Teenage style: what to wear to university

Nikki ParkinsonFashion 68 Comments

It’s been a year since I wrote this post about moving my son into residential college at uni. He survived his first year, discovered a new world of socialising and has been counting down the days until he returns in a week and a half.

Miss SY?

She’s following in his footsteps. And mine.

I spent my first year at Queensland Uni living on campus at The Women’s College. I didn’t know anyone at the college but quickly made friends. Friends for life.

This was LONNNNNGGGG before social media. We actually used to write letters to each other during the holidays. One of our group still has all the letters we wrote to her which ensures we always remain on her good side. I can only imagine what they contain.

In my mind it was only yesterday. Not 29 years ago!

And now my daughter gets to experience the same. And she’s equal parts excited and nervous. I can’t remember being either but an old friend reminded me last year that I had been excited.

Women’s College celebrates its Centenary this year so there will be a few events that will give me a legitimate reason to return to my old stomping ground … I have promised not to cramp Miss SY’s style … or embarrass her … much.

What to wear to university: Gorman top | Uberfine necklace | Gorman shorts

Miss SY uni style: Gorman top and shorts (picked up on sale and bought with her own part-time work earnings) | Uberfine necklace (a gift) 

what to wear to university | Gorman top | Uberfine necklace

Speaking of style, which is the point of this post.

Another SY reader who has a daughter heading off to uni for the first time contacted me as she was looking for some tips for her 17-year-old on what to wear to university.

I realised I’d have to do a bit of research on the matter because I can tell you if the sweet young things of today saw what we wore back in the day, the eye rolling would continue until the end of their degree.

The perms were bad enough – it was the ’80s and they were extremely difficult to avoid – but there was also a uniform of sorts to work back with those perms.

We sewed long shorts out of animal print curtain material and teamed them with polo shirts, preferably one with an alligator on it, and Dunlop volley sneakers. Yep, a man-repelling ensemble right there.

The only part of this get-up that had any style was the Country Road tote that was the uni bag of choice.

So, I asked two of my son’s friends (Amy and Brittany) for the low-down on whether I had to source a sewing machine and fabric to make Miss SY some shorts for O-Week next week.

Thankfully I don’t. But I’m happy to report that the Country Road tote lives on. And the emphasis is very much on comfort rather than style.

What do/did you wear to uni on a typical day in summer?

A: I would describe the style on campus as trendy yet comfortable. In summer and spring I usually wore a dress with sandals or high-wasted shorts with a nice top (basically what I would wear to go shopping). Most days, in true Australian style, I would wear thongs because they’re the most comfy option, as did many other students. Sometimes, if the outfit was a tad bare, I would add a necklace or chunky bracelet, however, it’s more socially acceptable to dress down than it is to dress up. Sunglasses are a must have on campus as you’re walking in the sun from class to class.

B: On an average summer uni day I wore little summer dresses or playsuits and some casual flats.

… in winter? 

A: In winter, the clothing we wore tended to lean more towards comfort than style. Skinny jeans were a staple, paired with a hoodie or knit and boots or, once again, thongs. I have a navy blue coat that I wore when it was ridiculously cold but the weather on campus usually only permits a hoodie or a knitted long-sleeved top/cardigan. Come to think of it, I wore a lot of coloured knits last year, some pastels and some dark reds and blues. Ugg boots were only ever socially acceptable when we were in exam block as comfort seemed more important when having to sit through 2+ hour exams.

B: During winter I usually just wore jeans, a nice t-shirt, a jacket and ballet flats.  

Did you notice if there was a particular “uniform” on campus? 

A: Basically, the style on campus is very similar to that which you would wear shopping. Havainanas are almost always acceptable whereas Ugg boots are for indoors or a quick dash to the corner store. I suppose you could almost pick out the Australians from the international students, as countries like England (for example) see thongs as something you would only wear around the house. 

B: I noticed a couple of “uniforms” on campus actually. There was quite a divide in style between the people who live on campus/close to campus and the people who had to travel a bit further. I think that the people who lived closer to uni saw it as a bit more casual and as such they dressed a little more casually and more comfy similar to what I mentioned above. The other half of the students often dressed a little better wearing blazers and looking more as though they belonged at an office. 

What to wear to university

1. Cotton On dress $29.95 | 2. Sunglasses $29.95 @ The Iconic | 3. Country Road tote $59.95 | 4. Saltwater sandals $85 @ The Iconic

What kind of styles were most popular?

A: The jelly shoe plague. Definitely the jelly shoes. They became the epitome of comfort-meets-style. Perfect for a hot summer day but also for a rainy day as they drained easily. I personally never wore them because I have memories of them on me as a two-five year old and that is the age bracket that I think they should stay with. Playsuits with lots of colour and fruit patterns were quite on trend last year and this year too, probably because they’re as breathable as a dress but safe on a windy day. There was also, I suppose, a uniform among the colleges. Most of us would wear our merchandise more than once a week because it was comfortable. I think, on another level, it gave us some common ground with students we didn’t know, allowing us to make new friends in classes and find each other in a crowd. 

B: The most popular styles were jeans and t-shirts or summer dresses, most importantly clothes that were comfortable. 

What kind of bags do most girls carry?

A: Tote bags. About 80% of girls would carry a tote bag while the other 20% carried a backpack. Usually the girls who were at uni all day would have the backpacks or if they studied something like architecture where stationery and equipment is needed. 

B: I carried a Country Road tote and most other girls used something similar. Some used handbags large enough to fit a laptop if thats all they needed for classes but mostly handbags are too small. 

What shoes do most girls wear?

A: Heels were openly shunned because they were just seen as impractical when walking from class to class. It was almost like you were trying too hard. I tried wedged boots with stockings and a dress one time and that was the only time. On a typical day you’ll see a combination of sandals, jellies, and thongs. 

B: Ballet flats were probably the most popular. Anything that you can walk around in comfortably all day would do though. Ankle boots were also popular in winter.  

What to wear to university: Country Road tank | Bohemian Traders Poppy Pant and necklaces | Havaianas thongs | WeWood watch

Miss SY uni style: Bohemian Traders poppy pant* (stolen from me but look better on her) | Bohemian Traders necklaces* (stolen from me but we’ve agreed on a joint custody arrangement) | Country Road seamless tank (I’ve got her on to these wardrobe essentials) | sass and bide Havaianas (from a couple of summers ago) | WeWood watch (also stolen from me and a joint custody arrangement entered into)

What to wear to university: Country Road tank | Bohemian Traders Poppy Pant and necklaces | Havaianas thongs | WeWood watch

What did you wear to uni – back in the day? Did you own a Country Road tote bag? Are you still a student, in which case what do you wear? Have a son or daughter starting or starting back this year?

* These garments were sent to me for editorial consideration

Comments 68

  1. Reading this at uni. Starting my 6th (but final) year – so hopefully have gotten this worked out by now! In summer: dresses, shorts/tee, thongs or sandals. WInter: skinny jeans, boots/ballet flats/cons, leather jacket, or a hoodie. Did an arts degree first, now am studying law (same university). Definitely notice that law students dress up a bit more! Backpack or tote depends on what outfit I’m wearing – not hipster enough to wear a pretty summer dress with a backpack!

  2. Nikki
    Thank you for asking my daughter Britt for her views. Yesterday we unpacked her bags into her new room for 2014 at Grace College and I did see some items of clothing that I am thinking would be interesting to wear on campus, parties maybe?? The girls welcomed her back with open arms and you could feel a strong sense of sisterhood and togetherness. It’s great to put them in an environment where they will all be focussing on their studies with the knowledge they are not doing it on their own – they are not the only hard done by kids !!!
    Good luck to our gorgeous Alex – she will love it!

    1. Hi Annie, it was like Y1 all over again. She barely noticed we were leaving yesterday! Loved setting up her room and the girls she had already met by the end of the day were just lovely – A will see Britt this week and I know she’ll like that!

  3. In the early 80s at uni i did the alternative thing. I wore 60s straight shifts and cardies from op shops, tights, leggings with tunics – which was very alternative then. I once went hitchhiking in a 50s ballgown – sugar pink with black spots. Now i wear suits to work but still like tunics with pants. I would love to know what some of the current alternative uni and young looks are now.

    A friend’s son has those huge hole earrings with skinny jeans and a singlet and although they look kinda cool (he is 6 ft 4, skinny and vegan) every time i see him i think that it will cost a bit to get them fixed when he is older (maybe he won’t want to…).

  4. Thanks for this post (missed it yesterday as Miss 17 and I were enjoying a day off together). I didn’t go to uni so at her age I was dressing up a bit more for my very important newsroom job. My favourite and most expensive outfits were from Cue…. Wish I had kept those cute little outfits just to prove I did wear a size 8!
    Miss 17 is starting uni next week and I am teaching her to shop in her wardrobe for the first few weeks until she discovers her “style’.
    Hope our girls have the best time discovering who they are and sharing it with the world. And love the pics of your Miss 17 – she looks beautiful and confident.

    1. Good advice from you to her Sha! Yesterday I think Miss SY realised she didn’t need to stress about what to wear. All the girls were dressed just like her friends had been at school. There were a lot of white flat-form shoes at the cocktail party though, something I’m not sure she’d be keen to embrace! Good luck to C next week x

  5. During my uni days I wore wrap around skirts,tie dyed t- shirts and bell bottom jeans, long hippie style Indian dresses and long hair. It was casual and my husband had long hair that touched his shoulders. We were young, we were free and we were going to change the world.!

  6. First time around at Uni we all wore jeans with pleats in front with brightly coloured jumpers and matching socks tucked over our jeans. Wish I could find a photo because yes it was appalling. PS I knitted my own jumpers.

  7. I was a Women’s girl too, in early 2000s, the biggest thing I noticed about what people wore was it depended on what they studied. I did engineering, so all my classes were male dominated and in the maths and engineering buildings – we didn’t dress up very much at all (think canterbury shorts, polo shirts and havaianas), but I always noticed if I had to head over to the other side of the uni, near the Great Court where everyone was who studied arts or law or business etc, they were all so much better dressed and I felt a bit out of place!

  8. My uni days were in the early to mid ’90’s and everything in my wardrobe was either a recycled item or a grunge inspired fashion piece. There was lots of black, unwashed hair, army cargo’s and flannelette shirts. Thank god I grew out of that phase!!

  9. My UQ and college days in the 90s were spent in denim shorts and flannelette shirts. To see the check shirts back in Country Road at the moment made me shudder! They look too much like ‘flannies’. I bet uni is a much more stylish place these days. Best of luck to Miss SY- college life is great!

  10. Comfort is super important, especially if you have a full day of classes! I was pretty laid-back when I lived on-campus, it was only a short walk to class. I often wore cute skirts and dresses and flats, but if I was feeling super lazy (or hungover) I would go for Lorna Jane Flashdance Pants and a tee. When I moved off, I found that comfortable but practical shoes were really important as I usually parked a fair way away – jeggings, jeans and tights with oversized jumpers and tees with boots and jangly accessories, Nina Proudman style. By that time, I had opted for a backpack, cause I was dragging a lot of stuff around. Didn’t really match the look, but much easier with the long walk to and from my car!

  11. Oh dear! my uni days were spent wearing bubble gum pink/ hot pink, purple, electric blue and lots of RED…
    The 80s have a lot to answer for!!! big hair bows in big fluffy ponytails, button earrings in matchy matchy colours,long straight skirts with polo shirts,colour blocked..POINTY flats.
    Ski pants and denim jackets …suede fringed jackets if you had money…
    Handbags across the front and wide stretchy belts….OH it’s rushing back to me…..but I did not have CR tote.

    Miss SY you look lovely, Nikki she has a wonderful role model.
    Congrats to you both! Xx

  12. As a uni student myself in Perth fashion varies depending on the time of year and degree. Towards exams, everyone is in their comfiest clothes – often sports gear or trackies and cons, however the rest of the year is about keeping personality and practicality. Some labs need enclosed shoes so cons, nikes and vans become a must wear and when we all get lazy we revert back to our sports shorts and tops. I love my jeans, ballet flats and coloured scarves in Winter and in summer I’m a shorts girl, so for example today it is a pair of witchery shorts, seed oversized t with frill and country road jelly sandals with a nice big necklace to top it off – comfy but my style. One word – don’t spend too much on a bag, they get overloaded and break, a water bottle will go through them. Roll through the cheapies and save good handbags (my best friend is a bag, mimco etc) for work when you don’t need to lug so much on the train! Love the look of Miss SY, need to do a stop by Gorman asap… xxx

  13. Miss SY looks fabulous in both her outfits! Back in my days at uni – early-mid 80’s – I was in the science faculty, so we didn’t have to try too hard to look feminine. Jeans were mostly the go, although I can remember my mum making me a few wrap-around skirts as I couldn’t afford to shop at Sportsgirl. 🙂 Fast forward to recent times, where I was teaching 1st year students in vis merchandising, and there was a definite ‘uniform’ – jeans, tank and kimono style cardi, with havianas (which changed to closed in shoes when they worked in Studio), The main difference in all those years is that the jeans became much lower waisted, meaning that when the girls were sitting up and leaning over their drawing tables there was a definite ‘trademan’s crack’ evident!

  14. Oh Nikki, I just openly cringed at the memory of those home-sewn animal-print shorts. I lived at Emmanuel College for one year before flatting, 88 the year of the World Expo, a great year for my first year in Bris. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  15. Wow! Lovely looks for Miss SY. I still have a CR tote – it is has seen better days and I notice on their website there are some lovely options, perhaps time to replace it! We used to wear jeans (and maybe shorts when it was really hot) and a tshirt. I can’t remember about shoes but coming out of the grunge era it could well have been boots. I only went to uni full time for a year and then switched to part time when I started working full time. Then it became whatever I wore to work.

  16. Wow Queensland is very casual! In sydney, there are the serious students (neat jeans, sensible top) the art students (be as weird and unique as you can) and all others – look like you are going shopping.

  17. Wow Nikki your daughter is so pretty and looks too young for uni but I probably say that about anyone under 25!She is rocking that Gorman outfit and the bohemian traders pants look amazing in her as does the coin necklace I am buying one today shh don’t tell the husband.
    I would watch out for that joint custody arrangement of your necklaces and accessories as I had to actually go and retrieve my pink necklace from my daughter but didn’t get my aqua tassel one back and I can’t tell you how many dresses she has stolen declaring they look better on her than me!
    I actually found a CR tote bag when I was cleaning out the study it might come in handy,I hope your daughter enjoys uni life x

  18. Such an exciting time for Miss SY! She is going to have a blast at Womens. Love all these looks. I was very much all for comfort in my uni days. I certainly remember the country road tote. I think my sister still uses one for her gym gear.

  19. Such an exciting time! She looks gorgeous!
    As it was below zero where I went to Uni in the States we spent a lot of time bundled up in trackie dacks and puffer jackets….talk about a man repelling outfit.
    When I went to Uni here I wore mostly some combination of jeans and a tee shirt and ballet flats…although I was a mature aged student so I think our uniform was slightly different than that of the pretty young things.

  20. Nikki where have the past 12 monts gone? It only seems like yesterday that your boy was moving to college. Miss SY will adore every single second of Women’s just like every other girl that steps through those doors this weekend. I feel tearful just thinking about leaving Beckie on that first day, but Isla Davies is one of the nicest humans on the planet – so you know she will be in good hands xx Good luck lovely xx

  21. I am a PhD student doing clinical research but also a practicing geriatrician. So anything that is comfy, semi- doctorly and only things that I wouldn’t mind if body fluids accidentally made contact with. On thesis writing days, it’s tracky daks (or thanks to you, boyfriend jeans) all the way. In undergrad days I had not 2 pennies to rub together, so it was whatever I could source cheaply. Melb uni girls often go for a look comprising op shop dress, waisted and cut short, opaque stockings, canvas flats, cardie, cakey foundation, dark eyeliner. And the tote.

      1. I was a Melbourne Uni girl in the 80s too and I was very much jeans, Uni sweater and sneakers. Pretty boring but very comfy and my pale pink uni sweater went beautifully with my perm!

  22. I know it seems like all uni students are 17 or 18 but there are also a lot of people heading back to full time uni in their late 30s and 40s and later for postgraduate work. All I can say, for myself, is huge bags, jeans and comfortable shoes and accessories become more important.

      1. I’m starting third year and still trying to find my style at uni. I’ve gone from a backpack to a tote to a computer bag for this year. Def jeans, t-shirts and flat shoes + scarf in winter. Bought a great denim jacket from Esprit over summer for only $37 (down from $150) so now I need to buy some non-denim pants so I can live in that over winter. The dress code def declines over the semester and its comfort only at exam time.

  23. Very stylish miss SY! Love the joint custody arrangement. My mum + I have that too for jewellery! Glad the country road totes are still in ‘fashion’. I got my first one in year nine and it’s still going strong! I would wear all of the above to uni. My usual uni wardrobe consists of cargo/lounge type pants and a top with some form of a necklace for summer and in winter (my favourite) jeans, tee and a knit jumper/blazer with boots and a scarf. Good luck for O week miss SY!

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