The Great Gatsby--Finally A Costume For Me

Updated: Sep 10, 2020


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!


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.

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.

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.


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.


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!


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.