A Photographic Timeline of Women in Suits
The appropriation of the men’s suit in the female wardrobe is an important—nay, vital—timeline: one that spans over the course of a century. Once upon a time it was a fierce political statement for a woman to be wearing a suit (and in some cases even illegal). Now a fashion staple and a symbol of power, we wonder when (and how) the women’s suit began to blur the lines of the strict gender binaries imposed by society. Below, the baddest of babes who took the suit from their male counterparts, made it their own, and situated the “women’s suit” at the forefront of mainstream fashion.
1800s – Victorian Era In the 19th century, it first became socially acceptable for women to wear an iteration of a suit for outdoor activities—particularly, swimming. These first “women’s suits,” aka bathing suits, showed little to no skin and were purely for function. Though just a baby step, this was the first noteworthy moment in the transition from floor-length Victorian-era dresses.
1870sIn the late 1800s, French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt was infamous for playing notable male roles in the theater. In doing so, her choice getup was none other than the men’s suit. She received backlash for her choice of menswear, making her the unofficial pioneer of the women’s suit. Mad props to Ms. Bernhardt’s emphasis on androgyny in art and fashion.
1914 Coco Chanel made history with the tweed suit design in 1914. The iconic skirt-jacket combo quickly became a fashion staple and has reigned supreme for a hundred years and counting. The design of the Chanel suit served as a turning point in the history of women’s fashion—a key breakthrough that began to normalize the suit in the mainstream female wardrobe.
1940sIn the 1940s, young Mexican women put their own spin on the infamous male zoot suit. These edgy female zoot-suiters, dubbed “Pachucas,” made up a youth subculture that defied stereotypical gender roles on all fronts, especially fashion. They were a new generation of unmistakably confident women marching to the beat of their own drum; their pantsuits symbolized liberation and independence.
1949Leading lady Katharine Hepburn famously owned (and popularized) her androgynous look that hadn’t been done before in mainstream Old Hollywood. Straying far from the typical sequined dress look, she became an alluring symbol of liberation and independence for women. In a 1981 interview with Barbara Walters, she famously stated, “I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to and I made enough money to support myself, and I ain’t afraid of being alone.”
1967With the late 1960s came YSL’s “Le Smoking” suit—a sophisticated iteration of a men’s tuxedo. The revolutionary suit for women was one of the first androgynous looks to break into the realm of mainstream high fashion. Not surprisingly, the suit’s initial debut faced a generally negative response from the public, but has since become a household staple.
1970s The 1970s were marked by Bianca Jagger and her iconic white pantsuit—a pinnacle moment for women and suits. A wide trouser and tailored jacket gave life to a new species of a casual breed of suits for women. The paparazzi’s capture of Jagger’s fierce look catapulted the suit to the forefront of pop culture.
1980sA decade characterized by a dress-for-success mentality, sales in women’s suits rose drastically in the 1980s. Designers like Emporio Armani gave the suit their own flavor; stylistically, they became boxier with a looser fit, refreshingly removing the emphasis on gender. And voila, the art of “power dressing” was born (as was the long lost art of the shoulder pad).
Present DayFast forward to the present day where women wear suits of all fits, colors, shapes, and sizes, thanks to the ladies who came before us. A woman in a suit carries a certain authoritative significance and value, and that makes her vulnerable to unsolicited criticism and commentary by the mainstream media, rather than simply just being able to exist. And yet, we persist. The above image of Hillary Clinton, wearing white in solidarity with the Suffragettes as she prepares to accept the democratic nomination for president, solidifies her reign as the unofficial master of the art of the women’s suit. Shine on you crazy diamond.
Images via vintag.es, borrowers.uga.edu, powersuitproject.org, Museum of the City, Vanity Fair, Racked, Harper’s Bazaar, NPR, and Vogue
Stay tuned to Milk for more gender-bending historical fashion.