Press "Enter" to skip to content

Steampunk on a Shoestring: the Countess

I’m saving the best for last – I loved the way this costume turned out! It is, by far, the most wack-a-doodle set of design decisions I’ve ever made. I really wanted to do a rather prim dress for the Countess, what with how she’s rich and all. At the same time, there’s only so much “prim” you can use around a Steve Martin script, and the character is fairly exuberant. So she needed a costume with enough detail to be lavish, enough joy to match the character, an olde-timey silhouette, and it had to come from resale. You know, no bigs…. 

The script is technically in 1904, if I recall correctly, so I shouldn’t have been throwing all the bustles in. But I like big bustles and I cannot lie, you other sewers can’t deny… Erm, yeah, missa, maybe you better stick to sewing….

So, once again from the Sally Army’s finest, I have:

sad 90s dress
A sad remnant of the 90s. ($3) I think I used to own something like this. It's wasn't a good look for me....
jacket from wool suit
A rather adorable little wool jacket from a suit. ($6 for the suit.)
right angle in seam of jacket
Before I brutalize this poor old thing, I had to document this: that's a right angle at the bottom of the princess dart. This was patterned and sewn by someone who is better than I am, and I respect that... It was an amazing piece.
corset sketched on fabric
To start, I've sort of sketched out the shape of some very simple corset pieces on some beige fabric that the theater had in a bin.

Yes, sometimes I just sight a corset and whack it out. I like drafting patterns (a lot), but I was sort of in a hurry. The actress is close enough to my size that I felt comfortable doing it this way.

finished corset
It's an under-bust back-closing model. It went together pretty much like every corset does - make the layers, join the layers, turn it, add channels, bone it, finish the top edge.
corset and dress need to become one
The back-closing-ness of it is slightly awkward, because my next trick is to join it with the front-opening dress...
joining the corset and dress
Ultimately, I put the corset on the form, pinned the dress to it, whacked off the shoulders, turned down the edge and started sewing.
corset in sewing machine
The hand-sewing was taking too long, so I sent it through the machine with great care and greater speed. ;)
jacket marked
The jacket is about to be mangled down into a bolero. I've marked the cutting line, which curves into the front.
cropped jacket
Per my usual habit, I've just cut it and zig-zaged the edge... I'll cover the ugly with some trim.
design for back
Someone was really getting me down that week, so I decided to get a little saucy with the back design to cheer myself up. This is a paper template.
design marked and pinned.
I've traced the design and pined the layers together. I'm going to cut this shape out and seal the edges, then do some trim work...
the finished back
The finished back trim work.
costume as it stands now
Here's where we are at this point: we have the bolero, we have the crazy little dress-meets-corset bit, and we have a plaid skirt that I found in a box at the theater. It's cool, but it lacks pizazz...
trimmed bolero
Here's my ren-faire roots showing again - if it needs pizazz, my first instinct is to trim it in gold.
bustle fabric
So then I tottled off to ye olde Jo-Anns to find some fabric for the bustle. I ended up with a sheer leopard/tribal print.

I what?

I did what?!?

And I was completely confident in that choice?

Yeah. Oddly, it seemed like the absolute right thing to do. And that was the moment when I realized that I really have grown up into a Costumer. Right there, standing in the newly-redesigned Bloomingdale Jo-Anns store, planning what may be the wrold’s first, last, and only sheer leaopard print bustle, I knew I was finally, absolutely,  incontrovertibly, a Real Costume Designer. Finally. (‘Bout darn time, right?) It wasn’t a researched choice, it wasn’t an act of premeditated cleverness, it was an on-the-fly design decision that I was totally confident in. The only second thought I had was, “Why am I not having second thoughts about this? This should be totally wrong.”

I felt pretty cool. :)

I bought three yards for a total of $34, making this the fabric splurge of the show.

side drapes of dress
So I took it home, split it in half widthwise for the first yard and a half, and made the side-drapes...
bustle from back
...and the bustle. There's a good sized tulle-sausage inside the bustle to give it some body.
dress from side
It's kinda nifty from the side.
back on actress
The line is somewhat more flattering on the actress, whose hips are similar than those on my form.
finished costume, at dress rehearsal
The finished costume, on stage during first dress. (Debbie Witt as the Countess, Daniel Scobey as Einstein)

Cost of build: 45$

Total Time: 7-8 hours


  1. Erin
    Erin August 16, 2011

    So. Much. LoveForThis!!!! You just make me so so so proud. I look at your amazing feats of AWESOMENESS and think to myself, “Self, you actually met this amazing costumer. In person. She even GROMMETED FOR YOU IN YOUR HOTEL ROOM. After eating dinner with you!”

    Seriously, this is so freakin’ cool. I’m am stunned anew at your creativity and talent. Go Missa!!! :)

    So yeah. I’m a wee bit enthusiastic.

  2. missa
    missa August 16, 2011

    Awwww…. Thanks, you guys! It means a lot to me – I mean, I know you guys, I know how much you’re looking for in costumes, and I’m flattered. :)

    Thank you,

    ps – I’ll grommet for you both any day! Sorry I missed your Bristol trip – I had it on the wrong weekend!

  3. Debbie T
    Debbie T August 17, 2011

    As the actress who wore this dress, it is truly fabulous. Missa did a fantastic job of being both super creative as well as making me feel comfortable wearing this dress. It was the best part of the show experience for me.

  4. missa
    missa August 17, 2011

    Shucks…. I’m totally blushing! This show was the most fantastically creative, empowering thing ever, and I’m so glad I got to be a part of it. Can’t wait to work with you again, beautiful! :)

  5. Martha Witcher
    Martha Witcher August 19, 2011

    Missa, what can I say – Inspired! The leopard print was the ticket! You rock the costuming world. Keep your chin up girl, and keep designing – love to see what you come up with

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.