My Bargain Late 1930s Waitress Dress

1930s waitress dress

Outfit Details

1930s Waitress Dress – Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe
Red Vintage Style Clogs– Swedish Hasbeens
1930s Style Sunglasses – eBay
1950s Red Crocodile Skin Effect Handbag – Poot Emporium
1930s Red & Silver Hair Clip – Gift

If you read Porcelina Precious’s latest blog post you’ll know that it was all about the location and not the outfit. Well, mine is the opposite, it’s all about the outfit and definitely not the location. I was so excited to show you this incredible piece of history that I just got my mum to take a few quick snaps in my back garden before we headed off to a local vintage fair.

So, imagine if you will, that I am not stood on grass that has way too much moss growing in it and the backdrop is not a fence, some random plants that currently refuse to flower, and my next door neighbour’s open window! Instead, I’m stood in a 1930s diner (think Joan Crawford or Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce) and that I’m the rebellious waitress who chose to replace her standard issue buttons with bright red ones!

1930s waitress dress detail

A couple of months ago I went to a sale being held by Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe. They were about to move premises and had decided to have a clear out of stock they no longer needed. The advert in the local paper said there would be lots of bargains to be had and that they would be offering a small amount of genuine vintage alongside their costumes. How could I not go?

Once I got there the sale was heaving. So many local drama clubs had come to pick up lots of pieces for their own productions, so it really was chaos. They were only letting a certain number of people in at a time and I had to stand in a massive queue outside for about an hour before being let in! When I was finally through the door I made a scramble for the vintage. There wasn’t an awful lot to be had but what I did get my grubby hands on was definitely worthwhile going for.

You’ve already seen my £10 genuine, and almost immaculate, 1930s winter coat that I bought, but I’m yet to show you my £1 mid-1930s blouse. This post, however, is all about my beautiful late 1930s waitress dress, which again cost me just £1! Yep, that’s right, £1! It was actually buried amongst a huge pile of men’s vintage pieces on a wooden trestle table but as soon as I pulled it out I knew it was something special.

1930s waitress dress - back

So, you’re probably wondering how I know it’s a late 1930s waitress uniform dress and not something more modern. Well, there are some quite obvious clues if you know where to look for them. Firstly, the style of this dress is very much of this period with the puff sleeves, Peter Pan collar, a blouson style bodice that’s gathered into the yoke and an A-line skirt. Secondly, it has a deep hand sewn hem and it has built-in dress protectors under the arms. You won’t find either of those in modern clothing. Thirdly, the fabric is cotton, without any polyester in sight, and is incredibly hard wearing, typical of workwear from the pre-1960s. And lastly, the buttons and buttonholes, which I will come to in a minute.

The only thing that threw me off was the closed overlocked seams. This is very reminiscent of modern day clothing, rather than the wide open seams of the 1930s that were left raw or finished by whipstitching or sewing back the edge. However, after having a chat with Carla from Tiny Angry Crafts (and her mum!) and Natalie from Frolicking Frocks, I found out that this sort of finish was common in workwear of this time. Yes, so it is a genuine 1930s piece!

1930s workwear change buttons

The original buttons are the absolute giveaway, you very rarely see these on anything but early 20th Century workwear. These unusual buttons are aptly named ‘change buttons’ because they are not sewn on and therefore can be changed within a minute or two.

The way they work is by having tiny buttonholes on the side where you would normally find the buttons. The shank of the change button is then pushed through the tiny buttonhole and kept in place with a small clip. I’ve actually never seen straight clips like the ones on these buttons before, normally they’re rings like the ones you get on keyrings. However, the majority of them were rusty, so they needed to be replaced as it was bleeding on to the white of the dress.

Red 1930s buttons

And these are what I chose to replace them with! This stunning card of red original 1930s buttons was from KolonialRD on Etsy and they still have loads of these sets left in two different sizes. I absolutely adore the font, it’s so reminiscent of Art Deco from the Eastern European region of the time. I was a little heartbroken to cut the buttons off this as it was just so gorgeous but I’m going to attach the change buttons to it with a photo of the dress on the back for prosperity.

And besides, I have wanted a white 1930s dress with big red buttons for so long! One of the very first vintage blogs I started reading was Johanna Öst’s and way back in 2013 she posted her own white dress with red buttons and I totally fell in love.

1930s waitress dress

I love the way Johanna styled hers with a red belt and white turban, so I will definitely be making a red belt to go with mine. I’m thinking maybe a crochet one would look good. However, initially I chose to make a matching white belt using a scrap of cotton fabric I had that was very similar to the cotton of the dress. I added a genuine 1930s red buckle to it for another pop of colour.

The dress itself is in such amazing condition. I did have to give it a really good wash once I got it home to make it bright white again and remove a horrible grubby stain that went right across most of the collar. Thankfully this came out but I could not get the five tiny spots of rust to disappear despite trying every trick known to man! In the end I dabbed a very small amount of white fabric paint on each spot which has made them virtually invisible. Yay!!

1930s hair clip

And before I go, I must show this beautiful genuine 1930s hair clip that I wore with the outfit (despite not being able to see it in any of the photos above!). My best friend Sam, who’s not into vintage at all, bought it for me. She often buys me genuine 1930s accessories for birthdays or Christmas and always manages to find such incredible pieces. Okay, so this has little bits of the paint coming off the red flowers but it’s so unusual to find a 1930s hair clip that’s much more for daywear rather than the sparkly evening ones. And I totally love it, especially as it came from Sam!

Cate

Just a vintage gal suffering from the Golden Age syndrome. Lover of all things old, lingerie obsessive, crafter and enjoys rummaging at flea markets.

29 Comments

  1. All of the red accents just make this dress SING, it’s absolutely stunning on you Cate! An unbelievable bargain too – a girl after my own heart 😉 That’s funny about your location not being what you had in mind, I can actually imagine this dress working quite well in the abandoned orangery.

    Beautifully, impeccably done xx

    • Hehehe! That orangery really was stunning, I’d love to find something like that to do a shoot in. But it always happens when you’re not planning one, doesn’t it? And thank you for the lovely comments on the dress! xx

  2. What a great post! I love that you are in your backyard. It seems very authentic actually and reminds me of photos that my grandmother and her brother took of each other in their back yard which was in the 20’s – mind it was black and white, and not color. Anyway, your photos are always terrific.
    So glad to find out about the “Change Buttons” as I have acquired quite a few and thought they were just strange shank buttons that would wobble around tremendously if they were every actually sewn on. Neat!
    Your whole outfit is so put together – Bravo!

  3. What a fantastic find! I can’t believe the dress is that old, it looks so crisp and white. It gives me some hope that I can actually keep the white dress I made recently white (the one I posted on Instagram). I normally avoid white but love white dresses with red buttons too!

    • Thanks Kate! I did give it a really good initial soak before giving it a really good hand wash, which really helped to brighten it up. I will only ever hand wash this one because of it’s age but I do have a washable linen skirt I made a few years ago that I can just chuck in the machine. I was terrified about wearing it for the first few times but now I don’t worry. It washed brilliantly.

      I loved your dress and actually giggled to myself when I saw it as I knew that mine would end up looking quite similar! We clearly both have impeccable taste! 🙂 xx

  4. love love love this- (1pound wow) and I assumed it came with the red buttons the whole look is so sharp – I really like this belt with it too. didnt know about those ‘change’ buttons – amazing how they survived in a costume room! (good tip about white paint on the rust spots) – looks fabulous

    • Yes, I was very surprised they’d survived too but they are incredibly sturdy and the clips are pretty tight. I was a bit nervous about using fabric paint on it but I bought a pen version which allowed me to just get it on the tiny spots of rust. They’re barely noticeable now and you can only really see them if you know they’re there. xx

  5. What a fantastic find – how clever of you to have spotted what it actually was. It’s a fascinating piece of history, and I’d never heard of those change buttons! I love how you transformed it with the red vintage buttons and buckle. I’m such a sucker for vintage buttons. Even if I cannot sew, I keep picking them up … xxx

    • Thanks Ann! It seems a lot of people didn’t know about change buttons, or rather had seen them them without the back clips and wondered how they worked. Vintage buttons are my downfall. I have loads of them but never quite have the right ones for the project I’m working on! xx

  6. I would love to go to a sale like that! The dress is super adorable, and what a bargain! I never knew what the deal was with buttons like these, so I’m glad to have learned what they are for. The red buttons you used to replace the old ones make the dress look extra cute too!

    • The vintage section was pretty small compared to the costumes, but it was definitely worth going. Most of the costumes weren’t all that great quality as a lot hand been hand made and worn a lot, but they were perfect for local amateur dramatics societies. People from those were coming out with handfuls of the stuff! xx

  7. It looks amazing! And a ridiculous bargain! I’m pretty sure I have some buttons like this in my collection too and I never knew about them either (no backs with them and just the odd unmatched one or two like most of my buttons!) so that’s really fascinating.

    • Thank you Tanith! I seem to be enlightening a lot of people about change buttons as everyone seems to have the odd one or two in their button collection. xx

  8. What an amazing find and I love the addition of the red buttons. I had an issue with rust on a dress and bought some stuff on Ebay from America. It was a powder and I had to use it several times but it did completely remove the stain in the end.

    • Ooo, do you remember the name of it? My blouse has a few rust stains on it too and, as it’s striped, there’s no way I can do the fabric paint trick on that. They’re not overly noticeable but I would prefer them not to be there because it would be in near perfect condition then. xx

  9. This is such a super dress and what an amazing bargain! I really like the red buttons and belt buckle, it makes a glorious summer frock. Your friend picked a lovely present for you!

    • Thank you! I’m hoping we actually get some decent weather again this summer so I can wear it, although I have to think about where I’m going each time because I don’t want to get it dirty! xx

  10. What an absolutely AMAZING find! This is such a gorgeous dress, and the detail with the change buttons is incredibly cool. You would definitely be the chicest waitress in diner!

    • Hehehe, thank you! Oh, to be able to find a time machine and take a trip back to a diner in the 1930s! xx

  11. The buttons are the perfect touch! What a find and an unbelievable bargain. Must be all the more satisfying to wear it now 🙂 (PS your book’s going in today’s post!)

    • It was quite possibly my best ever bargain, I couldn’t believe it when I spotted it! Thank you, I look forward to giving it a read. xx

    • There’s something so ‘vintage summer’ about red and white, isn’t there? I want to wear it all the time now! xx

    • Oh gosh, yes, that’ so similar! I love the shape of the collar, that’s so 1930s. Well I’m glad you found me and thank you for your kind words xx

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