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The History of the Power Suit

Fashion |

The power suit. Can it really give a woman power? I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just clothing. But in the workplace, a sharp matching suit and jacket with a pristine blouse underneath conveys an air of confidence. A power suit can be a suit of armor. But will it stay that way forever? Do women even need the power suit anymore? Let’s see how the power suit has evolved since its origin and where it’s heading. For Women’s History Month we thought we would take a look at this very important fashion movement.

1920s  Chanel liberates women

So, how did it all start? We owe a lot of it to that classy French lady Coco Chanel. She was the one who freed women from those horribly restrictive corsets and gave us some room to actually move and breathe! According to the Emerald Street, the original power suit did not involve polyester and shoulder pads, but rather a knitted wool cardigan paired with a matching skirt. This came to be known as the Chanel suit. The suit was usually accessorized with a long string of pearls and was called the “woman’s new uniform.”

Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich helped popularize the look with her slouchy stylish way of wearing the suit.

1931 The first wide-shouldered suits

According to Vogue, the house of Rochas introduced the 20th century’s first wide-shouldered suits for women. Marcel Rochas says that his new silhouette is based on the costumes worn by Balinese dancers.

1942 Kate the Great shows us that suits are for girls too

Katherine Hepburn showed us that a man’s suit could actually be quite feminine. The slouchier the better for this gorgeous tomboy. Her film Woman of the Year made the suit iconic and a wardrobe staple for working women.

1966 The suit gets sexy

It was this year that Yves Saint Laurent introduces le smoking, the “first male-inspired couture evening suit with pants for women.” Here is a picture of Bianca Jagger wearing the jacket. Of course, this sexy look wasn’t really appropriate for the office.

1977 Shoulder pads enter the picture

Suits with extreme shoulders became the new fashion rage. The bigger the better. It was all about power.

1980s Power dressing

We came into the decade of power clothes in the 80s. Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Anne Klein all embraced the powersuit in their designs.

The film Working Girl (1988) also capitalized on the fashion of the decade. Melanie Griffith stars as a smart but undereducated secretary who can’t get ahead, partly because of her looks (big hair, big makeup, big fail). But when she realizes her classy but terrible boss is stealing her ideas, she gets back at her by stealing her wardrobe which includes those classic power suits and a haircut. It’s a Cinderella story, except the fairy godmother is a power wardrobe and the happy ending is a great job (and Harrison Ford).

Donna Karan and other designs started producing “softer suits” which often paired the power blazer with a skirt instead of pants.

1990s The softer side

Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” tour in 1990 featured her wearing a pinstripe suit designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.  Pairing the suit with lacy camisoles and that famous cone-shaped bra she injected pieces of femininity into this masculine ensemble ushering a new, softer era of fashion. Working women started pairing lacy camisoles and floral silk shells with their pant and skirt suits.

With Casual Fridays introduced into offices, Vogue declares it the end of the power dressing era as long flowy dressings and leggings become fashionable.  Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld says, “There is not only a change in fashion going on, but a change of mind.”

2000s The skirt of the issue

In the second half of the 1990s we were introduced to the television character Ally McBeal (played by Calista Flockhart). A neurotic but successful lawyer wore the power suit blazer, but with a tiny skirt on the bottom. The length of her skirt drew so much attention that Time magazine famously ran a cover featuring Flockhart’s face and asking “Is Feminism Dead?” Power dressing may have been declared over, but clearly people are still paying attention to what women’s clothing says. And some women still look at a pants suit as a source of power. Think of Hillary Clinton—the poster child for the power suit. In 2007 she told David Letterman, “In my White House, we all know who wears the pantsuits.”

2012 The death of the power suit

According to The Wall Street Journal, the old-fashioned power suit look for professional women is over. The new power look for women includes a soft color (like pink), beading, prints, patterns, and very feminine tailoring—all of which were once considered fashion sins in the workplace. This fashion movement is being sported by women at the executive level who have the confidence to embrace a more integrated and diverse look. We are seeing this trend because there are just more women in these top positions who determine what is an appropriate look for the office.

There has been a shift in what is considered appropriate for women in the workplace. It has moved away from women trying to fit into the stiff, male-influenced power suit.

Christina Binkley of The Wall Street Journal writes, “The matched crimson suit—once deemed essential for a female executive—reflected an era when women tried, often clumsily, to fit into male molds. There was also a militant element to that office apparel.” She wrote of her days at Procter & Gamble in the 1980s when she  was informed by a boss that only the “secretaries” wore dresses.

The power suit “has had a total demise,” says Bridget Brennan, chief executive of Female Factor, a Chicago-based consulting firm that advises clients on marketing to women. Brennan thinks this is happening because women are more comfortable in their own skins and are owning how they dress..

2013 The future of power dressing

Women can wear pink, not just powerful red, in the office. They can wear florals and lace. They can wear leopard print shoes and flats. That’s right, flats can now be considered just as fierce as heels. Brinkley writes, “Long stuck in the purgatory of casual wear, flats are suddenly being promoted for polished occasions. Flats sleek enough to be dress shoes were paired with tailored suits and even with eveningwear on the spring runways from Marc Jacobs to Giorgio Armani.”

In a recent issue of  The Hollywood Reporter, female executives in the Hollywood talked about the evolution of power dressing. It used to be all about the power suit but now more fashionable and feminine items are considered just as powerful.

“When I got to town in 1989,” says Blair  Kohan, now a fashionably dressed partner at UTA, “everybody was wearing these suits. I had one from Ann Taylor. You didn’t get Armani until you got to the top. I see more expressiveness. Women no longer have to look tough because we are tough.”

Giorgio Armani, who made the powersuit famous, recently said that women no longer need to wear powerful-looking clothes in order to earn respect from their peers in the workplace.

“[Women] have edged out their standing in the world. Today, they don’t have to wear a suit jacket to prove their authority.”

What’s your power look? Tell us in the comments!

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4 Comments

I'm constantly told I look really young for my age (I'm 36 and have been mistaken for being 19!) so at work I always try to dress to make myself look older - otherwise I find it hard to get respect in my particular office environment. I have a vast collection of solid colored shift dresses - I find them the most comfortable for my body type. I also have a small collection of blazers, mostly black, that I can throw on with a dress depending on the occasion. When I need to really look older, I throw on a Chanel-inspired tweed blazer over a black shift dress. And, when I need a super powered boost of confidence, I whip out my red shift dress! :) I'm also a big fan of slim ankle length black pants - I wear them to work with a variety of different sleeveless collarless blouses and a black blazer. That's really my version of a suit - not an actual matching suit. Outside of work, when I DO want to look younger, I wear the more fun side of my wardrobe. Always gives me an excuse to wear more clothes more often by dressing one way for work and another after work! :) I think it also really depends on what city you work in. I currently live in Montreal where women can get away with wearing more risque outfits to work, whereas I grew up in Washington, DC, where the traditional power suit for women is still in full effect. It also obviously depends on work environment.

2y

I'm more of a power dress with a killer pair of unique looking heels kind of girl...

3y
Carly Heitlinger

I'm not one of the girls who feels more confident in a suit. I feel SO uncomfortable. It's not me!!

But I do believe in power dressing-- finding that outfit that you really feel like a million bucks in!

3y
Meredith Lepore

Meredith is the Editor at Large for Levo League. Before that she was the Editor in Chief of The Grindstone and was on staff at Business Insider. She has written for magazines including Marie Claire, SELF, Women's Health and Cosmopolitan. She earned her Masters in Magazine, Newspaper and Online journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Meredith resides in New York full time and enjoys SoulCycle, jogging and playing with her Yorkshire Terrier Otis, who also loves SoulCycle.