Upcycle a frumpy frock into a 1940s tea dress

Miss Thrifty11 August 7, 2014

upcycle a cotton dress

If you can remember when Kurt Cobain was still alive (a perturbingly long time ago now), chances are that you have a couple of floaty, cotton mix dresses still hanging around. You know the ones I mean: simple, printed dresses with buttons down the front.

I remember liking these dresses, as a body image-obsessed teenager. This was because even though they were all mid-calf length, which shortens the leg and widens the calf, they were quite… forgiving. And they looked good with Dr Martens. I am sure you won’t be surprised to learn that, despite the solemn preoccupation with calf width, at the time I was the size and shape of a twig. Ah, the benefit of hindsight! If only I’d known that teenage twiglets could wear a belted binbag and still look good, I could have spent less time in sartorial contemplation and more time partying. In a binbag.

Recently I found one of my old dresses in my mum’s attic. Sadly, 20 years and a couple of dress sizes later, the effect was less grunge princess and more frumpo fantastico:

upcycled dress before

Wouldn’t it be great if you could wave a magic wand and swap a frumpy old 1990s dress like this one for something more… flattering and lovely?

Also we had a 1940s day coming up in a local park, and I didn’t have anything to wear. Hmm…

I don’t pretend to be the world’s best seamstress – one of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to become better reacquainted with my dusty little sewing machine – but it struck me that really, it doesn’t take much to turn a floaty cotton dress like this for a 1940s-style tea dress. I love tea dresses: so pretty and so comfortable. And the print, the buttons, the simple sleeves… much of what you need is already there.

I kid you not, all you need to do is take up the hem. Raise it from mid-calf length to knee-length, and hey presto! For novice or rusty sewers like me, it’s a quick and easy way to upcycle.

pinning the hem

If you are new or uncertain about how to raise a hem, you can find a step-by-step guide here. For the love of God, remember to check your hem is super-straight at the pinning stage – and if you are doing this all by yourself, try on the pinned dress before you sew to make sure that you have got the hem just where you want it.

I lucked out: I had my mum, who is a darned whizz with a needle and thread, on hand to help. I still wear some of the clothes that she made for herself back in the 1960s and 1970s.

upcycling dress

So after we’d raised the hem and turned my frumpy dress into a pretty tea dress, in one fell swoop, we decided to get a little more fancy.

1940s fashion doesn’t have the cachet of some of the other eras, probably because of its association with wartime austerity. I like it though (the clothes, NOT the shoes). The clothes were made to last – they had to – so they were carefully made with the best material available. As a result of the everyday deprivations and people striving to make the most of what they had, dressmakers old and new also seem to have been relatively inventive. There were as many different styles of sleeve, collar and trimming as you could shake a stick at. So if you upcycle a 1990s cotton dress into a 1940s tea dress, those simple, square sleeves are fine just as they are –but if you want to add something more, such as a trim or a ruffle, that flies too.

For this dress, we went proper, old school make do and mend – and raided the vintage collar tin in my mum’s sewing cupboard.

vintage collars

Double bonus: not only is my mum a top-notch seamstress, she is also a veteran jumble sale fiend and fashion hoarder extraordinaire. Hence the presence of a big old biscuit tin filled with neatly unstitched collars. Clothes don’t die in her house: the nice ones are stashed in the loft for future generations, the ok ones are dispatched at car boot sales and the ruined ones are cannabilised for the sewing cupboard. Off come the buttons into colour-coded tins and jars, off come the trimmings and finally, what is left is cut up and turned into dusters.

upcycling a dress

We picked out the white cotton collar you can see in the picture below. It was like a sailor collar at the back and when we pinned it to the red print dress it almost fitted – almost, but not quite. We ended up putting some small pleats into it before sewing it on. This is where it got a bit tricky for me – I think I ended up having more fittings for this dress, to ensure the collar was on straight and sitting properly, than I did for my bloomin’ eBay wedding dress – so it was good to be in capable hands.

upcycling vintage collar

I was really happy with how it turned out – and so was Frugal Grandma, who lived through the 1940s the first time and gave my upcycled dress her seal of vintage approval. Here I am at 1940s Day, in the Valley Gardens at Harrogate:

miss thrifty

1940s Day valley gardens harrogate

1940s Yorkshire

tea dress

(The picture above marks the moment when I clocked Thrifty Kid helping himself to a stranger’s bag of chips. You can just about see the flame of mortification beginning to spread on my cheeks.)

1940s swing band

1940s dress

I suspect that any other old 1990s dresses I find may be headed for a similar fate. Lock up your jumble…

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11 Responses to “Upcycle a frumpy frock into a 1940s tea dress

Lucy says:

You have done a great job, it looks lovely

August 7, 2014 at 8:53 am

Niftynorah says:

It looks really lovely and you look very Ann Sheridan. What a clever mum.

August 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Louise says:

What a great idea. I was at that 1940s day too, it was fab. You look beautiful btw. X

August 7, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Vicky says:

Lovely upcycle! Since I fell in love with my sewing machine a year or so ago I’ve regretted getting rid of long skirts! You rock the 40s look too 🙂 x

August 7, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Miss Thrifty says:

Thanks all! My mum should take most of the credit, really: she was up late getting that collar just so.

@niftynorah I hadn’t heard of Ann Sheridan, but have googled her… and yes, I’ll take her! Her victory rolls are things of wonder.

August 7, 2014 at 9:41 pm

Amandah says:

Well done with up cycling that dress, you looked lovely from head to toe.
Looks like it was a great day too.

August 9, 2014 at 9:17 am

Michelle says:

I absolutely loved this!! The dress looks fantastic. Great job.

August 11, 2014 at 1:13 am

You have done an excellent job. I definitely liked this!! The outfit looks amazing.

August 23, 2014 at 2:04 am

Miss Thrifty says:

Thanks Amandah, Michelle & Simon. I do love the dress – I’m just annoyed that summer went *pop* and I haven’t been able to wear it as much as I would like!

September 3, 2014 at 12:02 am

Gillian Brewster says:

Looks fantastic, something quite beautiful if recycling an old garment into something new. A brilliant job!

May 29, 2016 at 2:16 am

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