WEARING THE PANTS
LINDSAY KINSELLA AND TRINITY HOENIG
Fashion is an art of expression. It is the means through which we present ourselves, and it is a reflection of social and cultural norms. Though what makes fashion so captivating is its subjectivity in the eye of the beholder, there exists a general pattern of evolution in womenswear which maps directly onto notable social movements.
The birth of the female suit can be attributed to the social unrest women experienced in the 1900s. The garment was a breath of fresh air, marking an end to an era of clothing that tied women down and liberating them. The female suit embodies the history of female empowerment and exists as a symbol for changing gender dynamics and workforce demographics - women are now wearing the pants.
World War I marked a huge transformation in women’s liberation. Prior to the war, women were subjected to a life consisting of up to five outfit changes a day. While Bridgerton enthusiasts may appreciate the elegant attire, women of the time were yearning for more. As society began depending on women to fulfill jobs as factory workers and nurses, a chance for liberation emerged. Taking inspiration from the men at war, women’s new uniform was akin to the suits worn by the military. The war marked a huge change in the way women expressed themselves through their clothes; they now had the freedom to both work in male-dominated war industries and look the part. As the industrial revolution swept through in full force, the changing demographics of the workforce transformed the landscape of business with women taking the helm.
During this time, the Suffragettes – women advocating for the right to vote – began to conceptualize more masculine attire, allowing their clothes to make a statement just as loud as their picketing signs.
Soon after, in 1914, Coco Chanel created the first female suit, infusing both the femininity and elegance of the Chanel brand into the powerful message of women’s liberation. The suit’s silhouette remained elegant, but pushed the boundaries of women’s previous fashions with a fitted jacket and matching skirt. Chanel marketed the female suit in a way that was still acceptable, rather than incredibly radical. Her strategy was all about truly creating a new market for her designs, supplying a good for an unmet need (in this case high class women who wanted a new look), while remaining true to the elegance of the brand. Chanel remained an exclusive and high fashion brand throughout the first half of the 20th century despite being new using word-of-mouth marketing and keeping supply low to incite higher demand and therefore, prices.
In the 70s, the birth of the power suit began with Thierry Mugler’s design. With shoulder pads galore, women valued this new suit as a symbol representing their capability as working women, again enabling changes in the demographic of the workforce. Mugler gave the female suit a powerful backdrop, exploding on the fashion scene with fashion shows that broke the boundaries in terms of spectacle, garnering his designs’ immense media attention in a smart marketing ploy. Mugler’s female suits soon became a staple in the workplace. Power dressing truly took over women’s fashion in the 80s when Giorgio Armani released a tailored trouser and skirt set with even larger shoulders, taking the sex out of fashion. With the authoritative silhouette of the 80s power suit, traditional gender roles continued to blur as women’s empowerment and presence in the workforce grew. This boxy and oversized look was too bold for some, so post 1980s, female empowerment emerged with a softened look, proving that women can own their femininity and be respected. The removal of the shoulder pad in the 90s brought in a new day of self-assured, confident women in the corporate world. Gone was the need for an aggressive look to intimidate. In its place stood a shorter hemline and a softer shoulder that was reflective of this change in women’s attitudes.
2010s to Today
In the modern era of workplace attire, the need for a forceful imposition of power by women is disappearing. Women today can, and do, wear anything because the history behind their clothing has evolved to make it possible. They say the way you look changes the way you feel, and this could not have been more true for women of the early 20th century. Empowered by the early forms of the suit, women pressured their governments to recognize their efforts and break into the workforce.
It is hard to imagine a world without the female suit, a symbol of femininity and power. While clothing is still used as a projection of our voices in the face of inequity, women today recognize their strength beyond what they wear. A woman, regardless of her dress, is still a powerful woman. While the original movement for equality meant abandoning the restrictive clothing favored by men, today’s activists recognize that women should not have to look a certain way to be respected. As they say, fashion comes full circle, and if the dress of today’s women is any indication, this could not be more true. While the female suit allowed women to take control in positions of power as CEOs and entrepreneurs, wearing the pants is a sentiment that goes beyond the way we dress. It is a reclamation of power in a man’s world. Women’s fashion has evolved from attracting the attention of men with intricate gowns to finally dressing however we please. This is seen in the fashion of today’s most influential women, as there is no dress code for being a powerful woman in 2021. While some female CEOs and entrepreneurs choose to sport the female suit, others gravitate toward more feminine silhouettes. This manifests in today’s designers, who continue to innovate and break the molds set in place for working women. With more women holding positions of power in male-dominated fields than ever before, brands are catering to women seeking professional, yet expressive clothing. This is thanks to the women before us who worked so hard to carve a space in womens fashion to be just that: women's fashion in the control of women.