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How to Turn Out a Passable Rev War Uniform Jacket from Goodwill

Have I mentioned that my show has, by and large, come from Goodwill? Yes, indeed. One of the characters in 1776 is “a courier”. (No, really, that’s all they call him in the script.) He’s an army courier who brings messages in to the continental congress. I need him to look like he’s a) military and b) really, really dirty. This means that I get to build the coat, and then I get to have a bit of fun with it…

I’m using a red coat for this. That may or may not be completely inappropriate – I didn’t actually look up military colors for the era, and while I do know that the British were known for wearing red coats (ie, “The red coats are coming!”) and there’s that painting of Washington in a blue one (although it was rather painted in 1851 and a number of other coat colors are represented, including red), I also know that it’s a color no one else on the set is quite wearing, and I’d like this costume to stand out. Also, I found a red wool coat the right size, and I was sort of losing my brain at the moment and bought it in a fit of “A-ha! It’s a red coat!”

So, here’s how it went:

original coat
The original coat - a size 10 women's Sad Harbor, gotten for the bargain price of $4.99.
material for lining and turnings
It will need those odd little rectangular flap-front-lapel-y-thingsies. I'm sure there's a word for that action, but I don't know if I have ever known it. Whatever it is, I need those and a lining for the tails, and this sad old bedsheet will do the job.
collar cut
I've turned up the back collar and whacked it off in sort of the right line. I'll be doing a variation that lapel trick from the waistcoat demo on this one.
preparing for tails
I want to make those odd turned-back side tails on this coat, because the look infinitely practical for horse riding, and quite military. To prepare, I've split the center back of the jacket up to waist level.
fabric colors
To extend the coat, I need suitable fabric in a very close color. Fortunately, I think I've used something like it before... ;)
extensions for the tails
I've cut 24"x24" squares to extend the tails with. Two each of red linen and old bedsheet.
flaps sewn and pinned into place
I've sewn the squares around three sides, and pinned them to the coat with the top edges tucked under. The tops of them are at waist level.
sewing the tails on
I'm sewing the tails down with a tight zig-zag over the folded edge of the linen. This is going to be the least visible seam I can make, because it won't make a dent or a bulge.
seam from behind
Here's the seam coming right behind the foot - it's not a completely invisible meld, but it's not bad.
machine settings
Here's how the machine was set for that action. I mean, in case you care...
completed coat
The coat is together now, but it needs years of grime added. This is best done in a well-ventilated area.
Rustoleum instant primer doesn't actually tell you this on the label, but you can use it on fabric. This brown color is basically grime-in-a-can.
grimey coat
Well, now, that looks a bit less new.... I let the primer dry while I went inside and make more of the coat.
collar detail
When you're doing this sort of thing, pay attention to where body oils will encourage grime to really cling. Go a little heavier around the collar and cuffs. (Also, this will hide any stray bits of bright white interfacing and junk.)
lapel flaps
I've made these festive little lapel flaps. They're about 4" by 15". I've just top-stitched them to the edge of the existing lapels.
coat trimmed and grimed
I've smacked some very sad oatmeal colored braid around all the edges to make the whole thing look more uniform-y and less costume-y, and given it another coat of spray-grime.
lapel closeup
You want the off white to get even farther from white, in a patchy sort of fashion.
acrylic paint
The courier has, presumably, ridden through some mud. That means we need splatter effects. I loveloveLOVE splatter effects. For this trick, I'll need acrylic paints and water.
acrylic in water
Glop some acrylic into the water. I don't mix it thoroughly - I'm just trying to make it sort of slimey, but not homogenous. It'll have more character that way.
flinging paint
I get my fingers full of the watered-down paint, then fling it (enthusiastically) at the coat.

Photo courtesy of my mother, who was greatly entertained by this whole process. So was the neighbor, who thought I was doing some sort pixie-dust trick. Somewhere during the photography process (mom and I share a sort of carpet-bombing approach to photography), mom realized that spatter really does go everywhere, and staying out of the way might be a really grand plan….

directional fling on coat
The nice thing with this technique is that you can get directional spatter - fling from down low, and you've got mud kicked up by a horse.
inside of flaps
You'll want to get the inside of the flaps as well. It just looks more complete that way.
coat on actor
The finished coat, worn by the actor. (Christian Johnson, used with permission. Photo copyright Ken Beach.)


  1. Luna
    Luna May 28, 2011

    Wow! This is simply amazing! I wouldn’t have believed that you didn’t make it from scratch!!

    • missa
      missa May 28, 2011

      Yay! Then it worked! *laugh* I always worry that people will be sitting at the audience going, “Oh, wow, didn’t I just see that coat at the Goodwill?”

  2. Amy
    Amy May 29, 2011

    Christian looks really good in this! He has the face and attitude and the costume totally rounded out the character!

    • missa
      missa June 2, 2011

      Right? Seriously, this is one of the pieces of the show that just works… :)

  3. Dutchgirl
    Dutchgirl June 12, 2011

    I love Goodwill Costuming(TM) Once turned out a high school production of Our Town from thrifty finds around town, and everyone wanted to know if I wasn’t exhausted from sewing ALL those costumes. Great work showing us how its done. I love all your work.

  4. missa
    missa June 24, 2011

    Hey, Dutchgirl,

    You’re a better woman than I am – Even with the helpful Goodwill, I was still exhausted! :)

    Thank you!

  5. Monique
    Monique July 6, 2011

    OMG I just spent $17 on a pattern from Simplicity for a “similar” coat, but I need this look for my Spo-Con costume of a Warhammer Witch Hunter ;) (CosPlay)

    This will save me a TON of time and money. Gonna take that pattern back and probably spend about 1/3 of the cost on a blazer and extra fabric I have in my stockpile. Thank you Missa! You Roxxorz!

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