could care less if it isn't "timeless" if they're doing something that makes them happy.

  32. I feel costume-y when I wear authentic vintage. Like people are rolling their eyes behind my back wondering how I can leave the house in what obviously came from the Halloween section of Goodwill. I don't feel cosume-y when it's a retro look that I made myself. Probably because the eye-rollers don't have the talent to sew their own clothes so they can suck an egg if they don't like my outfit.

  33. Great question and wonderful answers!

    As an aside: My Mom graduated High School in 1956. In all 4 of her high school yearbooks there is not one poodle skirt! Not ONE! She and her gal pals wore pencil skirts or a slightly full skirt. She grew up in the northwest corner of North Carolina.

    That said, my "look" has always leaned toward the straight lines and simple curves of the 50's. Some would call it a preppy look. I love the cardigans, peter pan collar shirts and shirt-dresses. Like so many others here, to avoid the costume look, I mix modern pieces with vintage or vintage looks. So glad 3/4 sleeves are "in" right now!

    Keeping my make-up and hairstyle simple and "modern" also helps me and my attitude ;)

  34. Costume-y usually means 1) cheap materials, 2) bad fit and 3) *every* iconic bit of an era in one outfit (like poodle skirt AND pink ruffly crinoline AND saddle shoes AND high ponytail with ribbon AND peter pan collared white blouse AND bobby-socks). I find even those people that dress in an era head-to-toe, but do it with a deeper knowledge of the style of the era, rarely look truly costume-y. For me, I sew 40s dresses, but usually mix that with more modern hair and whatnot.

  35. I'm actually a little surprised to see so many women here talking about how they don't want to look like they came out the era they normally profess to love so much.

    I probably look costumey a lot of the time (depending on your interpretation of the word, I guess) but I think that people don't realize when they add one or two 'modern' pieces to 'tone down' their look out of fear of this, they're just watering down their personal style in a way until it becomes acceptable to the tastes of others. And by creating this 'rule' that vintage must always be slightly modernized, the pressure to stick with modern influences spreads. If one isn't a die hard retro fan who just likes to bring some retro elements into their style, that's understandable, but a lot of people dress vintage because they don't -like- modern styles. To me, it's like asking a goth to wear one or two pieces of colour to make themselves socially acceptable!

    Perhaps society's view of fashion is so narrow minded that they can only see clothes as 'normal' or outlandish, and vintage straddles an uncomfortable area between the two, so we constantly read articles encouraging us to "avoid the costumey look" in order to lure people back to the side of normality.

  36. I agree with 'nora about the quality of the clothes. I have a "look" for work that's pretty uniform (jacket, slacks, blouse) and often wear a 40's look without anyone noticing it's vintage. That said I helped my sister make a dress to wear to a wedding that was straight out of the Thirties and the only comments she received were that the color was very flattering and the dress looked comfortable. If you're wearing comfortable clothes that suit you, it shows in your demeanor and you can pull anything off.

  37. I think if you can forget your clothes - are not exulting in the effect you have created and watching for people's reactions - it won't look costume-y.

  38. I just studied costume construction for two years and there is a difference between 'fancy dress' aka the macalls pattern and costume.

    It surprises people sometimes to learn that to make costumes you use an amazing amount of couture techniques. You study how it was made during that period, refernce the social times of the era etc That is why many films inspire current fashion designers.

    I do reckon however that if you feel comfortable just wear it any way you want. I however like to wear vintage with a modern edge... the costume of tomorrow :)

  39. I wear vintage a lot and sometimes I worry about being too costumey. I think what we don't like about costumey looks is that they seem corny and contrived. I recall one of your earlier posts when you talked about Dita von Tease and mentioned how you wear scuffed shoes, dark framed glasses, and other less hard core vintage elements to tone down a look. I think that this is spot on. You don't want to seem over done or contrived, like a performer, but to mix up serious and playful piece, polished and casual looks.
    Then again, depending on the context, who cares if you might look costumey if you like the way you look? Maybe not for a super formal work setting, but for a casual setting, why not?

  40. FYI---the poodle skirt is, in fact, just a costume. It never existed in real life streetwear. I know because I was a tweener in the late 50's. We had circle skirts, but not with silly stuff appliqued on them!!!

  41. When I see people out about in vintage style, driving vintage cars, or furnishing solely with antiques, I don't really think "costume-y" or "theatrical" -- I just think "anachronistic."

    Because it is, and that's what makes it so great IMO!

    Anyone who adds to the visual diversity gets a big thank you from me. And of course looks/questions/derision may occur -- while I'm drooling over someone's old Mustang (and hoping they've got some aftermarket seatbelts), someone else is turning up her nose.

    In my own life I like to mix things up more: 50s furniture in a 1905 house; inexpensive vintage costume jewelry mixed with non-spectacular modern basics; new items with a vintage flavor worn with whatever; custom clothing with either a "timeless" silhouette and a print that evokes another era OR an iconic shape made from decade-bending material. [The latter made for rather than sewn by me, alas!]

    But anyone who exposes me -- virtually or IRL -- to some amazing vintage or repro style makes my life a bit richer. So I have to hope those who want to go more in that direction will lose any self-consciousness and go for it!

  42. What annoys me is when the lindy hop crowd show up to a rockabilly show and try to dress "50s." The difference to me is that they're trying too hard. There could be twenty girls at that show all wearing vintage dresses and the ten lindy hoppers would still stick out like a sore thumb.

    Anyway, I say wear it if you like it and are comfortable. But if you're trying too hard to fit into a genre then it's going to look like a costume and maybe you should try something else.

  43. This is pretty idea for Halloween parties.Pink color is my favorite.

    Zombie Fancy Dress Costumes

  44. I fear 'the costume'. And will try anything to make it look like everyday wearable rather than fancy dress. I find to do that its about mixing and matching 'retro' with modern and not to go too obvious with hairstyling.
    I'd like to go all out with victory rolls and 40's shirtdress...but I know if I did that it might look like a costume. So keep the dress and tone down the hair into half up half down with a pin curl fringe.
    I also find old family photo's (Seems to involve a lot of knitwear.....) from the era give a much better wearable inspiration than lets say a film 'costume' would.

  45. That was really nice, I agree that there is such a thing as retro looking costume for all pretty girls. Thanks for sharing a nice information about that.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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