Susie Coen on the rise and fall of the power suit
You wouldn’t enter enemy territory without armour, and that is exactly what the power suit used to be for women: a shield against the brutal patriarchal business world. Although it might appear a trivial analogy, in a society where women were chained to their kitchen sinks, looking fierce reiterated that girls ran the world (well, we didn’t then but we do now). Yet today we don’t need to be kitted out with shoulder pads to show we mean business and the trouser suit can be worn on a daily basis. So how did the Power Suit come into being? And does its demise mean that women have gained enough confidence that we can face battle unarmed?
Sowing the seeds of the power suit in the 1920s, Chanel designed skirt suits which liberated women from restrictive clothing like the dreaded corset. Chanel’s suits consisted of knitted cardigans and matching skirts, not quite the polyester suits we are used to today but still a revolutionary step. Around the same time, the adored German actress Marlene Dietrich exhibited a male suit with bow tie and matching top hat and looked powerful, sexy and down right fabulous. Following the example of Dietrich, the fantastic Katharine Hepburn demonstrated that it was possible to wear a trouser suit and maintain your femininity. Her role as Tess Harding in the 1942 sensation ‘Woman of the Year’ influenced innumerable women about how to dress to get recognised in the business world.
In the swinging ’60s nobody can be more accredited for helping women’s suits gain prominence than Yves Saint Laurent. The creation in 1966 of YSL’s infamous Le Smoking suit paved the way for androgyny to gain momentum. The style gained even greater attention in 1971 as Bianca Jagger married her beloved Mick whilst wearing a white Le Smoking jacket designed by YSL, although as Mrs Jagger decided to wear nothing under the suit jacket, this exact look wasn’t quite mimicked in the office. However, although Bianca’s suit wasn’t present at board meetings, the second-wave feminism of the 1970s inspired the power suit to explode into people’s wardrobes. Suits emerged which exaggerated women’s shoulders, deeming her a force to be reckoned with. Skirts were more often than not traded for trousers and combined with a double-breasted jacket. Giorgio Armani was one of the many designers who embraced this look, creating unstructured designs with relaxed jackets. This contrasted with Donna Karan who endorsed women’s sexuality by incorporating designs such as wrap skirts to enhance their curves.
At the power suit’s peak, the 1980s showed sharp cuts, rigidity and superiority. The 1988 film ‘Working Girl’ demonstrated the influence that a structured suit could have on a woman’s career, as the secretary Tess McGill managed to climb the ladder of success after stealing the skirt suits of her boss. Along with this, the election of Maggie Thatcher indicated just how powerful women had become, as she donned her power suit in 10 Downing Street. Yet she wasn’t quite the style icon young women desired. Rather, Madonna became the ultimate role model of that era, and her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour simultaneously inspired girls and revolutionised fashion. Madonna mixed a Jean Paul Gaultier pinstripe suit with a conical corset giving birth to the idea of contrasting the masculine and the feminine, and women everywhere began mixing lace shirts with their trouser suits.
Yet throughout the late 1990s, the power suit’s popularity began to fall and by 2000 it was deemed near extinction. The new workplace look for women became more feminine, softer cuts and feminine colours such as pinks appeared more and more. Along with this, the trouser suit has become adapted into everyday fashion; it can be worn to university or even to the supermarket.
But the power suit’s disappearance is not due to women losing power, quite the opposite. With more and more women on top, they can decide what they wear and when they want to wear it. Rather than being restricted into attempting to fit into the male businessman exterior, women all over the world now enjoy the freedom to dress how they want but still maintain their authority.