In today’s corporate America wearing a suit hardly seems like a revolutionary move, nonetheless one with a “rebellious” past. However for women, power dressing is just that. Blazers and dress pants have always been regular attire for the upper echelon, yet the mark of a power suit in American women’s history is a bold and surprising fight for equality. Let’s take a brief look at the evolution of suits and power dressing.
Disclaimer: The history of suits and power dressing is crippled and stained with the racism and inequality that has riddled much of American history. This account of the power suit is from a mainly white perspective as many people of color did not have the same advantages as their white counterparts. Although today dressing sharp is universally used among all people of color, it is important to note that power dressing and wearing suits for people of color does not always elicit the same response as white women and men.
1900’s: Although a dress suit is a staple in many wardrobes across the globe today, the beginning of the female power suit had its birth in the “progressive era.” Men had been using suits to establish and further distinguish themselves from labor workers for years. During World War 1 it was acceptable and commonplace for women to wear trousers doing labor. Yet it was unexceptable for those clothes to be worn outside the workforce. Progress was made during this era to liberate women.
1910: Suffragettes donned an outfit dubbed as “the New Woman,” and ‘“What was "new" about her was that she was bolder, more active, more out-and-about in the world, more outspoken than her mother's generation.” This new style included looser blouses and form fitting (not tight) corsets that are similar to today’s spandex. Above all else the skirt was an ankle length divided skirt that allowed long strides for better movement.
1911: Famous french designer Paul Poiret was the first to design pants for women inspired by the costumes seen in the opera Sheherazade. They were called Harem pants. These pants were loose-fitting and wide legged, immobilizing women. Anyone remember Sybil from Downton Abbey?
1914: For the women literally chained in tight corsets and extra layers, Coco Chanel was a god. The first suit was a suit and blazer combo that was lightweight and less restricting. Chanel was an advocate for sportswear and integrating menswear for women into her line. She was a huge fan of pants and designed them for women to wear casually. She was often photographed horseback riding, beach walking and doing other common activities in pants.
1930s: Actress Marlene Dietrich wore a tuxedo in many of her films and while performing on stage causing an uproar.
1940s: Hot on the heels of the future Chicano rights movements of the 60s, and Cholo-ism in the 80s, Pachucos and Pachucas were Mexican-Americans fighting against discrimintion and assimilation. Their outfit of choice? Zoot Suits. These suits consisted of oversized, pinstriped blazers and trousers, a trend that started in many Black, jazz communities. For many Chicano women this was a redefining moment about where a woman's place was in society. When she wore a suit it was a rebellious act against being housewives and women without a mind.
1966: Just as women were ready to ditch the 60s pompous hair and dress obsession another famous fashion brand made an iconic move. Yves Saint Laurent crafted the Le Smoking tuxedo. It was a formal suit for women to wear, while smoking. Needless to say, it caused an uproar. American actress Nan Kempler was denied access to a Manhattan bar for wearing the pants to which she stripped them off and walked in with the blazer as a dress (foreshadowing, hmmm?).
1980s: The modern power suit was women’s way to compete in the male-dominated corporate industry. The suit style de-emphasized women’s curves. The jacket was oversized, thigh-length with double breasted lapels that cover the chest. Extra shoulder pads added masculinity to complete the outfit. This outfit was seen in upper middle class and rich TV shows such as Dynasty and was a huge trend as more women joined the workforce. The suit took on a more exclusive appeal to upper class Americans that even prompted an episode from infamous sitcom the Simpson in the 90s.
2000s: Today the suit, pants included, have become a staple wear that can be blended into more business casual outfits or worn when a woman needs to be extra sharp. Throughout history power dressing was used as a tool to fight for women’s rights.