The Evolution of the Female Power Suit
Fashion can be a fickle beast.
Often, consecutive periods are the antithesis of their predecessor. A period which leans towards ultra-feminine trends will frequently be followed by an era of androgynous and more masculine-inspired pieces; think the floaty maxi dresses and gypsy tops of the 1970s, followed by sharp silhouettes and shoulder pads of the 1980s, as an example.
The power suit, however, has had an ubiquitous influence on women’s fashion. Sometimes it’s reigned supreme in the eye of the storm, and sometimes it’s burned slowly on the periphery, but it has always had a role to play, despite passing trends. Key moments in the history of the female power suit run parallel to iconic eras of female empowerment. From the suffragettes to Coco Channel, Dynasty, and Margaret Thatcher, the evolution of the female power suit is a fascinating story – and one that seems to be making its way full circle.
The Female Power Suit: A Brief History
In 1910, the aptly named ‘suffragette suit’ was created by the American Ladies’ Tailors’ Association. A blouse was worn with a simple jacket and an ankle-length pleated skirt which allowed the wearer to move more freely and take bigger strides. This was in stark contrast to the ‘bustle dress’ of the late 1800s – a steel structure sewn into the skirt or attached around the waist to support and add volume under women’s dresses. The dress would then be adorned with ruffles, lace and bows; quite a juxtaposition to the ‘suffragette suit’ which was minimal in design, echoing the severity of the women’s rights movement of the time.
The 1920s saw a petite French woman by the name of Coco Chanel taking menswear designs and amending them for women. Her iconic knitted wool suit did not encompass shoulder pads or sharp lines and was usually worn with a skirt, but it was definitely a reaction to the recent improvement in women’s rights and it accommodated the rapidly changing lifestyle of modern women.
1932 was a significant year which saw the first wide-shoulder trouser suit hit the fashion world via designer Marcel Rochas. By the 1930s there were more job opportunities for women due, in part, to better education, and about one-third of women in Britain worked outside of the home.
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent designed the Le Smoking tuxedo, the first tuxedo suit designed for women. This design had its roots in activities that were consdiered traditionally masculine – such as drinking strong liquor and smoking cigars – and wearers were seen to be affiliated with the flourishing feminist politics of the time.
The 1980s are often revered as the female power suit’s era of glory. From the women of cult TV show Dynasty wearing shoulder pads that made American footballers look slim, to Margaret Thatcher’s sharp suits, designers such as Giorgio Armani and Donna Karen managed to turn tailoring on its head and make the masculine feminine.
By the 1990s, however, the power suit started to play second fiddle to the pencil skirts and high heels that became more commonplace in offices and, apart from Madonna’s infamous pointy bra suit, interest started to wane.
In contemporary fashion, however, with gender fluidity at the forefront of many trends, there has been a resurge of interest in the female power suit. Whether it’s an A-lister wearing a tuxedo on a red carpet that is usually only privy to the most glamorous of gowns, Phoebe Gormley bringing the first women’s only tailors to the infamous Savile Row, or the influx of women’s co-ords and suits now available in our high street stores, the female power suit is definitely on the rise once again.
The modern sartorial world is a reflection of the relaxed gender boundaries that have previously been held in such contention and, in an era of ‘anything goes’, it’s little wonder that wearing a suit is no longer exclusively a privilege for men.