Mid-Century Makeover - Revamping a 50s Gown & Jacket Set

I found this late 50s/early 60s red brocade gown and cropped jacket set at my local antiques shop. It wasn't expensive, so I could do some experimenting using my fledgling sewing skills without taking too big a risk.

Here's what was wrong with it:

1. I didn't need another gown. Not really. I'd be more likely to get use out of it if it were cocktail length.

2. Have I mentioned my exceptionally long, circus-freak torso? Or the fact that dresses of this period are frustratingly short-waisted? This unfortunate combination means many a mid-century waist seam hits me 2-3" above my actual waist, cancelling out the desired nipping effect. It looks weird. On a related note, we won't discuss where bust darts tend to hit me. Very depressing.

3. The jacket was oddly big. Not only in the torso but also in the shoulders. I didn't realize this when I bought it. I was focused on the dress and what I could do with it. It mostly fit and was such a gorgeous color!

Here's what I did with it:

I shortened the dress to street length. Then, using the chopped-off fabric, I fashioned a belt wide enough to camouflage the too-high waist seam. 

Belt detail

You'd think a simple sash would take an hour or so, right? Well, I managed to make it take all day. I mean hours and hours. I started with more than enough fabric and screwed up so many times, I nearly ran out. Making a belt. A belt. 

I measured at least twice before cutting once. Yet, somehow it ended up too small to close. I had to perform surgery using the few remaining bits to lengthen it (note the odd seam hidden beneath the bow).

When at last it was long enough, I carefully (honest) measured and marked for the hooks and eyes before sewing them on. And... now the belt was about 4" too tight. WTH? Undo, redo, and finally -- finally -- done.

Not only was the dress's waist a bit too big, but because the seam hit me so high, the skirt's pleats were opening above my hips -- not good. The wide cummerbund-style belt reined all that in quite nicely, making the dress more flattering.

I tried the jacket on over the belted dress and discovered it was really quite large. Since my arms are nothing anyone needs to see, and the jacket looked awful, I had an idea. Why not remove its sleeves and add them to the dress? Sarah assured me I could do it, quick and easy, but after the belt fiasco, I was skeptical. A month later, I finally took the plunge.

Sleeves removed from jacket and added to dress

I snipped the armscye seams and transplanted the sleeves. It's not a perfect job, but it's definitely passable. I did the whole thing by hand. The idea of manipulating all those layers of fabric in the small space of the machine was too daunting. I didn't even try. 

Here I am making absolutely sure I had the correct sleeve pinned in the correct armhole in the correct direction:

Testing sleeve

And here's the finished dress. Yes, the sleeve heads are a bit off. The left is good, but the right (which IRL is left -- mirrors are so confusing!) looks vaguely 80s. Maybe I'll tweak it in the future. But for now, it's good enough for my purposes. All in all, a satisfying little project. 

finished dress on me
Before and after:

Before & After

Have you ever transformed a vintage (or modern) garment to better suit your needs or fit your figure? I'd love to hear about it.


Liza Dolensky

An impressive job with hand sewing! It’s not easy to re-do sleeves.

Liza Dolensky

You did WONDERFULLY … As usual. Really love this revamp. I once recovered a hoopskirt in green silk, to use in a dance performance. The choreography was mediocre compared to my emerald treasure. Totally worth the tens of hours spent hand sewing.

Liza Dolensky

Well done! I know about too-shortwaisted 50s dresses. Happens to me too, my torso is on the long side, but I’m small up top, so many of the small-ish dresses are too shortwaisted on me. The wide belt is a good idea! I have done the reverse – bought a 50s or maybe early 60s cotton sun dress for a low price without trying it on, just because the fabric was fab. At home I undid all the weird changes that had been done to it, finding where the original darts were and resewing them – and now it’s a good fit actually!

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