Hot! The “Dr. Frankenstein’s Flapper” Dress

The Facts

  • Fabric: lightweight navy knit, navy lining, navy/teal print sheer
  • Pattern: W. T. Grant Co. 828
  • Year: Late 1920s/Early 1930s
  • Notions: navy thread, two buttons
  • Time to complete: I can’t begin to figure this out. Let’s just say it took two weeks.
  • First worn: February 4, 2012
  • Wear again?:  Yes!
  • Total price: probably less than $15, but again, it’s all stash at this point

In 2002, Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture (it was the first musical since 1968’s Oliver! to win). It was nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars and won 6. I’m sure I’ve watched Chicago more than twenty times as it is a go-to movie for me to watch while sewing, hand quilting, or embroidering.

I had narrowed my choices down to Chicago or Gosford Park and allowed blog readers and Facebook friends to vote on which project to do. Chicago won out by a small margin. Now, since I don’t have a lot of opportunities to wear beaded or fringed showgirl costumes in my life as a pastor’s wife, and I wasn’t keen on making a prison uniform, I had to go with one of the few normal 1920s dresses that appear in the film. It just so happened that I had a pattern that was similar to the dress Roxie wears in the number “They Both Reached for the Gun” (when she’s Billy Flynn’s ventriloquist dummy).

I was a little worried about this project because the pattern was lean on directions, I didn’t really have the perfect type of fabric in my stash, and I wasn’t sure I’d have enough fabric to cover the need, even after I shortened the skirt.

I needed to make sure the whole dress was lined because my fabrics were too thin, but there wasn’t enough lining fabric in my stash to line the whole thing. So the bodice and skirt yoke would be lined with the lining fabric, the sleeves wouldn’t be lined at all, and the skirt would be done in contrasting fabric (like the cuffs and collar) and lined with the knit (which is the outer fabric on the yoke, bodice, and arms).

As I laid out the 80-year-old, never-been-used pattern pieces (and realized with consternation that I was missing the collar piece) and pinned, repositioned, pinned, repositioned, pinned, and pinned some more (you need lots of pins in these fabrics) I felt a bit like Dr. Frankenstein slowly collecting body parts for a crazy scientific experiment. I gazed at the array of parts in front of me, feeling creative, straining to be logical, but slightly maniacal all the same. How on earth would I combine these three fabrics in such a way that I wouldn’t later be ripping out seams because I’d done things in the wrong order? You do not want to be ripping seams out of sheer fabrics, let me tell you.

“Why not just follow the directions?” you may ask. Well, they were a little…spare:

As it turns out, I didn’t rip out even one stitch and I didn’t use the directions at all. Even if I’d wanted to, on many things there was just no useful information. For instance, the illustration shows no buckle or tie on the belt, and the directions suggest that the seamstress “join notched edges and ends of belt, adjust it over seam that joins waist to skirt yokes.” Sooo…do you slip the belt over your head and shoulders to get it on? I just did my own thing and added some sweet buttons from the stash.

Same thing with the missing collar. I drew a pattern piece out on newspaper, which ended up not being quite long enough to reach the waist as on the illustration. There were also very vague instructions on how to sew it on, which told you nothing of just how to attach it to the front of the bodice (which this pattern calls the “waist” for added confusion).

The construction process was very slow as I got my mind around what had to happen in what order. But having three weeks to accomplish the task made it a rather pleasant experience. Sewing fast is rewarding at times, but slowing down and paying attention to the details is more and more satisfying to me. I didn’t bother to count the hours I spent on this project because so much of the time was spent in my head doing mental gymnastics, trying to envision how things would work. I actually had dreams about putting this dress together! That’s how much time I spent thinking about it.

When it came down to it, it was a very pleasant experience. And I LOVE the results. This is absolutely the most comfortable dress that has ever been created. No zipper, no closures, no pinching. It twirls nicely. And it’s in my most flattering color. It doesn’t get better than that!

Since I don’t envision myself making this dress again, I’ve put the pattern up for sale in my Etsy shop. A note on sizing: I’m currently a 14/16 and it is roomy on me, but it is supposed to be loose-fitting. Buyer beware: I’ve included my not-quite-right collar pattern piece and, of course, if you depend on directions to sew, you might find you have a frustrating experience on your hands. Still, I’d love to see someone else’s rendition of this dress and it would be perfect for a Gatsby challenge if there is one this year.

Oh, and in one of the more fortunate coincidences I can remember in recent years, the color and length of this dress perfectly matches the corduroy coat I made for the buttons challenge. Talk about luck.

You’ll have to excuse the glaring sun on my blazing white face and legs. We’ll take what sun we can get up here in February and I won’t be tan until July. Ah, Michigan!


Erin Bartels

Erin is a copywriter by day, a novelist by night, and a wife, mother, dressmaker, quilter, zoo docent, painter, poet, and photographer in between. She only gets paid for the copywriting.


Comments are closed.

  1. Erin–this is well done! I too thought about using Chicago as my inspiration and ultimately decided not to because of the same dilemma: Lots of really pretty sparkly flapper dresses, very few “practical” dresses! You chose wisely, however, and make a lovely garment.

  2. What an an amazing improv! Not enough fabric, whack instructions and you still prevailed! And, you’re right about this color blue being YOUR COLOR. It’s Al Gore-Juss.

  3. That’s Gorgeous! Pretty, stylish and very wearable without being ‘costumey’.
    (Gotta say I hated this movie because I loved the stage play and thought it infinitely better – to many close-ups in the movie. You couldn’t see all of the wonderful dancing).

  4. Oh, it’s really lovely! I like the colours you chose. It’s a fantastic pattern too (oddly enough, I LOVE patterns from this era and find the instructions so much more sensible than modern pattern instructions). Pity that it’s far too big for me or I’d be snapping it up.

  5. I love this dress! The color looks stunning on you! And kudos for making it through the scant directions. Early patterns are so much harder to work with than modern ones.

  6. What a beautiful dress on you! And impressive Frankensteining.

  7. Slick work there Erin! Way to improvise and make it work. Tim Gunn would be proud.

    • I’m sort of embarassed to say that I had to Google Tim Gunn (I suspected, but wanted to be sure) as I’ve NEVER WATCHED Project Runway. Perhaps I should Netflix it. :)

  8. Erin, how cool is this dress! I like the part that says the construction of it gets figured out in your head, I can relate. The button detail photo is really interesting and I do like the way the different fabrics are pieced together. Look alike you really enjoyed the challenge.

  9. It’s darling! I can appreciate all your hard work.

  10. That is beautiful! I love the inspiration and your finished dress is stunning and very wearable for nowadays and not just a costume,

  11. This is so, so lovely! You cracked me up with the showgirl/pastor’s wife comment! Good on you for braving through such a confounding process. Sewing engineering is constantly seeping into my dreams and near-sleep state. I like working things out that way.