Monday, May 28, 2012

Interview With Festive Attyre

We're very fortunate in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to have access to several museums and see some pretty amazing things.

Impressionist painters may not have used the highest detail, but with seemingly simple brushstrokes, you get a feel for light and color. You might even imagine hearing a crisp taffeta shifting, or sense a voile floating on air as you study the paintings.

Whatever comes to mind while admiring these works of art, it's safe to say that many of us are inspired in some way to make the things we do. Whether it's finding a pattern that appeals to us, buying fabric screaming to be made into that perfect outfit, seeing a garment in an exhibit with all its helpful details, or coming across a painting that calls to us.

I have to admit, the first time I'd heard of Jen Thompson, my husband and I actually found her through her Festive Attyre website. We were both floored with her work, and appreciated the details she acheived on her reproductions -- many of which are from paintings!

Since the DFWCG will be meeting at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth on June 9th to view an Impressionist painting exhibit, I thought this would be a fun opportunity to ask Jen about her reproduction costumes. This art exhibit may not have actual garments, but there is still plenty that can be learned from an era's art -- not to mention, be inspired by it!

 You’re known for your breathtaking copies of garments from paintings – what made you decide to do that, especially the side-by-side poses with the portraits?

I think I was drawn to making reproductions like these because it so neatly combined several of my greatest loves - art, history, and sewing.  When you are researching the costumes in paintings, you not only study the fashions, but also the artists, the models, and the cultures that they came from.  It really makes history come alive for me, and I love the feeling of stepping into the skin of people from the past. 

There are a lot of museum exhibits online of period garments showing varying degrees of detail. Granted, some periods of time aren’t as well covered as others. When you first started sewing replicas of garments, were photos as available online then or were they hard to find?

It was SO much harder to find garment photos when I first started making historical costumes.  There were only a handful of costuming websites out there when I started in the mid-90's, and very few museums had images online.  I did a lot of my early research at university libraries with good art history sections, which I still recommend to everybody if you have access to something like that.  When I started, it was much easier to find art history images than surviving garment images, and I'm still somewhat amazed at how many great pictures there are of historical garments online these days.  It is such a helpful resource to be able to compare the real things with artists' interpretations of garments.   

Do you mainly work from paintings, especially more realistic styles that tend to show fine detail, or do you find fashion plates to be just as informative?

I think I draw inspiration pretty equally from fine art, fashion plates, photos (when available), and surviving garments.  I think the most important thing is to cross-reference between multiple sources if possible, because you can't really see the bigger picture with one source alone.  Artists distort, edit, and exaggerate, and surviving garments can be altered or displayed incorrectly.  Photos are probably the only source that I trust completely, but that only works for later period garments, and they can sometimes be hard to find.  Plus the lack of color can lead you astray as well.  But with that being said, I probably love fashion plates the most of all, although they are usually the least truthful source that you can use. 
Do you find that trying to discover details about the garment from a work of art is hard? Do you have to use a lot of other research to help decipher what the artist is portraying?

I do have to cross-reference a lot to understand what I am seeing in paintings.  You have to become a detective and search for clues to fill in the gaps of what you can't see in the artwork.  Sometimes the dresses that you see in paintings are very typical for a time or place and you can find many other similar examples to help you put it in context.  But other paintings show garments that are a real mystery, and they don't make sense from a construction standpoint or maybe they don't fit in with what we know about historical fashions.  It is fun to try to solve the puzzle of what you see in paintings, but sometimes it is very easy, and sometimes it is nearly impossible!

If it is an artist working in a realist or academic style, I think they can be very trustworthy.  But once again, it helps when you can cross-reference what you are seeing with other sources to see if it all adds up.  And of course it varies a lot between artists too.  There are some artists that painted pictures that were probably as accurate as photographs (Ingres is a good example of that), and some that used a lot more artistic license to change things along the way. 

It can be especially true with fashion plates, which are meant to highlight to almost the extreme the era’s ideal silhouette and style. At what point do you feel comfortable enough with your results in comparison to the artwork itself? For example, the caricature-like body and foundation structure proportions, and even hair heights.

I love reproducing fashion plates because seeing the styles made up really points out how distorted the illustrations were.  I think many people become discouraged when clothing in reality looks so different that the idealized drawings, but you just have to accept that NOBODY looked like fashion plates.  Once you get over that, it is really fun to look at the evolution of the fashion illustrations because they so clearly point out what the focus is on for any given era.
How closely do you consider historical accuracy when translating brush stroke to stitch? Did you ever have to stop or slow down to research something like that, or did you make note of needing to research that for later and substitute something similar to proceed on the current project?

I usually strive for historical accuracy in my own work, so I spend a lot of time researching the historical construction techniques for the garments that I am trying to make. There are times when relevant information just isn't available, so you have to make educated guesses and do the best you can.  But if the information is out there, I try not to cut corners or make more theatrical concessions unless absolutely necessary.  There is nothing wrong with making garments that are just intended to look good in a photo if that is your main goal, and there are a number of great examples where the photo of the reproduction garment is more important than a wearable piece of clothing.  But my goal has always been to make wearable historical clothing, so I like to take my time and make a garment that moves and wears as well as it looks when sitting still. 
What do you normally do when it seems like that perfect fabric just can’t be found? Yet, the painting and project just screams at you to keep looking?

I have projects that have been on hold for years because I can't find the right fabric.  There is a 16th German painting that I have always wanted to reproduce, but I just can't find the right color or weight of wool.  It has been on hold for 6 years now, and it remains on hold... but someday I will find the perfect fabric and make it!   There are so many great dresses in the world to make that I don't mind waiting for the right fabric to come along. 
Did you ever find yourself wanting to stray from the construction or design of the original inspiration piece? For example, knowing of a variant sleeve or collar style that you prefer instead of the one presented in the painting? Or is the challenge to get as close as possible?

I've done both.  Sometimes I enjoy making more exact reproductions, and sometimes I am happy to just do something inspired by an image, but change the color or some of the details along the way.  I think I would feel too limited creatively if I only made strict reproductions, but sometimes there is a dress that I love so much as it is that I don't feel any need to improve upon perfection. 
Which inspired-by project has been your favorite, and most rewarding to work on?

I think my 16th c. Moroni gown was the most rewarding reproduction that I have ever made so far.  I really enjoyed researching that one, and it was such a fun dress to make.  Plus, I love doing elaborate surface decorations like the pinking and cording on the doublet.   It was one of the most elaborate dresses that I have ever made, and I love a challenge!
What new challenges have you faced with your recent projects? Does it seem as difficult now, as it once did, or is it only when you change eras that are quite different from others?

I love learning new things and I get bored quickly when costuming gets too easy.  I've spent most of my time over the past 5 or 6 years jumping around from period to period because I enjoy exploring topics that I know less about.  I'm always trying to find inspiration from new periods and genres and techniques.  If I can find a dress style that is rarely done then that is even better because I have to work harder to find my research.   I'm a bit of a glutton for punishment in that way.  :)
You have recently been acquiring quite a love of newer, vintage fashions. Do you still work from images – including photos, as well as fashion plates – or are you more inspired by the actual garments that are available online, and even for purchase from antique shows?

When it comes to vintage fashions, I am most inspired by vintage patterns and the illustrations on them.  The drawings on the covers of old patterns are always so charming, and they really continue the tradition of older fashion plate illustrations.  Vintage sewing is SO much easier than working with older styles, and when you have the actual pattern on top of everything else, it feels like a vacation from "real" costuming.   I love making vintage clothing when I need a break from other forms of costuming - it is quick and easy and gratifying... and quite addictive too!
Do you have any advice for costumers who will be attending an event, such as the Kimbell Impressionist exhibit? What should they look for, and should they even take notes on the spot or look for the painting online later?

Since exhibits like this one do not allow photography, it is sometimes handy to bring a sketchbook and make notes or draw little sketches of details that you want to remember.  You might also want to jot down the name of artists who have good fashion paintings because a search online might turn up even more helpful images.  Sometimes the hardest part of researching fashion in art is just knowing what or who to search for, and if you find the work of an artist that you like, he/she probably has done more work in that same vein. 
What paintings, looks, or styles are you most excited about seeing in person at this June’s Kimbell Impressionist exhibit?

Impressionist paintings can be really vague and lack details, so I often prefer some of the lesser-known artists who were working in a more academic style during the same time.  The big name artists like Monet and Renoir might be the main draw of this exhibit, but you can see some of the best costume details in the work of lesser-known artists.  Impressionists also loved painting women in stages of undress or at their toilettes at home, so sometimes you can see some fun underwear images in paintings like these. 

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I hope you've enjoyed reading about what inspires Jen, and how she plans and works on the costumes she makes. And I hope you join us and are inspired for your next project!

To see more of Jen's costumes, please visit Festive Attyre, and to find out more about the Kimbell event, visit the DFWCG events page.


  1. Dear Cynthia,
    What an interesting interview. Like you all, I've been inspired by Jen Thompson's work, so it's neat to hear her perspective on the why's behind the what's.

    Thanks kindly,


  2. Natalie, thanks so much for reading! I've always wanted to ask Jen questions like these, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity! :D