Functional Costuming: DIY Obnoxiously simple vest for costume and casual wear

Vest 2 ways

I realized that I was missing a fairly integral part from my steampunk costumes. I had the corseted bra tops (I know opinions are super mixed on this, but it’s MY steampunk, and I like bra tops!) and the floofy skirts, and the pseudo-corset top and the boots and the fingerless gloves and the parasol and the pocketwatch necklace and the goggles. (Again, I know opinions are super mixed. I like goggles. Somewhere, a steampunk purist is getting a cold chill.)

But no vests!

What? How could I not have a vest? They’re such a huge part of any steampunk wardrobe, and especially goth/fantasy inspired steampunk. Time ran out, and I figured I’d just ditch the vest. But this costume was looking a little bit… incomplete. With hours to spare, I knew that I needed at least a simple vest. Something to add a layer, a dimension, leave my torso not quite so bare against a long skirt, and add just that final touch of hardware. Steampunk is all about the hardware, right?

Vests are complicated creatures. Luckily, as a girl, I have a bit more wiggle room. Menswear has so many rules, I can’t keep track. For myself, I had some fairly large triangles laying around from a pillow case I cut up to use as lining for my parasol. Unfortunately, I didn’t have quite enough (I was exactly one panel short. Sigh — that’s what you get for not measuring beforehand, kids!) and put the triangles away, unwilling to toss such large scraps, but unsure how to use such small scraps.

What started as a steampunk costume afterthought ended up a nice addition to my wardrobe. I could see this working for a lot of different costumes/looks. Make from plaid or tweed and layer over a camisole for a punkier look. Make from a loudly patterned silk, and wear as part of a witch/”gypsy” costume. I wear mine over a tube top with jeans. As the weather cools down, I’m pairing it with a wool kilt.

In the end, writing this post and taking photographs took longer than this vest did to make. All you need is enough fabric to cover your boobs and meet or almost meet behind your neck and back. An elastic strap is optional, as is a buckle or D-rings for the back; you can easily substitute ties, a button, a hook and chain, or just a straight piece of ribbon. If you use fabric that doesn’t fray, it’s even easier — no need to line! And you can just lace some yarn through the front with a yarn needle in a pinch, although you’ll really want grommets for that professional touch. The lacing makes the front shaping, helping you to not need darts.

Oh, and yes: This would probably work better with a fantasy costume than a steampunk one. Luckily, in my world they overlap quite a bit. And if you’re that concerned about the shape, add some darts and use buttons and overlapping triangles instead of grommets.

Materials: 1/4 yard fabric scraps — I used a thrifted pillowcase. If your favorite scraps are too small, why not patch them together!

Optional: Grommets, ribbon, buckles

Time: 30 minutes. If you use non-fray fabric, large triangles that meet behind your neck and back, and a pin to keep the front closed, you can do it in under 5 by taking a few stitches at the top and back bottom.

Cost: Under $5. If you sew at all, you have scraps. If you have scraps, you’re bound to have a scrap large enough to cover 2/3 or less of your torso. So the only real cost is any hardware you want to add; D-rings/grommets/rivets/what have you.

Skill Level: Negligible. If you can hold a needle and make stitches, you can do the basic vest. If you want a more complicated, nicer vest, you’ll need the following skills:

Skills Needed: 

  • Sewing
  • Hammering grommets
  • Sewing ties
  • Making buttonholes

Note: Some of these skills may be mutually exclusive, depending on what you want to do with your vest.


Cut 4 triangles. If using non-fray fabric, you can cut 2. The bottom edges should meet behind your back and front. If you’re planning on adding a strap/d-ring/buckle, they should almost meet behind your back, but not quite. The top corners should meet behind your neck.

Sorry for the terrible picture quality; construction photos were taken with my old, bad camera.

Sorry for the terrible picture quality; construction photos were taken with my old, bad camera.

At this point, if you’re going for simple simple, just take a few stitches where the corners overlap. Leave it open and drape-y, or close with a pin. Bam, done.

If you want a few extra steps that will make it look much nicer, keep reading.

Optional, but recommended: Mark where you want the armholes to end with a pin. I suggest pinning the top corners together and hanging them around your neck to check; you can use whatever you want as a guideline, but I used the top of my bra strap. Mark that spot, and cut a curved line from there to the top.

Shape the triangles like so.

Shape the triangles like so. (Terrible terrible picture notwithstanding)

See? This allows for your arms without needing to fold the edges under or risk them bunching up around your armpits, and makes it more vest-shaped.

If you are lining your vest, pin the shell and lining triangles, right sides together, and sew most of the way around. Do not sew along the back middle edge, where the triangles will meet behind your back, or the top edges. Leave small openings so you can stitch ties or whatever else in there later. Turn the triangles through one of the holes, but don’t topstitch yet.

Sew small straps, buckles, or other kinds of fastenings. For my straps, I just ended up using ribbon attached at both ends, so they don’t adjust, and leaving the adjustment to the front laces.  If using non-adjustable ribbon, simply cut strips the desired length (plus a few inches for error room).

Insert whatever you’re using into the holes that you left, turning the raw edges of the triangles inward, and pin. Ironing might be helpful at this stage (be careful of the pins, of course). Try the vest on, especially if using non-adjustable straps, and adjust until you have your desired fit.

Summer 2013 015

Now, topstitch all around. This will secure the straps in the vest. For added security, backstitch over the straps a few times.

Note: I’m sure this isn’t anywhere near how you properly line a vest. This is a quick and dirty vest-like contraption with no facings or interfacing or anything, not a nicely tailored, gentleman’s vest.
Add grommets!

Grommets make everything look nicer.

I knitted an I-cord lace to lace through the grommets, but you could use ribbon, braided yarn, a shoelace… anything, really. I might swap out the I-cord for something less clunky in the future.
My favorite thing about this piece is how easily it transitions from a regular piece of clothing to a costume and back again.
Wear with a normal outfit for going out (or over a camisole if you don't want to bare so much belly)

Wear with a normal outfit for going out on a Friday night (or over a camisole/higher rise jeans if you don’t want to bare so much belly) Or, you know, use longer triangles.

Back of the vest

Back of the vest

Cold-weather steampunk. (It's actually snowing.)

Presto, it’s a costume vest!

So, it’s actually snowing in this picture, hence the cold weather gear. Normally I’d be wearing a jacket at this point like a sane person, but all my jackets covered up the vest too much. Such is the sacrifice we make for taking insane pictures of ourselves and shocking (and perhaps intriguing?) the neighbors.

Is it the best, most intricate costume or wardrobe piece ever? No. In an interesting fabric, will it add that little extra something to take a boring top or slightly-too-bare torso to the next level? Definitely. Have fun! It doesn’t take much fabric, so use those gorgeous scraps. Patch together all the beautiful pieces you’ve had laying around for years. Experiment! And, as always, if you make one of these, I’d love to see it.

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