Let’s Talk Research

An upcoming project of mine is Arwen’s “Red Dress” from the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. So how does one go about actually making a cosplay that is fairly screen accurate? Read on and I’ll tell you all about research for this relatively simple costume.

Arwen’s “Red Dress” from Return of the King

The first step is to break everything down into parts, so we have the following categories: Fabric, Sewing Pattern(s), Trims, Embellishments, Wig, Accessories, Shoes. In the case of Arwen, we are only using a few of these categories: Fabric, Sewing Pattern, Trim, and Wig.

To figure out the fabric, multiple reference images are generally needed, in the case of Arwen, one or two will suffice as velvet has a very distinct look in photographs. In fact, other than the collar, upper sleeves, and sleeve lining, the dress is only two colors of velvet: Red and Indigo. The trick is that the indigo is a heavier weight velvet than the red, you can tell this by the folds at the hem and the folds of the sleeves on the arms. Then there’s just the lining of the sleeves which is a matte satin.

Indigo Cotton Velvet for the base of the dress
Red velvet for the sleeves

The upper sleeves are a rarer kind of brocade, not Chinese brocade, but a jacquard brocade that is somewhat hard to source…unless you have a Joann nearby, in which case they generally carry 10-15 different patterns of the fabric. I happen to have this on hand (I bought four yards years ago and never ended up making that project… but this is the perfect use for 1/2 yards of it.

In the movie, all these fabric (except possibly the jacquard brocade) were silk. I don’t have that kind of funds to get pre-dyed silk velvet and silk matte satin. I will make a note about white silk velvet – that is easily sourced from Dharma Trading Company, but dying it to these incredibly rich dark colors is beyond my skill and technical capabilities. If I had used this for the indigo of the dress, it would have actually been less expensive by a few dollars outright – but significantly more when you factor in time and energy to get the fabric to the color I would need it.

But how much fabric do I need? How do I make this dress? The answer lies in pattern selection. Most folks know by now that my bodices and dresses are altered patterns (sometimes rather extensively altered), but my skirts are generally self-drafted. For Arwen, because the movies were so popular, Simplicity actually came out with a whole pattern line for Lord of the Rings. And Arwen’s dress is one of them. I present the out-of-print Simplicity 4940!

Top left. Booyah.
Simplicity 4940

On the back of the pattern, it tells me just how much fabric I will need. Pro Tip: The more fabric, the better the cosplay will read when seen. Anemic costumes generally don’t photograph as well (unless they are meant to use small amount of fabric like Rey or Harley Quinn). In cases of flowing costumes like this one, more is better.

Then we get to trims. This and embellishments are my favorite category. GIVE ME ALL THE TRIMS! For this dress, there is very little in the way of trimming, in fact the same trim is found only on the upper sleeves and upper collar, meaning I need 1.5-2 yards of the stuffs. Which means I can splurge just a little to get a pretty close match.

Embellished lace for sleeves and collar

And that leaves me with Accessories, Wig, and Shoes. There are no accessories and the shoes are not seen (I’ll just rock some black ballet flats), so that leaves just the wig. I happen to have the wig I need on hand as I use it for two other cosplays, Vanessa and OUAT Belle. The wig is Hecate in Dark Brown from Epic Cosplay Wigs. It is a lace front with a very tiny widows peak (Liv Tyler also happens to have one).

The wig – just have to curl it up and it’s ready to go. Try to get base wigs like this that will work for multiple cosplays so you can optimize your budget!

And that’s how I do research. Here’s a rundown of my favorite places to source materials: