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.