For years I've wanted to attend the Gatsby Summer Afternoon, an event in Oakland, California where Art Deco and early 20th-century design enthusiasts spend a September day picnicking on the grounds of the magnificent Dunsmuir House. I'm a bit of a nut when it comes to period costuming but have never been brave enough to venture out to Gatsby. It's an event that has very strict dress and anti-anachronism rules and I never imagined that I'd be able to convince my friends and family to play along. This year, however, I resolved to attend and drag some of my closest friends with me.
Afternoon attire from 1920-1940 (or reasonable facsimile) is required. With everyone attending this event in period fashions, the effect is stunning! Many guests bring period-perfect picnics, with settings from elaborate spreads, complete with silver, crystal, linens and china, to simple wicker baskets on vintage print tablecloths. - From the official Gatsby Summer Afternoon invitation
When I proposed this event to my friends I received two reactions that varied from "Oh that's sounds like so much fun! I'm there!" to "There is no way in hell you're getting me to go to that thing." For the folks who had the later reaction, I found a way to freeze hell over for them: I made our picnic at the Gatsby event my birthday party (my actual birthday is three days later). So it all came down to shameless manipulation.
Although I may consider myself a manipulative friend, I don't consider myself a jerk. I'm determined to drag my friends along but I don't want to totally inconvenience them. So I resolved to make it as easy as possible for them to attend. This means that in addition to preparing the picnic spread, I'm providing them with hand-sewn costumes -- an ambitious but not impossible proposition.
The decision to go the sewing rather than buying route was primarily made due to costs. We found that clothing shops are filled with mid-century and later dresses. Pre-1940s? Not so much. And when you find the perfect dress it's usually up on display and costs hundreds of dollars. Then there's the eBay route which, when it comes to size, cost and condition, is too much of a gamble. Now, multiple that by five (the number of women attending). As much as I wanted to wear an authentic dress from the 1920s, it was going to be too hard to make that happen.
After that decision I headed online and did some research on the range of styles from the 1920s. Thankfully, the dress silhouette works for a number of body shapes and I wouldn't have to be as precise with the measurements as I would if I was sewing 1940s or 1950 dresses. Over the years I've improved as a seamstress but I'm not that great. Therefore, an easy pattern that I could embellish was the requirement. The contenders for the pattern:Stone Mountain and Daughter or Lacis. Otherwise, Amazon is your best bet.
Cost so far? $20 for the pattern.
Next, fabric. As recommended on the Gatsby website, Stone Mountain and Daughter in Berkeley was the place to go. Immediately I found the perfect silk for the dress. However, the pattern calls for three yards (I cheated and made it work with 2 1/2 yards) and at $22/yard, the price was prohibitive. I had to compromise and go with orange crepe at $4.99/yard, a floral cotton at $9.99/yard and a floral blend at $11.99/yard. The fourth dress was made from lace that I surprisingly purchased at Jo-Ann's for $6.99 a yard.
The fabric and notions for four dresses end up costing around $85. Add that to the pattern cost and the average amount spent to make each dress is about $27.
Folkwear's Tea Frock is incredibly easy to sew and adjust. The dress can be made with short or long sleeves (or sleeveless if you just leave them off) and can obviously vary in length. It's a pretty dull dress without the decorative touches so much of the work (and fun) came from dressing them up with embroidery and trims.
I dressed up the simplest fabric -- the orange crepe -- with embroidery (the pattern is included with the pattern). The cotton with the red flowers received a large fabric flower at the waist and vintage buttons. I added a decorative flounce (I just draped some excess fabric and attached) to the poly blend floral fabric as well as a lace collar actually from the 1930s (from Lacis). The lace dress was trimmed with flowers I made from the excess lace (and beads) and also has a flounce.
Just as the trims made the plain dresses more interesting, the accessories we'll wear will complete the looks. Stay tuned for part two of Outfitting Gatsby.