Q. Since it's almost prom and wedding season, my friends and I will need to get our hands on some formalwear asap. Some of us were thinking it might be fun to adapt or alter secondhand clothes from thrift shops or wherever so that they're recycled but also new and cool. Where can we find patterns or instructions for doing that?    - Jen, MT

A. Snipping off sleeves or dyeing white lace purple may seem unthinkable at first, but such drastic measures are all part of the art of recycling. Be willing to try anything, and keep reminding yourself that you’re giving new life to a garment that might otherwise never again have seen the light of day, or the dim candlelight of a ballroom.

A spate of new books are offering tons of tips on refashioning thrift shop formalwear, ten-buck items from yard sales, and free discards from clothing-swaps. Visit Amazon or your local bookstore to check out: AlterNation: Transform, Embellish, Customize; Anticraft: Knitting, Beading, and Stituching for the Slightly Sinister; and Subversive Seamster: Transform Thrift Store Threads into Street Couture. The possibilities are so endless that the authors of Subversive Seamster never run out of new lessons at their San Fran-based Stitch Lounge—a sewing school and workspace devoted to refashioning and restyling discards. In their book and in workshops, they reveal tricks of the trade: how to transform old bodices into sleek halter tops, resize items, change collars, add ruffles, and lots more. For edgy prom or wedding wear, they suggest adding flamboyant ruffles, bows or seed pearls to traditionally casual items such as jeans jackets or flannel shirts. They also recommend working with lace, which is elegant but won’t stretch or slip the way silk or satin will, when reworked. Or—and this one is fantastic for anger management—slicing gowns clean in half, to create funky separates. And don’t forget that leftover material can always be used to make scarves, sashes, belts, clutch purses, neckties, or even jewelry.

So hit the thrift shops, invest in some no-nonsense scissors, and maybe mix a drink or two, to get you over that fear of “ruining” clothes, instilled in you at age six by your mother. And consider organizing a clothing swap: Invite a bunch of pals to bring three or four of their most hideous, puffy-sleeved, last-generation, shoulder-padded items, then throw them all in a pile, and use a lottery system to determine who chooses first. Everything old is trendy again.

Story by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Recycling formalwear
Dress up without having to pay up.