AIMR 's Adventures in Theater Costumes

Many of you know that I volunteered to help make costumes for our local theater groups. I was immediately picked up by Deborah Sheu Costumes. She has been the costume designer and wardrobe person for many plays here in Wilmington as well as Charlotte and the surrounding area. With over 40 years of experience, she has amassed literally a warehouse of costumes!

I met with her for a tour of the facilities and was just overwhelmed with everything that goes into doing all the clothing and accessories for plays, so I have a lot to learn. Some of the shortcuts and things that are done to these costumes are cringeworthy to me, but I am learning that there is a HUGE difference in tailoring clothes to wear everyday and making clothes that might be worn by actors/actresses of varying sizes.

Anyway, instead of separate posts, I thought I would start this one and add on as I work on costumes.

Some costumes are purchased, some “built”, and some altered from existing stock. I won’t bore you with the simple fixes like hems, taking in a waistband, etc. But, I would like to post things I make from scratch or fun costumes I worked on.

The first play were are doing is a musical - Ragtime. If you haven’t heard of it, there are plenty of YouTube videos and info available.

We need six trench-like coats for the actors in a “gang” to wear in a few major scenes. Here is the size 40 coat I made. It is linen and very heavy. It has tons of top stitching. I did a lot of twin needle stitching and (shudder), the hem is done on machine and can be lowered and raised as needed…same with the sleeves. It took everything I had not to hand stitch those, but the hem will never be seen by the audience 50 feet away! ha

The booger on this one was the collar and lapel. I used Fabric Fusion flexible glue to shore up the points because they were held together by ONE stitch in the corner and linen frays like crazy! All seams are also serged to prevent fraying. There is a partial lining in the back to help the actors get in and out easily.

The back of the coat has a long opening to allow for dancing and moving across the stage quickly. The top of the opening is reinforced with a little square piece that is sewn down.

So far, we have the prototype, size 44, size 40, and size 42.

Three more to go…opening night is June 22!!!


Ooo! I look forward to watching this topic grow! It will be interesting to learn about the “compromises” you’ll be learning to make for this niche of garment sewing. It reminds me of when I started noticing how sets and props were painted and constructed differently than IRL.


Another ope’ning, another show…

You’ll soon have greasepaint in your blood, and think nothing of topstitching a red shirt with black thread!


That is so cool! I love the peek behind the curtain, great job so far!


You are so right! I am making a prototype coat for another actor. It is a grey blue fabric. I was told to baste stitch it using a highly contrasting thread for the fitting. I am using orange! ha ha


This is absolutely fascinating! I can hardly wait to learn more about your costuming adventures!


Wonderful! This is so much fun to watch!


Here is a minor alteration I did on a costume worn by a dance hall girl.

The sleeves were shortened by 2" by sewing a tuck on the outside and covering it up with the pink cuffs. I used a very long machine stitch so that it can easily be taken down if the next actress has long arms.

All of the pink ruffly tulle is basted so that it can be removed if just a fancy jacket is needed.

Most costumes are fully lined to increase wear and to deal with sweat and make up. It protects the outer fabrics. Look at all the boning!

I had to shorten and pouff out the skirt using hand basting. Again, easy to remove for any future wears.

I also neatened up the edges (the last seamstress left the edges raw…). I love this stuff!

The final thing I did was re-attach a loose button on the bow, which is also removable.

Can you see just the jacket being used once all the stuff is removed? A totally new way of sewing for me…I wish the color would come out better…it is actually an iridescent purple!


This is going to be fun watching your creations!


This is really great, I’m so glad you’re having fun with it


This is really neat! Thank you for this peek behind the curtain!


Thank you for allowing us to vicariously learn all these costuming tricks. What a clever way to shorten sleeves! All that basting pains me, but I get it. These costumes are meant to be reinvented time and time again. This is all just so cool.


Here’s to often, unseen backstage and production work!


I hope any of you here will also share your best tips! I am willing to learn and share with the group I am working with. There is always something new and my mentor does not really go on the internet so she might not be up to date on newer techniques. Plus, there is a whole group of volunteers like me who will be sewing these kinds of alterations for the first time!

I am sewing together a prototype jacket today and it will be interesting to base the main seams in bright orange! ha ha


Oh my goodness, relearning to do things “incorrectly” to be correct for a new medium must be frustrating. But the outfits are beautiful, and you are right that people are not going to see the tiny details like a hem from so far away. I am sure everyone is delighted by them!


How interesting that you have to make temporary fixes that seem so “wrong” but they’re actually the right way for the job. Challenges are always fun, so I’m sure you’ll continue enjoying the fun adventure with these costumes.


The other things we have to consider is the comfort of the actors/actresses as well as sanitation for others to wear in the future.

Here is a little peek behind the scenes that I found interesting.

Many of the actors are local and do not get paid. They do this out of passion for their art and in the hopes that they might get a paying role/career in the future. The different theater groups will often hire a few equity actors for major parts to get the audience and price they need.

WARNING: cha-cha people need not read further :smile:

Well, as you can imagine, we have to require everyone to wear underwear and t-shirts. The theater has hundreds of clean/sterilized but USED underwear and t-shirts. And yes, they do get used since some put on a fresh set every costume change! Of course, many wear their own (must be white cotton so they can be bleached).

Equity/paid people actually have in their contract that they will be provided NEW sets, still in packaging. Ahhh…the perks of becoming famous: you get new underclothes! ha ha ha


A true adventure for you!! I’m so grateful you’re taking us along with you on your journey!


Thanks for sharing this adventure - it’s so fun and interesting to see what you’re doing. It’s quite a different style of sewing, it will really add to your repertoire of skills!


Did a quick repair on this real fur coat that will be worn by an actor that plays Commander Perry coming home from the North Pole.

Also took in some pants that he will wear at the beginning of the show. The most interesting part was sewing on buttons so that suspenders/braces can be worn! See the tag hanging down? Each piece of altered clothing has the name of the actor and what has to be done. When it is done, we erase our notes and just leave the name of the actor. It will get hung up in a section in order by scene … we need to remove the tags right before the shows because the actors are oblivious to what they are wearing!

The jacket back is called Norfolk but it was too big for him so I added a very long dart on either side of the pleats. Can’t really see it, but it was a lot of work to remove the belt band and make sure both sides were even.

And, here is a funny for you today: What our stat sheet say at the bottom…we can’t assume anything…ha ha ha