The controversial history of the power suit

Hillary Clinton is a steadfast supporter of the power suit [Photo: Instagram/hillaryclinton]
Hillary Clinton is a steadfast supporter of the power suit [Photo: Instagram/hillaryclinton]

In the year 2016, no one would blink twice at a woman wearing nothing but a tuxedo jacket and trousers. But less than fifty years ago, it was a different story.

The trouser suit has always been political. A symbol of female emancipation and empowerment, dressing like a man was one of the first major ways to use fashion to fight the patriarchy.

Up until the early 1970s, the simple idea of a woman wearing trousers (and thus showing off the fact that she actually had a pair of legs) was thought of as shameful and indecent. It took one woman by the name of Coco Chanel to run with an idea that would begin to change all that.

In 1932, the Parisian designer created her ‘signature suit’. Inspired by menswear, the suit featured a tailored knee-length skirt instead of trousers and was aimed at post-war women looking to join the workforce. The style is still used in Karl Lagerfeld’s collections for Chanel to this very day.

Karl Lagerfeld continues to champion Coco Chanel's original suit [Photo: Getty]
Karl Lagerfeld continues to champion Coco Chanel’s original suit [Photo: Getty]

Actual trouser suits were first seen in the mainstream on the backs of Hollywood stars like 1930s actress Marlene Dietrich (who wore a full-on tuxedo for her Oscar-winning role in Morocco) and Katharine Hepburn with Marcel Rochas being the first designer to release them to the public in 1932.

There were still do’s and don’ts, however, for these suits were intended for women to wear while working and nothing else. Of course, some individuals dared to bend the rules, wearing them wherever they pleased. Just like the men at the time, style bible Vogue did not agree, saying that these women were “letting themselves go.”

After this big screen sensation, the style died down until the rise of 1960s feminism. Women had long been frustrated with the lack of movement allowed by their clothing but hadn’t previously been so vocal about it. Various London and State-side boutiques began to sell the trouser suit for the modern woman but just like Coco Chanel, one designer will forever be remembered for changing the game.

Yves Saint Laurent’s infamous ‘Le Smoking’ suit first hit the streets in 1966. Based on the cut of the traditional men’s tuxedo, its name hailed from men’s smoking jackets; 19th century designs with silk lapels that ingeniously allowed any cigarette ash to slide right off.

Bianca Jagger was among the first wearers of Yves Saint Laurent's 'Le Smoking' suit [Photo: PA]
Bianca Jagger was among the first wearers of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ suit [Photo: PA]

The women that chose to wear ‘Le Smoking’ weren’t just making a fashion statement. They were speaking out in the only way they felt they could. Society was not a supporter, banning many women from wearing such suits in restaurants and the like. The most famous case of this is thanks to New York socialite Nan Kempner. In 1969, she was turned away from Le Côte Basque, a restaurant in Manhattan, for wearing YSL’s trouser suit. Not to be deterred, she stripped off, waltzing in in just the jacket.

Yves Saint Laurent, of course, was thrilled at this debacle surrounding his most important design, labelling Kempner “the woman who best wore my clothes.” In fact, this suit was so significant that it is updated and included in every single YSL collection.

As more and more women began focusing on their careers instead of simply having a family, their desire to be taken just as seriously as men outweighed everything else. Giorgio Armani noticed this global feeling, taking the work started by Yves Saint Laurent and transforming it into a suit specifically designed for a woman’s body. One thing was clear: these styles were serious, not sexy.

Boldly donning these designs in offices across the States, women hoped that by hiding their figure, their gender would be forgotten. And while the statement shoulders of the 80s and Dynasty dressing came into play, other designers were longing for something a little more feminine.

Slouchy Armani tailoring from the designer's AW03 collection [Photo: Getty]
Slouchy Armani tailoring from the designer’s AW03 collection [Photo: Getty]

Donna Karan was one such designer who (correctly) believed that a woman could still look like a woman and command respect. “When I was working at Anne Klein in the 70s, women were wearing jackets and bow ties and shirts – more or less dressing like men. Where was the sensuality of women? Those suits were holding us back. We wanted to move. We wanted to be comfortable,” she told Bloomberg.

Styles shifted to become more relaxed, seemingly signalling the end of the power suit as we know it. But now thanks to the likes of Hillary Clinton’s unwavering passion for the style, the truly tailored suit is back with a vengeance.

Lady Gaga in a sparkling Tom Ford suit at the 2016 Super Bowl [Photo: Getty]
Lady Gaga in a sparkling Tom Ford suit at the 2016 Super Bowl [Photo: Getty]

Seen on political powerhouses like Michelle Obama and stars including Rihanna and Lady Gaga, the modern power suit is simultaneously one of the sexiest and strongest items a woman can wear.

Giorgio Armani may be right when he said, “Today, [women] don’t have to wear a suit jacket to prove their authority” but in modern society, it’s all about choice. And that’s the biggest luxury a woman can have.

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