Thrifty District: New Clothes from Old

"sewing window" by jGregor, on Flickr

"sewing window" by jGregor, on Flickr

Transitional weather can be a real drag on one’s style, especially when money’s tight. Faced with a chilly night and a quick wardrobe decision, I pulled out my trusty dressmaker shears and did a little operation on a long black dress. A few slashes and voila! A short black jersey dress complete with a scarf to drape around one’s neck. Add textured tights and problem solved. 

Luckily for you, dear reader, you need no sewing skills whatsoever to make new clothes from old. We’re seeing all sorts of “Depression Era” skills making a comeback (like canning), but to do really serious dressmaking you need a sewing machine and a dressform. Looking at that kind of financial commitment may be too much, not to mention classes for you absolute beginners! Though I highly recommend learning some basic skills like how to replace a button, fix a hem and mend a tear, I understand if you balk at even that level of commitment. 

So here you are, two easy ways to do a little fall wardrobe cleaning, and a third more complex for those of you vintage mavens like me.

The Maxi Dress Massacre

And what a lovely summer trend it was, ladies lolling around like Greek goddesses in long flowing dresses! But, they just don’t transition to boots and tights, do they? And there’s something a tad downtrodden about a maxi covered in a cardigan. Chances are you bought one in a slightly stretchy, seriously drippy jersey fabric. If so you’re in luck. Though Project Runway judges would be horrified at the lack of a finished hem, you can quickly adjust the length with no skills. You need a good pair of sharp scissors and a steady hand.

I’m going to make it a no-brainer – as long as you aren’t a serious perfectionist and don’t care if the hem is a bit uneven, hang it up next to a short dress whose length you like, and cut it to match. Yes, I said it. Hack it with no measurement lines. If you are nervous, do two cuts on either side, and then lay it flat to do the rest of the cut. The jersey will be relatively forgiving on uneven hems, and you go from goddess to vixen in two minutes flat.

It goes without saying that you should only attempt this on a dress you didn’t spend a fortune on. Spent a fortune? Get a professional to alter it. 

Dye Die Dye!

Have a few little linen things lying around? Maybe some sad cotton jackets or skirts? Or maybe you are old-fashioned and don’t want to wear white after Labor Day. You can go all mad scientist on that pile and change their color identity! This is a bit more intensive than slicing off a long length. But dyeing really brings out the kid in everyone, and natural fabrics saturate perfectly.

For example, I have a lovely linen dress that I adore but the color is way too summery for fall. So, it needs a dye job. First you strip the existing color and then you add whatever yummy plumminess you want. Or, over-dye using the existing color and a secondary color (this is where kindergarten really comes back – “red + blue = purple!”). RIT is your friend here, get at a crafts store or order online. Their website is brimming with ideas. A big bucket and rubber gloves are the only other tools you need. Maybe some plastic covering for the floor, if you’re going to be messy about it.

Buh-Bye Bodice

For the more advanced among you, there’s the vintage reconstruction. Gasp! I know, many hate the idea of cutting up a vintage piece beyond what it might take to get it to fit. But, let’s say you have a piece whose time has come. Then it’s an operation to save a life…

I have a beautiful indigo ribbon dress from the early 1950′s. Most people think of the ’50′s as the era of puffy poodle skirts, but early ’50′s features a sleek, form-fitting line that’s super sexy and great for fall. Ribbon dresses were made entirely from thin strips of ribbon, so they don’t last well over time and well, sweat. Armholes are usually the first to go, and anyway, the boxy bodice shape never suited me well. So, the operation!

First, I’ll remove the sleeves. Now,  it’s a sheath. I could stop there, simply finishing off the edges. Or, since I hate square-cut necklines, I’ll continue the operation by lowering the bodice, cutting the top to my preferred bustline. I’ll add some sort of edging – a wide satin edge would be both trendy and timeless – and then finish with spaghetti straps or a halter tie. Actually the halter tie would be the best for this particular vintage style. What was boxy and boring will now be slinky seduction.

So tackle your closet for some triage. Chances are there’s something to be saved!

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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