The Seven Pieces to Sew for College, Then and Now

college students in the 1950s and in 2014. Any parents out there packing a daughter off to college or university for the first time? I came across an article in a 1950 issue of Vogue Patterns Magazine called “7-Part Plan for a College Wardrobe.” Let’s compare those pieces the “college girl, young woman newly graduated into business, and the newly married” needed in her wardrobe then with their 2014 wardrobe counterparts today:

The "short coat" of 1950 is the cape of 2014. This pattern is Vogue Patterns V9038.
1. A cape is the contemporary answer to the “shortcoat” of 1950. This cape pattern is Vogue Patterns V9038. Sew it in a a soft, warm wool so your college student feels like she’s wearing a blanket. This satisfies their toddler-like craving for anything that’s soft and cozy.
One-piece dress for college in 1950 and 2014.
2. Few college women live in dresses today like they did in 1950, but a dress can be handy for things like career externships. McCall’s M6989 is conservative but flirty and young, and we especially like designer Melissa Watson’s take on her own pattern (far right).
The skirt for college in 1950 and in 2014.
3. The “separate skirt” still gets a lot of mileage in 2014, especially if it’s one that can be dressed up or down. For McCall’s M6842, choose a ponte knit that won’t need ironing after being left at the bottom of a dorm room closet for three weeks.
The shirt for college in 1950 and in 2014.
4. A tailored shirt is still a wardrobe staple in 2014, but a flattering and chic wrap blouse is what will be worn this semester and next.  Sew McCall’s M6991 from a silky poly charmeuse or georgette that doesn’t require your precious to make a trip to the dry cleaners.
The jacket for college in 1950 and in 2014.
5. Don’t expect it to happen too often, but there will be times when your college student will want to shed her sweatshirt and wear something a little more tailored, like a jacket. Go collegiate prep with Butterick B5926.
The suit to wear for college in 1950, and the "suit" to wear for college in 2014.
6. Ok, we struggled to come up with a 2014 counterpart for the 1950s ubiquitous suit. Personally I can’t think of the last time I wore a suit, much less picture a college student or recent grad wearing one. But yogawear in 2014 is everywhere, from college campuses to the Hamptons. (Tip: Visiting the Hamptons and want everyone to think you own a summer house there? Walk around looking like you just left yoga class.) Try Kwik Sew K3988.
The strapless dress to wear at college in 1950, and one to make in 2014.
7. Colleges and universities still have formals and parties where a little strapless dress is just what a girl wants. Your college student is finally at the age where she can appreciate owning a one-of-a-kind dress you made for her, and she’ll feel sad for her friends who have to borrow their sorority formal dresses from Rent the Runway. We like Butterick B6019, which has a sophisticated, retro feel to it.

What was your college uniform like? Did it include any of these pieces? Tell us here! And for more patterns that work for today’s college students, check out our #NowTrending Pinterest board.

We’ve been sewing since 1863.

45 comments
  1. My college days required mostly jeans and t-shirts/sweaters (depending on the season). I didn’t live on campus and needed practical clothes for lots of time on the bus. And, I can’t claim to have been the best dressed on campus by a far cry. For (relatively) dressier, favorite outfits were made from a Donna Karen pants pattern, Anne Klein blouse pattern and Perry Ellis jacket pattern. All Vogue, of course. My jeans I made from Kwik Sew 406. Best jeans pattern ever, despite the dated cover art. I still have that one and use it.

  2. What a fun post! Keep this series going please, and make sure to include us retirees. Transitioning a wardrobe from career wear to stylish retired is a challenge.

    1. Great idea!

    2. I loved the comment on STYLISH retirement wear, I am recently retired and would love ideas for this new transition
      thanks
      Jean

    3. Yes, we retirees still want to be stylish but a closet full of business suits doesn’t work now.

    4. I live in sunny and HOT Florida. There’s little to no need for heavy fabrics or an outerwear coat. How does one in their 60’s look current and stylish with as little clothing possible? I’m not into “hoochy mama” clothing, LOL I just want to look polished.

      1. Have you heard of Goodbye Valentino or Girls in the Garden? Check GV’s archives for some great everyday styles that are classy and updated. JStarr4250 has great reviews on Pattern Review as well.

  3. Great post! I would make that “Shortcoat” design in a heartbeat! I do remember those big August issues of Vogue and Seventeen that would tell you what was a must to wear on campus. I would devour them when I got them. I do like Mary’s suggestion of a post on transitioning from career wear to retirement wear. It can be quite a challenge to find one’s niche in fashion post work and still have great style.

    My DD was in school in Boston (BC) and did occasionally need the little cocktail dress for various school functions. That’s when our phone calls would get hot and heavy. The rest was pretty much jeans and sweats.

  4. Your tip for visiting the Hamptons – hahaha and so easy to pack! 😀

  5. I love this post! the compare and constrast is very amusing. My college uniform consisted of jeans and t shirts, and wearing sweatpants and sweatshirts when studying.

  6. Love this post! I have always thought the wardrobe plan articles in VPB were the best creative fodder! I adore the 1950s plan, but your choices are impeccable for today’s lifestyle. I sewed many of my college clothes. I used Vogue Carol Horn patterns (2951,1215 & 2953), a favorite Vogue YSL dress/tunic (1247) pattern, a massive hooded wool cape – V7885, and Butterick John Kloss (4241, 4509) & Kenzo (3112, 4787 & 4539) patterns. I made the Carol Horn dress 2951 once in white cotton and twice in a rayon challis fish print in two different colorways; this print mimicked the silk of the original garment. The YSL dress I made using vintage embroidered linens for the yoke. All these fit in with the ethnic vibe of the 70s. Fun to reminisce…

  7. In the mid/late 90’s the college uniform was heavy on the plaid flannel, at least in the northeastern US. It was the grunge era. I loved bucking the trend by wearing a flippy skirt a bit like the one you picked. But the real uniform in dorms was plaid flannel pj bottoms (which were occasionally worn to class by some too).

  8. University in the early ’90s… jeans with tees, leggings with oversized tunics, and the occasional nicer outfit when I got sick of looking like a slob (aka a student). Cheap washed silk blouses, sometimes with jeans or slacks, sometimes with a skirt (I copied a Donna Karan skirt I saw in a magazine– a log Vogue basics straight skirt in a knit with a woven lining to limit the stretch, with a long metal zipper in the front to control how much of a slit it had. Loved that skirt; since that look’s trendy again, I should really make it in my, ahem, current size for fall!) or a dress. That was when I first started sewing– I had pieces for wearing to work or religious services, pieces that were for clubbing (a super-short red mini skirt my mother called a “cummerbund”), and a few items I wore to school once in a while.

  9. Most of these patterns I didn’t really give a second thought to before, but seeing them in this context is really fun! I like the long sleeved dress and the preppy jacket a lot.

  10. This was fun to read! It was interesting to see what young women wore back then and to consider wardrobe equivalents. In college I wore my own hand-made clothes, which were eccentric, to say the least.

  11. What a great article. I wore a lot of self-sewn clothes in college myself.
    Of course I did, I am your audience!
    And like many of your readers, my own daughter just needed plenty of jeans and hoodies – none sewn by mom.
    🙂

  12. This was great. I especially identified with the skirt not needing ironing after being at the bottom of a dorm room closet for three weeks. My daughter, recent graduate, is heading off to law school in a few days and has been told she will need business attire. I’m not even going to send her with an iron because I don’t think she will know how to use it. (She did not pass ironing 101 because she refused to show up to class.) She would love all the styles shown by the way. Anyway, I took Art in college and the uniform was T-shirts and jeans and oversized paint covered shirts.

  13. I really enjoyed this! I wore mostly jeans with T-shirts or blouses….an occasional jacket. I do love those 1950’s patterns!

  14. In 1976, uniform for men and women was jeans and tees. Period. Often the same jeans and tees were shared among a cadre of friends, both male and female. My friends and I who loved to sew were rebels: we wore lots of Laura Ashley-style lacy floral dresses, skirts, and camisoles. We had few opportunities to flaunt prom-wear or pageant-wear (some of us were beauty queens, I was not) so we hosted Barefoot but Formal parties for ourselves, in our dorm rooms. We’d drag out fancy long dresses in velvets and sparkly knits and swan about campus in our bare feet. Note: probably not a good idea for campuses located in cold climates.

  15. Loved it!

  16. I was working full time and raising 2 children while I was going to college, so my college wardrobe was my work wardrobe. As a paralegal professional, that meant skirts, dresses, jackets, pants; and yes, suits. But I like the comparison articles; it’s fun to see the difference in styles over the years.

  17. At the Catholic university I attended in the early ’60s women were not allowed to pants at any time on campus (this included the public rooms in the dorms). No, not restrictive. We just didn’t wear a lot of pants at that time. I don’t think I even had a pair of jeans. I sewed all of my clothes, except sweaters, and that was usually pencil skirts and blouses or sweaters, with or without a blazers. The new wardrobe selected has a lot of classic, but comfortable, looks. Comfort is prime for attending class.

  18. In the mid-90s it was all about the jeans, flannel shirts over a bodysuit, ankle boots, leather jackets and baseball hats for us in the Pacific Northwest. I did have a nice selection of skirts that I wore for my on campus office job. I do have to admit, working in the business world now, I still think every graduate should have a well-fitting suit for job interviews and when doing company presentations. The HR people at my current company frown on the ones who come in not wearing a suit and looking professional.

  19. Great post!

  20. I road a push bike to college so shorts and t-shirts and my Akurbra hat (I’m in Australia). It was in college I started buying clothes (I had my first paying job and had money) but I do remember making a strapless bustier and copying some of the more expensive clothes like a black suit with white pin stripes… but as I worked most evenings and weekends (at a girls boarding school) I didn’t wear these much, mostly for teaching prac. I think I must have done something right when one of the girls borrowed a denim bomber jacket (bought) for a school social! My college cohort was small some of the students would come to college in full make up and I thought that was amazing, still the country girl! Heading out to my first teaching position I spent the money I had saved to buy a car on a sewing machine (which I still have today 24 years later it’s a Husqvarna and going well!) and built up my working wardrobe as I could afford… lots of fun. Now I am doing the same loving making tailored, well fitted clothes for work post SAHM years.

  21. I once said to my son-in-law, “The 60s were weird in a lot of ways, but man, the clothes were FUN!” Bell bottom hip huggers, mini skirts, poor boy sweaters and boots. Pants were just starting to be accepted in classrooms and I sewed like mad. I was teased for wearing jeans around the sorority house – I was stylish before my time.

  22. I giggled when I saw one of the beginning lines of this post about packing your daughter up! 41 years ago when I left for college, I packed myself up in two suitcases, a box for my map, linens, an teddy bear (an essential) and my old worn-out Smith Corona typewriter. My mom drove me to the Greyhound bus station and I was on my 1600 mile one-way trip to college. Back then no one had microwaves, fridges, etc. that they ‘had’ to tote to college.

    A lady from my church that worked in a fabric store invited my mom and I to come in and with the help of her employee discount, we got fabric to make my college clothes. We made lots of skirts and tops and also dresses. Just about everything I wore at college my mom or I had made including my nightgowns. Nothing fancy and certainly no Vogue patterns – I was scared of them thinking they would be way too hard, until I tried one years later and it was one of the best set of clothes I had ever made. I don’t think I took a single pair of pants as I was also going to a Bible College where dresses were appreciated. At one point they needed some photos for their alumni newsletter, and they sent me to go get in a nice dress (which I had made) and I ended up being on the front cover of that newsletter 🙂

  23. This takes me down fashion’s memory lane. We had a dress code at my university during the first 2 years I was a student (1966-1968). We had to wear skirts and dresses on campus during the week, but could wear pants on the weekends. I still remember one of my favorite dresses sewn with a Vogue pattern designed by Patou which was lime green printed with white peace symbols.

  24. Awesome post!This was way fun, reading all of these posts. I didn’t go to college untll my children were grown but I do remember the styles of the 50’s, 60’s, etc. I made just about all my clothes in high school. some vogue some others. my mom made me pleated skirts from scratch. we had good legs and my mom made me mini skirts before they were in and i got called to the principals office for dressing too risk-ea in 1962. the skirt was just mid knee! i never got the chance to wear anything to school except dresses or skirts and i think i had one pair of ‘slacks’…no jeans until 1970 when i moved to the NorCal mountains in the ‘hippy’ era where by hand and treadle machine i designed and created some real pieces of work. i loved it, transitioning old clothes into funky garb. i also sewed most of my little children s clothes when they were tiny with embroidered designs and then i got too busy. I love to sew and now i’m 70 i’m still in the mountains and still flashing needles. Go gals!

  25. My recollection is like Sherry’s…the 60s. Really cool clothes (I’m not prejudiced am I?) girls wore mini shirts even in winter! Loved the wool mod style coats too. Bell bottom pants and turtleneck fitted sweaters. Pea coats were in too. Love this idea for a blog.

  26. Why oh why do U S women want/wear these stupid cape things?

    1. Because we love those cape things!

  27. My SON and I are discussing his wardrobe/college needs for next year (he brought it up) as he sees it as a real opportunity to change it up, and start doing real sewing for himself (not aprons and pillowcase bags). That is: hoodies and jeans. Which was my wardrobe when I went to college, with my sewing machine.

    Just want to point this out: not just the ladies are sewing for back to school. More men’s jeans patterns please! (although this is a good time for him to learn to draft his own…..)

  28. This is a great post! I went to art school, so wore lots of jeans, fitted tee’s, hoodies and cardigans. I knew how to sew then, but since I was a student on a tight budget, I didn’t make my clothing. I hope to see this series continued. Something for the workplace would be great- I work at a museum and our dress code is pretty casual. I know if I had the same job elsewhere I would probably need to wear a suit!

    It was fun reading everyone’s posts!

  29. Great set of posts! They certainly bring back some old memories. College in the early 70’s meant bell-bottom jeans with embroidered hems, and t-shirts. In 1974 while finishing college, I had my first interview for a summer teaching job and nothing but jeans in the closet – on the floor. We had some gorgeous old tapestry curtains hanging in the living room window that caught my eye. By morning, I had made an A-line skirt to go with my brown sweater, and I got the job! Thus began a 41 year teaching career. I am beginning my second year of retirement and doing a lot of wardrobe sewing and planing. Just this evening, my still-working husband wondered why I wasn’t making any button down shirts anymore! I am loving the knit-tunic styles with interesting pant patterns ala Marcy and Katherine Tilton styles. Posts on planning a retirement wardrobe would be great.

  30. I attended college in the early 80’s. I made my college clothes, however, it was nothing like the items in your blog. I made shorts and sleeveless tops, flared mini skirts with matching tank top for my sorority parties. Unfortunately, I no longer have those patterns or remember the brand or pattern number to add to this reply. I wish I could. I have a photo of one of my flared mini skirts with match top, taken at a sorority party – but I am squatting down speaking to someone in the pool so you won’t be able to appreciate the fashion. At least in my opinion!

    Today’s college fashion seams to be about comfort.

  31. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the pictures
    on this blog loading? I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my
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    1. Just checked and we aren’t experiencing any load problems.

  32. While most colleges don’t require some of the clothes listed here, I am going out on a limb to say that most HBCs (Historically Black Colleges) require their female students to have:
    a black business suit and a white dress. Also black pumps and a pantyhose…yes pantyhose. The business suit is worn when they have to do presentations.
    This year DD is a junior and has been my pleasure to watch her sew up a school wardrobe that includes two batwing dresses, four maxi skirts, three pleated skirts, two pairs of PJ pants, a romper, one pair of leggings, and a maxi-dress. She also taught sewing at our local Joann’s and taught a young lady who attends a different college how to make a maxi skirt and a knit dress!
    She has her own Viking Emerald (inherited from me when I got my Viking Opal) that she is taking to campus with her but laments that she won’t have a serger at her disposal.

    1. Oh, pantyhose, what a God-send to womankind you are! I started wearing hose in the 5th grade, in 1969. Had a horrible, horrible garter belt, shirred all around with elastic thread, with the hose clips that hung down fore and aft. You had to know your hosiery size, in girth and in length! Those clips would pop open with no notice, and leave your ankles puddled in sparkly silver laddered stockings (my mother let a 10-year-old pick her own stockings). A suit and hose is a very sensible thing for every student to have in his/her wardrobe. Well, men should have socks, one supposes — although in the 1970s Leggs manufactured special pantyhose for male sportsmen, for a short while. Sadly, perhaps, deep-sea fishermen and winter sports enthusiasts were not a big enough market to continue manufacture of that interesting product.

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  34. I’m still relatively young and graduated with my BFA in 2005. Yes, I was an art major and lives in paint/photography chemical/ceramic clay splattered jeans, tee shirts, and sweat shirts. I wasn’t in a dorm or sorority and never once went to a formal party so I didn’t need a formal gown. I graduated from a strict Christian private school with a very strict dress code that mandated dresses or skirts (below the knee) and blouses every day. I don’t think I started wearing dresses and skirts again until after I got married in 2007.

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