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.”
The 70s: A Decade of Change: The 70s saw the influence of androgyny on fashion in general, as represented by David Bowie. Bianca Jagger wore an elegant YSL tuxedo for her wedding to Mick Jagger. The pantsuit was created by Andre Courreges in 1964, but gained more widespread appeal for business in the 70s. Diane Keaton’s trademark look of a loose jacket and pants with a floppy hat and tie was made popular in the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall. Women were becoming more self-reflective about fashion in the workplace too, as epitomized by feminists debate about what should be worn to be taken seriously at work and John Molloy’s 1975 book Dress for Success that popularized the term “power dressing”.
The 80s: The Power Suit: Dynasty, Working Girl, Giorgio Armani and the power suit are words that are synonymous with the 80s. No other decade has offered a more singular, defining workplace style. Nothing said “career girl” more than jackets with boxy shoulders and big torsos with a beautiful drape. The power suit told the world that women were ready to climb the corporate ladder just like their male counterparts...and they did.
The 90s: Deconstructionism: The one decade of the 20th century that’s a stand out as decidedly anti-suit is the 90s. It was the era of deconstructionism, as epitomized by Casual Fridays and Levi’s Dockers. The suit was relegated to the closet, save for the occasional job interview. Vogue declared the era of power dressing done and celebrated long, flowy dresses worn over leggings with Doc Martens’ boots. Designer Karl Lagerfeld said, “There is not only a change in fashion going on, but a change of mind.”
The 00s: The Short of It: Allie McBeal epitomized professional success in the 00s with a tailored jacket worn over a matching skirt the length of which pushed the envelope so far that people debated its appropriateness for the workplace. That didn’t stop woman from emulating the popular television show, and the suit was back minus a few yards of fabric. People hadn’t forgotten Casual Friday’s though. Women tended to vary their work attire, and the suit was taken out of the closet on days filled with important meetings or events.
The 10s and Today: Mix it Up: The power suit may have had its day in the sun, but “suit-like” dressing is still an option for women in the workplace today. The key word is option. Now, working women are mixing and matching jackets and skirts or pants, wearing sweaters over blouses instead of jackets. Women are as likely to show up at nine o’clock in flats, sandals or pumps. Really, anything goes in today’s workplace, except that women aren’t dressing down like the 90s. They want to look pulled together and fashionable with a feminine flair that includes soft colors, beading, prints and patterns. In short, women no longer need to look like men to succeed.
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