Fantasy worlds can be quite lifelike and believable. Fiction can seem more convincing than reality, especially when – in book form – the writing is realistically superb. Then the reader’s imagination is traveled through space and time by the magic of the written page. This can be especially true of stories which have make-believe creatures that have been known for centuries, such as dragons, elves, dwarves, and wizards to name a few. The stories of the great J.R. Tolkien stand high as a remarkable, memorable tale of very credible and well-crafted fantasy, even rising to the likes of a cult classic. To tell you the truth I am more of a C.S. Lewis Narnia gal, but I am almost as equally ‘into’ the Lord of the Rings world, as well as my husband.
I have been wanting to recreate something from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies ever since all three were out, thus this project is very fulfilling as it has been so long in coming! Even better yet, I was extremely happy to have my son want to jump on board with my costume and match me for yet another themed Halloween! Recently, the film trilogy had been out again to re-watch in the big theater near us and my son has now seen snippets of them, as well, so the fire for these films were renewed for us. With a medieval and renaissance themed event going on at our local Science Center, too, and everything I needed for my own outfit on hand (thanks to having everything ready to whip the dress up for the last 14 years), I felt now was the time to make good of an extended sewing project plan!
Besides the fact I saw the films again now, why am I just writing about our Halloween outfits when it’s almost Christmas, you may be wondering (guess if you weren’t thinking about it before, you are now). Well, as other detailed oriented Lord of the Rings movie fan will understand it is around the middle of December that the trilogy films were always released. Everyone who has seen our outfits always guesses my son and I are supposed to be Guinevere and King Arthur (kind of a gross pairing for us when you think about it), so I’m wondering how many die-hard fans of Lord of the Rings are out there today. Unfortunately, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy most likely killed off a good part of the fandom (those movies are SO bad, it’s no wonder). Yet, I merely remember that the enduring beauty of the original written tales still remain and there are many more of Tolkien’s stories yet for me to read and many more costumes yet to be remade for myself, he he!
PATTERNS: My dress – Simplicity #4940, year 2004; My son’s tunic – no pattern but my own…self-drafted!
TIME TO COMPLETE: My dress took about 20 hours to make and my son’s tunic took about 3 hours both were finished at the end of July 2018.
THE INSIDES: all clean from serged (overlocked) seam edges
TOTAL COST: Having all the materials on hand for my dress since over a decade cut down on costs, and the grommet setting machine (more on this later) was paid for with a birthday gift certificate, so the only costs were on my son’s ‘chain mail’ – about $10 or less.
These outfits were incredibly fun to make, they turned out great (better than expected, actually), and were much easier coming together than envisioned. I actually can’t wait to dive into more medieval and renaissance garments, because these time periods are my favorite specialty to study and research in non-fashion related fields. I’m contemplating a 14th century low class woman’s set and a 16th century noblewoman’s gown, besides more Lord of the Rings costumes that are still tantalizing me. My son would look so cute in a jerkin and doublet, I think, and I’d love to turn my hubby into a 14th century pilgrim on the El Camino de Santiago. There’s too many ideas in my head and too little time! Luckily, my hometown is actually a small hub for what we call “Medievalism studies” and “Creative Anachronism” so we would definitely have places to wear such old historical fashions and reasons to study them if I want to wear and sew more! Yay!
I realize that there are many historical inaccuracies to both of our outfits. But hey – these are costumes based on a fantasy movie, and made with the purpose to go out and have fun, so I love the fact that the craving to do thorough research beforehand, like my other historical creations, as abated and I could merely sew our outfits to completely please ourselves and have them finished sooner than later. This is my first dive into a new era of clothing and I couldn’t be happier! If both me and my son don’t want to have to take our outfits off once they are on, but continue to swirl around and pretend play, than that is the best sign of success I could hope for.
It might be selfish of me, but can I just start by addressing my Arwen gown? It was the more involved to make anyway. This was inspired by her famous “Death dress”, worn when her strength was fading away as she is becoming less elf and more human in “Return of the King”. “I wish I could have seen him (Aragorn) one…last…time…” she says in this dress as her Evenstar falls and shatters. That scene was so emotional in the movie. There is a large influence of early medieval Celtic in the swirling detailing of the Rivendell elves and so I incorporated much of that into my version as well.
However, I could not reconcile myself with (nor achieve) the long and perfectly shiny and wavy tresses like Arwen, so I choose a more historical, half fictional (Star Wars, anyone?) hairstyle option of braided side buns option I liked better on myself, anyway. The chiffon headcovering was left off for some pictures so you can see the gown better or just to make this outfit easier to play in, but a medieval woman would not have went without one! My simple ‘crown’ (as my son calls it) is a brass sheeting strip from my father-in-law toolbox of scraps leftover from old jobs. We folded it into thirds and rounded into a headband ring. I have a faux leather strip taped to the inside otherwise the brass turns my forehead green.
The main body of the dress has some a-mazing shaping (see this Instagram post of mine), especially for the upper body, thanks to the multiple princess seams (which are a big ‘historical’ no-no for medieval gowns, but whatever). I sized down so I would have a snug fit since I knew my fabric, the panne velvet, was very stretchy. Choosing this sizing was a good idea here. There is over 4 yards of material just for the dress body and most of it is the full, flare of the dress’ panels below the hips. This makes this such as elegant dress with lovely, princess-like swing as I walk, but the dress is very heavy. I had to raise the shoulders by just over an inch to accommodate the dress being pulled down by the skirt portion. I am secretly wearing my 1905 Gibson Girl era petticoat under this dress. “Kind of weird” you might say, but the dress looked like an awkward, limp, wet rag of a thing hanging on me without the mid-calf fullness the 1905 slip provides. With the slip, there is a much better silhouette overall plus it keeps the back train from tangling up under my feet!
Now onto the dramatic sleeves! It took some training while wearing to figure out how to move, think ahead, and overall deal with these kinds of sleeves, but once you learn how not to clear a table mistakenly, get your arm stuck in a door, or drop them in a toilet (all of which I’ve done), they are so poetic. I loved finding ways of doing fight scene moves so that the hanging sleeve would swirl around and look awesome, like what the actress Bridget Reagan did in the tv series “Legend of the Seeker”. My ultimate sleeve action inspiration is from the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and what she was able to do (playing a blind girl) in the beginning action scene to the “House of the Flying Daggers” 2004 martial arts movie (watch it here). I know it sounds silly to play-act with your sleeves but movies have a strong influence and with all this odd amount of extra fabric, you have to admit that sounds entertaining, right?!
The fashion folds that are holding the top forearm extra sleeve length out of the way of my hands were directly inspired by both Olivia De Havilland’s costumes in the year 1940 “Robin Hood” movie and this Balenciaga coat from the fall of 1950. It was a simple matter of tacking the sleeves down at regular intervals to a stable runner (like ribbon) underneath. I think this is much, much nicer than a tie gathered casing (as the pattern calls for) and much better not having a sleeve top seam (I cut on the fold, instead). I did make the sleeves a lot longer (by about 12 inches) than the pattern calls for, too, in order to do this pleating. I also lengthened the hang of the sleeve bottom so it would end closer to the floor and could come to more of a point than a rounded curve as the pattern dictated. The inner seam through the bottom sleeve drape was flat felled as it is visible. I guess you can tell already, but I chose the satin shine for the outside and the crepe for the inside.
My sleeve’s upper half (bicep portion) has so many layers to it! The first layer is the panne velvet, the same as my dress. Then it is layered over with a golden mesh material. Finally, my fancy ribbon (expounded on the next paragraph) was stitched along just on the other side of the seam allowances at my shoulder top and lower sleeve seams. Next to the neckline – which has multiple layers of fabric with the facing, interfacing, and woven golden trim stitched along it – the upper sleeves are the thickest and most complex to finish parts to the dress. I needed to add little snap-closed ribbon lingerie straps inside the tiny shoulder seams of this dress just to keep the sleeves from slipping off.
The ribbon I used for both my belt and sleeve trimming is the pride and joy of my whole outfit. It looks like a reproduction of the margin decorations from the Book of Kells (800 A.D.) combined with the saturated tones of a 16th century Safavid manuscript and is amazing…quite heavy, rich in color, and detailed…woven like a tapestry. I had about 6 yards of it stashed away since about 2004, and I must have found it at an incredible deal or else my mom would not have let me buy it (she never liked me spending a lot towards something I liked without an immediate plan to use it). Its swirling designs are just like the crowns worn by Arwen or Galadriel. This ribbon is subtle enough to not overpower, yet detailed enough to add a touch of complexity and finery suited (so I feel) to an Arwen inspired dress. There is actually a heavy nail sewn to the bottom hang of my belt to weigh it down. A snap connects the elbow of the Y around my waist. I know a belt is not part of Arwen outfit, but just like my hair, it is a bit more of a historical touch that helps my version please me better than an exact copy.
There were no corsets but a natural look for women of 14th century dressing, and the lacing to their clothing closings were just that…closures. From what I have seen, back then eyelets would have been hand worked or (later) metal rings sewn on along the edge for the lacings to go through. I needed to make about two dozen eyelets and wanted the flashy prettiness of golden metal modern ones. Only, I was not going to hammer each one of them in by hand, but that was the only way I had available. Thus, I put a birthday gift certificate to good use, did a last minute run to the fabric store, and splurged on a mechanical hand pressed hole punch and eyelet setter. It looks like a pliers on steroids! I chose the “Crop-A-Dile” by “We R Memory Keepers” brand tool and it is so ridiculously easy, makes very uniform eyelets which are sturdy, and it has so many useful function options (it can even do snaps!), I love it. In 30 minutes I did all two dozen eyelets cut and set through four layers of fabric with interfacing in between. It was so fun to have such a helpful tool that takes any stress out of a complicated technique. I have been disappointed by fancy tools before but this might be the one that has worked so much better than expected – best gift ever, even if I did pick it out.
Now, for my son’s mock chain mail tunic! From close-up, the mesh material reminds me of tiny backyard fencing. I had been looking for something for a while beforehand and this was the best, the most reasonable, and most available material we found. I do believe it conveys the jist of a chain mail tunic well enough though, and when it gets wet (it rained Halloween evening) it only becomes all the more sparkly! He loved his tunic, most importantly, but I’m glad the medieval event we attended in our outfits had examples of the real deal armor, weapons, and chain mail both on display and on re-enactors so he could get a hands-on realization of the genuine thing!
I traced a pattern for a two-piece kimono sleeve tunic off of an existing t-shirt that currently was a tad roomy. This had to be a pullover so I added a bit extra room around the t-shirt, besides seam allowance. The shoulders and side seams were the only thing I stitched (the edges don’t fray) and I’m glad because sewing such a stiff metallic material that was mostly open was a pain. I used mesh seam tape to give the stitches something to hold onto. Next, his hood was drafted using the proportions of and existing hood, and then changing the shape so it would cover his neck and fall over and around his shoulders and chest. The hood was lined in black cotton to keep the mesh from scratching his face and keep the texture of the material in the spotlight. He wore a black turtleneck top under the tunic, and quilted black pants which kind of reminded me of a fencer’s padded practice gear.
His armor is admittedly cheap plastic but it really added a lot to the tunic and it makes him feel oh-so-tough. For my dream outfit (which are quite extra sometimes!), I was really tempted to find some fake bird wings in white to add on the sides of his helmet or even a black capelet so he could be more clearly a Numedor knighted guard of Gondor (the White City). Yet, I realized that no one would “get it” and the extra fuss would be make his costume more complicated…meaning less fun for him. For example, when we came home Halloween evening after trick-or-treating, hubby was trying to get decent pictures and our dachshund was incredibly curious and acting hurt at being left out, so our son, with his armor on, only began using his imagination. It’s the tale of when our “killer” dachshund came with “vicious plans” to lick to the death (ha!) and my brave 6 year old knight threatened with his sword and shield to rescue the fair maiden. My hero…
Fiction is very much intermingled with the truth when it comes to history, for better or for worse, and the older you go (like medieval) it is even harder to separate the two. Sometimes you have to accept them both when it comes to manuscripts because some legends, whether true or false, were part of those time’s belief system and culture. To take such fanciful understanding away would leave a blank spot in our modern understanding of ancient pictures and thought processes. A large percent of manuscript illuminators and textual writers were monks who never left their monastery walls, after all, while the rest were mostly young students with an extremely fanciful and active imaginations (margin doodles are sometimes quite shocking!). The difference between fact and fiction is something we still have to define and process even today with all the information availability we have at every turn. Perhaps our modern medieval mish-mash costumes are seriously more perfect than if we had be wearing veritable real thing. I still open up wardrobes with a playful curiosity which makes me feel I’m in Lucy Pevensie’s shoes and can clearly picture the mischievous, animated face of Bilbo Baggins!