Suffragettes, Smoking Jackets and the Senate Floor:
The Brief History of Women’s Suits
At Michael Andrews we have long created bespoke suits for a wide range of professionals. After all, a perfectly-tailored suit conveys power, style and a sense of identity. That’s why, in recognition of International Women’s Day, we decided to explore the triumphant history of the woman’s suit.
Although women’s suits may not date back to the 1600s the way men’s do, they nevertheless have a colorful, boundary-pushing history. The first notable appearance of a woman making a man’s suit her own was in 1870 when actress Sarah Bernhardt began wearing her “boy’s clothes” in public. At the time, a woman sporting a man’s suit was scandalous, but this controversy didn’t keep her from further challenging gender roles – she played the lead in Hamlet in 1899. Ahead of her time in many ways, Ms. Bernhardt was the original champion for what has become the sartorial calling card of modern women.
By 1910 the suffragette movement was in full swing and with it came women who were bolder and more active. Rallies, marches and civil disobedience required more than just shaking off dated 1800s ideals – they required less restrictive clothing. Enter the Suffragette Suit. This predecessor to the modern skirt suit was a sharp counterpoint to the popular “hobble skirt,” the mainstream fashion of the time that was so narrow at the ankles the wearer ‘hobbled’ around.
The Suffragette Suit was a hallmark of progressive woman and inspired icon and fashion grande dame Coco Chanel. Possibly the most well-known designer to make women’s suits, Chanel gained popularity during the first World War by eschewing corsets for tailoring and is widely credited with making the first truly female suit in the modern sense. Unlike its predecessors, the Chanel suit retained a sense of glamour and femininity.
Women’s sartorial liberation continued in the jazz age as women widely began wearing trousers for leisure activities, particularly tennis, equestrian and cycling. Until that time (and even afterwards in many places), a women wearing pants was considered cross-dressing and was often criminalized.
In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to wear trousers at an official function. She had been out riding and didn’t have time to change before hosting the annual White House Easter egg roll. Although her clothing choice was accidental, she embraced the unconventional attire, posing for a number of photos in her eyebrow-raising outfit.
And then there was Marlene Dietrich. With her films Morocco (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), and Seven Sinners (1940) she effectively turned international perceptions and women’s wear in general on their heads by wearing her iconic tuxedos and white double-breasted suits into infamy. Dietrich’s public championing of the pant suit in both her professional and personal life coincided with designer Marcel Rochas creating the first ready-to-wear women’s pant suits. In 1939 Vogue published its first spread featuring women in trousers. By the forties, silver screen powerhouse Katherine Hepburn had joined the fray. With her highly publicized preference for wearing trousers on and off set she helped solidify trousers as part of everyday women’s wardrobes.
The female suit saw a brief lull in popularity after the second World War as many sought a return to traditional domestic roles after the mass influx of women into the wartime workforce. Dior’s “New Look” embraced the 1950s housewife look with nipped waists and full skirts. But by the 1960s the suit was back in full force as an unprecedented 40% of women had joined the workforce. This decade saw many watershed moments in equality with the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a Presidential act banning discrimination based on gender in 1967. The sixties also saw Andre Courreges’ reintroduction of the suit into elegant day and evening-wear.
In 1966 Yves Saint Laurent sealed his icon status with the release of his “Le Smoking” tuxedo. This female tuxedo was so ahead of its time that many hotels and restaurants would not permit women inside while wearing it. Then in 1971 Bianca Pérez-Mora Macías married Mick Jagger and mesmerized the world in a white, Yves-St-Laurent-designed Le Smoking outfit that went down in bridal attire history. Not to be overlooked, the seventies also saw the rise of unisex clothing in youth culture and the addition of the Title IX education amendment that allowed girls to wear pants in public schools.
By the 1980s the percentage of women in the workforce had grown to over 50%, and the decade became known for the the iconic “power suit”. With Georgio Armani championing androgynous shoulder pads and the over-sized jacket silhouette, the stereotypical look for women in business was born.
In 1993 trailblazing Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley-Braun led the charge to overturn the ban on women wearing trousers on the Senate floor. It is hard to imagine that as little as 25 years ago a woman could have been expelled from Congress for wearing pants.
Since then we have seen an unprecedented rise of women in business, politics, and athletics, culminating last year with a record number of women elected to the United States Congress. We’ve also seen increased attention on women’s rights with the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, and a record number of women helming major corporations. Not surprisingly, the women’s suit is also getting renewed attention in the world of fashion. Countering the trend in menswear toward ever more casual looks, numerous women’s wear designers have introduced updated collections aimed at the female professional.
Not to be outdone, Michael Andrews is taking the lead on bespoke tailoring for women. This fall we are launching a full collection designed for those who, like Chanel, Dietrich, Hepburn, and Jagger, refused to accept anything less than the best. To all of you we say “welcome to the MAB club.”