The Evolution Of Women’s Suits
A women’s suit. Can it really empower a woman?
I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just clothing. But in the workplace, a sharp matching suit with a well cut blouse underneath conveys an air of confidence. A women’s suit can be a suit of amour. But will it stay that way forever? Do women even need the power of a suit anymore? Let’s see how the ladies suit has evolved since its origin and where it’s heading.
1660s Riding suits allows women more comfort
The earliest women’s suits were Riding habits, which were a formal habit for riding, these consisted of:
- A tailored jacket with a long skirt to match
- A tailored shirt or chemise
- A hat, often in the most formal men’s style of the day (since the Victorian era, a top hat with a veil has been worn)
in June 12th 1966, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary
“Walking in the galleries at White Hall, I find the Ladies of Honour dressed in their riding garbs, with coats and doublets with deep skirts, just, for all the world, like mine; and buttoned their doublets up to the breast, with periwigs under their hats; so that, only for a long petticoat dragging under their men’s coats, nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde sight, and a sight did not please me.”
1920s Chanel liberates women
Often credited with creating the first suit. Coco Chanel was the one who freed women from those horribly restrictive corsets and gave us some room to actually move and breathe! Chanel’s original suit did not involve polyester and shoulder pads, but rather a knitted wool cardigan paired with a matching skirt. This came to be known as the Chanel suit. The suit was usually accessorized with a long string of pearls and was called the “woman’s new uniform.”
193os Women Done the Trouser
Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich certainly started something when she appeared at the opening of The Sign of the Cross, wearing a masculine tuxedo, wing collar, soft felt hat, mannish topcoat, and a pair of mannish patent leather shoes. It actually reached congress and they had to decide whether or not the new styles violate the law forbidding women to “masquerade as men”.
Marlene Dietrich helped popularize the look with her slouchy stylish way of wearing the suit.
1942 Kate the Great shows us that suits are for girls too
Katharine Hepburn showed us that a man’s suit could actually be quite feminine. The slouchier the better for this gorgeous tomboy. Her film Woman of the Year made the suit iconic and a wardrobe staple for working women.
1966 The suit gets sexy
It was this year that Yves Saint Laurent introduces le smoking, the “first male-inspired couture evening suit with pants for women.” Of course, this sexy look isn’t really appropriate for the office.
1980s Power dressing
We came into the decade of power clothes in the 80s. Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Anne Klein all embraced the power-suit in their designs.
The film Working Girl (1988) also capitalized on the fashion of the decade. Melanie Griffith stars as a smart but under-educated secretary who can’t get ahead, partly because of her looks (big hair, big makeup, big fail). But when she realizes her classy but terrible boss is stealing her ideas, she gets back at her by stealing her wardrobe which includes those classic power suits and a haircut. It’s a Cinderella story, except the fairy godmother is a power wardrobe and the happy ending is a great job (and Harrison Ford).
Donna Karen and other designs started producing “softer suits” which often paired the power blazer with a skirt instead of pants.
1990s The softer side
In the 1990s we were introduced to the television character Ally McBeal (played by Calista Flockhart). A neurotic but successful lawyer wore the power suit blazer, but with a tiny skirt on the bottom. The length of her skirt drew so much attention that Time magazine famously ran a cover featuring Flockhart’s face and asking “Is Feminism Dead?” Power dressing may have been declared over, but clearly people are still paying attention to what women’s clothing says. And some women still look at a pants suit as a source of power. Think of Hillary Clinton—the poster child for the power suit. In 2007 she told David Letterman, “In my White House, we all know who wears the pantsuits.”
2012 The death of the power suit
According to The Wall Street Journal, the old-fashioned power suit look for professional women is over. The new power look for women includes a soft color (like pink), beading, prints, patterns, and very feminine tailoring—all of which were once considered fashion sins in the workplace. This fashion movement is being sported by women at the executive level who have the confidence to embrace a more integrated and diverse look. We are seeing this trend because there are just more women in these top positions who determine what is an appropriate look for the office.
There has been a shift in what is considered appropriate for women in the workplace. It has moved away from women trying to fit into the stiff, male-influenced power suit.
Christina Binkley of The Wall Street Journal writes, “The matched crimson suit—once deemed essential for a female executive—reflected an era when women tried, often clumsily, to fit into male molds. There was also a militant element to that office apparel.” She wrote of her days at Procter & Gamble in the 1980s when she was informed by a boss that only the “secretaries” wore dresses.
The power suit “has had a total demise,” says Bridget Brennan, chief executive of Female Factor, a Chicago-based consulting firm that advises clients on marketing to women. Brennan thinks this is happening because women are more comfortable in their own skins and are owning how they dress..
2016 The future of power dressing
Women can wear pink, not just powerful red, in the office. They can wear floral’s and lace. They can wear leopard print shoes and flats. That’s right, flats can now be considered just as fierce as heels. Brinkley writes, “Long stuck in the purgatory of casual wear, flats are suddenly being promoted for polished occasions. Flats sleek enough to be dress shoes were paired with tailored suits and even with evening-wear on the spring runways from Marc Jacobs to Giorgio Armani.”
In a recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter, female executives in the Hollywood talked about the evolution of power dressing. It used to be all about the power suit but now more fashionable and feminine items are considered just as powerful.
“When I got to town in 1989,” says Blair Kohan, now a fashionably dressed partner at UTA, “everybody was wearing these suits. I had one from Ann Taylor. You didn’t get Armani until you got to the top. I see more expressiveness. Women no longer have to look tough because we are tough.”
Giorgio Armani, who made the power*suit famous, recently said that women no longer need to wear powerful-looking clothes in order to earn respect from their peers in the workplace.
“[Women] have edged out their standing in the world. Today, they don’t have to wear a suit jacket to prove their authority.”
What’s your power look? Tell us in the comments!