Sky Captain And The World of Tomorrow - Creating a Costume for Commodore Franky Cook

Introduction - 4/2/05
I've got a history of costuming insanity so, after talking about it for months and with an opportunity looming to attend Costume Con, it's put-up or shut-up time at my end of the world. I've been wanting to make a copy of Commodore Franky Cook's costume since I saw Sky Captain And The World of Tomorrow in the theaters, so now I'm finally getting to it.

Conclusion - 5/5/05
WOOT! It's done. Well, er, almost. I have to get a patch in the correct colors for my sleeve, but the costume made its first appearance at Costume Con 23 in Ogden, Utah and won me a Hall Award (as it's technically not finished, I decided not to compete with it) and I'm pretty darnhappy with how it all turned out. Scroll to the bottom of this document to see some pix!

The place to start is always the reference photos.
To see the full-sized picture, click on the thumbnails.

Key view of the back of the gorget  

Breaking Down The Elements - What's What and Ohmigod, How Do I Make That?

Folkwear's Belgian Military Chef Jacket

I'm not one of those super duper people who can draft their own patterns from scratch. When I want to make something, I usually buy a commercial pattern and kitbash into an approximation of what I want. Fortunately, a pattern for the jacket was easily found.

The pattern on the left - follow the link to the retailer - is almost perfect, except for the matter of length - it's cut to just below the waist - and an issue with the arm-seam, which I will go into, below.

In terms of materials, the entire thing is black leather, with the exception of the front panel, which looks like wool, also black. The piping seemed to vary from white to slivery gray in the movie. I've taken the expeditious route and chosen white piping.

Altering the Jacket Pattern
I traced the pattern pieces in my size - because I like to extend the life of my patterns more than anything else - added a few inches to the length all around, and made a muslin to judge fit. I ran into some problems because I have zero knowledge of tailoring and an ample-for-my-height bosom, but I managed to accept that the fit was going to be a little funky.

Overall, I added about five inches to the length of the jacket and redrew the back so that it went straight across. I initially cut the pattern far too long, then trimmed back, which was a bit wasteful, but it's a damn sight easier to knock stuff off than put it back on.

Materials for the Jacket
I can't afford real leather, I doubt you can either. Thank heavens for artificial substitutes! Take the time to find a decent-quality pleather, not the usual nasty 'recreational vinyl' that you find at Jo-Anne's. You want something with a decent (if faux) grain to it, and a light drape. You can flat-line it to give it the heft of real leather - that fuzzy-backed recreational vinyl you'll find at most fabric stores just doesn't drape well, in my opinion.

2.5 yards of 54" pleather - you might need more, best thing to do is make a muslin, and then determine your yardage from that. Buy another half yard if you're planning to use the same material for the gorget.
2.5 yards of medium-weight twill for flat-lining - ditto.
1 yard of 54" wool (you might need more, as this was just barely enough for me, with a 38" bust)
4 packages ofwhite piping - about eight yards, in all.
1 yard of 2" wide velcro (you'll use some of this on the gorget, too)

Fabric Budget Busted? Some Tricks
-- Hit your thrift stores for used fake-leather jackets. Just make sure that what you buy will provide pieces large enough for your new pattern. Take your pattern pieces with you as you go a-hunting, and lay them out on the coat before you buy. Don't forget, you'll need to cut two of each pattern piece.
-- The same thrift-store trick can be done in looking for wool for the front panel. Look for long wool skirts, or coats.
-- Jo-Ann's often does sales and coupons like "50% off a single piece of fabric" so keep your eyes open for that. For my part, I haunt the discount fabric stores in San Francisco, and wait for their annual sales. I lucked out and got $16/yard pleather at nearly half off...

Sewing The Jacket
The construction was quite simple, with a couple of caveats.

-- I heartily recommend investing in a "rolling foot" for your sewing machine before tackling pleather. It's cheaper than fixing your machine when you've busted the timing, or buying more pleather because it got stuck in your machine and the seam went all wonky.

-- Unless you've got some seriously heavy stuff - or you're using real leather, in which case I doubt you need this web page - flat-line your pleather with the medium weight denim. Handle the resultant fusion as a single piece of fabric.

-- Lengthenyour stitch when sewing flat-lined pleather. Too-short a stitch will 'perforate' your fabric. I set my machine to something one-step short of a basting stitch, and it came out looking like my regular default stitch length, which surprised me.

-- The arm seams in back will throw you off a bit. Despite the way the illustration looks, the seam of the sleeve does not precisely match up with the seam on the back. At least the pattern instructions made a point of mentioning that, lest you go mad trying to make them match. For a solution, I took the lazy way around of taking my assembled muslin sleeve, marking where I wanted the seam to be (you have to move it up about a half inch), cut the muslin and drew new pattern pieces from there. Don't forget to include your seam allowance!

-- As you assemble the jacket, you must finish the lower edge before  you add the front panel. I forgot to do this, and it set me back quite a way - do-overs in pleather are hard to arrange. Pay attention to the pattern's instructions.

I find piping to be a pain in the ass. Practice with a spare packet and some muslin, first, to get the hang of it. I lay down my piping on one piece of the fabric with a basting stitch, having first measured to make sure that the inside edge of the piping lands smack-dab 1/2" (the seam allowance) away from the edge of the fabric. Then I pin the other piece of fabric to it, and feel for where the edge of the piping is and, with a contrasting color pen, draw where my ideal sewing line will be and use that as a guide. If you can use your zipper foot to lay down that seam, so much the better, as that will get you much closer to the edge of the piping. Again, it's better to err by not sewing close enough, than sewing too close and possibly going over the piping and hiding it. There's no unpicking of seams with a non-woven fabric like pleather, sigh.

 -- Instead of buttons, I laid down velcro to close the inside of the jacket, all along the outer edge of the top panel, and a bit on the inside opposite corner, to make putting it on a little easier. Be careful! You can machine sew the velcro that goes on your inside panel, but you'll want to hand-sew the upper layer of velcro just to the inside of the jacket facing, so that it doesn't show through.

-- Since making the jacket, I've been told by someone who saw the original costume at FIDM in Los Angeles that the piping on the sleeve does not extend all the way down, but stops about three inches short, because there is a zipper in the sleeve at that point. Hm, that explains the snug fit of the original...

The Gorget - That's the Thing Around Her Neck
This thing has been keeping me up nights, I swear. let me save you one big headache: The collar is not a part of the gorget. The collar is the regular jacket collar. I went mad trying to figure out how to make a pleather facsimile gorget with a collar on it, until that back-view photo brought it home to me that the gorget is wrapped around the collar of the jacket.

Furthermore, a lot of digital jiggery-pokery was used in the film - Gwyneth Paltrow's dress was a totally different color than what you see - so I think some closure/rough details of the gorget were removed in post-production.

As of 4/2, I'm only just starting to put my item together, but here's what I've done and how I did it.
Gorget Pattern
I made this in a distressingly mundane way. I took a great big circle of paper, cut out a hole in the middle that matched my collar size, cut a slit from the outer to the inner edge, put it around my neck, taped the slit shut and, standing in front of the mirror with a reference picture in front of me, drew a shape that I thought matched the gorget.

See that 'wedge' cut from the back? That is what will make the gorget lie flat once it's on. I determine the amount that had to be cut out simply by folding the paper circle around my neck, and making a note of where the folds were.

Gorget Materials
Assembling the Gorget (I recommend making a practice one, first. It's helped me so far!)
-- Make your paper pattern. Trace it onto buckram and cut out.

-- Cut two pieces of felt big enough for you to plunk your buckram onto. Glue the felt to the buckram. Be generous with the adhesive. Glue a second layer of felt on top of the first. Let it dry completely before moving on.

-- I tried a mockup with a single layer of felt and, honestly, it was a bit flimsy. I tried again with two layers of felt, and it was a lot better.

-- Cut your felt to match your buckram. This is a lot easier than cutting an exact copy of the paper pattern in felt and then messing about with 'matching' it to the buckram base.

-- The felt adds bulk and heft to the gorget (you could probably use any extra flat-lining denim if you've got it, I just used what I had) and stops the texture of the buckram from showing through on the vinyl.

-- Put your favorite steam kettle (borrow one if you must) on to boil. Steam your buckram frame into the shape you want it to assume over your shoulders. This won't be perfect or precise, but it will make your life easier once you're done. The buckram will get pretty severely abused as you continue, but it will remember at least some of the shape you've forced it into. Keep it in that shape until the buckram has cooled and the glue/starch has re-set.

-- Test fit this fabric-and-buckram form over the jacket. That pleather collar is bulky, so you want to make sure that you've got enough room at the neck of the gorget for it to still close and fit. Having a friend to help with this is invaluable. Trim neckhole as needed - it will almost certainly need it. Don't forget that the pleather on the gorget itself will add bulk and make it fit more snugly, too. My first run at the gorget was way too small at the neck.

-- Cut a big square of pleather. Glue it on top of the felt, as you did the felt to the buckram.
   -- Again, don't use hot glue! It can melt the pleather, burn your fingers and generally isn't worth the aggravation. Trust me.
   -- A note on Fabri-Tac brand glue: I love this stuff, and I go through a couple of pints of it every year. However, today (4/5/05) I just suffered a nasty lesson. Fabri-tac is an acetone based glue. Pleather, for all intents and purposes, is plastic. We all know what happens when acetone meets plastic: one dissolves the other.
   -- All has not been lost. The pleather's texture has changed a bit - it stretched and the grain became a bit more obvious as it stretched - but I stuck with it because a) I don't think it's that noticeable from more than a foot away and b) I just don't have time to start over from scratch. Maybe after Costume Con, I can make another version for BayCon, but at the moment, my time is limited. Gah! My point is, I don't know much about the proper adhesives, but if you've got the time, look into alternatives and, for heavens sake, test your glue first! A friend has suggested whatever is used to glue/patch automotive upholstery, which is often pleather/plastic in nature, but I don't know of any specific brands to suggest.
   -- In the end: I used Elmer's brand Craft Bond spray glue for the large area gluing - such as putting the big bit of felt onto the buckram and ditto the pleather on to the felt, with careful use of the fabri-tac when gluing the underside down, because you have to move quick with the Elmer's stuff if you want a permanent bond - read the instructions on the can.

-- Trim your pleather, leaving at least one inch allowance around the edges. It's going to be a lot less at the inside corner of the collar. Just be careful!

-- Glue the underside of the pleather to the buckram. You'll probably have to clip here and there along the curves to create a flatter edge. Take your time. Make a practice one, first. :)

At left is a picture of the back of the gorget, once it has been covered with the pleather. As you can see, a fair bit of clipping was required to make it fit.

Click on the picture for a larger view.

Attaching Straps To the Gorget
It's time consuming, but looks fab. You need a packet of rivets for jeans, and the handy little tool for setting them: see below:

I got these rivets and the tool at Michael's Craft Store - and couldn't find hide nor hair of them at either of my local JoAnn's , so be prepared to hunt around for them. The rivets are $5 per pack, and if you're careful, you need exactly 24 (one package) for the gorget. So don't lose any!

Set the rivets WRONG SIDE OUT.
The wrong side is almost-flat, and quite plain. You don't want the textured 'decorator' side showing.

Once you've made your straps by cutting buckram, covering it with felt (single layer) and pleather, make sure the straps are narrow enough to fit your buckles. For me, this was made easier by the fact that I was using buckles from a pair of thrift-store shoes, so I measured the straps on the shoes and used that as my guide for cutting the buckram and felt.

Riveting the gorget isn't too difficult, not does it require much strength - a couple of whacks from a rubber mallet sufficed for each rivet. However, you want to take your time and be very painstaking when determining where to set your rivets, lest they get all non-symmetrical. Us costume-wonks tend to be a bit perfectionist, I've noticed.

An attempt to describe how I mucked about with measurements, bits of paper and the reference pictures in order to rivet the gorget would bore you to tears. Suffice it to say that, after mucking up one (too small) the second one came out fine (see ../../pix, below - when it's not far too late for me to be mucking about online, I'll get better ../../pix of the gorget up)

-- Cut some strips of buckram, long enough for the shoulder strapping, and then some. (again, better too much than too little) and glue fabric to them, as per the felt on the gorget above. Cover with pleather. These, with the buckles, will become the shoulder straps on the gorget.

-- If I come up with a better way to close the gorget, I'll let you know. For now... Get a friend, put the gorget on over the jacket and have the friend mark where the top and bottom of the center-back (the closure) is, with chalk. (this is one of those times that having a fitting mannequin is really nice)
    -- Take the fuzzy side of your two-inch velcro, and cut a piece a bit shorter than the length of the opening slit in the back of the gorget. Sew it to the back of your jacket, between the marks. The intention is for the gorget to hide this, entirely..
    -- Take the other half of the velcro - the prickly bit - and cut it in half lengthwise. Glue it to the underside of your gorget, one length to each side of the closure.
    -- When you put the gorget on, anchor the velcro on the underside of the gorget to that on the back of your jacket. That, and the strapping (see below) and the steaming of the buckram should suffice to hold its shape whilst on you. You might need to strategically add a bit more velcro, here and there. I'll post more when I know it myself.

-- Take some of your rivets and your practice gorget, and practice setting the rivets. You want to set the little dears wrong side out. The bottom side of the rivet is a flat silver, whereas the top is all textured - at least, the package I got are that way. You want the flat silver disk to be facing outwards on the final garment. You might want to hit the rivets with some dulling spray if you have it (test on one, compare) but my husband says he thinks I'm going too far at this point. :)

-- Rivet the back of the gorget, as per the picture.

-- Place the shoulder straps on your gorget. Again, having a friend to help hold things down (or a mannequin to do it on) will help a lot. Glue the straps front and back, and follow up with rivets, as in the reference pictures. This is why you want functional buckles, because once those rivets are on, you're not going to be able to get the item on, otherwise.

-- With luck, you've now got a wearable gorget. I'm only halfway through construction myself, right now, so I'll keep you posted.

I have no idea how to do those bolts on the shoulders. I'm hoping inspiration will strike, soon.

The Rest
Patches on the Jacket And Cap

Tricky, but you've got options.
  1. Utilize your mad leet artistic skillz - or those of a friend - to draw images of the cap and sleeve patches, based on the reference photos. Scan those photos in to a bitmap, and get access to one of those super-duper embroidery-capable sewing machines that can accept a .bmp or .jpg file from a floppy and make the patches. I have no idea what the results of such an approach would be like.
  2. Fabric paint, a steady hand, and faith. It's all a matter of what tools you've got. I'm hoping to be able to exercise option #1, but I'm planning for #2. For heaven's sake, don't paint directly on to your jacket or cap. Paint onto a bound-edged bit of fabric (your base patch) and then attach it once you're done and it's dry.
-- Note: the Amphibious Squad Patch (the b&w one on the sleeve) was only on Franky's right sleeve, not both.

As per the strapping for the gorget, you can cut buckram, cover it in fabric, cover it in pleather and put a buckle on it.
Or you can hit the stores looking for something that's a close match. Given that it's fairly basic - looks like it's 3" wide, black plastic with a dull silver buckle - that might be possible and plausible. Heck, scavenge around at your local Tap Plastics and/or hardware store, and you might find a plastic that will work, although cutting a smooth, straight edge on it might be challenging.

Simplicity in itself. Jolie wore plain black spandex leggings under the jacket. I don't know about you, but I'm going to splurge on a full-body catsuit, because I'll need it for another costume I'm planning (Rebecca Fogg) and dual-duty is twice as nice! Besides, I need something between my torso and that jacket!

Unfortunately, we don't see many shots of the boots in the movie. I've got to go back to make a screen grab to be sure, but from what I remember, she wore knee-high black boots of a leather to match the jacket. There boots were flat or had only a very slight heel to them. There were two or three silver buckles up the outside of each boot, and the style of them was much like the belt buckle. As my budget is already cramped, I've found some thrift-store boots that are almost good enough - the heel's a little dressy - and, time permitting, I will kitbash some buckles onto them.

The Cap
Jolie is wearing a garrison cap (aka 'flight cap' aka 'a very rude nickname that Johanna won't repeat here'). You can find flight caps at any military surplus store or wheedle a military friend of yours to pick one up for you. Try to get a woman's cap, if you can, not a guy's cap - they're different shapes in front.
     Unfortunately, they don't come in black. A friend of mine managed to dye a khaki one black, and here what she said about it:

I took a bottle of RIT black and diluted it with a gallon and a half of water and a "container" of salt (the whole little round cardboard thing, I think 1 lb), then submerged the hat and boiled it for about 7 hours. Then I was tired, so I turned off the heat, covered it with foil to keep the roommates out, and went to bed. I forgot about it the next day, so it was in the cool water for about 36 hours after the boiling before I took it out, rinsed it really well in the sink with dishsoap, washed it in the washer and dried it in the drier.

This whole submerge forever and boil a while method is the only thing I've found that makes polyester somewhat take dye. It only works on small projects that can fit on the stove, though. However, if you just use cold water and submerge at least overnight, you can use it to give bold tints to synthetic wigs without frizzing them out, like make a brown wig henna-coppery (mix red and burgundy for henna).

    My only comment on this is that you might not want to put the cap in the drier, but let it air-dry. If you must throw it in the dryer, put it on the delicate setting, as polyester ain't too fond of hot dryers, either.
    Another option is to buy a regular USAF cap in your size, take it apart, make a pattern from it, and then make your own in black twill. Labor intensive, but viable.

Belt pouch: As evinced by the photos, Franky wore a black pouch on her belt, on her left side. Me, I don't have anything ready to hand, and I'm running out of time and money, so I'm going without. If you've got the time and the wherewithal, play about with your buckram and pleather, or visit your local thrift store for a clutch-type purse that you could kitbash.

Eye patch: I don't want to use a medical eyepatch for this costume, as they're large an unwieldly. I'm going to kitbash a patch with a bit of buckram, fabric and pleather again, so it's the right size and shape.Unfortunately, I'll have to wear it over my left eye, because if I wore it over the right (as per the character) I'd bump into walls and hurt myself in very short order. The dubious delight of severe astigmatism... Unfortunately, my costume wonkiness must bow to safety issues.

Not Quite A Conclusion
This is a work in progress. When I'm done, I will post pictures of the final ensemble. As of 4/2/05, the jacket is almost complete and I've just begun the final attempt at the gorget. I have a deadline of 4/17 to finish this outfit in order to have it ready in time for Costume Con at the end of the month (I'm losing a chunk of April to a vacation) so tune in after that date for the final ../../pix and my thoughts!
More of a Conclusion Than the Prior One
Here it is! Don't mind the quality of the ../../pix or the fact that it's hanging on a stand that's nowhere near my size. Click on the thumbnails for a larger view. I still have to kitbash my way through the back closure for the gorget - I'm starting to rather desperately envision strategically placed velcro all over the dam' place to keep it close to the garment, but I'm going to let these adhesive fumes clear from my head, first.

click on the itty-bitty picture for a larger view

click on the itty-bitty picture for a larger view

And finally... me in the costume!

Costume Con 23.
Click on thumbnail for larger view.

BayCon 2006

(notice that I've finished the gorget, finally)

Costume Con 23.
Again, click on thumbnail for larger view.

Fabric, piping and buckram: $60 (I bought all my fabric at a discount place during a sale. Full retail cost would have been much more)
Rolling foot for sewing machine: $35 (more of a long-term investment really, and I love it!)
Glue: $8
Trimmings: $15
Rivets, the silly little tool to set the rivets and a can of dull-coat: $17
Boots: $7 (thrift store find)
Cap: $0 (a gift from a friend)
Thrift store shoes (scavenged for buckles): $7
Bottle of silver spray paint (for belt buckle): $5
Can of Elmer's Craft Tack: $5
Patches: traded for two yards of fabric from my horde.
Total: $161 + bartered goods.

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