Upcycle: Shake, Rock ‘N Roll! Various methods to create a vintage 1950’s look dress.

 Shake, Rock ‘N Roll!

Everyone in “Grease” wants to attend the big dance at Rydell High and dance in the Hand Jive Contest!  Bring on the petticoats, tulle & “Away We Go!”  This scene is BIG!  This scene has ENERGY!  This scene is HOPPIN’!  And this scene requires A LOT of costumes!

The guys aren’t so hard:  shorten the pants to ankle height, add some white socks, bow ties & matching pocket handkerchiefs, and whatever suit jacket they can fit in.  (OK, not quite, we tried for jackets with narrow lapels, and lacking that, folded some wide lapels over and basted them down for a shawl collar look).

The girls . . .well . . we had 50 of them . . .  that was a little different story.

Since the cast was so large, the chorus was divided into groups, so not everyone was in every scene.  However, we didn’t want to leave anyone out of the fun of the dance. . .   So . . . .  that meant a lot of dresses!  This is how we went about it:

The first step was to look for dresses.  I figured that even if I could find some to borrow or rent, there wouldn’t be enough for everyone, so I started hitting the thrift stores soon after auditions.  Knowing the quantity of dresses that I needed limited the amount that I could spend on any one dress.  Originally I had thought to focus on pastels, but, that idea quickly was discarded as it became clear there just weren’t enough dresses readily available in that color palette.  Rather than have a few girls stick out in the “wrong” color, I decided to focus on shape and length instead of color.

The “vision” for the majority of dresses was mid-calf in length, with a fitted bodice and full skirt with a gathered waist.  Since not everyone dresses the same, we would scatter in a few drop waist dresses, and possibly a floor length one or two.  The advantage of NOT having floor length dresses was that it would (hopefully) eliminate stepping on them, especially since there were so many people on stage and they were boppin’ and dancin’ to the Hand Jive!  The other reason for shortening the dresses is most modern dresses are either floor length or super short.  Changing the hem instantly transforms a dress to another era.

The first major fitting task was to find a Party dress for everyone, so we scheduled those fitting days ASAP.  I knew that altering those dresses would take the longest to get completed, and I also wanted plenty of time to look for more if I hadn’t found enough.

Where to find that many dresses?  I put out the word on some local :”Buy/Sell/Trade” sites, and did get a few donations.  I found a few in the costume collections of other theater groups, we had a few previously donated dresses (our costume collection is only a couple of years old), I had a few in my stash, and then I hit the local thrift stores pretty hard.  I was primarily looking for full skirts, or a straight skirt we could make an overskirt for.  I also wanted to avoid anything that screamed of a different era (no Gunne Sax, intense beading, animal prints, etc).

We scheduled two days to fit party dresses.  Prior to fitting days, I had measured all of the dresses by bust size.  Size tags in dresses mean absolutely nothing.  I had them all pre-hung from small to large.  When a cast member came in, we referred to the cast measurement chart to find their bust size, and started from there, going up or down in dress size as needed.

I made forms out that listed the girls name, a brief description of the dress, and strap length. We also used these forms to  make a few quick notes on fit and how we thought the dress needed to be altered.  We had the cast member tie a string around their waist and marked that line on each side with safety pins.  If there were other pertinent changes that could be marked, for example taking in the sides, those were also marked with safety pins.  That isn’t the most ideal method, BUT, they stayed in place and didn’t fall out.

When we were done, we had stacks of dresses with little papers attached . . . .and somehow . . . in a matter of 6 weeks, they were all supposed to be transformed into something 1950-ish.  From this point I divided the dresses by difficulty of alteration, and also by color.  I then ordered bolts of tulle in common colors, ie black, cranberry, blue, etc.

One of the goals in the upcycles was to preserve the fullness at the bottom of the dresses.  That meant the excess length had to come out of the top of the skirt.


When we did initial measurements, we had measured a “skirt length” for the girls.  It was then a matter of measuring down from the marked waist to the bottom of the dress, and subtracting the desired skirt length to determine the amount the dress needed to be shortened.  A typical amount to remove would be 8″.

This process is a little different for every dress.  You have to work around the construction details, such as zippers, beads, and boning, as well as the cut and grain of the fabric in the original dress.

I previously wrote posts about several of the dresses . . the white Patty Simcox dress was the “concept dress” where I tried the method out.  I picked that one simply because I had the dress, it fit my daughter, it seemed to go with her character AND I had access to her over the December break from school 🙂

As time went on, our crew of very talented volunteers came up with new and innovative ways to alter dresses.  We became much more efficient, and one of our volunteers ended up altering almost 20 dresses herself.   Thank you Cindy!

Here are some of the other ways the volunteers changed the dresses:  I will start each of these dresses with pictures of the finished dress (I, unfortunately, don’t have “before” pictures).  After a brief description of the process, I have posted some pictures of the inspiration for this transformation.

Dress #1:  Modern Fuchsia Ballgown

10516872_10206711213925476_848807572197294083_n 11081217_10206711213445464_6620388001707864677_n 11108848_10206711212725446_4410792266016909773_n

This dress started out as a HUGE modern ballgown.  The dress was strapless, had a multi-layer tulle skirt, an underskirt, and two very full layers of petticoat net: one that started up high at about hip level, and one that had a layer of multiple ruffles at the bottom.  We looked at this dress a loooooong time, because it was so pretty it was painful to alter.   But, alter it we did, because we had no immediate need for a Fairy Godmother or Glinda costume.  Now, with most dresses we were adding poof, for this one, we needed to take it away.  The middle picture shows were the petticoat net was cut off of the inside of the dress (not to be thrown away–it was added to a different dress).

This dress then had about 12″ cut off of the bottom of alllllll of the layers.  The lining was rehemmed.  I am told that they hung the dress from a light fixture and lay on the floor under it to even up any jagged edges that needed it after the initial cutting was done.  You do what you have to do!

The fabric that was removed from the bottom of the dress (lining and tulle) was then used to make the straps.  You can see how full the skirt is in the top picture.

This is an example of using the skills that your volunteers have.  My first volunteer (a non-sewer) cut the layers off.  She actually recruited a neighbor (who ended up helping us out with other projects) to do the hemming of the lining.  A third volunteer made the straps.

Inspiration #1.  To me, this is the most iconic style of 1950’s Prom dress.  Perhaps it is because I remember my sisters and I saving our dimes to purchase some of them at a thrift store back in the mid 1970’s . . what isn’t to love about rows of tulle ruffles?


Inspiration:  http://cdn3.bigcommerce.com/s-hflmlonu/products/6466/images/15113/v6926__08073.1408418487.1280.1280.jpg?c=2

Finished upcycle

Finished upcycle

Dress #2:  Yellow vintage brocade

11091331_10206711199845124_438039607117783806_n 11081395_10206711200525141_4948123727850961653_n 1555467_10206711201285160_836147685417548932_n

This dress was a vintage dress made of a yellow lightweight brocade.  This is one of those dresses that lost some of its body when it went through the wash.  However, a little spray starch and an iron help to recover that poof, as does a petticoat.  This dress also had some very nice beading & sequin appliques at the neckline.

This dress originally was a Princess style dress, with a fairly full skirt.  It needed to have fabric removed from the center, so a cut was made at the waist marking (plus seam allowance).  Fabric was removed from the top of the skirt, and the skirt reattached to the waist.

This dress had a zipper, so it had to be ripped out from the skirt, and then replaced once the skirt was raised.

Inspiration #2:

Finished upcycle

Finished upcycle

Dress #3:  Blue Brocade

11133904_10206711198765097_8580616825549075352_n 11121762_10206711199405113_651047645861378123_n

This dress was very similar in style to the yellow dress.  However, the person upcycling this dress chose a different route.  She made a two piece outfit.  She cut the original dress off slightly below the waist line, and then shaped her cut in the back to go AROUND the zipper.  She then pressed the raw edges to the INSIDE on both the dress fashion fabric and the lining, pinned it well, and sewing the two layers together.

The skirt was finished by making a casing at the top and running some elastic through it making a simple adjustable skirt.

The dress was then embellished with a shoulder drape (the sheer decorative edge off a shower curtain).

This made a really nice looking costume on stage.  The back extension around the zipper was a very clever idea, and a creative way to avoid messing with the zipper.

Inspiration for back drape #3:


Inspiration: http://www.bluevelvetvintage.com/images/D/d_5667.jpg                 

Finished upcycle

Finished upcycle

Dress #4  Orange Satin

11130208_10206711209965377_6383944886035638960_n 1507858_10206711210605393_1028325600646879479_n

This dress was designed with the “mock front” bodice” . . that is what I call them where the skirt is attached to the lining, and the bodice hangs loose at the waist.  Often there will be 4-5 “threads” loosely anchoring the bodice to the waistline.  You can see in the top picture how the bodice tips up a bit.

This dress came from the thrift store with a quarter sized hole just below the waist in the skirt.  For our purposes, that didn’t matter a bit.  The skirt was removed, the bad part cut off, and it was reattached to the lining.  Then, a layer of tulle was added over the top.  A little bit of leftover fabric was added to the top of the bodice, as it was a bit low cut for our purposes.  The volunteer also added the flower to the waist.

The dress is showing a lot of wrinkles from washing after the show.  I would use a steamer, and/or an iron to eliminate most of them if it was to be worn again (this is another great job for a non-sewing volunteer).

I recently read a blog post on dying a petticoat, and that person used an iron and spray starch to re-stiffen her petticoat after she washed it.  I personally don’t think that petticoat net loses that much “puff” with washing, and sometimes I think washing and a good shaking and hanging helps to get rid of the squished in creases and puffs it back up.  Of course . . . hers was for her wedding, so I guess the idea of ironing it 4-5 times with starch was seen justifiable 🙂

Inspiration for the overskirt look #4:

Finished upcycle

Finished upcycle

Dress #5:  Little Black Dress


This dress was a modern “little black dress”.  It could have been a bridesmaid dress, it could also have been a dressy cocktail dress.  It was of a taffeta weight material, had a  V-neck, full skirt and sash.  It fit the cast member well, so it was just a matter of giving it a little more 50’s style.  The tulle chosen to decorate this dress ended up being a bit bright.  It is always hard to tell . . .some tulle washes out, and this particular color seemed to get brighter!

First, an overskirt of black tulle was sewn to the top of the dress at the waistband.  This was done by cutting lengths of tulle in the appropriate length.  They were sewn on just as they came off the bolt (with a double layer, and the fold) to give a little more fullness.  By this time we had figured out that one layer of tulle often looked a little underwhelming.  A second layer made a big difference for just a little added expense.  These pieces were finger gathered as they were sewn on, and the pieces were overlapped somewhat at the top.  This was all very unscientific–not a lot of measuring or calculating.


Outside view: tulle top stitched on to skirt


Inside view of stitching

Next, coral tulle ruffles were sewn on the front of the dress.  This was done using 6″ precut rolls of tulle.  The tulle was folded in 1/2, and then finger ruffled as it was being sewn down. This makes a 1.5″ ruffle on either side of the stitching.  This dress was one of the first ones done, and the tulle was initially just sewn in 1/2, which made 3″ ruffles, which was just a BIT much.  So, these were squished down and sewn-over.  This bodice is not the best example of how this looks.  Below is a better example.


Inside view of tulle stitching lines. These were marked on the bodice with chalk before starting.


Squished tulle . .not pretty, but looks OK on stage.

The bottom of the skirt was then given the same sort of tulle ruffle.  Originally, I kept all of this tulle in one strip, even though the skirt pieces were in panels.  It worked good, looked cute . . until during a rehearsal the cast member caught the ruffle on something, and about 6′ of it pulled off!  She just draped it over her shoulder, and I sewed it back on, this time cutting the panels of black tulle apart.


Tulle ruffles around the hem of the overskirt.

This is a really inexpensive way to give a dress a 50’s flair.  One of the other volunteers had used rows of lace, and when we saw how good that looked, one thing led to another, and we started to repeat that look using tulle.


A better example of the tulle bodice ruffles.

Inspiration style of dress #5:


Inspiration:  http://ak2.polyvoreimg.com/cgi/img-thing/size/l/tid/55758701.jpg


Inspiration:  https://img1.etsystatic.com/056/1/7646373/il_570xN.752709767_tfla.jpg

Finished upcyle

Finished upcyle

Dress #6:  Yellow

10382859_10206711201845174_8574536506655518453_n 11136752_10206711202205183_3966601582651085957_n

I am not even really sure what to call this style of dress.  It is one of my favorite “base” garment styles, and I will buy them whenever I see them, even if I don’t have a current project in mind.  This one had the floating bodice, in a yellow brocade-type fabric, nicely boned, with a full multi-layer skirt. and shoulder straps.  It is such a versatile style of dress for upcycling.  I have come to appreciate a bodice with straps!

This one, again, needed to be shortened at the waist.  This dress didn’t end up the way the volunteer started to do it . . but when she started pinning up the skirt to figure out how much to cut . . . a peplum was born!

The top chiffony-sort of layer is hand tacked to the underskirt.  This sewing is hidden by the bodice.  The underskirt was shortened, and the excess fabric was used to make the drape around the neck.

Inspiration #6:


Finished upcycle


I hope that you have enjoyed this exercise in upcycling possibilities.    The original dresses we started with ranged in price from $3-$10.  Some “refashions” involved adding embellishments to the original dress (mostly tulle), but you will have noticed that several of them dealt strictly with altering the dress, and then using the left-over fabric to add period details.

Many of these dresses did benefit from an additional petticoat for “poof” when they were actually worn.

The advantages to upcycling are many.  The two obvious savings are in time and money.  In addition, most of these garments are purchased at non-profit stores where the proceeds are then turned around to benefit others.  In this case, I also felt like it added to the integrity of the scene . . . not so much that the dresses were all 100% historically correct, but that none of them were “cookie cutter”.  Every dress was just a little bit different, just as they would be if you went to an actual event.   And . . it makes me feel good to know that a garment was given a little more life before ending up in a landfill somewhere.

Want to see the costumes in action?:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.