Category: John Wilkes Booth Paletot

Drafting the Forepart

Moving now onto the forepart draft, square a line down from 0. This can be anywhere to the left of the back piece depending on how much room you have on your paper – I moved it over a bit to make things a little clearer.

Square down from 0 the following points:

  • 4 graduated inches from 0 for the shoulder angle and neck point.
  • 7 1/2 graduated inches from 0(this should already be marked from the back and hopefully correspond) for the armscye width.
  • 10 graduated inches from 0 for the bottom of the armscye and width of the chest.

These next points can be followed if you kept the 17 1/4 graduated inches for the natural waist length – if you altered that to correspond to your actual measurement skip this section and follow the next diagram. These points help form the side body.

  • 18 1/2 graduated inches from 0.
  • 19 3/4 graduated inches from 0 should already be marked from the back.
  • 21 3/4 from 0 for the bottom of the side body.

If you did alter the waist length, simply measure out the following points from the natural waist line instead. This should help ensure all the lengths agree with each other.

  • Measure up 1 1/4 graduated inches.
  • Measure down 2 graduated inches.

Square out and mark the following widths:

  • 10 1/4 graduated inches from 0 for the shoulder point.
  • 17 1/2 graduated inches from 0 for the overall width. Square down from 17 1/2.
  • 16 graduated inches from 4 for the neck point. This may be altered later to adjust the width of the lapels.
  • 1 1/2 graduated inches from 7 1/2 for the side body point.
  • 6 3/4 graduated inches from 7 1/2 for the width of the armscye.
  • 4 3/4 graduated inches from 10 for the bottom of the armscye. Square this line all the way across.
  • 5 3/4 graduated inches from 18 1/2 for the bottom of the side body seam.
  • 16 1/2 graduated inches from 19 3/4 for the waist opening.
  • In the opposite direction on this same line, measure 2 1/4 graduated inches from 19 3/4.

Now we’ll draw some more construction lines to aid in drawing the various curves. Draw lines from:

  • 10 1/4 to 4 for the shoulder seam.
  • Measure the back shoulder seam from 7 1/2 to 1/2 (along the straight construction line). Apply this exact measurement from 10 1/4 to find X.
  • 16 to 10 1/4 for the neck seam.
  • X to 6 3/4 to 4 3/4 to 1 1/2 for the armscye.
  • 16 to 17 1/2 to 16 1/2 to the bottom corner of the draft for the front of the coat.
  • 4 3/4 to 5 3/4 for the side seam. Continue the line through 5 3/4 to the waist line to aid in drawing out the curves in the next step.

Square out the following lines to find the depths of the curves:

  • First find one-third of the distance from 10 1/4 towards 16. Square in 1 1/8 graduated inches.
  • From the center of 10 1/4 to X, square out 5/8 of a graduated inch.
  • From the center of X to 6 3/4, square in 1/2 of a graduated inch.
  • From the center of 6 3/4 to 4 3/4, square in 7/8 of a graduated inch.
  • From the center of 4 3/4 to 1 1/2, square in 3/4 of a graduated inch.
  • On the main construction line from 0, measure 4 graduated inches below 7 1/2. Square out 3/4 of a graduated inch.
  • At the bottom of the side seam from 4 3/4 to 5 3/4, where it intersects the waist line, mark 1/2 of a graduated inch on either side. You could extend this to 3/4 if you find you need a bit more room.

Now draw the following curves.

  • Shoulder seam from 10 1/4 through 5/8 to X.
  • Armscye from X through 6 3/4 — 4 3/4 — to 1 1/2.
  • Neck seam from 10 1/4 through 1 1/8 to 16.
  • Shape the front edge with a graceful curve from 16 through 17 1/2 and 16 1/2. The curve reverses direction at the waist.
  • Draw the side body seam from 1 1/2 through 3/4 to 21 3/4. It’s a compound curve again and kind of reverses direction just above 18 1/2, though it’s not actually running through points 18 1/2 and 19 3/4.
  • At the bottom of the side seam, an inch or so above 5 3/4, draw to curves to the points on the waist line to help spring out the waist and make room for the hips. This is a little confusing as the curve on the left is for the side body and the curve on the right is for the forepart.
  • Complete the bottom of the forepart by drawing a straight line from the left point beneath 5 3/4 to 21 3/4.
  • Finally, for the curved bottom edge at the center front, measure equal distances from the main intersection – I did 4 graduated inches. The draw a curve as shown. Using a plate or something round can be helpful here.

To finish off the main part of the draft, we’ll finish up the front skirt.

  • Draw a line from the bottom of the side seam where it curves to the right (it’s along the waistline so it’s technically already drawn) to 2 1/4.
  • Spring up the last 7/8 of the line by 3/8 graduated inches as shown to match the spring in the back waist.
  • Draw a line down from 2 1/4 at a similar angle to that shown – about 30 degrees from vertical is a good starting point. Make this line the same length as the corresponding seam on the back skirt. You’ll probably get some overlap of the forepart onto the back but it’s nothing to worry about – easy to copy each piece onto a separate sheet of paper.
  • If you want or need more fullness in the skirt you can raise that first skirt line up by about 1/2 graduated inch and spring out the back skirt seam even more as necessary.
  • Finish up the draft by drawing a very slightly curved seam along the bottom edge of the skirt. It should be at 90 degrees to the back of the skirt and taper gracefully into the curve at the center front.

Drafting the Back

We’ll begin drafting, as usual, with the back of the coat. First, draw a square horizontally and vertically. This should be wide enough to fit the coat and the a little longer than the total length, but of course you can simply extend the lines if necessary later on.

All measurements should be in graduated inches, corresponding to your chest size, unless otherwise noted. Also, I’m using dashed lines here to denote construction lines but in practice I just use a solid pencil line for everything.

From the intersection, measure 2 1/2 graduated inches down and mark 0. The back lengths are all measured from this 0 point rather than the intersection.

  • 3 7/8 graduated inches from 0 for the rear shoulder point.
  • 5 graduated inches from 0.
  • 5 graduated inches from 0.
  • 17 1/4 graduated inches from 0 for the natural waist. I highly recommend checking this to your actual measurement in inches just to compare the two.
  • 19 graduated inches from 0 for the dropped waist common during the 1860s.
  • 39 graduated inches from 0 for the total length of the jacket. Devere gives 39 here but it’s quite likely too long, especially for larger chest sizes, so use your actual measurement here.

Now we’ll square lines across from each of those points and mark the following distances.

  • 2 3/8 graduated inches from 0. Then square up 1/2 graduated inches as shown for the back shoulder/neck point.
  • 7 1/2 graduated inches from 3 7/8 for the width of back.
  • 7 1/2 graduated inches from 5 for the bottom of the armscye. This line also forms the front armscye so you can extend it further as shown.
  • 1 1/2 and 3 7/8 graduated inches from 17 1/4 for the back width of the waist.
  • 1 1/2 graduated inches from 19.
  • Square across from 39 for the bottom of your draft.

Now we’ll add some construction lines to make drawing the curves a little easier.

  • Draw a line from 0 to 1 1/2, extending it straight down to the line at 19. This forms the center back with a slight amount of ‘spring’ below the waist.
  • Draw a line parallel to the line from 0 – 1 1/2, from 3 7/8. This is more of a guide for forming the back curve but does form the other side of the back at the waist.
  • Back near the top, draw a line from the 1/2 mark to the top 7 1/2 mark for the shoulder curve.
  • From the lower 7 1/2 to 1 1/2, draw a line to aid in drawing the back curve.

These next two small lines give the depths of each curve.

  • Find the center of the shoulder seam and square a line inwards 3/8 of a graduated inch.
  • On the line from 7 1/2 – 1 1/2, measure 4 graduated inches from 7 1/2 and square inward 3/4 of a graduated inch.

With the construction lines drawn, we can add in the curves now.

  • From 1/2 – 0 draw a curve for the back neck.
  • Draw a curve from 7 1/2 through 3/8 to 1/2 for the shoulder seam.
  • From 7 1/2 to 7 1/2 draw a very slight curve for the back of the armscye.
  • From the lower 7 1/2 through 3/4 to through 3 7/8, draw a curve, straightening the curve as it hits the construction line and continuing straight to line 19.
  • Finally, add a very shallow curve at 1 1/2 near the waist just to soften the angle a little.

Finally, we’ll finish up the back piece with the skirt area.

  • At the top of the skirt near 19, ‘spring out’ the top about 1/8 of a graduated inch at 19.
  • From 19 to 39, give a very slight curve, deeper near the top half, to the center back of the skirt. When the back skirt is made up, it will give the appearance of being a straight line, ideally, as it goes over the curve of the seat.
  • Again at line 19 at the side seam area, mark a line at line 19, 7/8 of a graduated inch past the construction line coming from 3 7/8. Also spring up here 3/8 of a graduated inch.
  • Measure the width of the skirt at line 19. Add 3/4 of a graduated inch to the bottom width of the skirt at 39.
  • Redraw the side of the skirt from 3/8 to 3/4 as shown.
  • Finally, draw a slight curve to the bottom, ensuring that the angle at 3/4 is at 90 degrees, as well as at 39.

From Photograph to Pattern

Working on the John Wilkes Booth photograph itself, I found that adjusting the contrast did not really help at all with this particular image, so I went into Inkscape for the following. Inkscape is more of an illustration program and allows you to draw what is known as vector lines, lines that maintain their resolution and crispness no matter how far you zoom in.

I’ll use Inkscape to help me lay out proportions and various angles as necessary. The main tool you’ll want to use is called the pen tool, and allows you to draw straight and curved lines with extreme accuracy. Using Inkscape is a little outside the scope of this tutorial, but if you search Youtube or elsewhere there are plenty of good tutorials.

First, I tried to lay out the proportions of the body as best I could. It’s a well-known principle of anatomy that the human body is 7 1/2 to 8 heads tall, so I drew a horizontal line at both the top and bottom of his head. Then I duplicated the lines and shifted them downwards so that the upper duplicated line overlapped the lower original line at the bottom of the head, and repeated the process down the body. It doesn’t quite work due to the perspective of the photo and angle of his feet, but it should be plenty close enough for our purposes.

John Wilkes Booth was 5’8″ tall. So by dividing that by 7 1/2, that should give us the approximate distance between each of the lines. 68 / 7.5 = 9.06. 9 inches is definitely close enough.

We can divide that 9″ head measurement in half for the half head measurement of 4.5″. I made a square with the square tool the size of that half a head, and as long as I don’t accidentally change the size, that square is equal to 4.5″ in both directions. Now I can go and place that square anywhere on the photo and it will give me a fairly accurate sense of size. You could subdivide that square if you wanted to but it’s not really necessary for this coat.

Going over the coat now, I can make the following observations. The bottom of the coat ends at a point two or three inches above the knee (that odd line indicates the height of the knee as best as I can tell from the wrinkles and aligns with the anatomical placement. I know that length for a coat is generally what was fashionable for the time period, and most patterns end up around that length as well.

The center front of the coat looks relatively straight, but may have a slight flair out at the bottom of the skirt and another very slight round to the chest. This would be determined more on your own particular body shape and size though – what looks good on John Wilkes Booth may not work for you.

Bottom front is rounded, look like the curve starts three or four inches from where the point would be. The bottom edge looks relatively straight, but has a curved appearance from the angle of the photo.

Still referencing the same image, I can see no sign of a waist seam along the front, and in addition there is a hip pocket, telling me that this is a paletot rather than a frock coat. Frocks typically did not have waist pockets – that’s more of a modern interpretation / ‘steampunk’ fad.

The pocket itself looks to be a 1/4 of a head high, or 2 1/4″ inches. However, that seems a little small to my eye (have to develop that rock of eye!) and I suspect that the pocket is more like 3″ in height. Will have to experiment with that to see what looks best. Alas, there’s no way to tell how wide the pocket is as his arm is covering most of it, so I’ll go with what I can find from period drafts.

Edit: I was reading the photo incorrectly, it does indeed look more like 3 to 3 1/2″ in height.

It looks like the coat has four buttons, the top one being hidden in the roll of the lapel. I’ve seen photos of Booth wearing a very similar coat with five buttons and yet another with only three, so there’s room for artistic expression here.

There does appear to be a breast pocket (with a handkerchief sticking out) but the style can’t be determined from this photo – most likely a common welt pocket.

Finally, the coat is trimmed with silk, I’m not going to try measuring that, but I’m going to guess it’s about 3/8″ wide in this particular version. That width can be determined more by your preference and skill though, as well as the thickness of the materials you are working with.

The sleeve also has a row of silk trim, I’m going to say about 5 1/2″ to 6″ above the bottom of the sleeve, and about the level of the top of the pocket. I rotated the square to help better determine the height. This too will be determined more by the individual wearer and what suits his build, but this is a good starting point.

That’s about all of the information I was able to glean from this photograph. However, there are several other photographs around showing Booth wearing what I thought were the same coat, though they turned out to be just slightly different. Turning to one of those now:

Looking a little closer at the chest area, I can note a few other details.

The breast pocket is clearly a welted pocket, looks to be on the narrower side, maybe 1/2″ to 5/8″ in height.

The trim along the front and collar edges is definitely a bit thinner, I’d guess 3/16″ to 1/4″ in width.

You can make out some tell tale signs of the ‘crooked cut’ of the shoulder, so common during the 19th century, with the gentle folds of fabric at the front of the shoulder going into the bottom of the armscye.

The sleevehead is finely set into the armscye, probably shrunk into place to fit even better. Contrast that to the gentleman in the white coat in the previous lesson with his waterfall sleeves.

Self-covered buttons complete the coat, there appear to be three in this version if you look at the complete photograph. The buttons look to be set back quite a distance from the center front of the coat, maybe 1 1/2″. This was probably to give him room to ‘expand’, and the buttonhole that’s visible is closer to the edge of the coat, about 1/2″ away. I’m wondering if this offset of the buttons will throw off the positioning of the lapels – will have to experiment.

Finally, back in Inkscape, the final thing I like to do is copy the angles on to cleaner lines to compare with my draft later on. The perspective of the photo is close enough to straight on that I can simply figure out these angles without too much distortion, though it won’t be perfect.

First, I drew a line along the center front of the coat, extending a bit just for more area to reference from. Then I drew the bottom edge of the lapel and then the top.

I then changed the paper size to 8 1/2″ x 11″ under File > Document Properties and deleted the photo from the open document, leaving me with just the three reference lines. I also scaled up the pattern to make it large enough to work with – the exact size doesn’t really matter as that will be determined more by your coat pattern, we’re really just after the angles here.

Finally, print out the pattern and set it aside for when you begin drafting the coat.

Extracting Details from Period Photography

Now that we’ve chosen a photograph to work from, it’s time to get into the details and see what information we can extract from said image. I’ll be using two programs for my work, both of which are completely free and perfectly adequate. The first is the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), used for editing images and in our case, gaining more information from them. The second program is called Inkscape, and rather than being used to edit the images, I use the program for diagramming (all the patterns on this website) and figuring out different angles, as I’ll demonstrate later. So feel free to download and install either of those if you want to follow along or delve into your own photographs.

For the examples in this tutorial, I’ll be using this image from the Library of Congress. As you can see, the JPEG version, while nice, does not give us very much detail. Looks like the gentleman on the right has a nice suit but that’s about all I can see. The two on the left appear to be officers of some sort.

Size Manipulation

To get more information from the photo, we need to download the TIFF version. Be aware that it’s a very large file at 87.5mb, so it’s possible you’ll freeze up your computer if it’s older or lacks enough memory. Open the file in GIMP.

With the file opened, glancing down towards the bottom right, we can see that the image has been zoomed out to 12.5%, meaning we can zoom in quite a bit without losing any of the details.

I was able to zoom in to 200% without losing too much information – more than that and you start to see pixelation, though that will depend on the particular image you’re editing.

If you want to save a particular part of the image, you can also crop to that section with the crop tool. I’ll often crop the section I need, undo with control+z and crop another section as necessary.

Simply select the area you want with the crop too and adjust as necessary. When you’re happy with the crop, press enter to crop the photo.

This gives us an image we can more easily share with others or save for our own use. There may be times when you want to crop the image right away, and others where you’ll want to do other manipulations before cropping, so it really comes down to preference and your particular photograph.

Author’s note: I really feel like a nut case using words such as ‘zoom’ and ‘pixelated’…

Adjusting the Contrast

There may be areas of the image where even with zooming in, you will not be able to make out the details due to the image being too dark (or too light in some cases), as is the case for the officer in this photograph. By adjusting the contrast, we may be able to recover some of those details if the image is of high enough quality.

I like to adjust the contrast using the curves tool – while it’s the most complicated way, it’s also the most powerful, and isn’t that difficult to use for our simple needs. Begin by going to Colors -> Curves in the main menu.

This opens the Curves dialogue. Briefly, the graph along the bottom is showing us just where the dark and light values are appearing in the photograph. As you can see, most of the image is on the darker side, so we’ll need to adjust that.

Click on the diagonal line near the darker part of the graph to form a point.

Then begin to drag that point upwards, adjusting as necessary until you can bring out the detail you are looking for (as possible of course). Here we can begin to see some of the details of the collar and lapels coming out.

I went a little further and now you can really start to see the details in his coat. Any further than that and I found I was starting to lose more information than I gained.

Now you’ll want to be careful with this, as while I was getting detail from this officer’s coat, I was losing detail from the gentleman to his right wearing the lighter coat, and especially with the women on the steps. So this might be a case where I’d crop each section of the image as necessary and then do the adjustments for the contrast.

There are times when you might go the opposite direction with the contrast, particularly on lighter clothing where bringing out the faint shadows might help you determine how a piece was cut or how it drapes over the body. For example, by drastically lowering the contrast (the rest of the image is pretty much black at this point) I was able to bring out some details in this woman’s sleeve, which might help me determine how much fabric was used here.

As you can see, the men have practically disappeared with this setting.

Picking Out the Details

Those are the main techniques I use for manipulating the historical photographs. Now I’ll go briefly through the photograph and show you what I was able to gain from the image.

Starting with the gentleman on the right, I was first struck by his unique breast pocket. Rather than the usual welt pocket, it appears to have a jetted pocket with rather bold diagonal stay stitching on each end. His larger size made the sleeves a lot bigger, and it appears that his tailor struggled to get the sleeve set correctly, leading to more of a ‘waterfall’ affect on the sleeve head.

The bottom of the waistcoat has a nice curve to it, and I’d estimate the topstitching to be about 3/8″ to 1/2″ from the edge.

I’m not an expert on military uniforms, so these are just some quick observations. The officer in the middle appears to have a stand up military collar along with an interesting cravat and cravat pin. Also noted are the velvet cuffs on the sleeves.

This officer on the right is my favorite, with how much detail I was able to bring out. We can see now that he was a lieutenant, and appears to be wearing a sack coat with I’m going to say four buttons (can’t see the lowest one). He’s got a welted breast pocket, a thin cravat, and a military style waistcoat. We can also make out the lines around the lapels, collar, and gorge line which are very helpful in drafting the coat as I’ll show in the next section.

There are of course more things you can learn from this entire image but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. My next step if I were to recreate one of these officer’s coat would be to look up the specific regulations for that particular coat and then match each detail in the description to the photograph as I drafted my pattern.

Taking Measurements for your Paletot

The first thing to do in preparation for making a coat is to take good, accurate measurements. Since this is more of an introduction to coat making, I’m going to simplify the measurements as best I can to make it easier for you to get started right away.

All measurements should be taken over what you will wear underneath this coat, if possible. That’d mean a period shirt, trousers, and waistcoat if you have them. If not, I’d recommend adding maybe an inch to your measurements if just measuring over a regular shirt, for example.

A good idea is to tie a length of twine or ribbon around the natural waist so that all of your measurements are referenced from the same points. This should be tied around the waist at about the level of the naval.

While it’s possible to measure yourself – I do it all the time – for beginners I’d recommend having someone measure you if you can. If all you’ve got is your self, you’ll just have to contort your arms into various positions while trying to keep your body as straight as possible. For some of the more awkward measurements like the back width, I’d probably measure another coat or waistcoat that fit me well.

And in general, try to keep your body relaxed in its natural position when taking the measurements. Don’t try to stand extra erect like a dashing officer if you don’t stand like that in real life, for example.

With that all said, on to the measurements!


There are a number of measurements you’ll need to take for your coat. I’ve included a chart in which you can right them all down for convenience. Listed out, you’ll need the following measurements:

  1. Breast (written as half the actual measurement)
  2. Waist (written as half the actual measurement)
  3. Total Length
  4. Back Length to Hip Buttons
  5. Side
  6. Chest
  7. Width of Back
  8. Sleeve
  9. Sleeve + Back (optional)


This is the most important measurement and determines which size of graduated ruler you will use for your draft. Measure around your chest at the fullest point, just under the arms. Take note of the full measurement to choose your ruler size, but the measurement is written down as half of the total, since we are drafting half of the pattern on the paper.


The waist measurement is taken at the level of the natural waist, about even with the naval. Again this is written as half for use when drafting.

Breast and Waist measurements.

Total Length

Measuring down the center of the back, start at either the base of the collar or at the 7th vertebrae if you don’t have period clothing available (the bony part on the back of your neck). Measure from there, pressing the tape against the hollow of the back, down to the bottom of where you’d like the coat to be. This is mainly a check measurement to compare with what we’ve drafted later on.

Length and Length to Hip Buttons on right figure.

Back length to Hip Buttons

Again starting at the base of the collar, measure down the center of the back to the position you’d like the back hip buttons to be, usually a couple of inches below the natural waist. This is another check measurement to compare with the draft.


Put the measuring tape under your armpit, though not too high up, and measure straight down to the waist seam. Yet another check measurement!

Side Measurement


Sometimes when drafting, especially with these older drafting systems, our body’s widths will not be perfectly distributed from front to back. This is a good measurement to take to compare with the front of your draft.

The chest measurement is taken across the fullest part of the chest, from armscye seam to armcye seam.

Chest Measurement.

Width of Back

This is similar to the chest measurement, but taken straight across the back from armscye to armscye at a level just at the bottom of the armpit.

Width of Back Measurement.


The sleeve can be a little troublesome to take, especially for a beginner, but it’s easy to fix during the fitting process if necessary.

To take the sleeve measurement, stand with your arm extended horizontally, and bend the elbow at 90 degrees. Measure from the armscye along the back of the sleeve, around the elbow, to just past the wrist (sleeves were longer in the 1860s than they are today).

You can also take the same measurement from the center of the back, that way you can compare the two measurements and look for any discrepancies. I’ve included a video demonstrating the two measurements.

How to Use the Measurements

As you’re drafting your pattern in the next section, take note of the various lines in red, and compare their lengths to the measurements you took. If they’re far off, it indicates something may be wrong, and that you should investigate before moving on and potentially compounding the problem. This can happen especially with larger sizes, above size 46 – 48.

Finding Original Photographs

As we reproduce the paletot worn by John Wilkes Booth, we’ll be referring to several photos I’ve found of him wearing the same style of coat. Being a rather infamous character of history, it was easy to find photographs from different angles, which definitely helps us out.

Generally speaking though, there are some great sources out there for period images that you could use for other future projects, and in this article, I’ll discuss how to find them and how to manipulate the images to bring out more details.

Sources for Original Photographs

With the internet, it’s possible to find all kinds of good period photographs these days to use as inspiration for historical reproductions. From a quick Google search, to using something like Pinterest, or Ebay, to going to more focused websites such as the Library of Congress, a high-quality image is only a few clicks away most of the time. Though do take care to check for copyright information – if it’s just for personal use most of the images are probably okay, but anything more take due diligence. For example, one image I found through Google of John Wilkes Booth wanted something like $400 just to be able to use the image–definitely frustrating!

The key is finding the largest resolution, highest quality images as possible, so as to gain the most information from the photograph. Though you can usually gain some information from even poor quality images if necessary.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has a great number of high quality images in their online collections, though it can be a little difficult to actually find what you’re looking for, and the website itself often has problems loading. I usually start my search from Google with something like “Library of Congress 1860s civilians” to at least get me closer before getting to the actual Library website. Their main page for Civil War images appears to be though I’m sure there are other ways to get there.

From there you can click through the various collections and often strike upon something good. I’ll leave that for you to do at your leisure though, as there are thousands of images to browse through.

I found this image of Charles Sumner which seemed to hold some promise, along with some other information about him, such as the publisher, medium, and rough date the photograph was taken.

You’ll notice under his image on the left there are several options to download the photograph. The JPEG versions are of the poorest quality, but the quickest option if you just want to take a closer look before making a decision to go forward or not. But the highest quality image is the TIFF image, and holds as much of the original information in the photograph as possible. I highly recommend downloading that option if you want to see as much detail as possible.

The image downloaded within seconds just now as I’m writing this, but yesterday I kept getting errors on the website. So I guess if you have problems, just wait a few hours for things to calm down and try again.

Google Images is another great place to search for period photographs, though you do have to be more aware of copyright issues. Simply enter your search terms and click on ‘images’.

You can refine your search by filtering out the lower quality images by clicking on the Tools button at the upper right, and choosing Large under the Size option.

I was able to find a good number of images this way, including some from the Library of Congress that eluded me thanks to their clumsy system.

There are of course other search engines and websites you can search from, but these are my main sources, from which I can dig in to find further information on specific websites.

Planning and Research

As you probably know, the basis for any historical clothing reproduction begins with diligent research into the styles, patterns, fit, and construction techniques of the time period. It occurred to me while commencing my latest project that it might be a good idea to go into the particulars of my thought and research process of the particular coat I am copying. In this article, we’ll go over the very basics of the various types of research one can get into for a historical garment, and in subsequent articles I’ll go more deeply into the various details that I’ve used to reproduce John Wilkes Booth’s paletot.

While I’ve broken the different types of research into four distinct groups, please note that they definitely do overlap in various ways depending on the particular project.


The first type of historical reproduction (and I use the term loosely here) has a wide variety of historical accuracy and level of construction. You might have on the one hand the typical lowest quality ‘sutler row’ garment made in some factory overseas with just the minimum of ‘research’. You’ll often notice the poor quality entirely machine made construction, misplaced seam lines, and can tell right away that they were made from modern patterns. These types of garments might fool the general public who has no knowledge of historical clothing, but for most of us we know to keep well away. Often, those just starting out in the world of historical reenacting or living history will fall into this category unless they have a mentor to guide them – I know I did at first!

On the opposite end you might have clothing made for the theatre or film. These types of clothing could very well be made by extremely skilled and knowledgeable hands by those who have done their researched as per the rest of this article, but at the same time, allowances are made to allow for quick changing of costumes, perhaps adding a zipper or two, or in the interests of getting a better fit, the clothing might be based on a modern pattern with the stylized details added afterwards to make it look period correct.

Even I’ve taken this more of a costume approach to a garment or two on occasion. For example, I recently was commissioned to make a pair of 19th century trousers for a gentleman in Australia to wear at his wedding. While the construction itself was done entirely with historically-accurate techniques, I ended up using a more modern 1940s pattern (with his permission) to ensure a good fit, since time and expense prevented us from doing any fittings. The result was a pair of trousers that looked as though they were 19th century to the vast majority of people, even if a couple of the seam lines were slightly different.

Fashion Plates

A good first step to improve your knowledge is to study fashion plates of the period. These could be found in a variety of magazines and publications, catering to everyone from ladies at home looking for the latest fashions with Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, which was extremely popular during the mid-19th century and featured illustrations and even patterns for women’s wear, to trade journals such as the Tailor and Cutter Magazine that focused more on pattern drafts for men along with the illustrations.

And of course there were many other magazines and sources for fashion plates during the period. I used to have access to a French website with thousands of men’s fashion plates from I believe the 1830s through to the 70s or 80s, which I really need to find again.

These fashion plates are great for getting ideas for your historical clothing, but it does come at a slight disadvantage. If you try to copy one exactly, you may discover that they really were more artistic representations rather than exact copies of garments worn during the period, and you run the risk of making a garment that is more a product of the imagination than one based on historical practice. Look in particular at how thin the waists are, or the way some of the clothing drapes – it can get ridiculous! That said, they’re an excellent resource for inspiration, especially in conjunction with the two options below, and I’ve got more than a couple of saved for future use, such as a hunting ensemble I found years ago in one of those French fashion plates (sorry I can’t remember the name!).

Photography from the Period

Studying original period photographs is by far the easiest and surest way to make an accurate reproduction, and something that is pretty much accessible to everybody. With the invention of the camera in the early 19th century, by the 1850s and 60s, photography was becoming more and more common, and offers us a superb glance into what was worn during these years. While to some extent, people tended to dress up and pose for the camera, there are plenty of more informal photographs to be found of, for example, men at work, and it’s possible to gain a great deal of information from such images on what and how they wore their clothing.Studying original period photographs is by far the easiest and surest way to make an accurate reproduction, and something that is pretty much accessible to everybody.

Most of these photographs are just a quick web search away. In particular, the Library of Congress has thousands of old photographs on its website, which are very easy to download in extremely high quality and resolution to examine more closely. It’s also possible to find websites dedicated to clothing construction with images detailing the various aspects of the garment, which can be an invaluable resource. In next weeks edition, I’ll be delving into how to get the most out of these period photographs and showing you the process with which I went from photograph to drafted pattern, going into detail the decisions I made from the information I had at my disposal.

Studying Original Clothing

Of course, nothing beats the study of original clothing in person to be able to learn about the construction of 19th century clothing. The only trouble is the difficult one might have to go through to be able to study them.

The easiest way would probably be to look out for various conferences and workshops on historical clothing, sadly not very common these days. About a decade ago I had the opportunity to attend several conferences and examine by eye and photograph hundreds of pieces of original clothing, which have aided me greatly to this day. By seeing the clothing in person you can see just how each piece was constructed, at least for the most part, and develop a good sense on how to construct just about any piece of clothing out there.

Another good option is frequenting antique shops, especially in historical areas pertaining to your interest. I know in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania there were a couple of shops I frequented, one in particular had a beautiful Federal enlisted frock coat for sale for an absurd amount of money that I got to stare at through the glass case and make mental notes. Likewise I was able to pick up some late 19th century clothing at nearby antique stores for much less money, which I still have to this day to be able to refer to and perhaps some day make reproductions of. There are also those digital antique shops known as Etsy, Ebay, and Pinterest which can often give you some surprising good finds.

Finally, there are also museums and historical societies at which you could also view a great deal of period clothing, though mostly through glass cases as well. Depending on the museum (usually the smaller ones are more open to this) and how friendly you are with them, you might be able to get the opportunity to examine some clothing in person, though great care needs to be taken not to damage the clothing in any way.

In conclusion, in reproducing a particular piece of original clothing, the actual process involves a little bit of each of these options, save maybe the first. For example, I’ll see in a photograph a particular coat I’d like to reproduce, draw on my knowledge of clothing construction from examining original garments, draft an appropriate pattern based on my measurements, and perhaps take a little bit of inspiration from the fashion plates along the way for various accessories or accompanying clothing. Remember that each person’s journey of historical tailoring is different, and we each pull from different areas according to what we have access to, and our own preferences with regards to style and construction details, leaving us with unique garments that have our own mark upon them while maintaining good accuracy for our particular time periods.