Tag Archives: sewing

French Alterations


CS – In Costume design there’s this term called a “French alteration.” Basically what that is, is when someone requests an alteration, like raising a hem a quarter inch, or something that won’t be at all noticeable on stage, like it’s just an unreasonable request and a waste of time. So some costume shop workers might say oh yeah we can definitely do that, no problem, a nice little French alteration. So it’s kind of a code word to others in the shop that it’s a waste of time, but it sounds fancy to people who don’t know what it means. And then you give the costume back to them and they see it on stage and are just delighted at the wonderful alteration job, and that extra quarter inch (not) lifted from the hem looks great.


The informant was talking to a coworker about wether of not they should do a small alteration that would not be noticeable on stage. The coworker argued that it was a stupid request for an alteration, and that they could easily say they did it, but not do it, and the person wouldn’t notice. The informant asked, “Like a French alteration?” The coworker had never heard the term, so the informant explained. They then agreed that the play’s director would not notice, but they decided to talk to the director rather than fib to them.
There’s the saying that, “The customer is always right.” But the person who actually specializes in something is going to know more than the customer (in this case the play’s director). This term can make the “customer” think that they are right so they don’t put up an unnecessary fuss, and the costume tailor can avoid getting yelled at.

Bleeding on a costume is good luck for the actor

Interview and Context

CS: It’s just a saying. And I think its partially because there’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s a way of sort of justifying and making yourself feeling better that one: you may have hurt yourself, and two: that you may have, like, made a stain on a costume that you may or may not be able to remove as well as you would like?
Interviewer: So as far as you know its less of a superstition and more of a justification
CS: Ya. Hahaha.
Interviewer: When’s the first time you heard that?
CS: Probably the first time that I , probably when I was in college and… I don’t think, I don’t think I ever heard that outside of theater. I think I heard of it mostly, you know, like— it’s something I thought about, like, I’m sure I must have poked myself and may have bled on a garment when I was learning to sew like in home ec, as a teenager, but I don’t think that I heard of it more that, at a costume shop, that it’s good luck for the actor, y’know.
Interviewer: Good luck for the actor, bad luck for you.
CS: Right? Ya.
Interviewer: Any idea how long it’s been around? I know you said you he
HS: I have a feeling that this one is, a long time. I just have that feeling.
CS: Because people have been probably bleeding on costumes since costumes have been made.


The first time the informant told me this proverb was when another worker poked themself with a needle while mending a costume. I later asked the informant to repeat the saying and their explanation for the sake of recording it.
This is an example of a proverb. I found it interesting that it is said so sarcastically, rather than earnestly. However, in other versions*, it is not necessarily sarcastic or bitter. Seeing that it isn’t a saying unique to making theater costumes—or unique to a bitter saying—the attitude with which a participant in this folklore says the proverb changes the intention of the proverb. The attitude also indicates that the saying is useful despite differing levels of belief in superstitions: the reciter may believe whole-heartedly that their drop of blood (it must be accidental) will give the actor a better performance. Or the reciter may not believe the proverb, but say it anyway, as participating in the tradition or just in case it is true.


Midnight Requisition


HS (informant): So it’s, unofficially lending something. Lending without renting, but with no formal requisition process. The idea is, the boss has gone home, any administrative types have gone home and the people left there just let someone borrow something.
Interviewer: So its like if you’re working at a costume shop and you have like, a friend or someone who wants to use a piece, but you can’t like rent it, or don’t want to rent it, so your friend working in the costume shop might just like, wait until everyone else has left.
HS: Ya. People who, people who are working late at night just let someone they know, borrow something, off the record.
I: Do you know how long that saying has been around?
HS: I would’ve heard it by the early 80s. It may have, I don’t know if it exists in other fields. It might.
I: How long have you been working in costume shops?
HS: Since, Oh, I can’t tell you that! ’73? 1973!
I: So there was like, seven-ish years that you hadn’t heard it.
HS: No.
I: Did you hear the term when you were working late night?
HS: Oh, it was like when I was a grad student. Dealing with ISPs (Independent Student Productions). When something wasn’t going to matter to just let it out, or lend it out. I don’t know how limited it is as a term. One of the other grad students was the one who I remember using it the most. Somehow I don’t think it would apply to tailors, because I think it has to do with if you have access to stock.


The informant and I were speaking generally about sayings around a costume shop, so this term did not occur in a fully natural context. In addition, this particular costume shop does not operate late into the night, so the term does not apply in this particular environment. I recorded our conversation and later transcribed it.
The term midnight requisition is an official-sounding label to discuss under-the-table activities behind the backs of workplace superiors. Costume shops generally have hundreds of items of clothing in storage for use and reuse in theater performances, ranging in time period, culture, and levels of decay (some pieces are decades old and barely holding together). Generally a midnight requisition would be a request by a costume shop worker’s friend to borrow a costume, which they may not want or be able to spend money on. The informant mentioned such requests may be for 1920s flapper dress, a pristine top hat, or something more comical for a halloween party.
The term recognizes the improperness of the lending, but makes it sound more official and therefore less objectionable.

New Clothes – Persian New Year

Description of Informant

PK (79) is a small, frail woman with dyed blonde hair and piercing eyes. PK was born and raised in Abadan, Iran in an “Oil Company Family.” OCFs were families whose primary income came from the large British oil company in Iran. They were well compensated and taken care of, living in western-style homes in protected communities. Many OCFs were secular or subscribed to a western religion in favor of Islam. PK immigrated to England in 1976 before coming to America (California) in 1978.


Context of Interview

The informant, PK, is cooking a traditional Persian stew (khoresh) while describing the custom to the collector, BK, her grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized.


BK: So you were saying, in the morning when you wake up, all your clothes are new?

PK: Yes, from underwear and beyond— now they say everything should be new. Everything new. It’s with the new year, new clothing, new everything. Now frankly if it has any other meaning I don’t know. But from childhood we would wake up [in the new year] with so much joy and mirth and we’d all change our clothes, from underwear to undershirts, everything. They would sew new clothes, you know? [In Iran] it wasn’t like now where you’d go shopping… you had to have your clothes made. “Khayat,” you know, tailor. Then, everything was new. Even a ribbon for your hair was new. Everything new.

BK: What would happen to the old stuff?

PK: Nothing. It’s not like we threw it away! We just… wanted something new. Then, all dressed up, we’d go do “Aideedani” [visiting people during the new year].

Collector’s Reflection

With the strike of the new year, PK’s family would immediately change their clothes. Often, the clothing they changed into had been sewn specially for the occasion. It was not essential to change your entire wardrobe— that would be wasteful. But it was important to begin the new year fresh, and clothing was a part of this. You wouldn’t only wear a new t-shirt and shorts, though. Men would dress in tailored suits, women would adorn themselves in fresh jewels.

This tradition has evolved as the world has Westernized. Persian-Americans often go on a shopping spree on or prior to the new year to stock up on fresh clothing. The time aligns with the American tradition of “Spring Cleaning,” so while in Iran one wouldn’t toss their old garments, today it’s much more “out with the old, in with the new.” 

Folk Object: Thimbles

Thimbles were once given by young men or boys to young women or girls to display their affection and feelings for them without proposing serious commitment or marriage. Thimbles could be regarded as toys or novelties. Deborah was first given thimbles by her grandmother. Later on when she was stationed in Korea, she started to receive thimbles as gifts from people because she expressed to them that she didn’t have much room and was living in a small apartment. She now owns over 350 thimbles in her collection. Her oldest thimble is from medieval times; her second oldest dates back to 1720. Deborah takes great pride in her collection and claims that she is just a beginner in comparison to other thimble collectors. It appeared that she had a story for each thimble. She feels that the history of thimbles helps one feel what women’s role in society was for the last three centuries.

I was unfamiliar with the expansive history of thimbles. It is fascinating that this folk object was used for more than protecting one’s fingers while sewing. Jewelry when given to a woman by a man was believed to be a serious commitment; when men wanted to demonstrate interest in a woman, but not make such a commitment, thimbles became the perfect alternative because at the time every woman would have known how to sew and would have done so regularly.


The idea of thimbles as a folk object and novelty is documented in The Story of the Thimble, along with a history of the thimble.

McConnel, Bridget. (1997). The Story of the Thimble. Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing