Sweeney Todd

Following my love of most things Sweeney, I decided to make my own gender-bent Barber of Fleet Street following release of the Tim Burton version in theaters. Though the main outfit seen in the film outwardly looks simple (dark vest, striped pants, white shirt), there were a lot of small details I wanted to reflect in my costume.

To me, the most important thing to get right was the vest. I started with a store-bought pattern on this, but a lot of alterations were made. First, there were extra seams to add on the front panels of the vest–this was likely done in the movie to show that the vest was made from scrap and/or had been repaired over the years. Including these additional seam lines was something that made me very happy with and proud of my final result. Cinching tabs were added to the back of the pattern version (and stitched in at the side seams). I also adjusted the shape of the bottom edge of this pattern slightly as I went along.

For a fully tailored look (and because I’m a bit curvy), this project required assistance from an extra set of hands. I’ve found the most efficient way to tailor a garment is to wear it inside out, stand in a relaxed stance, and have someone else take up and pin the garment to fit. Unless absolutely necessary, I try to keep all of my adjustments on seam lines as I don’t, personally, like the look of darts. After pinning, because it is done by hand and prone to errors, I compare any corresponding seams to try and mirror the adjustments evenly on both sides before doing any cutting or stitching. You would not likely do this when making an asymmetrical garment or trying to accentuate an asymmetrical feature on the body. This project was an instance where I based everything off of the other layer of the garment rather than the lining. Though the vest is fully lined in cotton, the lining does not have elements like extra seam lines. This vest was a case where I built the entire outer garment first and based the lining on that creation (rather than completing the lining first).

There’s not much to say on the pants for this costume because I lucked out and found dark, striped linen pants at a small thrift store that fit the bill almost perfectly. Miraculously, these did not require any alteration–even hemming! I have a short, pudgy man somewhere to thank for his donation.

On the white, button up shirt, I started with two matching shirts made from a cotton/linen blend. (Sometimes I look to recreate all-around period accurate pieces, but here I was more concerned with comfort, breathability, and the look of resulting garment.) These shirts were in my scrap fabric bin and were leftover from an old roommate who had worn them while working at Olive Garden. I liked that these were used and slightly discolored in places. This would help me achieve the well-worn appearance needed for a traveler’s/worker’s clothing from the 1800s. Using one shirt as the base, I removed the collar and cuffs from it. The collar was adjusted and reattached. The replacement cuffs, however, were made freehand from scratch using cloth from the second shirt.

I found the Dorset buttons on Sweeney Todd’s shirt particularly interesting. After doing some research and digging out/purchasing supplies, I set to work creating my own. Dorset buttons were made in England from the 1600s to the 1800s. These were primarily characterized by a bone disc or wire ring that was methodically wrapped with thread or yarn, covering the ring itself and creating a pattern in the center. At the height of their popularity, dozens of distinctly different patterns were available for purchase. The ones worn by Todd are of a more common “cartwheel” pattern. Though these seemed simple enough to reproduce, they were time consuming; and, being small, the slightest difference in material size (rings and threads) made huge differences. I started out with white plastic rings normally intended for use in Roman shades. I paired these with a thin white embroidery thread. The result was bulky and the detail in the wrap/stitch pattern was not very crisp. The only thinner rings readily available to me were gold metal ones. I spray painted these white and opted for a thinner thread. Though the exact same pattern was made by the exact same hands, the results were worlds apart. The new rings were exactly what I needed; but, being time consuming to create, I did not have a full set completed in time for my first round of wearing the costume.

I was able to recreate the thin houndstooth scarf using material from an old skirt. I couldn’t find any modern fabrics that had the thick threads and low thread count I wanted to use on this. The closest store bought fabric I tried was an upholstery fabric that was not only far too thick, it was also scratchy and had strands of bright silver woven into it. Knowing my requirements would be a taller order, I kept this in the back of my mind on thrift store trips and eventually ran across something I really liked. I cut strips from the outer layer of the skirt I found, sewed them together, flipped them right side out, and stitched the open end. Though flipping thin tubular projects is never fun, this little scarf was more than worth it.

After ordering a set of folding straight razors that I liked, I used a grinding wheel to remove the sharp edges of the blades. This ensured the costume would be safe for use in public settings. I worked in leather to recreate both Sweeney Todd’s belt and razor sheath. These were then dyed to a medium brown and rubbed down with leather conditioner.

The belt clip Todd uses was quite unique, so I couldn’t find anything like it readily available. My first attempts to recreate it, I felt, were shotty at best. Ultimately, I drew out my own version of the design and sent it to be cut out by someone with experience in intricate cutting of thin, rigid metal. I bent the cut piece and riveted a belt clip to it so there would be enough tension to keep it on the belt. The dangling heart from the belt clip was thrown together with old jewelry. I did not add textured dents to the front of the clip simply because I liked the piece I ordered so much that I did not want to risk damaging it. I am still very happy with it, though I would like to upgrade the little heart someday.

I created a clip-in streak of white hair using fake hair and a small white hair clip. The clip-in hair was made because I really couldn’t find a good enough result with temporarily whitening hair products. This small piece is possibly the most striking part of the costume, and it has been the number one factor in people recognizing what character I’m supposed to be. (Unless, of course, they saw the folding razor on my belt first.)

After putting everything on, the only other touch I have to add is lightening the skin on my face and adding grey around my eyes. This is a common look on the faces in Tim Burton films and is easy to achieve with either standard or theatre makeup. I have typically used a cheap liquid foundation that is far too light for me and Ben Nye grey cream. This lasts all day and washes off with soap and water.

Sweeney Todd is probably the costume I wear most often, and it is definitely one of most comfortable disguises I have. It’s perfect for nerd conventions, Halloween, horror fests, and costume parties. And the vest, though it is fairly simple, is probably my most coveted costume piece. The added details and tailoring left me with a very polished garment that I love.