Thursday, June 29, 2017

title pic The “It’s a Wonderful Life” Costume – Mary’s Dancing Dress!

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:



Historical Authenticity

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!


On the left in pink are the sketches I drew.

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!


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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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title pic The Christmas Dress Party, 2014!

Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on November 17, 2014

Let’s Have A Vintage Christmas Dress Link-Up This Year!

Hi Ladies!


For several years I’ve thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be fun if there was a holiday party where everyone wore vintage Christmas dresses they made themselves?”  Usually at holiday parties I’m practically the only girl in a real, full blown dress, and I get tired of that sometimes.  I mean,do we really all have to wear a pair of jeans and a sweater, and possibly one of those over-used scarves as “festive attire”?  Isn’t part of the joy of the holidays tossing on those special outfits that we only get to wear once a year?  Personally I can’t wait for each December to roll around, because it means I get to don my cranberry shantung suit with the organza ruffles, the burgundy damask skirt and ruffled ivory blouse, my green velvet frock or plaid 1950s dress, or even that white fur cape that only looks appropriate during the holidays.

Thankfully I have seen evidence online the last few years that there *are* other grown women who also make themselves a new Christmas dress every year and share the results on their sewing blogs.  So while there may be hundreds of miles between us which unhappily prevent us from all getting together for a holiday party in real life, let’s have a virtual “online Christmas dress party” this year where we all share the results of our holiday sewing in one blog post!

From a vintage pattern catalog in my collection.

From a vintage pattern catalog in my collection.

Here’s my plan: we will all sew our individual dresses from whichever era we choose, and have our pictures taken and ready to share by December 23rd, if possible.  On that day I will put up an official Christmas dress party blog post, along with pictures of two over-the-top holiday frocks that I will have photographed in a festive location.  (Just like this one from last year.)  Then each of you can add a comment that gives a description of your dress plus a link to your dress pictures – ideally if you have a sewing blog that would be perfect, but even if you just add the pictures to Pinterest or share on your Facebook page and make the images public, that would be great, too!

Circa 1942.

Circa 1942.

I look forward to seeing what you all come up with!  I think it would be amazing to see everyone’s creativity represented in one place.  Whether you prefer to sew Regency reproductions, Victorian gowns, 1940s day dresses, or 1950s party dresses, you are welcome to share any era in the dress party link-up, so long as it has a definite holiday look to it.  (It does not have to be just red or green of course!)


I have created a Pinterest board with a flurry of festive frocks here that will hopefully be good inspiration!  I’ll be adding to it over the next few weeks, whenever I’m not sewing like crazy to meet my holiday sewing goals!

So if you haven’t started sewing this year’s Christmas dress already, Ready, Set, SEW! :)  (Oh, and please feel free to add the Christmas Dress blog button from my sidebar to your blog if you so wish.)


Happy sewing!


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