the feminist history of the power suit
Dating as far back as the 1600s, the evolution of the power suit has absolutely everything to do with empowerment and enabling women to be able to participate more comfortably in their lives. Beginning with the adaptation of the riding jacket and ending with what we know and see today, this ubiquitous piece of clothing directly contributed to women's liberation. As hemlines loosened and shortened, it became practical wear for protesting, rioting, and working, making it possible for women to fight for our equality throughout the last century. Break out your shoulder pads, ladies, because we're about to take a little ride through history.
The first recorded instance of a woman wearing a suit is in the 1870s when Parisian actress, Sarah Bernhardt, debuted in a custom-made pantsuit. The town was scandalized, and yet this boundary-pushing woman continued to challenge gender roles when she played Hamlet on stage in 1899. Bernhardt is, in many circles, considered the original modern woman.
Once the outrage settled down, the trend caught on in a more, shall we say, appropriate manifestation in the form of pairing structured jackets with long skirts. This ensemble was known as a costume and was frequently worn while partaking in activities such as riding, archery, and walking.
In 1910, the American Ladies’ Tailors’ Association created the suffragette suit that was cut in such a way that it allowed the wearer to take larger steps, considered necessary with the vast amount of rallies, marches, and civil disobedience.
By 1914, the eponymous Coco Chanel designed her very first suit, modeled after the very suffragette suit sported by activists in America, but with fur trimming the jacket for beauty and glamour. Debuting her first designs during WWI, women took to her clothing because she favored practical tailored pairings over restrictive corsets. Practicality paired with Chanel’s consistent eye for beauty and glamour made these specific suits stand out from more simple designs, starting what one may argue is the longest lasting legacy within the fashion industry that continues to this day.
In 1933, the beloved Eleanor Roosevelt was officially the first First Lady to wear trousers to a White House function. At the time, women wore pants for more active leisure, and she simply ran out of time to change between events. In true Eleanor fashion, she embraced it and stood for several photo ops. Within the same decade, Marlene Deitrich wore full tuxedos in several blockbuster films, aligning perfectly with designer Marcel Rochas creating the first women’s ready-to-wear pantsuits. In 1939, Vogue featured women in trousers for the first time ever, thus marking a significant turning point in the history of women’s fashion.
The 1940s brought what we now know as the zoot suit, widely adopted throughout the world as a power outfit, especially by pachucas (female members of a Mexican-American subculture) adopted this look to rebel against society’s idea that women were only wives and mothers.
In 1949, Katharine Kepburn was praised for her choice of wearing a pantsuit rather than a dress, enabling her to stand out from the masses wanting to make it in Hollywood.
By the 1960s, nearly 40% of women joined the workforce, aided by several acts passed to protect women against unequal pay and discrimination in the hiring process. This unprecedented rise in working women naturally created another significant uptick in the popularity of women’s suits.
In 1963, First Lady wore an iconic pink Chanel suit to the historic event in Dallas where the President was assassinated. Per the family’s request, it is held within a climate-controlled vault in the National Archives until 2063, at which point it will be permitted to be displayed in a museum. The gore was never cleaned from the garments.
In 1964, Andre Courreges was the first designer to create slim pantsuits for women that were meant for both day and evening, whereas prior to this point, pants were only for casual events.
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent created his iconic “Le Smoking” tuxedo that appeared in several iconic popular culture events, such as Mick Jagger’s wedding, and was so ahead of its time that many hotels and restaurants considered it inappropriate attire for women, thus denying entry to anyone wearing it. (We love a controversial outfit.)
Fast forward to the 1980s where the power suit came into play, influenced by Georgio Armani. Think: huge shoulder pads, bright colors, and bold embellishments. More and more, women were leaving their traditional roles for careers in corporate America during one of the biggest economic booms in American history. These suits projected powerful silhouettes for powerful women. The show Dynasty had an enormous influence on the way career women dressed.
Sometime in the 1990s during season 7 of The Simpsons, the Chanel suit at this point has become so integral to fashion culture that they make an entire episode about it. Marge finds one at a discount store and, as a result, is invited to the country club. She then alters the suit into a new outfit every day in order to maintain the act of being wealthy.
It wasn’t until 1993 that two senators, Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley-Braun, fought to overturn the ban on women wearing pants on the senate floor. Almost 100 years later, women were still fighting an unnecessary, outdated dress code.
The suit is, was, and always has been a case for feminism, for equality, for empowerment.