Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on December 7, 2014
Donna Reed’s Charleston Dress – It’s a Wonderful Life Costume Reproduction
It is quite possibly the most beloved Christmas film of all times. It’s a Wonderful Life is as much an American holiday tradition as roast turkey or Christmas shopping. Between the timeless storyline, the 1940s costumes, old-fashioned “Bedford Falls”, and the superb acting, it’s no wonder the movie eventually became a quintessential classic.
As always, my favorite part of any movie is the costumes. And my favorite costume from It’s a Wonderful Life is without a doubt the floaty chiffon dress that Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) wore during the high school dancing scene! Mary’s blue dress was simply perfect for the 1928 Charleston dance scene, though it is perhaps a bit inaccurate to the time period (more on that later on).
Last week I showed you the sewing and research process for this costume, but this week I want to show you the actual finished outfit!
The basic elements of the costume are as follows: A strapless sweetheart neck bodice is overlaid with chiffon, and the neckline is finished with a narrow chiffon ruffle that ends in a “v” in front. The “v” neckline is trimmed with three small paper flowers (I attached these to a separate pin for easy removal when the garment needs to be washed.)
The delicate chiffon sleeves are double layered, and narrowly hemmed. The bodice ends in a “v” in both front and back, and at the top of the skirt begins multi-tiered ruffles that end just below the skirt hem.
You can see a comparison of the two bodices above and below:
~ Okay! Classic Christmas movie trivia! Did you know that the kid who plays Mary’s “date” on the right side of this picture is the grown up “Alfalfa” from Little Rascals? And did you further know that he also had a cameo appearance in White Christmas as the brother of the two Haynes sisters? (You remember, when Bing Crosby said, “He always was a good looking kid” after looking at the snapshot that Judy (Vera Ellen) hands him?) So “Alfalfa” ended up being in two of the most classic Christmas movies of all time, even though he did very little acting in either one. ~
Here’s a back shot from the film as well as one of the dress:
As I mentioned earlier, the fit of this costume was not at all authentic to the year in which in was set (1928). Costume designer Edward Stevenson did a superb job designing Donna Reed’s costumes to look lovely on her, but apparently he wasn’t too concerned about making something period-correct. I have a great respect for his work because he also costumed most seasons of “I Love Lucy”! But back in the 1940s and 1950s, it was extremely common for costume designers to choose fashions that would have appealed to the then-modern audience, instead of what would have actually been worn in the time period. For instance, in The Glenn Miller Story, (1954) actress June Allyson was wearing a 1950s striped circle skirt during a scene set in pre-WWII America. LOL! Similarly, Donna Reed appeared in The Benny Goodman Story (1956), wore the most obviously 1950s dresses for scenes that took place in 1942 and before…
So what would Mary’s dancing dress have looked like if it had really been worn in the late 1920s? Well, this pattern (dated from the late 20s) shows many similar elements, but the main difference is the fit. The 1920s/flapper era was infamous for shapeless bodices that bore little resemblance to the hourglass figure of the earlier Edwardian era. Because women were trying to rebel against “traditional” women’s clothing, they sadly wore things which were not flattering, and often downright frumpy. So I’m actually glad that Edward Stevenson did not go with the silhouette from back then!
For much more research, including information I received from actress Karolyn Grimes who played “Zuzu Bailey” in the original film, be sure to read my post from last week! It also explains why blue might be the most likely color for the film costume, even though we don’t know for sure what the original dress looked like.
And one final comparison shot:
FINALLY, HERE IS THE VIDEO OF MY DRESS “IN ACTION” WHILE DANCING! I’m thankful we got a couple of spontaneous Charleston dance videos at the photo shoot last week, even if I didn’t have any music to dance to at the time. 😉
I wish you all the very merriest of Christmas seasons! And if you sew as well, don’t forget to join our Christmas Dress Blog Party in a couple of weeks! I’d love to see all the different holiday dresses that everyone comes up with.
In the words of the last scene from It’s a Wonderful Life: “Remember, no man’s a failure who has friends.”
Happy, happy holidays!