Life Size Costume Timeline


As an overview of costume history, students spend a week in class recreating historic silhouettes out of tissue paper and other inexpensive materials to create a life size timeline. Students trace each other to create the initial body shapes.

Activity Objectives

-Recognize how the silhouette changes throughout costume history, and how the body is altered in various periods through undergarments, cut, construction, and decoration.

Activity Goals

-I personally use this for studying the Romantic/Victorian period where the silhouette is changing drastically over relatively short periods of time. Without having to build whole, real costumes, students can observe how fashions can change the body, not in small scale but on themselves.

-Plus, this is a fun and challenging project and it encourages attention to detail.

Example of Life Size Costume Timeline


-The class period or week before we plan to begin this project, I assign each student in my class a 5 or 10 year period from 1820 through 1900. They must then find research images for a dress or suit they could see themselves wearing from that time period. It needs to be day or evening wear, not specialty garments such as riding habits or sports wear. I encourage them to find something they themselves might wear, and to look at a variety of research prior to choosing. Personally, I use this for an intro level course. Depending on the level of the class you are using this project for, you may wish to require students to create a research board including undergarments and accessories with sources for their research.

-I bring in a roll of brown craft paper, multiple packages of colored tissue paper, including black and white, and some inexpensive trimming and ribbons from the dollar store.

-First, the students find a partner and trace themselves on a large piece of brown paper using a pencil. If they want a front view, they lie on their backs, but they can also do a side view to better display a bustle or a train if they choose.

-Next, we examine their research and draw new lines to represent what undergarments such as corsets, crinolines, and bustles might do change their body shape. Some students have to add extra brown paper to accommodate wide skirts. Once the figure has been adapted, we trace it in sharpie.

-Each student gets a primary color of paper to use, but may use other colors for trim as they see fit. Flat fitted areas can be covered by tracing the lines of the garment onto the tissue and gluing the pieces into place. Ruffles and gathers can be made by gathering or accordion folding paper and taping it. I provide cheap ribbon and lace to add bows or trimming.

-When finished, we label each person with the time period and tape them around the room or down a hallway in order to observe the variations and similarities. We discuss in class how changes in undergarments and clothing shapes alter our perception of the human figure. I also take pictures of the students next to their finished costume.

Time Required

I generally dedicate three 50-minute class periods for this project. Most students can complete it in class in that time. I allow them to come in and work between classes if they choose. Some of my more detail-oriented students spend many hours on these.

Required Materials

-Space. These things are large. Especially if you have a large class, you need to consider if there is enought floor and table space for everyone.

-Brown Craft Paper.

-Black, white, and colored tissue paper. Each dress usually takes about a dozen sheets.

-Cheap ribbons and trim.


You could do this project with a broader array of time periods.

With more advanced students, you could require them to cut their tissue to follow period-appropriate seam lines instead of simply filling space.

I suppose you could also attempt to make 3-D paper dresses on people, but this would require actual, durable undergarments and would be significantly more challenging and time consuming.


Students get credit for completing their garments with care and attention to detail. I provide in-class feedback and consider their use of research in their project grade.

This is not an assignment I give a high point value to. It serves a simple purpose: to encourage observation and get the students engaged.

If you wish to assign this project a higher point value, consider adding a more detailed research requirement or a written component, such as a description of clothing from their assigned time period or a reflection of work.


-Bethany Marx