General Publications

Essential Costuming Books: on the shelves at Studio Davina 2020

I like big books and I cannot lie!

I recently posted a shelfie and got an email from a reader who asked for affordable recommendations for reference books for a budding costume designer.  When I teach costume workshops, I find myself recommending the same dozen or so books.  So if you are holiday shopping for books, here are my top picks for costuming books.  I’ve included Amazon links so you can find out more detailed information about these books.

If you choose to use the links below, thank you!  Your purchase helps support this blog.  However, I do recommend supporting your favorite local book store. Small businesses are struggling and it’s great to support your local community of independent bookstores.  If you are purchasing your books for yourself, always consider picking up a used book. Buying used books is good for the environment and saves money too – my favorite win-win situation.

If you would like to pick up one of my books, check out my Studio Davina Etsy Store for my current titles in digital and print.  My print books are also available on Amazon and you can check out what’s available on my Amazon Author Page.

Costuming Reference Books: Three Main Categories

When I teach costuming workshops, I always include a reference list of what I consider essential books. These are the tried and true publications that I will find myself referring to again and again. If you have purchased one of my DIY books, you will find much more comprehensive reading lists in the back of my books.  But when I’m recommending reference books for a new costumer, I like to break them into three main categories:

  • Sewing Books – Instructional manuals for the techniques of constructing garments.
  • Design Books – Books with information on the process of design.
  • Illustration Books – Basic fashion drawing skills are essential for designers at all levels.

Sewing Books

The truth is, I own a lot of sewing books, but there are only a few I refer to over and over again. So if your budget is small, focus on picking up one all-purpose basic sewing guide.  But if you have a slightly bigger budget, or already have a basic guide, check out the rest on my shortlist.

Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing – Link
This is the book that I personally use when teaching sewing.  If you only get one sewing book – this is it!  Great info on using sewing machines, construction techniques, and finishing techniques. There are many other references that cover these essentials and really only need one in your library.  Here are links to a few other good all-purpose sewing reference books:

      • Vogue Sewing, Revised and UpdatedLink
      • Singer: The Complete Photo Guide to SewingLink
      • The Sewing Book: Over 300 Step-by-Step Techniques by Alison Smith – Link

Costumer Technicians Handbook – by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey – Link
This book is essential for anyone who is working or looking to work in a theatrical environment does a lot of cosplay, and wants to do more than “just sew.”  My second edition copy is so beat up, with raggedy edges, a broken spine, and coffee stains from years of use. Here are a few other theatrical and historic costuming books I recommend if you’re working in theater:

      • Costume Designer’s Handbook by Rosmary Inghamlink
      • Fundamentals of Theatrical Design by Karen Brewsterlink
      • Designing Costumes for Stage and Screen – Link 

How to Use, Adapt, and Design Sewing Patterns by Lee Hollahan – Link
This is the book I use in my own costume design classes – very affordable at about $25 and useful for anyone who sews.  But this is especially great for adapting commercial patterns into custom dancewear. I highly advocate mixing and matching pattern pieces to create totally unique garments. This book will help you understand how patterns really work.  This is a great book for students and home sewists.  If you are looking for a more in-depth pattern making or draping book, check out these titles:

      • The Pattern Making Primer by Jo Barnfield – Link
      • Pattern Making for Fashion Design by Helen Joseph Armstrong- Link
      • The Art of Fashion Draping by Connie Amaden-Crawford – Link

Couture Sewing: Making Designer Trims by Claire B. Shaeffer – Link Here
Many of the hand sewing techniques I use for belly dance costuming come from the world of couture. In this book, you will find all sorts of hand-sewing surface embellishment techniques and machine-sewn construction details adaptable for use on dance costumes. Love this book and refer to it for both design ideas and instruction methods. And it’s a steal of a deal for under $20.  Other great books by Claire Shaeffer in my collection include:

      • Couture Sewing Techniques –  Link
      • Couture Sewing: Tailoring TechniquesLink
      • Couture Sewing: The Couture Cardigan JacketLink

Design Books

When I’m teaching costuming workshops, one of my most frequently said catchphrases is “Think Like A Designer.”  Design is a process composed of a series of choices.  During the design process, you move through different phases from inspirational spark and research to sewing and the finished design.

These are the books that I recommend to help you build more conceptual tools for approaching design projects.  These books will help you identify what skills you need to develop, help you build your own workflow for your design process, and help you learn to make faster and better choices during your projects. Here are my top three books in print today:

Fashion Design Essentials:100 Principles of Fashion Design by Jay Calderin –  Link
This is referent book introduces different design concepts in a dictionary form.  This book expands on the basic principles and elements of design into a depth and breadth to inspire you to think like a designer.

Fashion Design Course: Principles, Practice and Techniques by Steven FaermLink
Over the past three years, I’ve been using this book for my “Think Like A Designer” workshops.  Although you might only be working on costumes for yourself, if you sew for other people, or have a small costuming business, this would be a great book for your reference shelf.

Designing Costumes for the Stage and Screen by Dierdre Clancy Link
I’ve used this book when teaching costume design workshops for many years. I’m actually thinking of picking up the latest edition to replace my battered old first edition. This is title is a textbook for theatrical costuming classes at the college level.  Highly Recommended!

Illustration Books

There are a couple of essential drawing techniques that every costume designer should know how to do. These don’t have to be works of art, but they should be very informative for you. If you only sew for yourself, think of them as visual notes.  If you work with clients or sew for other people, it’s a way of communicating what’s in your mind.

  • Simple garment illustration – This will show the silhouette of the overall shape on a proportional figure, dress form, or croquis.
  • Pattern Flats – These simple drawings will help you visualize the pattern pieces needed for the garment.
  • Surface Design Patterns – These are illustrations of how you plan on covering the surface of your costumes with beading, embellishments, and fabric manipulation techniques.

Over the long 30 years of my career, my tastes and preferred style in fashion illustration have changed.  Here are my top three books currently:

Fashion Illustration & Design: Methods and Techniques for Achieving Professional Results by Manuela Brambatti – Link
Fashion Illustration books vary in taste and style, and this particular book is to my “Taste” and drawing style. It covers all the basics from establishing proportions of the body, to illustrating various textures of textiles and  I personally love the way they demonstrate skirt draping and ruffles.

Draw Fashion Now by Danielle Meder – Link
This is a wonderful illustrator who presents the same basic content but in the latest illustration style, you can spot in current fashion magazines and design house websites.  A great all-purpose fashion illustration book at a nice price.

Figure it Out!  Beginner’s Guide To Drawing People by Christopher Hart – Link
Rather than a book specifically on fashion, this one focuses on the body and movement rather than on the clothing.  Not geared specifically to costume and clothing, but it’s a fun book that I consider essential for learning body proportions.  It’s also quite affordable at about $18

Wanna spend a little more on fashion Illustration?  Check out these additional titles:

      • Fashion Design Sketchbook: Women’s Wear Fashion by Irinia V. Ivanova – Link
      • Modern Fashion Illustration: Create Trending Stories & Develop a Personal Brand by Holly Nichols – Link
      • Fashion Design Studio: Learn to Draw Figures, Fashion, Hairstyles & More by Christopher Hart – Link

What’s Your Favorite Costuming Book?

Do you have an essential that wasn’t mentioned here?  Come join the conversation over in my Facebook Group “Studio Davina: Behind the Seams” where we talk about my two favorite things, costuming and books.  (oh, and I also post too many pictures of my cats!) Or follow me on Instagram and drop me a line in the DM’s.  I’m always looking for new references and resources, so thanks in advance for sharing your favorites!

I hope that you have a creative and happy holiday season!
Dawn Devine ~ Davina
November 16, 2020

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By Davina

Davina ~ Dawn Devine is a belly dance costume designer, dance instructor and author of more than a dozen publications on Middle Eastern dance.