What do Gandalf the Gray, Scarlett O’Hara and Obi wan Kenobi have in common? It may sound like the beginning of a humorous riddle, but in actuality, they are all characters mimicked in the costumes sewn by 25-year-old Tooele resident Alyssa Coombs.
“I’ve always been really into Halloween and really gotten into the costumes,” said Coombs.
From an early age, Coombs and her sister constructed their own costumes to wear on Halloween. She joined the 4-H program and through it learned the basics of sewing. At the age of 8, she entered her first costume into the Tooele County Fair. From then on she made a goal to challenge herself more and more each year.
Annually, Coombs constructs one or more costumes based either on a time period of the past or a character from a well-known movie. Her preference is the time-period-based costumes, but it seems the movie characters are more relatable to a broader audience. Her repertoire includes costumes from the Civil War era, Victorian era, “Lord of the Rings” series, “Star Wars” series, “My Fair Lady” and “Gone with the Wind.”
One of her greatest goals has always been authenticity — making each costume a reliable disguise mimicking the character being represented. From there the limits of her imagination and being able to locate necessary supplies on a budget are the only constraints to her achievements.
“I live to be as authentic as possible, which racks up the price,” Coombs said. “The fabrics and trims are quite expensive.”
To offset the cost of supplies, Coombs began renting out her costumes year-round in 2010. Originally, the costumes were sewn to be worn on her slight frame, but it wasn’t long before she realized a more standard size needed to be made if the costumes were to be rentable.
For the most part, the costumes she makes now are a women’s size medium. Through the years she’s gotten better at making costumes that will fit other people. It becomes quite difficult to design and construct universal apparel for an assortment of unique body types.
Aside from sewing the costumes that she so enjoys, Coombs generally only makes alterations when she sews for others, usually on wedding dresses, because it is the only thing that really makes money.
“I have the equipment to do it. I am amazed how much time I can spend sewing even with a child,” she said. “Most of the house becomes a project area. My husband has to deal with it all year long. Even if he doesn’t wear it he has to be the model or the mannequin to make sure it would fit a regular-sized person.”
From her first costume, Coombs has gone on to construct a variety of costumes from a vast assortment of genres.
“My dream would be to do all the characters from ‘Lord of the Rings,’” she said.
In the past, Coombs manufactured the cloak worn by Gandalf, the wizard from the “Lord of the Rings” films. The outfit was completed with a long beard and the tall, wide-brimmed hat worn by the character as he led the hobbits and other characters on their quest to Middle Earth.
“The hardest thing to find was the dark gray material for Gandalf’s costume,” Coombs said. “I found it on eBay, but even after it arrived I wasn’t sure it was exactly what I wanted. I would love to make the costume of the dwarf, but there is a lot of metal on the helmet. If money were endless I would go out and buy it.”
Though she hates buying fabric online because she can’t see exactly what she is getting, Coombs finds and purchases many scarce or difficult-to-find fabrics and materials on eBay. It is there she finds essentials for authenticity such as hoop skirts or the obscure accessories that turn an ordinary replication into a masterpiece.
In March or April of each year, Coombs considers the possibilities for her annual Halloween costume. It takes time to plan out what she wants to do, find a pattern and order materials.
“I usually think about what I want to add to my collection,” she said. “I ask around about the interests of people. There are a lot of requests for the Southern Belle dress and for Star Wars characters.”
This year, Coombs made a replica of the green print dress worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film version of “Gone with the Wind.” After her successful entry in the fair, it was suggested that she make the green velvet dress Scarlett constructs from her mother’s curtains. The suggestion, however, is that she sew the version worn by actress and comedian Carol Burnett, which is a parody version of that same dress.
In addition to the Scarlett O’Hara dress, Coombs recreated the dress worn to the races by Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” The dress itself was a simple bridal satin fabric used for a wedding dress. From that point onward there were several complications with the outfit — the first being the difficulty of finding a plain white hat to use as a base in constructing the oversized headdress, which is characteristic to the ensemble. Another issue was finding a way to position the hat at the sophisticated angle while keeping it stationary on the wearer’s head. The zipper for the dress had to be specially ordered. The dress was so form fitting that the zipper had to be over a yard long to enable the wearer to get in it. Lastly, the striped trim to complete the outfit seemed impossible to locate and was finally found, oddly enough, at a site advertising high fashion baby fabric. The dress won a first place ribbon at the Tooele County Fair.
Additionally, for the 2012 Utah State Fair, Coombs sewed a Southern Belle dress. One of the difficulties encountered in its construction was that the pattern she had purchased was missing a set of instructions for the bodice and sleeves. Luckily, her sister had sewn a similar gown and Coombs was able to follow those directions to complete the dress, earning her a “Best of State” award.
Another venue Coombs enjoys exploring is the attire worn by people at different periods throughout history. In years past, she’s tried her hand at a black top and skirt that likely would have been worn during the Victorian era.
Additionally, she’s attempted a double-breasted tail coat, scarf and pants for her husband, which is something that should have been very generic for the time period. To her dismay, people thought he was Dracula from the back and Joseph Smith, a prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1800s, from the front.
One of the most educational aspects of sewing costumes has been finding out what works and what doesn’t. Several years ago, Coombs made “Star Wars”’ Queen Amidala’s costume, complete with a hat that would have never stayed on. By the time Halloween arrived, she hadn’t finished the headdress in time to go to a trunk-or-treat and was gluing on accessories up until the last minute. Only after she returned home did she discover she had glued the headpiece to her hair with the hot glue. Eventually the glue and her hair had to be cut from her scalp.
Coombs has made a total of 30 costumes. Some she has made and sold, like the “Anakin Skywalker gone bad” costume she made for her husband to represent the period in the “Star Wars” movies when Skywalker begins to turn to the dark side.
Coombs’ collection includes more women’s attire than men’s because she likes a flourish and the men’s costumes are not as extravagant. However, among the men’s costumes is the tan robe worn by Skywalker as Obi Wan Kenobi.
New to her collection this year is her steampunk costume. Steampunk is a combination of Victorian era clothing mixed with the ideals and prospects of a futuristic era. Jules Vern is considered the father of the steampunk costume.
The outfit will be a Victorian era skirt and blouse, top hat and, consistent with the innovation of what would have been considered the future at the time, aviation goggles. In keeping with her standard of always striving to challenge herself, Coombs will take on a new task of making a leather corset with AR15 bullet holders.
Not only has sewing given Coombs a valuable and marketable skill, it’s been a lifelong hobby that’s kept her happily busy.
“In high school, I attended Tooele High School and participated in orchestra and Jazz band. With that and the sewing, I was always very busy,”she said. “Maybe that explains why I never really got into trouble.”