Costuming has changed over the years. As a child I saw the birth of highly manufactured and extremely low grade costumes. In the past decade the rise of Cosplay and Steampunk has created a whole new generation of costuming, but one major flaw still has not fully resolved and that is what fabric is used when making historical and fantasy pieces. Fabric is often the difference between something looking real or fake.
When choosing what fabric to use you need to consider, weight, drape, texture, and textile. If you are trying to mimic a certain era, it is best to study what fabrics were used during that time. Even if you choose not to use those fabrics you need to match them as closely as possible in order to match the criteria above. Also be aware that if you choose synthetics that you need to test them for wear and breathability. Often synthetics hold in heat, let off fumes, and wear different than their natural counterparts. However, they are useful for mimicking more expensive or hard to find fabrics, and they can also be used in ways that natural fabrics cannot, creating completely new shapes, drapes, and lines.
Though many fabrics are commonly available, they are rarely the right choice. Broadcloth is cotton, but often the lowest grade; it has a low thread count and is often very thin, not lending itself to your concept of looking authentic. Then there is poly-satin, oh how it draws us in with its shiny hues, but the thinner this stuff is the worse it is to work with. If you do choose to work with poly-satin you need to find it in bridal or duchess weight. These weights mimic heavier silk satins, but also cost more. Trust me, the cost is worth it. Secondly whereas shiny is pretty, luminous captures more attention. Instead of picking out fabrics that are super shiny look for ones that have texture, subtle sheen, and depth. Fabric do not need to be alluring and desirable, fabrics with texture, pattern, and weave can also draw the eye in. Perhaps more importantly, when using cheap poly satin or broadcloth for your concept your attire ends us up looking like a costume and not like clothing.
Some good examples come from trying to interpret animated images into real pieces. Colors in an animation do not always work in real life, but more importantly an animated image does not often convey what the item is made from. Full Metal Alchemist is a story about character in a form of military, but when you see Cosplayers depict these characters despite their attention to detail on collars, piping, and the like there is something not quite right and this issue is typically the fabric. Military costumes, including the ones that are drawn in FMA, would be made from a heavy weight material, often wool or heavy utility grade cotton. Using this material instead of lighter weight cotton allows the uniform to fall correctly.
Even the best of these uniforms still look like costumes. Another example is a mad scientist coat which I am often asked to make. To be made properly like NPH wears in Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog you need to make sure the coat is made from heavy cotton usually a duck or canvas weight cotton. This adds to the stiffness and drape. To make it from your basic cotton found at your local store will cause the costume to look flimsy and not as imposing. I also used this weight when making my Dr. Girlfriend outfit and it made a world of difference. I made this decision based on the fact that Dr. Girlfriends coat is a combination a mad scientist coat and Jackie-O outfits which were made of heavily woven materials, neither of which used stretch to fit, but the cut of the material.
Victorians did not wander around in simple satin. They loved silks, wools, linen, cotton, and in various weaves including herringbone, tweed, twill, muslin, sateen, poplin, calico, light, heavy, shiny, matte, and many more terms that take a lifetime to learn. You will have a better time finding good fabrics in the upholstery section rather than the fashion fabrics section. To give you an idea of what types of fabrics were used back then, a Victorian Dressmaker was often referred to as a Draper.
You should also not limit your patterns. Solid colors are a safe choice, but many patterns used today were used back then. Safe patterns are paisleies, cabbage roses, plaids, stripes, and calico prints with 3 colors. Now, when I say calico I do not mean that pretty little flower print. Calico actually refers to the process of printing onto the fabric so you have a fabric with printing on one side.
As mentioned it is easier to find good fabrics for Steampunk costumes in the upholstery section. Yes it is more expensive, but when making vests or minor items the cost is worth it. When needing to make ladies’ dresses you do need on average 5 to 6 yards of fabric, so I recommend hunting your local thrift stores or play the coupon game to get your fabric at a reduced price. I often find that fabrics that end up on clearance are often exactly what I am needing. Also check with other seamstresses; they may have something you need and be willing to trade. I have a ton of 60s and 70s fabric that someone will need someday that was simply given to me with a whole bunch of fabric I did want.
So what fabrics work best for what items? This honestly is hard to answer, but I can recommend what fabrics not to use. Lighter weight, stretch and synthetics should be used sparingly because they often warp, tear, and pull wrong when applied to traditional Victorian construction. If you do choose to use these materials, try reinforcing them with lining, but this is only a stop gap and often costs more and forces the fabric to breath even less. I have seen several well done costumes made with synthetic and alternate materials, but longevity and long term wearability are often questionable. As Steampunks we value leather made objects over synthetic. I suggest the same for clothing. When choosing fabric it should be based not only on material, but how it is made, its stretch, weight, and structure. If you think about these factors the next time you put together your Steampunk outfit, I promise you will have a great outfit and not just another costume.