Caitlin Trantham hunched over her kitchen stove and hoped her latest recipe would finally be everything she dreamed of. After a series of mishaps, the steaming mixture marked her fourth attempt at perfection. She resembled a mad scientist, surrounded by erratically placed tinfoil, attempting not to spill a single drop of the boiling liquid onto the kitchen counter inside military housing.
The pot didn’t hold a stew or lunch; instead, a fluffy, beaded, 90s-era wedding dress purchased from Goodwill floated inside. Serving as a fairy godmother of sorts, Trantham was determined to turn the discarded and forgotten frock into something new. She planned to show off the transformation at an upcoming Marine Corps Ball. When she removed the sparkly garment from the now-crimson liquid dye, it was finally flawless.
“The project was quite a journey. It was hard to do. At the end of the day, I probably would have been better off buying a dress,” laughed Trantham, who also used her sewing machine to modify the dress to a more flattering and modern shape. “But I wanted to make it so bad.”
As many military families know, sometimes the clock strikes midnight when you least expect it. Trantham’s husband, a Marine first sergeant, ended up having to deploy earlier than expected, and she didn’t get to go to the ball after all. But that didn’t mean the dress didn’t turn heads. More than 1 million people viewed the transformation video series she shared of her project.
The road to social media success
Trantham is the mastermind behind the social media account Cait Conquers, which chronicles her extraordinary transformations of discarded and outdated dresses and fabric she finds at thrift stores. She’s been making videos consistently for about three years and has attracted nearly 1 million followers on TikTok and 300,000 on Instagram. Her reach has even helped her win a collaboration deal with Disney.
The mother of three, whose family is currently stationed in Hawaii, never expected to be a social media star for her sewing talents. Her mother loved sewing, but Trantham found it “boring” until recently.
“My mom bought me a sewing machine, but it sat in the box for two years,” said Trantham, who initially took the machine out of the box to make a quilt. “She really wanted me to stop asking her to sew things for me.”
Clothing transformations came a little later when she dreamed of owning a vintage wardrobe but didn’t have the funds to purchase the items at pricey consignment stores.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I can find things in the thrift store that are close and modify them,” she remembered, adding that her first project was raising the hem of a 90s Dressbarn garment into a more suitable retro length. “That was my first project, and I got a good response from my friends, so I did another one.”
Finding a calling of her own
Trantham has since collected more than 20 million likes on her short TikTok transformation videos, repurposing everything from old garments to curtains and bedsheets. She’s even converted her husband’s retired uniforms into teddy bears, so the family feels closer to him while he’s away. She created her social media platform name, Cait Conquers, the day he deployed for six months.
“To motivate and convince myself that I could conquer any challenge life brought me,” she said.
But she’s made it a point to make her husband’s career just a footnote in her content. She made a choice early on to make the platform all her own.
“It’s really hard to find your identity outside of it when you’re so thick into the military community,” she added. “A lot of people lose themselves. I’m glad that I was able to kind of carve my own path.”
Along the way, she hopes to inspire others to repurpose before buying new. According to data from the 2019 Global Wellness Summit, clothing production is the second-largest source of water pollution, responsible for roughly 10% of all carbon emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that clothing waste makes up 7.7% of the municipal solid waste in landfills.
READ: In ‘Beneath The Seams,’ military spouse writes about the dark side of fast fashion
Trantham added that even people without a sewing machine should take a second look at their closet and transform something old into a new garment with dye or no-sew hem tape.
“We are drowning in clothing waste,” Trantham said. “There are so many clothes out in the world that if I can inspire just a handful of people to go get them and reuse them and make something new, I’d be so happy.”
In the meantime, she continues to dye and sew her own heart out while crossing her fingers that next year, she’ll finally be able to wear the crimson beaded gown to the Marine Corps Ball.
Follow Trantham on TikTok and Instagram @caitconquers.