The Great Gatsby--Finally A Costume For Me


Costume Take-Out started 2 years ago upon the encouragement of family and friends. After seeing the costumes I created for my children and their historic learning days at school, my peeps said "GO!"

Sewing a little more than 300 individual costume pieces and dressing up to 200 students in Pioneer, Gold Rush, California Mission, American Revolution, Ancient Worlds, Medieval, Renaissance, Wax Museum and even animal costumes!, I was beginning to wonder when would I get to dress up in a costume? After all, my passion for costuming started for me as a child when in my imagination I lived in Little House on the Prairie with Melissa Gilbert, or lived in Edwardian times in the Secret Garden,


Then it finally happened! My husband, Bill, and I received an invite to attend a "Great Gatsby" themed wine release party at Spring Mountain Vineyard in Saint Helena, north of Napa, compliments of our close friends, the Maxwells. I was an easy sell, but wondering how the husband felt since we had just come off a weekend in Vegas to see an Enrique Iglesias concert--a big ask for my husband who's speed was more the Golovkin/Canelo fight.


So with invite acceptance, Bill and I set off on putting together our 1920's looks. Surprisingly, Bill had his Amazon gangster costume delivered before I could blink. After I nixxed that idea--what guy wouldn't want to be a gangsta? but this was a lunch party-- Bill proved that maybe he can come work for me as a costume designer, and still enjoy boxing ; )

WIth only helping my husband with the refined search words "1920's Dandy", Bill cobbled his own costume--albeit he purchased each individual item--he came out with an outfit for less than $100! Scroll to the end of the blog post to see his $20 two-toned oxfords, $15 faux-linen pants.

The round white tab collar on his shirt with the white cuffs held together by cuff links was an extra added unexpected touch--a detail I never thought he would capture--and the round sunglasses? Perfect!

Biil, my dandy, in round sunglasses and white tabbed shirt


I didn't want to spend $100 on my costume. I chose to go the up-cycle route. Not all my costumes in my rental inventory are up-cycled. In fact, approximately 80% of the costumes are all made from scratch, i.e. fabric on a bolt. Whether I up-cycle or create de novo really depends from which era I am sewing.

Why in this case did I up-cycle and not sew from scratch? Because I was overwhelmed by all the pictures of authentic era styles on Pinterest--there were too many directions to go. Remember, the early 20's came off the 1900's which was the Edwardian era, think Downton Abbey--conservative and somewhat dowdy if not made right. But lovely if the cut and the detailing is spot on. For me I interpreted early 1920's as Downton Abbey with shorter hemlines and drop waist.


Off to my favorite local thrift stores really hoping I'd find a darling lace number or something else that 'spoke' to me. And this dress below, in several sizes larger than mine, was the perfect inspiration. Somewhat already vintage in it's own right...and frankly, cold have just worn this as is, but not era accurate.

the start dress

Era accurate is a drop waist. My challenge was if I needed a drop waist, I would have to lower the whole dress which means cutting off the top. Then with the little extra fabric from the sleeves I cut off, how to take from Peter to pay Paul, and build a beautiful top.

Self-doubt, and kicking myself in the pants, sets in...I shoulda found a longer dress so I'd have more fabric to work with.

When I get stuck in a design element, the best thing for me to do is get into bed for the night, watch Netflix, and let my creativity work itself out.


And as I am watching some documentary--my favorite genre--my mind wanders back to the dress: how about cut the crocheted lace off from the bottom of the dress and add to the top as a straight-away line above the chest?! There was about 10 inches wide and a yard's worth of it.

Then cut the chiffon sleeves off to make cap sleeves? Solution found.

chopped off top of dress to drop waist
added crocheted lace at top of dress

Then another roadblock---the top line of the dress was way too tight around the chest! Oy! Now how to make the top of the dress fit loosely! Again, why did I not buy a dress that was longer with more fabric--could have been an easy fix.

dress too tight across chest


The construction of this dress took 4 days...that's 3 nights of Netflix and digesting designing decisions.

I think the expansion of the top of the dress was night 2. The only way to expand the top of the dress by only 2 or 3 inches, was to introduce a new fabric. When I first bought the dress, I knew I wanted to introduce more texture, and color and was my opportunity.

As a costume designer, my collection of scrap fabric is endless. My husband doesn't understand why I hold onto scraps. It's not that I love fact, they are annoying because of their odd shapes, and hard to fold, or organize, But when I am looking for exactly the right color or style, I dive right into that scrap box and every time find something kismet perfect!

I settled on several long pieces of drapery--brocade style, salmon and gold colored fabric remnants from a Craigslist drapery purchase. All I did was make a V-cut and then insert a V-shape of the brocade. Pretty! But now I was committed to using this fabric elsewhere in the design, because a random V as a lone element looks like I am trying to fix or hide something.

added v shape brocade to expand chest line


While I ruminated on how to incorporate the brocade elsewhere in the design of the dress, it was time to add the sleeves back on somehow. I am not a fan of spaghetti straps as I prefer more coverage. I guess I am old-fashioned that way--or maybe I don't like my fat arms ; ) or maybe it's the uneven farmer's tan I was sporting from that summer's toiling in the veggie garden.

I love cap sleeves or some variation. Again, a modest yet alluring covering of the shoulders. I took the chiffon from the former sleeves, pleated the edges, and attached to the dress. FYI: chiffon is a slippery fabric to work with--in fact it has a mind of its own...very difficult to pleat chiffon. If you are a control-freak and like all the pleats and spacing same length and symmetrical to both sides, I highly advise against this fabric. Stay away!

pinned pleated chiffon sleeves


Is it really that important to embellish the back of the dress? I think so--especially for the opulent, luxurious Great Gatsby éclat. Structural details abounded in architecture from the turn of the century into the 1920's preluding the more simple, modern Art Deco of the 1930's. Just like decorative finials, fanciful patterns, scalloping and moldings and heavily arched windows of building exteriors, dresses of wealthy women were constructed with the same attention to detail.

Hence my layering of different elements in my dress. Now, please note, I don't proclaim to know exactly what kinds of materials were used to adorn dresses in this era, so I went with what I know visually from oogling Downton Abbey and Gatsby dresses--and scanning Pinterest helped guide me.

Beading, flowers, appliques, brocade, crocheted lace, and some kind of metallic sheen...sounds about right. (btw, solid color dresses were the norm back then--so bingo for me!)

I already used the crocheted lace for the top of the dress--adds nice texture to an otherwise monochromatic 'meh' dress.

So back to boring back sleeves. Not only are they boring, but they look unfinished in the picture below. I decided I needed something pretty here...something ornate.

unfinished chiffon sleeves


What? Yes! Thrift stores in my area drown in beautifully embellished Indian and Pakistani sarees. I had to ask one Indian woman why did I find so many at the Goodwill. She told me because these special occasion garments are worn to events like weddings. No one would be caught dead wearing the same thing twice. Ok, it's a pan-cultural phenomenon. But the dress I would never wear again doesn't have hand crafted bead and detailed artistry invested in it. Just look at how pretty this $8.99 sea of potential is below. Seems offensive to warm up my Gingher Scissors for dissection.

indian special occasion dress as a source of applique

One arm alone will allow me more applique for this project and several more in the future...and I have another arm I haven't even touched yet!

zoomed in sleeve of indian dress

Cut into strips, I was able to isolate the pattern of the applique without cutting into crucial joint threads that keep the whole design together--one bad snip, all the beads fall off.

strips of applique

One beautifully extricated applique...not too ornate, or flashy--diamonds are nice, but too garish for my dress.

isolated applique

And the finished product...looks lovely! And the seam of the chiffon cap sleeve to the dress looks finished.

attached sleeve applique

And a nice color combination with the peak of gold in the brocade.

finished applique back with V brocade


If you look at the picture above, my waistline got funky and even goes off at an angle. Thankfully I had already planned to re-horizon it and camouflage with an embellishment.

Remembering the V shape, peek-a-boo brocade piece incorporated in the back of the dress, I knew aesthetically I'd have to incorporate the brocade elsewhere in the dress, or it would look like I made a mistake or like I was trying to be artistic with a random piece of fabric.

I pinned on a 2 inch strip of brocade around the waist...good start, but felt coarse.

Back to the inspiration of the detailed architecture of the turn of the century, I started thinking about layers of details.

brocade for a waistline

Return of the crocheted lace! I cut down the original 10 inch piece and used only 6 inches for the top. I had another 4 inches to play with...a gift that keeps giving! Being that the design of the crocheted lace was geometrical and repeating simple patterns, it was easy to cut off another sliver.

I still had another 4 inches to play with elsewhere in the dress. A perfect layering affect and a way to mute the intensity of the gold in the brocade. This is where my Dopamine started kicking in!

added lace to waistline

I momentarily removed the crocheted lace to figure out how the front would lay.

setting waistband


I'm just going to skip straight to the triple axel ice skating jump you see at the Olympics...let's forget that there were hundreds of hours put into perfecting that jump.

I'm not a professional seamstress. I am not technically trained. I hate to read directions. Had I just watched one youtube video on how to sew the edges of chiffon, I might be still riding high on that Dopamine released earlier on.

That was the hardest part--sewing the chiffon edges...and they still look bad. Since I started costume designing, I had to learn early on that I would have to let some parts of the costume not be the very best. It's hard for someone like me to let go. 'Let go' for now, that is. I'm sure I'll have another opportunity to learn to sew raw chiffon edges--now not the time. The chiffon already took 4 hours. But deadline was approaching--I had to let go.

Friday night before the event, my dear husband and friend Kathy consoled me telling me no one was going to look at the chiffon sash. After all, a hat still needed to be made!

Overall, on a macro level, I love how my sash turned out! I incorporated ALL textures--brocade, crocheted lace, Indian beaded applique and that eff-ing chiffon--in one place to tie all elements together.

embellished front focal point

This applique was larger and more ornate than the two used in the back.

large applique used in front of dress


Nothing too interesting here except that I had another 2 inches to spare from the original 10 inch crocheted lace.

hemmed skirt


I just wanted to sit down with our friends John and Kathy and my patient husband Bill and drink wine and have some snickety snacks. Well, I was still able to enjoy the wine, and maybe that's what helped the hat creation process go a little smoother.

I had purchased the most amazing vintage flowers at a cool little place called ReCreate in the Roseville/Rocklin area--for those of you who live here, off 65 just a little past Top Golf. ReCreate collects items that would normally be tossed out to inspire children to 'recreate' the items into amazing art projects! They also allow the general public to go into the back warehouse and shop.

I could have gone to my local Goodwill in search of flowers for my hat, but knew the Goodwill is more about putting newer items out on their racks and shelves--it's not the musty old thrift store of the olden days anymore.

The actual hat itself was purchased at another thrift store called EcoThrift. And I paid top dollar for this hat because, well, this is embarrassing, I have a large head--I was probably a baby in the 99%-tile of head circumferences.

Tangent---but noteworthy--finding hats that does not cut off the circulation of blood to my brain is a challenge--once I experienced an acute, intense migraine because my visor was too tight and I could not figure out why I almost stroked out, until I took off the visor and literally felt the rush of blood to my brain--migraine stopped instantly!

Coming back to the 1920's...Cloche hats were the rage. Although I still find some of the wide brimmed hats in Pinterest pictures from this decade, I thought a cloche hat would be more recognizable by the general public.

The hat I purchased had a narrow, short brim, but I had to still bring the brim in a bit, to create that closed-off look around the face.

Remember the red wine I was drinking? It helped me 'let go' the funky detail in the back of the hat that does not finished, but rather klugdy--but no way to remedy because I would not fit my head into the hat if I sewed it down.

No more belaboring the hat, here it is in its glory--I love how it turned out.

flowere hat


I finished the entire look with a long clam shell necklace. Pearls are era accurate. But if the pearls weren't going to be real--and I don't own long real pearsl--a fake pearl necklace would have lended more of a costumey look. Coupled with a cute vintage brass colored purse which hung from my shoulder by a gold, shiny, twisted cord, and some thrifted ankle strap, closed-toed shoes (t-strap might have been better), I was done.



With a glass of Spring Mountain's Chardonnay in hand, I felt complete.

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