Outfitting a Vodacce Fate Witch

New! Read Johanna's Ongoing Journal Donning The Veil/Outfitting The Montaigne 
and learn from her mistakes as she prepares for Time And Tide Wait For No Man - A 7th Sea LARP at ConQuest 2003.

Revised Prologue - June 2003
I wrote this article in early 2001, in anticipation of an event that didn't happen. Regardless, I was happy to have learned something from the process - I made a muslin of one potential dress and discovered that the dress was a bad idea, see below for details.

In June of 2003, the notion of a 7th Sea larp has returned from the dead - to my pleasant surprise - and it looks like a friend of mine will be running an event at ConQuest (in Palo Alto, CA) over Labor Day weekend. I'll be starting my own sewing efforts shortly, and I'm making a costume for my husband, who will be playing a foppish Montaigne sea captain. Feel free to read all about it in Donning The Vodacce Veil and Outfitting the Montaigne.

I'm lucky in that I can sew a little - I've put together a few patterns over the past few years - and I'm willing to take some time and improve my skill. I also have the great good luck to be friends with several seamstresses who leave me in their dust, and they're willing to help me when I get myself into a bind (sometimes literally).

The first section of this document is for anyone - sewers and non-sewers alike. But when it comes to the Pattern Suggestions section, you do not want to tackle any of them unless you know which end of a sewing machine is which. Some of the patterns I am suggesting are beyond my current skill level, but they look too nifty to pass up. Read the comments that accompany pattern recommendations. Otherwise, have at and have fun.

Finally a warning: a lot of what I'm about to describe for the Fate Witch's look is entirely arbitrary, based upon my observations and opinions of AEG's source material regarding the Fate Witches. Nothing is set in stone. This document is here to inspire, not dictate.

7th Sea is a heckuva game. As a historical fantasy, it takes it's sartorial cues from the late Tudor era, clear through the reign of the Sun King and beyond, into the realm of fantasy. For a costumer, this can present quite a challenge, particularly when one takes a knowledge of historical costuming and run it up against the illustrations in the 7th Sea line of books. Fortunately, this can only mean one thing for anyone hoping to outfit a 7th Sea character: fun!

This document is solely concerned with garbing a Fate Witch character. Frankly, that task alone is proving enough of a challenge. If I'm inspired to garb another race, I will create another document.

The Fate Witch Couture - Or, How The Veils Are Being Worn This Season
Judging by the core rulebook for 7th Sea and the Vodacce sourcebook, the Fate Witches are quite distinctively different from their courtesan brethren. While the highly-managed whores of the Vodacce courts move around like well dressed butterflies packed into tight bodices with revealingly slashed sleeves, all resplendent in brightly colored silks and damasks, the Fate witches prefer to play up their dark and solitary reputation as much as possible.
     Fabrics are dark - usually black - and, with the exception of lace overskirts and (sometimes) sleeves, quite heavy. Brocade, jacquard, velvet, crepe satin, silk shantung, heavy linen abound. Coverage is almost total - barring the occasional deep neckline - with long sleeves and full length skirts. Trains are occasional, but usually restricted to court functions. Layering is an option for wealthier ladies - the more fabric you show off, the richer you obviously are. But the Fate Witches shy away from the sheer gaudiness and frippery of the vapid courtesans. Let them wear three skirts and two petticoats...
     Although a somber wardrobe might strike one as potentially monotonous, there is room for variety within the choice of  fabric and trimmings. Just because a lady is wearing dark colors, it doesn't mean she has to be plain. Far from it. Subtly patterned jacquard and brocade saves a long dress from severity. Scalloped lace might adorn hems and sleeves - or perhaps some silk cording. Shiny little glass beads scattered across a bodice sparkle like raindrops on a dark night and never underestimate the effect of light playing across a nice bit of heavy crepe...
     And, of course, one must not neglect the veil. From a simple chin-length swathe of dark tulle on a comb to a full, multi-layered creation of lace that sweeps the ground and requires more bobby pins to secure that most of us have fingers and toes, the darkened veil is the most distinctive item in the Fate Witch's regalia.

Yeah, Great, Very Pretty. So what do I need to do?
     That depends entirely upon your budget and your abilities. Let's start with at the cheapest/easiest end of the scale and work our way up.

Think Gothic.
     Unsurprisingly enough, the Gothic style is quite compatible with that of the Fate Witch. It's dark, it's spooky, it has a tendency for lots of lacey bits - it's almost perfect!
     The simplest outfit would be a black lace overdress, that fits over an opaque black slip. You can find this kind of dress in any over-the-counter-culture store - such as Hot Topic - starting at about $40. Also, try E-bay, as a lot of Hot Topic's house brand items (LipService, Tragedy) have a tendency to pop up there, new and used. Goths are forever needing to clear out their wardrobes, it seems. Also, scroll down to my links section for places to buy used gothic clothing online.
     Also, go to your local thrift stores and look for used prom dresses of the black and lacey variety. A lot of them will have nasty little frou-frous on them - bows and sashes and such like. Take a look at the dress and see if they can be removed without the dress falling apart (or leaving a bare patch).
     A petticoat under a skirt might help give it a bit of period-evocative fullness. Petticoats can be found at thrift stores, or bought at bridal shops for about forty dollars. Buy one that can be adjusted in length (or at least one that you can hike up onto your rib cage, if you have to) so you don't have a white petticoat flashing from under your dark skirts. If you have a friend who was recently married with some pomp and circumstance, they might have a petticoat they can loan you - they seem to be de-rigueur under formal wedding gowns...
     Remember: black lace good. Black vinyl bad.
     That said, you don't have to stick to just black. An accent in dark red or midnight blue can do wonders for an outfit, so don't agonize if you find something that looks almost right, except for those burgundy insets on the sleeve. Run with it! After all, despite the level I sometimes go to for game costuming, this is just a game.
     You want something that is full length and long sleeved. Short sleeves can be made up for with long gloves - lace or velour. I would stay away from spandex gloves. First of all, I don't think lycra was exactly common in the courts of Thea and it's a bitch to pick up anything while wearing spandex gloves. You can find lace/velvet opera gloves at any Claire's-style teenybop accessory boutique in your neighborhood mall for about $15.
     And never underestimate the power of begging. Maybe a friend of yours had a long, black, lacy dress that they are willing to loan you. Clean it before you give it back to them, and return the favor when they need to borrow something of yours.
     Hot Topic dresses that aren't perfect, but can be considered. Click on the thumbnail to see them full-sized. All of these can be found at Hot Topic's Website as of February, 2002. For plus sizes, look for the "Torrid" label, which is Hot Topic's house-brand for plus-sizes.

Click on the thumbnails to see a full-sized image

Not the best, but viable

Ignore the skirt in this picture, just imagine the top with a lace or brocade skirt.

This one is expensive, but pretty.

     I would rather see a Fate Witch in a thrift-store lace dress rather than colorful Renn-Faire gear. Faire garb may look closer to to the courts of Vodacce, but the colors will skew everyone's perception of you. If Theus had meant the witches to be colorful, He wouldn't have made them so scary.

Time to Sew!
     To heck with that thrift-store dumpster-diving and dragging around the mall! You've got a sewing machine and you know how to use it! If I had to name a period to draw from for the Vodacce court...well, I can't. My best-guess (and I'm not a historical costumer) would be height-of-Italian-Renaissance, with a big dash of the Sun King's court thrown in. Stay away from the huge side-pannier skirts of Louis XIV, though.
     Once again, I have to remind myself that this is just a game, so one shouldn't necessarily exhaust oneself as if prepping for a Renaissance Faire. There is no precise 'period' that has to be adhered to, so that gives you a lot of flexibility for inspirations and patterns. Don't be a slave to history! Look for something that will be evocative and flattering most of all!

Mix and Match
     A viable option is mix and match, especially if you've got some ability to sew.
     Skirts are easy to make and there are lots of patterns out there. Try laying black burnout velvet over burgundy satin, or black lace over a black solid. It's a striking effect and very easy to do. Or look for yards of a subtly patterned black satin. You can buy lace trim and sew it on easily enough and never forget that the glue gun can be your best friend when you're trying to re-attach a paste-gem that fell off your bottom hem...
     That leaves the tricky part - what to wear on your top half. Believe it or not, there are some 'corset-inspired' items sold at such places as Midnight Fashions and Frederick's Of Hollywood (select 'corsets and bustiers) that could be worn with a skirt - either over a lacy blouse or with long gloves and a shawl. They're a little flashy for a Fate Witch, maybe, but everyone will recognize you're putting in a credible effort. 

From the Ground, Up...
     When it comes to creating your own Vodacce outfit, you've got two options. One would be to go "by the book" and the other would be to create something evocative of the witches, without necessarily being a slave to the rather limited examples published so far in the sourcebooks. Before I give you my own suggestions, lets take a look at the visuals provided by the books.

Click on the thumbnails to see a full-sized image

I think what is most immediately apparent from these three images is that all three call on a bodice and separate arm cuffs in a matching fabric, over a chemise. The first two pictures suggest a bodice with straps, the final picture is strapless. The exaggerated stomacher of the second picture is rather interesting - although I would hate to try to sew it myself. The skirts are invariably full-length, but I think it can be left up to you to decide if there should be one skirt, or two. Anyways, lets take a look at some patterns to achieve what has been shown here.

Patterns for "Going By The Book"
Click on the thumbnails...you get the idea

This is Alter Years' back-laced bodice, suitable for the nobility and middle class at your local Renaissance Faire. I've heard good things about all AY patterns, and have used a couple myself, but I would be leery of using a back-lace bodice unless I know I've got a friend to help me get dressed.

Also by Alter Years, this is a side laced bodice, also suitable for nobility and the middle class - the difference depends upon your choices of fabric and trim. This would be a little easier to climb into by yourself.

Another by Alter Years - yes, it's a trend. This is their front-laced bodice, which was used only by the peasantry - because the middle class and nobles had servants to help them dress. However, it's the easiest of the three to put on by yourself, so you might want to consider it.

Alter Years' noblewoman's shirt. You really want to make this - or any sort of chemise - unless you feel like showing a lot of cleavage and risk having the courtesans call you 'showy'. No matter what fabrics you're using, make this out of of cotton, as it's going to be right next to your skin.

     For all of these bodices, particularly the back and side-laced versions, you should make an Elizabethan corset to wear underneath, to get the proper fit. However, it's not the end of the world if you decide to skip it. Alter Years - big surprise - offer a great easy-to-make Elizabethan corset pattern (featured below). But if you decide to skip it, you had better put on your best brassiere underneath the bodice, as these garments are cut with the assumption that you're getting a lot of support from your underpinnings.
     To make the sleeve "cuffs" is fairly simple. Just cut quadrangles (not quite rectangles, as one end of your arm is going to be a different size from the other - make a muslin, first) out of your bodice fabric, finish them with whatever trim you like and add grommets for the lace closure. If you've got time, I would suggest covering the grommets with embroidery thread, to hide the metal. Or, if you're fiendishly clever with your sewing machine, circular buttonholes will do the trick just fine. Lace the cuffs over the sleeve of your poufy chemise and adjust as needed.

     To make the skirts - and the chemise, really - you can use almost any one of the many commercial patterns available from "The Big Three" - Butterick, McCall's or Simplicity. I'll be suggesting a couple in a moment. Those patterns usually call on elastic on the waist, neckline and cuffs, and so are very quick to make, adjustable and quite comfortable. Personally, I'm a little leery of using an elastic waist on a skirt made out of a heavy fabric, but to each their own. If you have enough skill to gather/pleat/cartridge pleat your skirts onto a waistband, then do so. The result will be much more formal and flattering.
     If you are looking to go whole hog - or you're hoping to recycle some elements of this outfit into "Faire-legal" garb, then you will want to look for an authentic pattern for your skirts, overskirt, farthingale, stomacher, etc. For an excellent collection of garb patterns for Elizabethan nobility - which can be converted to Vodacce-friendly wear - I suggest you check out Margo Anderson's Patterns. They're utterly complete, very authentic and worth the price. Of course, if you're that into costuming, you probably didn't need to come to this site in the first place!
Forget the Book, I Want To Go My Own Way!

     Ah, you're like me, then - a masochist. I'm glad I'm not the only one.
     Below are some patterns that I have found and evaluated. Please note that I have not sewn all of these patterns myself, but I have bought all of them, had a good look at the instructions and have sized them up against my experienced-yet-not-real-skilled sewing abilities. So keep that in mind when you're reading my comments.

Click on the thumbnails to see a full-sized image

McCalls' 2242
Also good for courtesans, just choose your fabric aptly. The bodice is so finicky and time consuming that I think you might be better off making the Alter-Years equivalent. But the pattern is good for the skirts and chemise.

McCalls' 3053
Gorgeous renaissance-themed wedding dress. 
Advanced/experienced sewers, only

After a bit of research, I've noticed that this pattern shows a lot of kinship with Italian Renaissance gowns, which is why I've featured it here..
I've made a muslin of this pattern - check out my report.

Simplicity 9533
A cool surcoat.
The dress is available, too, as a separate pattern.

Simplicity 9255
 Definitely requires some experience to sew, but not as fiendish as the wedding dress, above. Overlook the colors on the pattern packet, and imagine it done in complimentary black brocade and lace. Very gothic, really.

Butterick 4649
Every veil pattern you could possibly need. 
Very easy to make -although if you make the cathedral-length veil, you will be spending a lot
of money on fabric.  
If your veil isn't opaque enough, try a double layer of organza under lace - but make sure you can see where you're going!

Alter Years' Easy Elizabethan Corset.
Don't let the boning frighten you, this pattern really is very easy. I made it in less than a day. The most time consuming part was marking and sewing the boning channels. 
Technically, this is underwear, but I've done a brocade-covered version and used it as outerwear with no problems.

     Shoes are going to be a bitch. You cannot get away with a pair of comfy sneakers when playing a Fate Witch, no matter how long your skirt might be. For simplicity's sake, I would recommend a pair of black ballet slippers, over black stockings. However, if you're on your feet for several hours, that could hurt after a while. Dark dress shoes of a sensible cut will be acceptable, and give you a little height, too. But leave the strappy-stilettos at home - wear something with a closed toe and wide heel. Pointy-goth boots are also doubtful, although if they're not too pointy and your skirt is long, you can probably get away with it. 
     If you're going with bare shoulders, I think a shawl is a must. They're very popular accessories right now, so go hit Macy's or even Sears and see what they have in the way of something black-and-pretty. Or buy a couple of yards of a mass-produced lace at a fabric store, cut it into a big triangle and finish the edges with a seam or add a fringe.
     I've always been a fan of fans. A nice little black fan can be an accessory and a handy tool for counter pointing conversation. It also gives you something to fiddle with when you're not shuffling Tarot cards.
     A pouch-and-drawstring purse, made of a fabric that matches your dress will be handy for carrying all the little things you're going to need. Even if your sewing skills are minimal, a simple pouch is easy to make. Get a circular bit of fabric (either one piece, or in as many sewn-together pie-sections as needed, depending upon the state of your scraps if you've been sewing) and put holes about two inches away from the edge, all the way around. Dab the holes with a bit of fray-check (you can buy that at a sewing store) and run some black cord through the holes. It'll look a bit rough, but it'll work. Also look around at prom season for a fancy little bag that might serve your needs. 
     And if you're feeling silly, perch a toy spider on your shoulder and murmur endearments to it from time to time. You'll scare the piss out of those snotty courtesans...

What About the Veil?
     Make one. Even if you can't sew, you can make a veil. Trust me on this. Buy the Butterick 4649 packet of patterns and choose the style you like. Now, you're in trouble because the patterns count on your buying bridal tulle that is sold in 72-inch wide bolts. Bridal tulle is never black - unless you're getting married somewhere rather interesting - and you can't dye the stuff, so what do you do? A make-do solution isn't too difficult. 
     The easiest solution is to alter the pattern to accommodate 54-inch organza and tulle that you can find at your fabric store. That means your veil won't be quite as full as you might like, but you're spared a seam going down the middle of your headdress.
     If you're using a decorative lace - something with a lot of pattern to it, you can probably piece together two lengths to achieve a full width. The fall of the lace and the pattern of it (if it's complex enough) will hide the seam. That is a judgment call you're going to have to make.
     The tricky thing is striking a balance between form and function. The Fate Witches go about heavily veiled, so that no-one may inadvertently catch their eye - and risk all those terrible things the folk tales say will befall you should you catch the eye of a Fate Witch. So you want something that's a little more opaque than just a single layer of tulle or chiffon. After all, a person can see right through that. But you don't want to be walking into walls, either. Again, this is going to be a judgment call on your part... In my case, I've picked up some very dark silvery-black tulle which I think will hide my face just fine with one layer - the reflective element of the tulle helps. But the fabric is a bit stiff and it might not hang well, so I'm also considering about layering a wide-patterned lace I have, over sheer black chiffon - the chiffon I have is much thinner and lighter. This is one of those things I'll decide when the time comes...
     Safety is more important than verisimilitude! You're going to feel really dumb if you make yourself a gorgeous outfit and then spend most of the game unconscious because you walked into a door. Trust me on this.
     If you have a little money to burn, Mask Makers can make you a custom gothic veil for $80. Ramble through their site - it's gorgeous - and consider it as an option if you have the resources. Since the veils are custom made, you can dictate an all-black item, rather than the black and red one I've linked to...
     If you're working with little notice - or you just can't find a veil pattern you like - you can be pretty inventive with just a length of lace or chiffon, a glue gun and a hair comb. Glue guns, if you don't already have one, are insanely useful and the dual-temperature mini-type are less than $20 at a hardware store. Black combs are dirt cheap at your local drugstore, of course. For lace, either visit your local fabric store, or even go to a thrift store and buy a long black lacey dress from which you can remove the lace and use that. I'm forever scavenging clothes for fabric, you'll be surprised how well it works, sometimes... Muck about with bunching the lace onto the comb - or perhaps a headband, for greater area - and just play with it until it looks right, then glue it down. Be sure to use the low temperature on your glue gun, lest you melt your lace. Carefully pin/glue a black flower or piece of ribbon on top of the lace/comb fusion, if the glue shows through once its set.
     For more advice about making veils, I highly recommend the book I Do Veils and So Can You! The title is insipid, but the book contains all the information you could ever want about making bridal headpieces. You can find it in the bridal section of most bookstores, or at your favorite online bookseller.

A Note on Dyeing Fabrics
     You've found some lace that would make a great veil or skirt trim, but it's only available in white. No problem - just get a box of Rit and dye it, right? 
     Most mass-produced laces are polyester. Artificial fibers do not take dye. Not 'don't take it well', they don't take it at all. If you're feeling brave, purchase a small swatch and do a test dye, but don't be surprised if it comes out a funny shade of grayish brown. Black lace is hard to find (if you find a good source, tell me!) but don't try dyeing any lace you find, unless it's pure cotton or silk - although why you would dye a nice bit of silk, I don't know...
     Also, if you're dyeing fabrics and have access to a washing machine, machine-dyeing is a lot easier than doing it in your bathtub. Most laundromats have a policy against using their machines for dyeing (go figure) but if you just run an empty load with a full dose of bleach after you're done tinting, they'll never know. Incidentally, you're going to want to bleach any washer you use for tinting, unless you want to explain to your partner why, when they ran the washer the next day, their good shirts went in white and came out with a distinct gray tint.

     A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of learning how to sew, which is quite silly really. Anyone can learn to sew, if they're patient and keep at it. Most fabric stores offer lessons for just the cost of a simple pattern and fabric - and they'll keep teaching customers as much as they want to learn. Also check out your local community college, or even city-sponsored adult education classes for lessons in sewing, costuming and even flat-pattern design. If you can master the basics, you can tackle several of the patterns I've recommended here - and a good sewing how-to book will help you out of many scrapes! 
     You've got a lot of options out there, far beyond my few scanty suggestions. Take a look at the 7th Sea books to get an idea of the 'look' of the period. Watch a few period movies too, if you like - Shakespeare in Love is a house favorite at my place - as they are always inspiring. Then set out and see what you can do. Good luck!

Epilogue - 2002
     It's February 2002, and I think it's time for an update. If you haven't already, check out my report on McCall's pattern 3053, which I finished a mock-up of late last year.
     Anyways... after making - and discarding - the McCall's 3053 pattern, I have got only one more piece of advice for my fellow seamstresses and it's one that holds true for any project: just because it looks great on the packet, doesn't mean it's going to look great on you. Keep your own body-shape in mind as you select patterns. If you're faced with a choice between "authenticity" - as far as there is such a thing in this particular area - and something that will be more flattering to your figure, take the flattery!
     I've decided that I'm going to stick with the more traditional English Renaissance Elizabethan look if/when I put together my Fate Witch outfit. I'm going to downplay the petticoats/skirt hoops - I'm big enough around the hip already, thanks - and take some cues from the Victorians when it comes to lacey ornamentations and frippery. With the right fabrics - and the right character performance - I'm sure it'll look great! Watch this space for further developments!

Links And Places To Go

The Greater Bay Area Costumer's Guild - the first place I go when I'm thinking about buying any costuming patterns. Their Great Pattern Review has saved me from making some terrible choices! Ignore it at your peril!

Lacis - the place in the Bay Area to get corsetry supplies, including flat and spring-steel boning. Many products are available via mail-order.

Alter Years - where you can buy all of those Alter Years' patterns which I have heartily reccomended. Or you can buy most of them at Lacis, if you live in their vicinity.

Margo Anderson Patterns - highly acclaimed patterns for English Elizabethan garb. Definitely for the experienced seamstress, I think, but worth the cost and effort.

Jo-Ann's Fabrics - Every other week they seem to be having a sale. Get on their mailing list and watch out for 99cent pattern sales.

Stone Mountain and Daughter - Another Berkeley staple for sewers. A huge variety of fabrics, very reasonably priced.

Discount Fabric Warehouse - 3rd and Bryant, San Francisco. Open 9 to 5, seven days a week. A great selection of discount velvets, jacquards and brocades, all piled atop each other. Very much luck-of-the-draw, but, heck, you might get lucky! There are other stores in this chain at 2100 Mission (near Mission and 16th BART) and on Haight, by Masonic. The stores tend to carry similar inventories, so if you go to one, you've seen them all - although I think the best selection of velvet is at the 3rd and Bryant store.

Thai Silks - 252 State Street Los Altos. This is the place for cut-price silk and velvet. A friend of mine scored five yards of pure silk velvet for twelve dollars a yard just in time for Faire Season. Definitely worth a visit!

BunyCraft Fabrics - Online sales, only. Another place that seems to have a sale every two weeks. The proprietor, Kay, is a great lady, and is often willing to haggle a bit if you're buying in bulk. Also check out her listing on e-bay, seller name is bunycraft Britex - Off Union Square in San Francisco. Very expensive, but a great place to go for the perfect trims. I once leaned against a bolt of $400/yard fabric in the store and nearly went into cardiac arrest.

The Velvet Garden - A great place to look for gently-used gothic clothing for men and women. Get on their mailing list and receive weekly notices about the latest additions to the inventory.