Monday, January 22, 2018

title pic The “It’s a Wonderful Life” Dress Part 1 – Research & Sewing

Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on December 3, 2014

The It’s a Wonderful Life Costume Reproduction 

“Oyez, oyez, oyez – the big Charleston contest!  The prize?  A genuine loving cup.  Those not tapped by the judges will remain on the floor – let’s go!”


The scene is as familiar to many of us as our own childhood homes.  From the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life comes one of the most beloved dancing scenes in motion picture history.  Donna Reed playing the lovely Mary Hatch, and Jimmy Stewart portraying the somewhat grinchy George Bailey pull off the epic Charleston dance scene which ultimately ends up in their high school swimming pool!  But it’s not the storyline or even the dance so much from this scene that intrigues me – it’s the costumes!

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you probably know that every year I like to recreate a different classic Christmas movie costume.  (Last year for instance I recreated the blue lace “Sisters” dress from White Christmas.)  But this year when I decided to draft and sew Mary’s Charleston dancing dress, I started researching the project in January – a whole 10 months before I started sewing it!

Obviously the actual drafting and sewing of a pattern can only come after scrutinizing the original images from the film, but what I wanted to find out was (1.) What color was the actual dress?  (Remember, the colorized version only came out relatively recently ), and (2.) Did anyone know where the original movie costume is today?


In doing my research, I spoke with David Wolfe who illustrated the official authorized Donna Reed paper doll book, I contacted the Jimmy Stewart Museum, as well as the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, New York, I corresponded with Richard Goodson who literally owns the world’s largest collection of “It’s a Wonderful Life” memorabilia, I spoke with a representative of Paramount Pictures, and finally, I had the pleasure of  hearing from actress Karolyn Grimes who played the Bailey’s youngest daughter, “Zuzu” Bailey, in the film!

The Color – Pink or Blue?

As the film was initially shot in black and white, I was determined to find the true color of the dress.  Artist David Wolfe was the first person I contacted, as I was fascinated that his official authorized Donna Reed costume artwork portrayed the dress in a juicy peachy pink color.  He was incredibly helpful in answering, but noted that no one knew for sure what the color had actually been.  David told me that when he questioned Donna’s children about the colors of their mother’s costumes, they had a hard time remembering many details.  He went on to relate, “I justify my “creative choices” by remembering an interview I did with Edith Head years ago.  We talked about “true color” versus “screen color.”  She said that sometimes she’d use awful colors or weird combinations of colors because they read properly on screen when filmed in gray scale.  She reminded me of Bette Davis’ famous “red” gown … that was actually brown but photographed as if it was red.  So I work with the thought that I am selecting a color that “reads in my own head” as a certain hue onscreen.”  Wow!  Can you imagine having interviewed Edith Head??  Oh my goodness!  Needless to say, I am very much indebted to David Wolfe for passing along this information!


I spoke with a number of other individuals on the subject before getting the most definitive information to date from actress Karolyn Grimes, or “Zuzu Bailey” from the movie.  She wrote: “There is evidence that the dress could be blue. The Studio that colorized the movie (the version….about 8 years ago or so)  (Legend Films)…did a great job on the color. The first person to jump in the pool was Pricilla Montgomery….she is still living.  I talked to her and she said her dress was lavender. (They got that right in the color version.) So my guess is that they also got Mary’s dress right as well.”  I was elated to receive this reply from Karolyn!  

My last people to contact were the folks at Paramount Studios, but they were unable to give me any information on the costumes.  So blue became the color of choice!  Also, up till now no information has turned up about what happened to the original movie costumes.  My best educated guess is that they were returned to the wardrobe department for rotation in subsequent productions, just like what had happened to the White Christmas costumes which were used by the same studio.


 ~The Pattern Design ~

With the color determined, there was nothing left but to design the pattern and sew the dress!


On the left in pink are the sketches I drew.

I know I will get lots of questions about this, but No, there is no pattern on the market for this dress! :)  I drafted it from scratch after many long hours of scrutinizing the Charleston dance scene in the movie.  Overall the pattern was much more complex than a lot of costumes I’ve created, but it was well worth it!  I am thankful I snapped a number of pictures throughout the sewing process.

satin bodice

First I made the strapless bodice.


Then I flat-lined it to the chiffon.

chiffon ruffles

After the darts were in and the bodice was in one piece, I added the ruffle to the neckline…

chiffon ruffle sleeve

Then I started pinning on the ruffly sleeves… (By the way, the camisole is not part of the outfit – it is just always on my dressform.)


This is how the bodice looked once it was all finished and just waiting on the skirt.  I was so excited!  The frothy, ruffly sleeves are quite dreamy.


Next, I sewed the first ruffle onto the skirt.


And the second ruffle.


And the third ruffle…


By this point I was having so much fun with ruffles I simply couldn’t stop.  I think I ended up sewing till 2 am.



Then it was time to attach the bodice to the skirt, and I must confess that I was enjoying the project so much that I got very sad to realize it was almost over!  There is something so refreshing about sewing yards of chiffon ruffles, that I wanted to keep going!  I honestly don’t know when I’ve had such an invigorating sewing project.  Most of the time I love to sew, but I’m just glad to get the dress done.  You know what I mean?  Stressful? Yes.  Relaxing?  Not usually.  But this project was a rare exception!

I think another reason I didn’t want the project to end was that I had planned on recreating this dress for literally *years*!  And all of a sudden I had this feeling of, “Oh my goodness, this project is almost over, and this is probably the only time in my entire life that I will be sewing Donna Reed’s Charleston dress!  I don’t want it to be done yet.”



Well, as you may have guessed, I did finish the dress. :)  I have dozens of pictures all ready to go in the next blog post, as well as some footage of the dress “in action” when I did an impromptu Charleston dance during the photo shoot.  So stay tuned to the blog for the full “It’s a Wonderful Life” costume in a few days!  But until then, here’s a sneak peek to tide you over:


Until next time, Happy Sewing!


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