Research Sketching-Costumes

My favorite part of doing any kind of historical or genre art is researching the appropriate costumes. In my magazine illustration days it didn’t come up much; mostly I was drawing doctors, nurses, businessmen and contemporary kids and grownups of all kinds. 

With subject matter like Dickens, costuming the characters not only correctly, but in a way that tells us about their personalities, is part of the job description!

This is where I actually use one of the internets for this project. It is without exception the best tool ever invented for photo research. Back in Ye Twentiethe Centurie, I, like many other illustrators, kept some version of a four-drawer file cabinet, called a morgue or swipe file, filled with meticulously organized photos of everything. Any magazines I subscribed to or came across got clipped of all useful images. 

It had its limitations. My “cowboys” file was almost entirely Marlboro ads, and my file of “computers” photos aged out almost as soon as I filed them. Still, other than a trip to the library, there were few resources available, especially on a magazine illustrator’s schedule. When I lived in Manhattan I would often utilize the great N.Y. Public Library’s Picture Collection, which was an experience it itself.

Well all of that has changed, and if you’ve ever wondered why the market for four-drawer file cabinets collapsed, wonder no more!

Web searches have their own pitfalls though. When I search for “1850s Women’s Fashions”, I generally get fashion illustrations or fine art images, and, then as now, real people bear about as much resemblance to fashion images as does a porcupine to an ice cream cone. With Dickens’ subject matter being all the motley classes of British society, high fashion is only one aspect. the great thing about the period I’m working in, the 1850s, is the volume of photography from the period, especially where poverty and lower-class life are involved.

There is also some good magazine and story illustration available from the period, but I find that, other than the fashion images which I use mostly for sketching practice, I lean on photography more than, say, looking at Gustave Doré’s illustrations of London’s poor (or rich!). There is always interpretation in an illustrator’s work and it’s never a good idea to draw what they’ve drawn.

The examples shown here are all sketched from the internet, and mostly are from fashion plates. I’ve learned a ton about women’s clothing, like petticoats vs. crinoline, all the various styles of bonnets and headwear, and hair styles

What men wore before modern neckties is another interesting subject matter. Shirts were separate from the collars, and men wore “neckcloths”, the variety, shape and knotting of which are extremely varied.

The more you look, the more you realize the great variety of how people dressed, and as in any period, how they dress to express themselves. My goal then is to absorb the esthetic of the era and incorporate it as an integral part of the final illustration.

Thanks for stopping by! You can comment on this or any blog post by emailing me at

Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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