From helping Suffragettes get their point across just as loudly as their banners in the 1910s to helping Mexican American women craft an identity with the help of pinstripes and watch chains in the 1940s, there were many exciting twists and turns to get to the versions of Donna Karan’s and Anne Klein’s we see hanging on T.J. Maxx racks today. But across a century of shifting lapel sizes and trouser silhouettes ran one common thread: The evolution of the power suit mirrored the status of female emancipation and empowerment.
So while the suits our moms wore yesterday might make us slightly cringe, they have a rich, exciting history that deserves some exploration. Below is the evolution of the power suit, and what that evolution means.
In the early 20th century, someone called the “New Woman” started taking over the scene: A woman who “was bolder, more active, more out-and-about in the world, more outspoken than her mother’s generation,” according to the Smithsonian. She was well on her way from Edwardian and Victorian principles, and the need to shake off those stuffy 1800s ideals and gender roles was reflected in her clothing. Enter the Suffragette Suit.
While this suit not only helped the 1910 woman fit better into her more active lifestyle, it was also a direct response to the silly hobble skirt that trended during that period, which, according to the Smithsonian, was a skirt hemmed so tight at the ankles it made it hard for a woman to take unrestricted steps.
Interestingly enough, this was indicative of women’s struggles at the time, and the Suffragettes couldn’t but help thumb their noses at the irony. Smithsonian added, “A comic postcard of the time mocks this style specifically referring to how it contradicts women’s progress being made at the time: ‘And yet they say we are making great strides,’ it says.”
So how did the suffragette suit contradict the hobble skirt and what it represented? According to Allure, “Along with a blouse and jacket, it had an ankle-length divided skirt that allowed the wearer to take long strides.” And so with a feminist subtext, women’s first suits were born.
While Chanel might evoke images of cool femininity and pink perfume bottle elegance, the designer was actually one of the first to take menswear designs and repackage them for women. Case in point: She’s credited with creating the first female suit. Granted, it didn’t include trousers or bow ties, but it opened doors for women who didn’t likely think they’d ever be able to open them.
Grace Lees-Maffei, author of Iconic Designs: 50 Stories About 50 Things pointed out, “When Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel began designing, the suit was already associated with women’s emancipation, having facilitated female participation in the ‘man’s world;’ or urban work and leisure, as well as being favored by the suffragettes. Chanel successfully developed a suit that accommodated the rapidly changing lifestyle of modern women.” While the inspiration came from the inside of a man’s wardrobe, Chanel formed the look in a way that would be acceptable, rather than uncomfortably radical, for a post-war woman looking to keep her newfound freedom.
If you love the aggressive, power suit style of the ’80s, then you can tip your cap to designer Marcel Rochas way back in 1932, who created the first wide-shouldered suits. Much like in the Working Girl era, it was made to reflect women’s needs to hold their own outside of the home.
According to U.S. History In Context, a national education database, by 1930 24.3 percent of American women were employed, and with World War II only a handful of years away, that number would only rise as ladies had to provide for the family and take their husbands’ and brothers’ places as they jumped into bunkers.
The need for a more powerful suit evolved in its own right. According to Vice, “Emboldened by this, designers continued to take Chanel’s controversial signature suit and women’s desire to wear pants one step further by bringing the two together. French designer Marcel Rochas is credited with originating the idea of pairing pants with women’s suits in 1932.”
The suit was gray and woolly, with trousers that matched a jacket and big shoulders. While that might not sound like anything groundbreaking, you have to keep the era in mind.
Vice pointed out that, “In November 1939, Vogue fashion editor Elizabeth Penrose spoke out against women who would wear their new utilitarian clothing outside the workplace… saying those women ‘who pad around in hairy sweaters and flannel bags, on duty and off; letting themselves go — and other people down — slackers in slacks.'” When you’re publicly slammed for not wanting to take the time to button up a skirt, pants are a hard style to pull off while walking down the street. But with great power (suits) comes great responsibility.
The Mexican American woman zoot suiter, or pachuca, came onto the scene in 1940s California and the Southwest, right in the middle of World War II. She was part of a Mexican-American subculture, generally representing “working-class and second-generation Americans whose parents have emigrated from Mexico to urban centers,” according to Catherine S. Ramírez of The Woman In The Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, And The Cultural Politics Of Memory.
One of her most distinguishing features was that she donned the same zoot suits that her male counterparts wore, because it projected a “tough, rebellious image,” as reported by Allure. To break it down for you, zoot suits were synonymous with gangsters and underhanded deals, so wearing one of them usually set off a certain tommy-gun-esque image.
But for pachucas, the big lapeled, baggy-pantsd suit represented more than that. According to Allure, “Pachucas were associated not only with male zoot-suited gangs, but also with feminism because they rejected the idea that women could be just wives and mothers.”
Thus with another suit, female emancipation strengthened.
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced le smoking, the first tuxedo suit designed for women. According to the BBC, “Its name nods to 19th Century men’s smoking jackets, so called because their silk lapels were designed to allow any ash falling from after-dinner cigars or cigarettes to slide off, keeping the jacket clean.” Its roots were in classically male drinking-brandy-and-smoking-cigars, bourgeois history, which is why the idea of it was so revolutionary and irreverent.
Those who opposed it seemed to say, “How dare women take something so elegantly masculine and make it theirs!” According to Business Insider, the tux “consisted of a classic dinner jacket in black grain de poudre wool or satin and trousers with a satin side-stripe with a ruffled white shirt, black bow tie and a wide cummerbund of satin.”
Pretty much all it was missing was a top hat and monocle, and people lost their minds over it. Business Insider pointed out that wearing the power suit was more of a political statement than a fashion one. “So, dressing in a YSL trouser suit declared the wearer was irreverent, daring, and on the cutting of fashion, whilst suggesting their alignment with burgeoning feminist politics — le smoking effectively demanded: ‘If men can wear this, why can’t I?'”
Where many saw irreverence, many women saw a chance for progress.
With more and more women entering the workforce and invading the boys’ club, they needed a symbol that proved they were just as serious and competent as the guys riding up the elevator with them to the office. And apparently the only way to convince male-dominated boardrooms of that was to copy their look.
Vice quoted Shira Tarrant, professor and author of Fashion Talks: Undressing The Power Of Style, “Wearing a pantsuit was the expectation at the time if you were to be taken seriously as a business woman, but women were still criticized for trying to emulate men, because it was a derivative of menswear.”
That as it may have been, women still owned the look. Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, were your Annie Hall’s: Carefree women who fought society’s gender ideals by wearing men’s clothing in a flippant, plain way.
The New Yorker observed, “The Annie Hall clothes are a show of confidence.” In a time during which women weren’t allowed into restaurants wearing trousers (á la Manhattan restaurant La Côte Basque, which refused to let New York socialite Nan Kempner in with her le smoking on), it was a bold move to don some slacks.
While Dynasty was putting linebacker shoulder pads on the map, there was a designer busy at work in Milan figuring out ways to cut a masculine suit for a woman’s un-masculine form. His name was Giorgio Armani. According to Daily Worth, a women’s lifestyle site, “Armani managed to completely revolutionize women’s fashion, particularly for the serious ‘career girls’ out there. His new tailored trouser and skirt suits took the sex out of fashion and gave it a much needed hit of seriousness.”
However, that still didn’t mean that these pant and blazer sets weren’t trying to emulate a more male presence. It was a hazy time, one during which women were commanding power but had to do so underneath the disguise of pinstripes. Vice observed, “These big shouldered jackets and pants disguised a woman’s figure and took the focus off her gender, creating a feeling of authority as the traditional sex roles continued to blur.”
Not every designer believed that to be powerful meant to play dress up as a man in the boardroom. Enter Ms. Donna Karan. She got rid of the boxiness of a male jacket and let women believe they could walk into a room looking feminine and still own respectability.
Karan told Bloomberg L.P., “When I was working at Anne Klein in the ’70s, women were wearing jackets and bow ties and shirts — more or less dressing like men. Where was the sensuality of women? I don’t think anyone really understood how crazy our lives were. Those suits were holding us back. We wanted to move. We wanted to be comfortable.”
In this way, the women of the ’80s treaded in the space between Windsor knots and stilettos.
The power suit of the ’80s flipped itself on its head and became a power skirt once the ’90s rolled through, according to the Baltimore Sun. The pussy-bows that were mirrors to neckties went away, hem lines became shorter, and the shoulder pads were ripped out from inside suit jackets. Why? Women’s attitudes were largely changing, and with it their need to look aggressive ebbed away. The Baltimore Sun reported, “Now the most feminine symbol the dress is back. And some say the change in style reflects a new, self-assured image of women in the corporate world.”
Judith Langer, president of Langer Associates, a New York-based market research firm, told the Baltimore Sun, “We needed in the ’80s to have symbols of power. And the suit was that.” So how exactly did the power suit change, then?
To give you an idea, in 1992 designer Marc Jacobs described to the LA Times everything the ’90s wouldn’t be. He said, “The ’80s was Nancy Reagan and Dynasty, huge shoulders, nasty little suits, dress for success, hard-edge, hard-core, mean, aggressive clothes,” Instead, designs took a softer, more romantic approach.
In 1992, the LA Times described Donna Karan’s new line — one of the most prevalent women’s work-wear designers — as exactly that. “Donna Karan built her spring line around a silk poet’s shirt that fluttered over ankle- length skirts and cascaded over the lapels of fluid pantsuits. She extended the shirts longer, for poet’s coats and vests.” Many Western women could now retire their starched collar shirts and instead come into the office looking like they might go read Yeats on their lunch break.
And with that, shoulder pads and everything they represented were punted right outta there.
In an age during which jeans and trainers are just as regularly allowed in the office as blazers and heels, power dressing has reached an age of “anything goes.” From Ilana Glazer donning a T.J. Maxx “white power suit” after she experienced a business savvy moment featuring interns doing her sales while she brunched to CEOs of Yahoo! gracing Vogue covers because of their style, women don’t seem to have the same need to forcefully impose their status of power.
Christina Binkley of The Wall Street Journal observed of our yesteryear, “The matched crimson suit — once deemed essential for a female executive — reflected an era when women tried, often clumsily, to fit into male molds.”
So why has that type of suit fallen off of our radar? According to Meredith Lepore at career development site Levo, “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.” Many of us are finally writing our own scripts, and deciding, for ourselves, what’s appropriate and what demands respect.
Luckily, others are backing us up on that idea. Giorgio Armani — the granddaddy of power suits himself — was quoted by Yahoo! Style as saying, “[Women] have edged out their standing in the world. Today, they don’t have to wear a suit jacket to prove their authority.”
Instead, we are slowly learning to believe the things decades of women before us have tried to carve out with their pleats and lapels: We’re Stubborn, capable, powerful.