‘I need an Anne Boleyn dress… my budget is £300. Can you provide the fabrics? ‘
‘I need a complete posh 15th century outfit ( hose, doublet, gown, hat), historically accurate, silk and linen, hose in wool. I can spend £250.’
‘Can you do a posh Victorian for £320? can add another £40 if you make a corset too.’
‘ I want a duchess gown, stays and underpinnings for a ball – how much would it be? I have about £280 to spend on the project’
‘ I found this steampunk coat on ebay, I want one just like that, but in different wool, with silk lining, and made bespoke – can pay £100. ( the picture of the coat was attached – and I found it online too…. it was a Karen Miller , offered for £200.
The newest one: ‘I cannot afford this gown in silk, because I have sick relatives and the medicines cost a lot, plus I have a lowly paid job and my car needs repairs – but since it is my birthday soon, maybe you can sell it to me at half a price?’
These quotes are direct lines from many of the inquires I get – and many similar ones abound too, and I suspect there are a lot of other costumiers who get them. And it doesn’t really matter that the price guide is on my website and facebook page, plainly visible to anyone, stating plainly how much labour is for a specific item. And if you look, you will see that the labour for, let us say, doublet, gown and hose will amount to more that £250 and that’s not even including the fabrics. People look, add, decide it is too much and go and find a hire service or make things themselves. And that is fine – if you need a fancy dress for a night, you wouldn’t be spending hundreds on it – but get something cheap on ebay, make stuff for yourself and have some fun with it, or ask a sewing friend a favour ( backed by gin and chocolate, usually… :-))
But some people, knowing the labour prices still email me asking if I can make the same things at a quarter ( or less) of their usual value… why? I had no idea, until 2 ‘prospective clients’ answered that question for me.
‘ I know it is much less that you usually charge, but at least you will have some work from me’
Well…. at least it was straightforward… Needless to say that sometimes their offer would not even cover the cost of the materials – and so I would be actually spending time working at a loss. Also, needless to say, it assumes I am sitting here twiddling my thumbs, desperate for anything to do, whereas I am usually booked for 9-12months in advance….
It would be an equivalent to me saying to a baker: ‘Here are 3 eggs and some icing sugar, you provide the rest and I want you to make me a 3 tier wedding cake, please’. Nobody does that, so why people assume costumiers ( or jewellers, corsetieres or generally small businesses) are any different?
I had a good think and I think there are a few reasons for it….
1. People simply apply the ‘fancy dress’ label to all unusual clothing, and think the prices are the same as the Chinese mass produced medieval/victorian/edwardian/lotr garb. Very often it is not badly meant – nowadays very few of us have things made bespoke as we can get good quality clothing from the local store. Occasion wear items are exceptions (wedding dresses etc), but otherwise, we are no longer used to commissioning gear to be made for us.
2. Also, cheap, easily available clothing leads us into the illusion that all clothing is cheap. The wool coat in M&S is £50 – but if I am to make it, the £50 will cover maybe the fabrics. The time used to research, communicate with the client, measuring and fitting sessions, patterning and making the garment would be all on top of that… But we are simply used to mass produced items ready to wear and have no idea ow much individual raw materials cost. May also have no knowledge of how much work, expertise, research and experience actually go into the item. Not really surprising since we are no longer taught specific crafts at school. Also, we don’t know how much quality fabrics cost…
3. People forget that they are also paying for the years of research, training, experience – and the uniqueness of the item. There are thousands of costumiers – but only very few specializing in historical items. To boot, the garments will be one of a kind – so a rarity value should also be considered.
4. For some reason people are convinced that small businesses are forever tittering on the verge of collapse and are desperate for any work at all. And although running a small business successfully means a lot of work and commitment, and it is not all plain sailing, I don’t think I know of any quality artisans ( and I do know quite a few) who would not be busy. Yes, sometimes the business gets slack, but that’s when many guys work on the basic stock – things that will sell at some point, whether at markets or on etsy, ebay or self hosted online shop. Those who do take commissions that don’t cover the materials, in hope of a bit of cash usually learn that in most cases, it is much more profitable to decline – and spend the time on a stock items or a showpiece that will be far more beneficial to the business in the long term. And if cash is desperately needed, well, then we do flashsales:-)
5. Small businesses are ‘more personal’ – so people ask for, sometimes outrageous’ discounts because they know the person running the business is responsible for the pricing – and have no doubt put a huge margin on the product. And so the ‘ pity me’ emails from complete strangers. The fact that a lot of us do not put much ‘on top’, but charge exactly what the product is worth is so unusual in the corporate world many people do not get it. You do not go to the BMW salon asking them to give you a 20% discount on the new model because your father is sick ( what on earth are you doing buying luxury products instead of medication and specialist care for the daddy then? ), husband unemployed and your salary is low – you go and buy a 10 year old Ford instead ( mine is 15 year old now and works great!). But the salesperson in a salon may not have the power to amend the pricing – whereas the individual might just be persuaded to do just that if they pity our situation.
I think the above are the most common reasons why we get so many request for the ‘royalty on budget’. People see The Tudors or White Queen and want a dress for their Halloween party – not realizing I am not the person who caters for such items.
It is slightly better in the established re-enactment ( though even there it seems there is an alarming number of wannabe queens, duchesses, princes and kings wanting royal kit for a few quid… ) as people realise that if you want to re-enact nobility, there will be a suitable price tag attached. In the past, a good quality, showy outfit to impress your peers at court would often cost several months of middle class salary, and although times changed, they haven’t changed that much – silk and cloth of gold may be more accessible and cheaper – but still beyond the means of most people. And to be honest, you can make a good quality kit middle class in decent wool and linen or cotton – it will look lovely and though it is not the cheapest thing ever, it will serve its purpose while you save up for the brocaded cloth…..
There are a lot of arguments floating about, how a polyester silk will look quite as good – and they cannot afford silk/handmade etc, so it will have to suffice. Well, it may be harsh – but if you cannot afford the king’s outfit ( with all the trappings it needs, jewelry, fur etc), than maybe start with a simple soldier’s kit instead and climb the social ladder – many people do exactly that and it takes years of saving to get higher class kit – but many stay at the middle class too, for a variety of reasons – and, to be honest, portraying a medieval farrier or an Elizabethan gardener is just as interesting and complex as a queen…
Obviously, lots depends on the purpose of the garment – if you need it for living history, educational displays and events, it simply needs to be correct fabrics, cut, finish etc, no matter what class you re-enact. If you participate in battles and nobody is likely poking at the seams of your doublet and fingering your collar, you may be able to get some money saving short cuts. And if you need a gown for a fancy ball, a social gathering, a photoshoot – simply an item you’ll love to wear – well, you can use whatever is suitable and you can afford – and produce stunning results with minimal costs:-)
There are a few shortcuts if you need/want a flashy outfit though, even if you want it made correctly and in correct fabrics:
*Save up! obvious, really, but there it is…. designate one source of savings a month or a week and it will happen – go our to dinner once less, buy less modern stuff you don’t actually need all that badly – or even simpler – set up a separate saving account and put an deposit there every month, deducted from your salary straight away – you won’t notice this much, and whether it is a £20 a month, £10 a week or £100 a fortnight, it will soon amount to a neat little sum.
*take small steps… you can often add on things to enrich your stature ( and clothing) in time. Opt for a woolen doublet and gown, add handmade braid on it or embroidered cuffs a few months later…. Also – buy bodice, but apply lace, braid decoration yourself
* Sell the items you don’t use any more….
* sell your products – and have one sale a month that goes straight into the new kit fund…
*barter – either skills or products. You make wooden pattens but a doublet is beyond you – talk to the costumiers who re-enact, many are happy to barter things like that. Your shoemaker needs driving tuition? a plumber? you’d be surprised how many things can be arranged this way….
*pay in installments – most businesses welcome the solution.
*learn to sew….. yes, may take time and investment in machinery or courses – but will pay off in the long run. Even if your skills won’t go beyond a simple chemise or a cap – you are already saving some money
* buy ready made items – stock items are cheaper, often quite a lot cheaper than bespoke items. If you find an item at a market or in an online shop that you know is of good quality and it fits you – grab it, will be much cheaper than ordering the same items bespoke ( then you pay for the time, fittings, individual patterning etc too ). Our stock items in the shop are often about half the price of bespoke ones – especially if i happen on a sale silk in a local silk mill…
* Hunt bargains! go to markets to look out for bargain quality fabrics – you can often save up to 50% on the fabric – and usually this is the factor that drives the price of the costume up.
And as I was often asked at how much different outfits cost – let us have a little display of different pieces and their prices…. more info on how much to charge can be read in the blog on running a costuming business
*please note that I do not subscribe to the idea of charging the retail price of fabrics if I get them cheaper at trader’s rates. If the silk from James Hare costs me £40 per metre, the client will pay exactly that, and not the inflated retail price.
12/13 century gown, middle class:
Gown in wool, lined with linen, all handstitched and hand embroidered – value £500
gown for a queen – in silk, with silk bands and girdle, lined in silk – with a kirtle in silk too. Labour (machine and hand finish) and materials £600 – £700. Together with the accessories – shoes, jewellery, crown etc, = well over £2000
Middle class kirtle and gown in wool – £300
Wealthy merchnat’s wife kit – kirtle and gown in wool, gown lined in linen with fur trim – £400
Lady/high status gown in brocade, lined with silk, all handstitched – the brocade itself ( needed 8 metres is now retailing at £140 per metre… the dress value is around £2000, plus the kirtle, shoes, pattens, jewellery – another £400
reversible burgundian gown in silk, with silk lining – – stock item – £350
Royal Tudor gown – over £3400 ( detailed pricing here ); high born lady gown in silk velvet, lined with silk – £550. same gown in wool would cost £350;
Upper class Tudor set in wool, silk and fur – around £1000. same outfit in quality, royal silks would probably double the price
off the peg high quality Tudor gown and kirtle form the shop – £400 and £240 respectively
High status lady outfit, in silk satin, with silver lace – with 2 petticoats – £850
middle class outfit in wool – £450
Courtier outfit in silk, lined with silk, silver lace, wrapped buttons – £800
Middle class kit in wool – £400
18th century set in wool and linen, with lots of handfinish – £ 600
similar set but in silk, though machine finish and blend fibre waistcoat lowers the price – £700
Day dress in cotton, £300 ( including petticoat and bonnet)
day dress in wool, stock item – £ 400
Visiting dress in silk, heavily decorated – £ 1000
WWI dress in silk with lace, £ 350
WWI dress in cotton, with a silk sash – £ 270
Victorian corset, stock item, part of our Bare basic range – £125
Victorian corset, bespoke work, with exterior channels and extensive flossing – from £300
replicas of 1885 riding habit in quality wool, with handmade ( the blue habit) and hand applied braiding, made bespoke, with a safety tailored skirt and riding trousers – coat around £1000
Also replicas ( but not exact) made as stock items, generic sizing, machine finish – pricing from £350 (these ones are actually in our shop equestrian section, here)
As you can see, it is often the price of fabric that makes the outfit expensive – or the fact that it is a commission and not a stock item.
Having said all that – I must stress that despite a few of the messages like that, the majority of people do appreciate the fact that their items are unique, made lovingly, and individually fitted. And it is those lovely people that make businesses like mine thrive – I used to teach in a college before, and the job, though rewarding, was nowhere near as rewarding ( both in hard cash and job satisfaction). I may be working longer hours, but I love my job, and would not be doing it if i didn’t – or if it didn’t pay my keep:-) 🙂
More on running a costuming business can be read about here: https://adamselindisdress.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/running-a-costuming-business/
Hope the post has been useful to you, if you are new to costuming. For those of you who are running businesses – have you come across similar experiences? if yes, do you have any other theories that would explain them? Feedback welcome!