The suit is the ultimate 20th-century symbol of the workplace. While we’re more likely to associate the look with men, the suit has a long history as a women’s wear category as well. What’s nearly ubiquitous about the woman’s suit is its ensemble of a jacket paired with a skirt or pants. What changes from generation to generation is how designers reinterpret the cut and style of the suit in order to reflect the pulse of an era. As Rebecca Arnold, professor of fashion history at London's Courtauld Institute of Art put it in a CNN Leading Woman article, "What you see from the 1920s onwards, is this negotiating of public space -- using dress to visualize the way women are seen at work, and how they want to be seen.”
So how did each generation of women desire to be seen in public spaces? And how did the designers interpret and/or mold this vision? Let’s take a look at the history of the women’s suit to find out:
Before the 20th Century: The ancestor of the suit hails from all the way 1660’s England. A tailored jacket worn over a matching skirt resembles the suit as we know it today, but women used this ensemble for a different function that reflected their absence from business or commerce. Called a “riding habit” or “costume”, women wore their “costume” while horseback riding, walking, travel and daytime activities.
The 20s: We Owe It All to Coco: The name Coco Chanel is synonymous with the suit today, so it should come as no surprise that the queen of 20th century fashion invented the suit proper in the 20s. She revolutionized fashion by designing jersey slacks and skirt suits in a sporty style that offered women freedom from restrictive corsets and represented a new mobility for women in society. A collarless jacket with braid trim and metallic buttons was worn over a fitted skirt for a look with sophisticated ease.
The 30s: Women in the Workforce: The working woman’s uniform was a matching skirt and jacket with a blouse that was influenced by Marlene Dietrich’s menswear-inspired style and showed that women were just as competent as men in the workplace. The jacket emphasized broad shoulders and a thin waistline with a full skirt in matching, muted colors.
The 40s: A Tale of Two Styles: The decade can be divided in two: Wartime style and Post-war style. Early in the decade, daytime suits sported shoulder pads with a military nod that were influenced by Elsa Schiaparelli’s use of shoulder pads in evening gown jackets in the 30s. Kathryn Hepburn was emulated for her iconoclastic, trademark look of more masculine slacks. Post-War, Christian Dior took the world by storm with his introduction of the “New Look” in 1947. The “Bar jacket” had a curvy fitted peplum worn over a full circle skirt made with yards and yards of fabric for a more feminine, post-war appeal.
The 50s: Streamlined Look: While the 40s were known for strong suit shapes, the 50’s offered a more streamlined style. Fuller busts and hips were out. The proportions became leaner, the look more tailored. The pencil skirt became popular. Everything was matchy-matchy, down to gloves, hats and handbags worn on the arm, which continued the post-war trend towards femininity.
The 60s: Mod is the Word: The tailored look of the 50’s was paired down even more with Paco Rabonne and Andre Courreges offering boxy jackets and A-line skirts with shorter hemlines made popular by Jackie Kennedy for a hipper, youth-inspired style.