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Men’s Suit Repurposing Project: Creating a 1940s Women’s Suit

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My first step in the men’s suit repurposing challenge was to locate and purchase a suit. After poking around a few local thrift stores and being disappointed with the selection and relatively high prices, I headed to eBay. This online marketplace had much more to choose from. I wanted a striped wool, and wool flannel rather than worsted, as the former is easier to tailor.

The selected men’s suit

Circa 1990s jacket is part of the men's suit bought to transform in the digital ambassadors challenge
Photo by Sarah McFarland

The suit I purchased—for less than $30, shipping included—is a gray flannel pinstripe manufactured by the renowned American brand Southwick. The design of its union label suggests that the suit was created in the late 1990s.

The men's suit was made in a union factory, as indicated by the label.

The size was a 44 Regular and the pleated pants were 36 inches by 30 inches, so it was worn by someone relatively short and portly. I chose a large size so I’d have more fabric to work with after dismantling the suit.

Trousers that are part of a men's suit that will be transfprmed into a different garment or ensemble

Men's suit brand name is sewn into the jacket's inside front
Hammonds Clothiers, now defunct, was based in Lancaster, Ohio.

My intention was to use the Southwick suit to create a Forties-style, World War II-era women’s suit. Due to fabric rationing during the Second World War (wool, in particular, was needed for uniforms), wives were encouraged to remake their husband’s suits into suits for themselves. Instructions could be found in Make Do and Mend-type pamphlets, as well as some sewing patterns of the era. A pattern envelope might even specify what size men’s suit would be needed to create a women’s suit of a particular size.

I used vintage Advance pattern 4229 as my base pattern, but I made design changes to the jacket and the skirt.

Vintage women's suit Advance pattern 4229

Advance pattern 4229 back envelope

Partial printed pattern instructions from Advance 4229
The Advance pattern instructions even suggest how to lay out pattern pieces if converting a man’s suit. This didn’t quite work for me, as my suit jacket had many shaping darts and pockets.

The first step was to disassemble the Southwick suit. I needed large sections of fabric unbroken by pocket openings or darts. The largest pieces of fabric I harvested were from the pants and the back and sleeves of the jacket.

Original men's suit pants cuff unfolded
The pant cuffs were unfolded for extra fabric. Note accumulated dust in the creases.

Laying out the pattern

I used the back of the men’s suit for the back of the new suit, and the sleeves of the men’s suit for the sleeves of the new suit.  All the other pieces were drawn, randomly, from other parts of the original suit.

Women's suit jacket back pattern lying on top of dismantled men's suit jacket back

Sleeve pattern lying on top of dismantled men's suit jacket sleeve
I used the original jacket sleeves to make the new jacket sleeves.

Altering the pattern’s design

I redesigned the jacket by shifting the dart placement using the slash-and-spread method. As drafted, the jacket front was entirely one pattern piece (below), with one shaping dart at the neck, another running from the hem to just below the bust, and a third originating under at the armhole and ending at the waistline pocket, in the place where a side-panel seam might be located. This is a non-printed pattern, so these darts are marked on the pattern with perforations. If you examine the original pattern envelope, these shaping darts are easy to see.

Left front suit jacket pattern piece

First, I lengthened the long, wide dart that started at the hem and ended at the bust. I extended the dart beyond the bust all the way up to the armhole, creating a full princess seam that includes the shaping of the original dart.

Next, I closed the neck dart, shifting the dart to the side.

Neck dart on suit jacket pattern piece is closed

I continued to slice across the new dart past the center-front line to create a horizontal seamline dividing the front piece into an upper piece and a lower piece. Finally, I turned the second long dart, which originally started at the armhole and extended to the waistline, into a separate side back piece. Where needed, I added seam allowances.

What was originally a single front pattern piece is now divided into four separate pieces, with one dart shifted from the neckline and now intersecting the princess seam.

I wanted the stripes on my jacket front to run vertically and horizontally. The smaller pattern pieces allowed me to play with this placement. I was inspired by 1940s menswear-inspired striped women’s suits designed by Hollywood costume designers like Edith Head and Robert Kalloch, as well as vintage patterns like the Vogue reproduction below (V2199).

Keeping the original suit’s welt pocket flaps

I tried to incorporate a few of the original suit elements. I created double-welt pockets and inserted the original pocket flaps.

The pre-owned men’s suit had a double-welt pocket with flap on the front left and right sides.
I cut through the front to make my welt pockets. I used fusible interfacing on the jacket front. In retrospect I wish I’d used tailoring canvas, as the interfacing didn’t fuse perfectly.
The double-welt pocket on my women’s suit jacket is a key feature.

Solving the fabric shortage

Due to the large number of darts and exterior pockets on the Southwick suit jacket, I wasn’t able to harvest enough fabric for the entire 1940s suit. Therefore, for the side-front and side-back pieces of the jacket and the skirt, I used a dark gray wool from my stash. It’s close in color but with a twill weave.

 

Side back on 1940s women's suit skirt
Photo by Mike Yamin

Creating a front closure

The front closure of the jacket is a single button and a bound buttonhole, which I made in a paler gray wool for added contrast.

On the facing side of the jacket, I created a window interfaced with silk organza on the inside of the bound buttonhole.
Here’s the buttonhole window on the facing side. I hand-stitched around the two lips, or welts, of the buttonhole.

 

Bound buttonhole and button on woen's suit, made from 1990s men's suit
Photo by Mike Yamin

Choosing and sewing in a lining

The lining for the jacket and skirt is a bold floral polyester charmeuse I purchased long ago at the Chelsea flea market in Manhattan. I used the original suit lining to line the sleeves.

I also used the original shoulder pads, and I doubled their size by adding another pair I purchased in New York’s Garment District.

I followed Kenneth D. King’s excellent tutorial (available on YouTube) to insert the invisible zipper in the skirt. Then I attached the lining by hand.

 

Women's suit skirt turned inside out to show floral charmeuse lining

Gray skirt unzipped to show floral lining

 

Side zipper in finished women's suit skirt
Photos (three shown above) by Mike Yamin

The completed skirt has six panels: the center-front panel and center-back panel are cut from the striped flannel, and the front and back side panels are cut from the solid gray twill. The slightly darker gray creates a slimming look to the silhouette, an unexpected benefit.

 

I used the nylon pants lining from the men’s suit to line my ladies’ jacket sleeves.

Fusible interfacing lesson

Overall, I am happy with the result. I wish I had used tailoring canvas for the center-most front panel as the fusible interfacing I opted for (to get a crisp result) didn’t adhere as well as I’d hoped. Why? Perhaps the the fabric had been dry-cleaned in the past and there was some chemical residue. As a result, the jacket needs to be touched up with a hot iron to restore its crisp look more than it otherwise would. Live and learn.

 

Women's suit jacket on dress form opened to reveal floral lining
Photo by Mike Yamin

My friend Melinda graciously agreed to model the new suit for me. She wears it well and captures the period, with the help of a wonderful hat.

And that’s how I created my World War II-era women’s wool suit. It was a creative challenge and a fun dive into traditional ladies tailoring techniques.

See two more men’s suit transformations from Threads digital ambassadors:

Becky Fulgoni created business overalls with a complementary jacket for herself;

Pamela Howard created a complex, multipiece ensemble using a large men’s suit as the basis.

Which of the three men’s upcycled suits is your favorite? You can cast your vote here.


Photos courtesy of Peter Lappin, except where noted.

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  1. User avater
    pamhoward | | #1

    Hi Peter, I wanted to congratulate you on your beautiful Upcycle Challenge garments!
    Best wishes,
    Pam Howard

  2. User avater
    Peter_Lappin | | #2

    Thanks so much, Pam -- this was a fun challenge and it's great to see what you and Becky created as well -- hope we get to do this again in the future!

  3. weavilthingy | | #3

    What a wonderful upcycle! You have made something that would have been gorgeous on a Hollywood star of the 40s - or on my mom. Elegant, flattering, and timeless. I would have preferred a slightly smaller hat, perhaps one of those that my mom favored which looked sort of like a soldier's cap (I won't use the slang term.) with a feather in it. Keep up the great work.

    1. User avater
      Peter_Lappin | | #4

      Thank you!

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