Combo-Upcycle from Walmart Animal Print Dresses into a Betsey Johnson Style Dress

Thrifted Walmart Clothes

I am not a snob. But I LOVE pretty things.

Fortunately thrift stores offer a variety of clothing from all levels of our retail world--from the higher end to the lower end more widely available/'fast fashion'--the later dominating the racks.

However, I firmly believe I can still create high fashion looks from polyester dresses. I don't need a name brand to feel good about myself. Rather, I need pretty clothes to feel good about myself.

I've learned that Walmart can have super cute things while a higher-end label could have something I would never want to wear.

This Combo-Cycle Challenge

This is what my Upcycle Challenge was about for me this time.

Creating an ultra-feminine dress beauty from a Golden-ish Tiger pattern dress from Walmart's 1995 Line by Kathie Lee brand, and a 2003 Red Leopard 'White Stag' dress.

Who said I could not make a pretty party dress from thrifted Walmart Dresses?! And again, just want to say Walmart makes lovely things! But the dated dresses I chose were 'swipe lefts' at the thrift store.

So I gave it a go with two Polyester, Animal Print dresses.

This Combo-Cycle was a brain twister for me and my creativity for many reasons. I learned that the borderline between a lovely dress and a costumey dress is tenuous.

Let's get started!

Step 1--Decide What To Do

  • Think what to do.

  • Think what to do.

  • Think what to do.

At this point, I still had no idea what to make because I was not sure there would be enough fabric. However, I needed to decide which color would be the base color. I felt more drawn to the Red as the dominant color.

Step 2--Mark Waistline

  • Find waistband. This display dress form is pretty close to my actual size!

  • Mark waistband with chalk.

Since I was anxious about not having enough fabric, I chose to to go with a higher waistline--above my natural waist. Any higher it would be an Empire Waist and did not want that. So I ended up with a "Maternity" waistline, or as I would like to describe it, a 1960's Mod waistline. I did not know yet that I was going party dress 1960's yet!

Step 3--Cut Waistline

  • Cut along chalked line.

  • Avoid cutting back zipper. This will be very important for the dress later.

This is not a slip-over-the-head kind of dress. It will be fitted-ish. This I know for sure. Do I need to repeat that I am freaked out that I don't have enough fabric???

(Pictures are in order from top left to right, then down to bottom row left to right again.)

And now I have a crop top! This is where I start to get really nervous. Am I on my way to my first ever Upcycle fail? The self-doubt starts seeping in. Below is my nervous smile.

Step 4--Remove Sleeves

  • Seam-Rip sleeves off top.

One thing I am not fond of is a sleeveless dress in the Winter, because of two things: I don't like my upper arms and I like to wear tights in the Winter. No big deal about my arms, but I just don't like them. And bare in the Winter never made sense to me. And I LOVE to wear my tights! Naked legs also is a No, No for me style wise. Of course Summer is a different thing.

Not sure exactly how to use these sleeves yet. And now on loop: I am not sure I have enough fabric to do anything else but just reattach. I also have the tiger fabric. But how much of that fabric do I want to bring into the new dress style?

Step 5--Remove Bodice Darts

  • Seam-Rip Bodice Darts in front and in back.

Why did I do this? The bodice was too big for me anyway. So either I would have to eliminate the darts in the final design or redo them anyway to fit my torso. This is when the 60's "Baby Doll" and designer Betsey Johnson style dress came to my mind percolating the idea of tulle and ruffles for my Party Dress.

Possible Neckline Idea?

While working on this Upcycle, my first styling inclination always leans riff on Vintage...particularly, Victorian styles or 1920's or 1930's. When I realized there was this much neckline interfacing, I was beyond excited because the neckline as is, was boring, dated, conservative--ZERO style. I started pinning the neckline upward and was in love with the idea of a ruched neckline which smacked of Victorian high neckline, but not entirely. What a great way to include texture and interest of the party dress. Hmmm........definitely need to keep this as an option!

Check Size

Truth be known, I never tried on the original dress. I knew it was 3 sizes bigger than me, so I never felt the need to try the the original on. But in order to see how much I leeway I had in the bodice and the armholes, it was necessary to do a Size Check, And you can see I need to take the sides in and decrease the armhole...both skills I have had a ton of practice with because of my experience Upcycling for my local Costume Rental business

Step 6--Take-In Sides of Bodice

  • Turn bodice inside out.

  • Chalk new armholes and cut at shoulders.

  • Seam rip sides open.

  • See where new bodice sides should fall according to new size.

  • Pin new sides and sew.

  • Try on new bodice.

(Pictures are in order from top left to right, then down to bottom row left to right again.)

Step 7--Prepare the Tiger Dress

  • Trim off unwanted print.

  • Layer the dress for more inspiration!

As I still did not know how to combine my two dresses into something fabulous, I started the creative process by trimming off the print I did not want. I wanted the simple 2 colored print--tan and black.

When I found these prints, that is how I came to the idea of combining these dresses--they both were only 2-colored, with the commonality of the black animal print--leopard spots and tiger stripes.

(Pictures are in order from top left to right, then down to bottom row left to right again.)

Step 8--Attach Red Skirt

  • 1-2 Baste or Gather Stitch the waistband.

  • 3-4 Pin the skirt back to the bodice.

Have you noticed something? Picture #5? Why is there a slit? Because I wanted a gathered waist not a straight waist. Because I had taken out ALL darts in the Bodice and the Skirt, The gathered skirt was the only stylistic option for me which made sure I could have enough gather to be obvious it was a gathered waistline. Again, FONHEF...Fear Of Not Having Enough Fabric. So I figured I could work that slit and make something super flirty and fun!

Step 9--Attach Zipper (The 'Dirty' Way)


  • 1. Chalk the new line for the Zipper in the skirt.

  • 2. Pin the zipper to the skirt.

  • 3. Attach the zipper foot and stitch down each side of zipper.

  • 4. Seam rip CAREFULLY the new opening.

  • 5.-6. Fold raw edges over.

  • 7. Stitch down each raw edge.

  • 8. Make sure zipper can zip up and down.

I never proclaimed that I am a technical website for sewing. Probably should start each blog post like this! However, these Upcycles are for me! So 'Dirty' short-cuts are fine for me!

Progress Check

Yep! Loving it so far!

And here is another pause to figure out what to do with this dress next. Definitely I need to shorten the dress because my goal is Party Dress. I already know I want something flirty. I am not a 'sexy' kinda gal so for me short will not translate into 'sexy'. My goal is flirty which is fun, with tons of feminine details.

Step 10--Cut Hem

  • 1.-2. Chalk your new hemline.

  • 3. Come up with clever way to make sure the hem is chalked the same height all around! (My technique is tape, a ruler and twirling the mannequin and tracing the line with chalk).

  • 4.-5. Cut off the valuable extra fabric.

  • 6. Ponder if you cut too much fabric off!

Again, not a professional seamstress here, but I just took some chalk and marked on myself using a mirror, where I wanted the skirt to fall. At this point I knew I'd add another layer underneath, so I was ok with the fact that my red leopard layer could be shorter.

When I first started Upcycling, I had no idea how to mark a hem. There was some metal contraption attached to the adjustable mannequins I use for my costume design, but I never figured out how to use it right---and it was cumbersome and in the way. So I developed my own way to mark my hems with tape and a ruler and a mannequin that can turn.

Just like icing a cake, I kept twirling the mannequin and marking with chalk...and you don't have to chalk the entire way! You can just make marks and then cut from dot to dot. This has ensured me a perfect even hem every single time.

A little panic ensued when I saw how short the end dress was--even though I knew I did it on purpose.

Introducing the 3rd Fabric!

FONHEF...Fear Of Not Having Enough Fabric is real! So it was time to think of the inclusion of another fabric. By doing this, my Party Dress creative options would open up.

I did not want to introduce any new colors so adding a black course satin (used for linings) seemed to be the best option. I would never be able to match the red or the tan.

Styling Options

It was time to start taking all 3 fabrics and playing around with them.

One of the biggest challenges I started to see was how easily the dress could turn Costumey with the inclusion of the tiger print. At this point I understood I would need to downplay the tiger print and use more black satin.

Finally my dress came to my mind after playing with the fabrics for hours (breaks of course to do house chores and cooking). I was going Betsey Johnson meets Rodarte all the way.

If you don't know Betsey Johnson, she's known for frills, layers, tulle, ruffles and short hems! And sometimes whimsical prints ie Animal! Kinda Lolita Dress meets sophistication. Lolita is more costumey, so I will stick to wearable Betsey Johnson style.

Definition per Wikipedia:

a subculture from Japan that is highly influenced by Victorian clothing and styles from the Rococo period. ... This clothing subculture can be categorized into three main

substyles: 'gothic', 'classic', and 'sweet'.

Step 11--Attach Black Under Layer Skirt

  • 1. Measure out longer layer black underskirt .

  • 2. Baste with a gather stitch--mine is red so you can see.

  • 3. Pull gather threads.

  • 4. Adjust gathers to fit the waist.

  • 5. Sew edges of of black skirt to close.

  • 6. Sew black underskirt to red dress waistline.

I finally had to address the slit of the red skirt. And the black satin was a great way to ground the colors and tie in both fabrics. I made the skirt longer than I might have needed because adding back fabric is such a pain!

What's not pictured here is the seam of the black skirt tha's in the back...and to address the zipper issue, I just opened up the top seam of the black skirt--that's it!

Now I had the base to attach anything I needed. Because of FONHEF...Fear Of Not Having Enough Fabric, the black skirt was a way to allow me more allowance to use my animal print elsewhere in the dress--like for copious amounts of ruffles!

Step 11--Add Ruffles!

  • 1. Cut up leftover red fabric into strips.

  • 2. Overlock edges with a 3-thread overlock stitch on both sides of ruffle.

  • 3.-4. Use a ruffle foot or gather stitch to create ruffles.

  • 5. Pin the ruffle on and see what the tiger print looks like underneath!

Making ruffles is so much fun! but I LOVE ruffles! And will ride this trend out well after it gets stale. Ruffles are Hallmark of Betsey Johnson creations in my opinion.

The next few steps will be exactly the same but with the different fabrics and at different widths.

Before that, I think it's time to introduce textile #4! Keep scrolling down....

Introducing Textile #4--Tulle or Organza?

It's not surprise I love frilly things. Adding Tulle or Organza to any design just elevates a look. However, one must be careful. Tulle and Organza can make things look racy--think Frederick's of Hollywood. Or things can go little girl dance wear--you know, tutus. How's that for opposite ends of the styling spectrum! Throw in the animal prints and you might get tawdry--yikes!


is generally a netted fabric--the holes being teeny, tiny. The fabric lends itself to adding volume or structure to the other fabric it's placed with. Different stiffnesses are available. Mine thrifted--the whole bolt 25+ yards!--was only $5!


is also a netted fabric--but the space between the threads being even smaller than Tulle. It's sheer like Tulle. Offers structure to surrounding fabrics. However, in my opinion Organza from nylon is stiffer due to the spacing of the holes.

Nerd sewing stuff for sure. But the distinction is important. Also organza tends to be more expensive than tulle. My choice to use Tulle over Organza was only based on that I had a ton of Tulle...yep, that technical of a decision.

Step 12--Prepare More Ruffles

I won't post more pictures of the ruffles I made since the technique is exactly the same at Step 11.

I made one long ruffle from the Tiger Print fabric. And only one. I wanted to create a peek-a-boo of the tiger print, but in no way make it the statement of the outfit.

One Black Ruffle was added on the black skirt to add more volume.

I made 4 different sized Tulle Ruffle layers. Two layers under the tiger print layer--and longer to show through. And 1 layer on top of the tiger print layer, and then added my Red Leopard print layer and added the FINAL very narrow tulle layer on top of the gathered part of the red ruffle.

Where Are We Now?

Excuse the straying threads--I still hadn't cleaned up the dress yet.

At this point I liked where I was going with the dress. Just the right amount of flounce, and detail....FOR ME!

All I needed to do now what finish the neckline and add some sleeves.

One option for the sleeves turned the dress immediately into a Halloween Costume! Yeah, not good. So I quickly abandoned the idea. But before I present that, let's get the sleeves back on because this lady is NOT going sleeveless in the Winter.

Step 12--Add Sleeves

  • 1. -2. Attach the side of sleeves back together again.

  • 3. Add gather stitch to sleeve arc and pull thread to concentrate gather at the top.

  • 4. Invert dress, pin sleeve, adjust gather to the top, and sew down.

  • 5. Think about what to do with those sleeves!

Since I re-sized the armholes to be smaller, I ended up with a little extra slack on the arc of the sleeve which worked to my advantage to create a little puff, or poof, or pouf--all the same thing btw.

This will help to balance the top with the bottom of the dress which as you remember, is girlie. I could have kept business on the top and party on the bottom, but why?? I am going to a Party! Even though it's just me on the stairs of my house and my driveway at 11:00am in the morning when the light works the best for my photography.

The "No Ways"

If I wanted to to rocket ship my way to my first ever fail of an Upcycle (which is statistically probable), I should have gone with the 2 sleeve ideas I had below.

Whoah! Perfect for Halloween, hopefully non-Covid, 2021!

Yes, I can't add anymore of that Tiger print anywhere. And I ruminated over this for a while. Got a nice dinner in my belly. Eventually I saw the Forest for the Trees.

Phew! SAVE!


Abandoning the Party on the Top & Bottom Philosopy!

Another Big 'Phew'!!

You know what else I abandoned? Get me away from the ruched neckline idea. With the bottom half of the dress being very sweet, I had to keep the neckline 1990's business.

I think it's super important to be able to part with ideas no matter how long you've worked on it, or you will end up with 2021's Halloween costume.

Step 13--Make Bow

Remember above when I said 'Business on the Top and Party on the Bottom', well, no one said I could not have a party somewhere in the middle.

Based on legitimately not having enough of the Red Leopard Fabric, i.e. I had a small ruffle strip leftover from adding the ruffle to the skirt, I had to make something for the waist. I could not put the Tiger print anywhere else or I was going down costume alley.

The waist on the skirt just looked so unfinished.

Solution? I made a plain bow...from the ruffle and backing it with the black satin fabric. I serged the edges together with the 3-thread overlock stitch.

Finished Dress

WOW! This was one of my longest Upcycles. I am finally done and excited to show you the end Party Dress.

Before I show you how I twirled around at my pretend Holiday Party on my driveway and front porch, let's see the dress on the mannequin.

I still have not cut the threads here yet! I'mma going to clean up the loose threads first, but keep scrolling to see the final styling.

Want to See How I Styled My Thrift?

I had fun with this one!

  • A little Bouffant Going on!

  • Long, Black Satin Opera Gloves

  • 1950's Vintage Black Suede Heels

  • A Feathered Clutch

  • And the Cat Eye : )

This is a dramatic dress!

Wear this to a cocktail party?

Make a statement?

Amy Winehouse meets Betsey Johnson?

Going out to Christmas Party or a Halloween Party?

Um, I'd do both!

Anywhere else can I go besides my front steps?

So French...(At least I think so!)

A Baby-Doll Flounce Dress with Sophistication?

Layers and layers of ruffles...and just enough tulle!

Not bad for an Upcycled Party Dress

from Thrifted, Polyester Walmart Dresses?

Until Next Time!

+++++++++++ A Bientôt! +++++++++++

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