THE POWER OF THE WELL-SUITED
The pantsuit is all about making a woman feel comfortable and powerful. Our pantsuit with its looser fit does all that and ticks off all the right boxes. It’s cool, effortless and modern. The empowering effect of a power suit, however, dates way back to the 1870s when actress Sarah Bernhardt shocked Paris by wearing a custom-tailored trouser suit in a painting. She was fortunately not the last woman to break barriers wearing the once-illegal attire we now turn to when we want to exude confidence and power. It took time though.
The pantsuit started to pick up steam in the 30s when women started to enter the workforce at a rate twice that of men. The evolution meant women needed clothing that reflected their new roles in life. That’s when the pantsuit that was once reserved for men came into the working woman’s closet. This sudden shift in society was against the time’s norms. Women, who were paid way less than men, were not only taking the men’s jobs, they were also taking another symbol of manhood — the pantsuit. This meant that women publicly dressed in the two-piece outfit or pants would get arrested for transvestitism in the 30s.
Women's suit was of course not the only piece of clothing that evolved. Men's two-piece evolved from high-waisted to shoulder-padded to business casual. However, the business casual look that took over the men's fashion scene in the 90s has held on with some modification. This season, the man is not too dressy and not too casual. And just like with women's suits, the right accessories can dress the look up or down.
Given the arrests and social conventions, not many women wore pantsuits in the 30s. According to MOMA, the women who did continue to wear them were strong and fearless, hence the pantsuit’s reputation for signaling power and confidence.
So, who else besides Sarah Bernhardt contributed to the evolution of the power suit? Here are four of the many women who enjoyed using the suit to break out of the mold.
The enigmatic figure of modern showbiz had an advanced attitude toward fashion and sexuality. She wore men’s suits she fit herself both on and off-screen. Her suits were not made feminine using fabric or color. Her suits, however, had bust darts. Dietrich even kissed women wearing tuxedos and top hats, which signified masculine wealth and social status, in her performances on “Morocco” and “Blonde Venus” in the 1930s. Scandalous!
The human activist style icon pushed boundaries with her outfits when she emerged as the reigning queen of Studio 54 during the 70s. Her look ranged from sleek men’s suits to glamourous flowing dresses. Her most powerful and iconic fashion statement was, however, her wearing a white suit at her wedding to Mick Jagger. Though it wasn’t a pantsuit, it still makes our list given the power of that one fashion moment.
The other half of the English band Eurythmics, Annie Lennox was famous not only for her artistry but also for her androgynous look. She was seen primarily donning suits during her career. In an interview with Grazia, she explained her choice of attire stems from her desire to be treated as an equal. “I wanted to wear a suit to show that I am equal to a man, not that I was one, wanted to be one, or that I was gay,” she said.
With 99 percent of her wardrobe consisting of black and white, Janelle Monae managed to become a fashion icon to reckon with. Though she’s now starting to incorporate dresses and skirts into her looks, she started out her career wearing classic tuxedos. The reason for her sartorial dedication is her vow to always remember her roots. “… a lot of it had to do with me wanting to have a uniform like the working class, like my mom and my grandmother," she told Huffington Post.