Last week I took a vacation back home to the San Francisco Bay area, where Oscar and I participated in the Santa Clara Vintage Dance Weekend. We took a handful of classes in Vintage Waltz, Lindy, and Charleston, as well as attended a few themed dances. Naturally, I went with a 1920s look for both themed dances. Instead of wearing one of my vintage, reproduction dresses, or handmade dresses, I turned to my favorite hobby: the up-cycle dress. Using a dress I found at a thrift store for one event and a purchased but modified new dress for the second event, I will show you how you can too can make a 1920s dress for less. Both dresses cost less than $25.
DIY 1920s Dress Thrifted
A local trip to my favorite thrift store resulted in several dresses I thought I could transform into an authentic 1920s style. The first was this pretty teal blue Old Navy dress. What said, “’20s” to me was the existing drop waist, round neck with smocked detail, and longer 3/4 length sleeves. The skirt length was a tad short for the 20s but nothing I couldn’t overlook.
Here is the transformation:
The first thing I did was remove the elastic waistband and sleeves (which was harder to do than it looks) and finished the seams. To my surprise, once I let out the elastic in the sleeves, I discovered they were bell shaped, which is perfectly authentic to the 1920s! I then sewed on 1/4 in velvet trim around the sleeves, neckline, and around the front buttons. For the belt, I used satin blanket binding, which was nice and wide and covered up the original waistband. I found instructions in a vintage 1920s dress making book to make the belt bow (easy) and fringed flower accessory on the shoulder (not so easy). I also changed out the clear teal buttons for black ones that you can see in the final outfit picture below.
For my night out dancing, I wore a matching cloche hat I had in my stash. I didn’t get a close up picture, but I did add some peacock feathers and a vintage brooch to the hat for more of an evening look. I then wore black Oxford dancing shoes over net stockings, wrapped myself in a wool and fur trimmed shawl, and tossed on a long necklace. (Note: Dancing with a long necklace on is kind of dangerous. At any given swing out I was either choking myself or hitting my partner in the face with it. I am sure the scene looked exactly like this famous ’20s Life Magazine art:
Anyways, I am so pleased with how the dress turned out. Many fellow friends and dancers asked if it was vintage! That is always the ultimate compliment on a job well done. All in all, this project came to only $14 and about 4 hours of time.
1920s Forever 21 Dress Project
For the second event, the theme was a tea dance. 1920s summer tea dance = white. I found an amazing drop waist white lace and tiered skirt dress at my local Forever 21. It was sleeveless, had a pretty round neckline, and I just loved all the lace trim. The only problem with it was that it was way too short for an authentic 1920s dress. In my stash of costume stuff, I just so happened to have a white pleated half slip that matched perfectly with the dress. Put the two together and presto!
I use this trick a lot to make short dresses longer- just put a slip under it. The two (or in this case three) layer look is very accurate to the teens and 1920s. You can pull your slip up or down to get the perfect length. With my first dress, I could have worn a black slip underneath for more length and it would have looked great too.
For my final look, I wore light ivory tights under white T strap shoes, another peach beaded long necklace, crystal headband, and a lace white shawl. Oscar wore his summer whites too. White linen pants, white suit coat, white shirt, gold tie, Art Deco tie clip, white cap toe dance shoes (Aris Allen brand), and a straw boater. I think we made a snazzy pair!
So there you have it. Two examples of how to create 1920s dresses without breaking the bank. Start with a dress that is “almost there” and add trim, a slip, and accessories to bring your new dress back to the roaring twenties. There are many great ’20s style dresses out this year. Keep your eyes peeled for them and have fun with the up-cycling. If you ever need help with ideas for transforming your new dress, just send me an email with a picture and I’ll be happy to help you.
Here are two more articles on 1920s costume ideas using mostly “thrifty” clothing:
- For women: Easy 1920s Costumes and 10 Downton Abbey costumes.
- For Men: Easy 1920s Men’s Costumes
- Make a One Hour Dress (will take at least 2 hours) with this 1922 pattern.
- Sew a 1920s house dress using a modern pattern
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.