Carolyn Ramey – the Undergrad Designer of the 1930s

Goodness knows that young college students are in need of some good wardrobe choices.  They themselves might not realize this fact, from the seemingly perpetual loungewear that I see being worn at my local campuses.  How to choose good wardrobe items is yet another life skill, a taste that needs to be learned by young people just like anything else, to have a good foundation for the future.  Most nice clothes seem to cater to adults, however.  If they don’t, they are either too trendy, too sexy, or too professional for an aspiring young person’s needs, and the designer of such is an adult. 

Elle Woods from the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde”

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a teen creating designer clothes for her own age group?  I’m not talking about clothes that are something unaffordable or used for creating a status symbol – something that is handily just what is sought after to be worn (even if that is an inherent desire is currently undeveloped in them).  Something that would raise the bar a bit from pajama pants and a tee without any compromise on comfort would no doubt be appreciated today.  Few people realize that a well-cut garment can and should be just as comfy as any loungewear.  Ready-to-wear fashion rarely offers this ideal combo, but vintage patterns do!  There’s no reason to live the most formative years of your life looking like you just rolled out of bed.

This ideal scenario for collage students’ fashion actually happened midway in the decade of the 1930s through the largely unknown young designer Carolyn Ramey – marketed as “the Co-ed designing for her fellow collage girls, juniors, and debutantes”.  She attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia , graduating in 1937 majoring in Applied Arts while at the Home Economics department.  (In 1931, Drexel began offering degrees through the School of Home Economics)  Her dress designs for girls her own age were inspired by yearly trips to Paris, London, and Milan on summer break as well as a frugal practicality, especially when it came to her trademark “date night frock” and “Campus Modes” lines. 

Both collections were already popular by her freshman year when she had her own fashion column and sewing pattern line in both “The Country Gentleman” magazine and the Chicago Tribune newspaper.  Luckily, her mother Mary Grace Ramey was a public fashion expert herself, and her Grandmother Caroline King was the long-time editor of “The Country Gentleman” magazine, so it helped that the young Carolyn had connections.  However, she seemed to honestly be thinking about the needs and problems of her fellow young ladies and wanted to help out the budgetary, social, romantic, and school-related aspects of their lives with the inventive designs which she had apparently been creating since her high school. 

Well, now I have tried out one of Ms. Ramey’s designs for myself – her “very first to be made from her fall season wardrobe”.  I am happy to have whipped up this luxurious and super comfortable evening gown in one night!  I am one happy (albeit modern) customer of her ideas and can attest they seem to be everything old newspaper articles touted them to be! 

Another one of Carolyn Ramey’s fetching (Paris inspired) designs!

This may be my new favorite 1930s era creation.   With only 5 major pattern pieces, and various extra pieces and recommendations included for style variations, this dress pattern is a pure goldmine of a find to me.  I picked up this pattern on a whim many years back now as it was a steal of a price.  I didn’t realize until recent research how amazing yet unknown is the history the behind this pattern and its designer.  I am thrilled to have finally come around to sew something of it!

Carolyn Ramey promised in a Chicago Tribune article from December 27, 1936 that her pattern designs aim to “look like a proverbial cool million…correct in cut, comfortable to wear, and dynamically flattering” even while being “sewn without much trouble”.  I find this 100% true with the one pattern I have in my stash, and from what I see in the several others I found via Internet images (such as this one).  My interpretation here may be a bit more chic than what a collage girl of the 1930s would prefer, but it is every bit true to the era with its semi-sheer burnout velvet and aura of sumptuousness.  Ms. Ramey’s preference for “simplicity imbued with charm” certainly helped me make the most of my fancy fabric, but what makes me really happy here is the way I seem to have merged her two different collection’s ideologies into one. 

The pattern used was from her Chicago Tribune “Campus Modes” line, yet I put my own twist on it by using velvet, which is along her “Date Night Frock” way of thinking.  To her, a date night dress should be “smart enough to merit appraisal, yet not conspicuous enough to be gaudy” as she said in the “Drexel Triangle” university newspaper of January 22, 1937.  She believed “that ‘date frocks’ must have enough snap about them to make them stand out in a crowd” without being “too conspicuous”, while campus wear needs to reflect “the spirit of youth” but be the perfect transitional wear to escort them into the professional world.  I see this dress as checking off both boxes.

It seems Carolyn Ramey’s “date frocks” line was through personal consultation and made to order as they were “her particular hobby”, from the meager information I have found.  Her “Campus Modes” was a weekly pattern release and fashion advice section in the Chicago Tribune starting January 3, 1937 and lasting until 1940, as far as I can tell.  She was not a “one ball juggler” – she even tried something new in June 1937 and presented a young Men’s fashion show for Drexel University.  Also, between 1935 and 1938, Carolyn Ramey designed the official uniform sets for the National 4-H Club (just as her mother had done in 1933) to continue her personal mission of clothing young ladies smartly and sensibly.  Sadly, all information on her seems to fade into non-existence after 1940.  I would love to find out what happened to her after her college rise into popularity.  In all the articles I could find she always said that she intended to continue designing.  I wish I could at least see a picture of her to have some visual connection.  I am just glad I can shed a bit of light on her life and career through this blog post!  

THE FACTS

FABRIC:  a polyester “devoré” burnout velvet

PATTERN:  a vintage original “Designer Carolyn Ramey” Mail ordered pattern from the Chicago Tribune, No. 8581, year 1938

NOTIONS NEEDED:  nothing but thread!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was begun and completed in a space of about 4 hours on November 3, 2021

THE INSIDES:  poly velvet doesn’t fray, but still ‘sheds’, so I merely zig-zag stitched over the edges

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric cost me about $30 something dollars from JoAnn fabrics…I bought it several years back and no longer exactly remember!

The happiest coincidence of finding some really great information relating the Carolyn Ramey is the fact I have found the original newspaper article advertising the release of the pattern that I have.  This is how I am able to date the pattern to August 7, 1938.  I never get to do such a precise tracking, especially for a mail order pattern.  Unfortunately, Newspapers.com and many of my other sources for info on Ms. Ramey and her work is either a pay-per-view site or from a link that has since disappeared off the internet.  Nevertheless, you happily get the highlights of what I’ve gleaned here! 

Many of the dress’ fine-tuned details are hidden by the oversized ‘print’ of the burnout velvet I used, so let me run through them for you.  It’s the seemingly simple designs that need the highest quality fine tuning to look chic instead of sloppy, after all, and this pattern has it all.  I’ll start with the most noticeable feature – the uber-wide and waist deep dolman sleeves (also known by the more modern term ‘batwing’).  They are seamed into a fitted bodice, quite an unusual take.  Most dolman sleeves are cut as one piece with the body and do not have an armscye.  Leave it to an indie designer to put her own spin on something!  The way the bodice is darted under the bust, with a natural shoulder seam which dips into a V-point at the side waist seam, really fits it to the body.  This variety of dolman sleeve controls the fullness of the dramatic sleeves more than the ‘normal’ one-piece dolman cut would offer.  

In Carolyn Ramey’s newspaper commentary for this pattern, she says the combo of these sleeves and the slender skirt will “make you look as slim as a reed” and is a “simple yet sophisticated” combination. “The sleeves are full except at the wrist” and the long skirt has tailored, curvy vertical seam lines to make it appear bias cut when it is really straight grain cut.  She says “it is extremely easy dress to sew” and she is not wrong, for it has taken me much longer to write my post about the dress than the four hours I spent to make it from start to finish.

No closures were needed here and this pops over my head – a completed outfit in an instant.  This isn’t what the pattern called for, but I simplified it.  There was supposed to be a duo of a back button placket and a small side seam waist closure, but velvet is not conducive to being bound into a stiff buttonhole or zipper. Carolyn Ramey even suggests a full center back zipper down the back of the dress, if possible (remember this pattern is from 1938, so this is a fashion forward thought).  I merely left the back neck open for 6 inches down with a small hook and eye at the top.  Carolyn Ramey talks up her patterns as being versatile and adaptive to customization.  This is after all the ideal of every home sewing pattern – use it as a tool to cater to your ideas and needs.  For every pattern release through the Chicago Tribune, she gives recommendations of variations, and my pattern – for one example – includes some extra little pieces to aid in making those modifications.  How honest is that for Ms. Ramey to want her users to reimagine her designs for themselves!

I am imagining another version of this dress in a soft and nubby monotone tweed, with a shorter ‘street’ length, and maybe with a collar, too, for a whole new spin.  A plaid suiting, tunic length version –to be worn with a skirt or wide trousers – may be quite interesting, as well!  I can even picture this in a liquid ivory satin for a fantastic wedding dress!  I have so many ideas for this pattern, and so little time to sew or such few places to wear half of my creative notions. 

I have no place to complain, though.  Out of all the things we have to be thankful for this holiday season, I am always thankful for my sewing capabilities and my handmade wardrobe those skills have given me.  Furthermore, I love to be thankful for women like Carolyn Ramey who had a passion to help others and gave an excellent example of following your dreams…especially when that medium is through sewing!  It gives me encouragement and hope for my own undertakings.  It fires up my historical curiosity and belief in the worth of my research.  Let us support small enterprises, creative makers, and independent businesses everywhere this weekend and show how grateful we are.  The people who channel their artistic inspiration, drawn from the beauty of life, into something you can buy deserve to be supported and appreciated.  I am merely a local maker, and my work comes from happy customers in town, spread by word of mouth, so I understand how important it is to let where money is spent do the talking.  Shop small businesses this weekend, stay thankful, and keep on stitching, my fellow sewists!  Drop me a comment if you enjoyed learning about Carolyn Ramey!

2 thoughts on “Carolyn Ramey – the Undergrad Designer of the 1930s

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your research on Carolyn Ramey. I’d never heard of her but like her philosophy and designs. I’ll keep an eye out for her work. Happy holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

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