In many ways, the development of fashion has shaped our image of history. When we think back to long-gone eras, often the very first thing we picture in our minds is the clothing of the time, its distinctiveness often being a crucial part of what, in our minds, defines a specific piece of history. At least on the surface.
Moreover, it is womenswear in particular that serves as a particularly significant emblem of history. Women’s rights have been an especially hot-button topic throughout history; and throughout the late 19th and 20th century, in particular, socio-political shifts brought about drastic changes in the rights afforded to women and the roles they were permitted to play in society.
To a high degree, these significant social transitions are reflected in the changes to women’s fashion over the years – in particular, the growing popularity of suits for women.
Throughout much of history, and across most cultures, women’s fashion was kept sharply distinct from men’s fashion, and defined chiefly by traditionally “feminine” garb – dresses, jewelry, and the like. However, as the suffragette movement gained ground, and the working and professional world became increasingly accessible to women, so too did suits – which, with their frequent association with professionalism and positions of influence, were previously marketed almost solely to men. Moving away from long generations of treating male and female fashion as wholly distinctive from each other in every way, the growing availability of this once exclusively “male” form of style to women, served both as a reflection of the growth of the female workforce, and, in general, of the beginning of society’s efforts to amend the long-standing inequalities between the sexes.
Born in 1844, celebrated French Actress Sarah Bernhardt can perhaps be considered the earliest example of the then taboo-breaching “woman in a suit.” In 1870, Bernhardt was photographed in a tailored white pantsuit which she referred to as her “boy’s clothes” – an act which earned her criticism in several papers for her subversion of gender norms.
By this point, it had been nearly a century since famous London dandy Beau Brummell popularized among Western men the muted colors and well-tailored fit that would give rise to the traditional “men’s suit”; and it would still be several decades more before suits for women would gain any genuine traction. Nonetheless, Bernhardt’s bold fashion statement set a precedent for the social revolution just around the corner; and she would continue to subvert gender roles shortly after that with a performance as the lead character in a production of Hamlet.
Coco Chanel and Tweed
By the early 20th century, the efforts of the suffragette movement had begun to take hold. As more women began to step out of the roles traditional society had designated for them, so too did the demand for more practical women’s wear grow.
Perhaps the earliest famous instance of this was the “suffragette suit,” introduced in the 1910s. A direct response to the “hobble skirt,” which, due to its tight hem, significantly restricted women’s steps, the “suffragette suit” allowed for far more free movement and was far more practical and better suited to physical activity. It did not escape public notice, at the time, that this served as a reflection of the suffragette movement as a whole – defying the restrictions of both the hobble skirt and of the structure of society, the women’s movement had made great strides forward.
Moreover, it was not long before the phenomenon of women’s suits entered the mainstream. In 1914, famed fashion designer Coco Chanel introduced what would become an iconic line of tweed suits, consisting of jackets and knee-length skirts, representing a further movement away from the tight-fitting corsets and ankle-length dresses that had defined the fashion of the preceding century.
Tweed, at this point, was seen as a dull, practical, unglamorous material, and thus was chiefly used in men’s clothes. However, Chanel, so rumor had it, would on occasion try on menswear owned by her then-lover, the Duke of Westminster; and in doing so, she would come to realize that men’s fashion of the time was often far more practical, and that tweed was a supple and comfortable fabric. Wishing to bring these qualities to women’s wear, Chanel commissioned new tweed from the Scottish mills where it was primarily manufactured, in earthy colors inspired by the local countryside.
Despite their unconventional nature at the time, Chanel’s tweed suits took off in Western society, embraced for their comfort and practicality; and even today, tweed remains a staple of the Chanel brand.
Marcel Rochas and the Pantsuit
By this point, it was evident not only that women could wear suits, but that there was a good market for suits aimed at women. As a result, it was not long before another iconic French designer of the time, Marcel Rochas, would introduce another concept that, at the time, was all but unheard of: trousers for women.
Rochas’ pantsuit for women was first introduced in 1932 – around which time, about 25% of women in the US had entered the workforce. These suits, which finally gave women access to affordable trousers, represented a further bridging of the gap between genders.
A precedent was set; more designers began to produce their lines of women’s pantsuits, and prominent women appeared in public spaces wearing them. Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became the first woman in her position to wear a pantsuit at a public event; and German-born actress Marlene Dietrich, following in the footsteps of Sarah Bernhardt, twisted conventional gender roles throughout the 1930s by appearing onscreen wearing a series of tuxedos and double-breasted suits that became iconic.
Moreover, the growth of more masculine clothing was hardly restricted solely to the Western world. “Zoot suits,” first developed among African-American communities, began to grow popular among the Hispanic, among which the “pachuco” subculture was developing. “Pachucas” – female participants in the subculture – began to wear “zoot suits” as readily as the men, giving the subculture’s participants a uniform, gender-neutral aesthetic. In dressing in such a way, “pachucos” signaled their own belief in the growing perspective that women could stand alongside men in society, and take on roles beyond that of wives or mothers.
Yves St Laurent
The leading names in clothing design continued to stay wise to the growing demand for women’s suits as the decades passed; and in 1966, another primary name in design, Yves St Laurent, made its contribution to the growing market. The Le Smoking suit, a black-and-white tuxedo designed for women, brought the women’s pantsuit out of the working world and into the realm of eveningwear, introducing the notion that, not only could women wear trousers and suits, but they could do so at formal or social occasions, as well as for practical purposes.
Despite pantsuits for women having existed for decades by this point, the notion of them as formal wear was met with noted hostility by fashion traditionalists; and many women found themselves refused entry to restaurants or private clubs should they arrive wearing a Le Smoking suit or similar attire. Nevertheless, the look quickly gained ground as a significant feature of mid-to-late 20th-century fashion, and Yves St Laurent continued the Le Smoking line for nearly half a decade.
The 80s were a wild time for experimentation in the world of fashion. For the most part, any lingering unease general society might have about women in suits had evaporated by now. By this time, female empowerment was at its peak, and “power suits” – with their distinctively flashy colors, decorative buttons, and shoulder pads – became almost ubiquitous. The famous soap opera Dynasty brought to the masses the image of the suited woman in the workplace, and prominent names in design continued to do their part – Italy’s Giorgi Armani, in particular, popularised unusually voluminous and boxy trousers, which further lent the outfits a gender-neutral look. Despite the flamboyance that defined more or less all fashion in the 80s, it can perhaps be said that the image of the modern businesswoman, as we typically picture her, was indeed born in this era.
It seems difficult to believe from today’s perspective, but the modern notion of men and women in professional and casual settings being dressed more or less the same would have been nearly unthinkable a mere few decades ago. In many ways, women’s suits today can be taken as a symbol of the advancements modern society has made – after all, women in suits ought to be one of our least concerns in a society genuinely striving for gender equality.