Turn One Dress Into Four Dresses

Does valuing sustainability mean limiting your style? Since sustainable practices include buying fewer pieces, supporting companies that produce responsibly and turning toward second-hand or vintage alternatives, options can feel limited. Like, there’s no sustainable Zara.

But rather than hindering a relationship with fashion, shouldn’t sustainability promote the kind of creative and careful use of resources that actually makes for good style? To get to the bottom of this, I decided to try an experiment.

The objective: create four original-looking outfits using the same dress and shoes by relying exclusively on vintage, second-hand and handmade accessories found on Etsy. Sustainability factors in because I am 1) re-wearing the same dress and shoes rather than buying new pieces; 2) incorporating vintage and second-hand things, which, because they already exist, don’t use any new resources; 3) using handcrafts, which support artisanal communities and promote economic development. Wish me luck! Here we go.

The “blank canvas”


For the dress, I wanted something neutral and versatile with good structure. I ended up choosing a black vintage velvet dress. The midi-length works well because it allows for the dress to be worn with pieces on top and underneath.

I favor investing in shoes, like these blue satin Manolo Blahniks, because well-made shoes last longer.

As for the styling add-ons, I was particularly interested non-traditional items, like textile remnants and tablecloths, to see just how creative I could get.

Look 1: Go no further than your table runner


Here, I have crafted a top out of a handmade, embroidered Guatemalan table runner — with a little help from double-sided tape. The cool thing about this top, aside from the huge pom poms, is that it can be worn so many ways it will make you spin. Under the dress, I am wearing a vintage handmade striped silk skirt.

Look 2: Go a little further, this time to your tablecloth


I’m still pilfering items from a Guatemalan dining room, but this time, I’m wearing a brightly colored vintage handmade tablecloth. I fashioned it into a skirt by folding it over a multicolored cord adorned with camel tassels. The top is a tribal Pashto textile remnant, and appendage adornment comes courtesy of a Banjara hand-crafted tassel armlet.

Look 3: Your dress is cordially invited to a pajama party


Fret not if your slumber party days are over; this outfit proves your dress can have a pajama party anytime it wants. I’m wearing a pink pajama blouse and striped pajama pants under the dress. The best part? Come home from a late night out, take the dress off and you’re ready for bed.


This embroidered silk antique Chinese skirt from the 1800s is missing its front and back panels, which makes it an ideal candidate for use as a dramatic train when worn over the dress. I accessorized with antique black silk opera gloves from around 1900. This look worn to the opera says, unequivocally, I don’t need to look at the mini screen to understand what’s happening. I topped it all off with a camel tassel cord worn as a necklace, but it can also be worn as a belt as in Look 2.

Having a sustainable orientation and a playful, limitless relationship with fashion are by no means mutually exclusive propositions. I had more fun and exercised more creativity pulling these looks together than I ever have buying something off the rack. I felt like myself, too, in part because I selected the pieces so carefully, in part because I looked distinctive (how many other people are walking around Midtown in a Guatemalan table runner?), and mostly because my clothes reflected my values. Finally, I was reminded that, really, there are endless possibilities when it comes to what we can wear. Rather than limiting my sense of style, keeping sustainability in mind jump started my imagination and inspired me to hone my eye; that next great thing to wear could be hanging on a wall somewhere or sitting in a pile of old textile remnants. I’ll fall in love with it for what it was, and then I’ll find a way to make it what it can be.

Nadine writes about sustainability, personal style and our relationship with fashion. Read her musings here and follow her on Instagram @onewhodresses

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