Quick Costumes from the History Books

A quick costume with is possible if you are short on time, or aren’t confident of your skills at making something from scratch. They can be done in a makeshift manner from op-shop finds, junk yards, your own cupboards… just about anything!

Sometimes you’ll need to make a few alterations to get the look you want, and at others, you might just need to find the right pieces to pull off “the look”!

Op-shopped quick costumes for the Mariners. Shakespeare's "The Tempest - Steampunked" (2012) Costumes © Elizabeth Elwell-Cook and Cote & Cutler Outfitters

I’ve pulled a lot of historical costumes together from finds over the years, often to great effect on stage and re-enactments, so I'll show you some examples below.

Most of the parts of these costumes were found in op shops (Cargo pants, shirts, belts, boots and track pants), remainder bins, even junk yards! Others were borrowed from friends (hats and accessories, some corsets) or pulled from pieces I already had in my wardrobe.

The Steampunk mariners at the top of this page were only on stage for about a minute, and had a very low budget, yet they still had impact. It’s all about messing about with the pieces to get the look you want. Cut things up. Shred them. Add boot black to age a piece with grime. Add ribbons and lace from scraps. Connect two belts. Use layers to hide problems and create depth and interest. The costume for Caliban, below, uses almost all these techniques, to create a steampunk monster....

Caliban the Monster - another quick costume using found objects for "The Tempest - Steampunked!" ©2012 Elizabeth Elwell-Cook/Cote & Cutler Outfitters
Juno's quick costume from "The Tempest - Steampunked!" was pulled together from op-shop finds and items borrowed from the designer's wardrobe. ©Elizabeth Elwell-Cook, Cote & Cutler Outfitters

A beautiful evening skirt that was four sizes too small was converted to a bustle skirt to be worn under a draped Victorian concoction I made from offcuts and ribbons in my stash. The bustle panel was made for $10 from some black lining fabric I had from another project, and 3m of Black taffeta. When I ran slightly short, I inserted a gunmetal grey piece near the bottom, and made it a feature!

Juno’s overskirt was made with $5 of fabric. The bustled skirt is so lovely on its own, I wear it out to formal evenings in everyday life.

Quick Costume for Kids

Quick costume samurai - using found shirts, plastic katana, and 60cm of fabric.

The samurai was made in about 20 minutes for this young friend. That's a quick costume! We lent her just about everything except the party swords, and used an old t-shirt and a length of fabric to make the sleeveless kimono. Then we showed her how to pin her hair and use hairspray to get the right look. She was the best-dressed kid at her school presentation!

All sorts of cloaks can be made from old blankets. If you don’t like the colour, you might be able to overdye it with something darker. A cloak can cover a lot of costume problems, and if folded or cut correctly, almost make the entire look!

Quick Costume - Little Palaeontologist

Our little palaeontologist was also easy for a school careers day. We paid two dollars for the jacket at Vinnies, which we turned into a vest by cutting off the sleeves and binding the arm holes. The hat was free, the scarf a scrap of cotton, the shorts only a couple of dollars (nearly new), and she already needed the boots for hiking with her Girl Guide unit. We finished it off with the very optional t-shirt transfers because I had some left over, and the dinosaur images came off free internet sites. People could see exactly what she was in to!

Think outside the box....

If you’re creating a quick costume for yourself or your family, start by looking for pictures online. It doesn’t take long to do a little bit of  historical (or otherwise) costume research, and there are plenty of ways to collect your inspiration (just check out my article!)

Think of the sort of things that you could use or convert, to put the costume together and make it look authentic, or close to it. Make a list.

Then hit the op shops to find the majority of what you need, and fill out the rest with a visit to a craft shop for final details. If you can’t find shoes in your size, or hate wearing second-hand shoes like I do, think about buying a pair cheaply new (or disinfect with Glen 20 spray, and wear two pairs of socks!).

Once you’re home, it might take a little bit of time to cut and fix things up, but you’ll be proud of the result, and the life of the party!

Try some of these other quick projects!

Here’s a selection of the quickest projects on this site that will make a big impact on the look of your outfit. I’ve thrown in a few other suggestions, as well:

Viking Cloak
Simple Pouch

Show us your costumes!

Do you have a fabulous historical creation to share? Post it here and inspire our readers to create!

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