Standout Moments in the History of Women’s Power Suits

The women’s suit has a long and storied history that is innovative, exciting and, at times, turbulent. When we think of the “power suit” we often think of it as being a modern invention, sported by caricatures like Gordon Gecko. But we believe that the power suit, itself a bold proclamation of strength at the intersection of fashion and politics, has a longer history when it comes to women’s tailoring. So here are some of our standout moments in the history of the woman’s power suit. 

 

 

Sarah Bernhardt

 

 

Hailed by many as the innovator of the women’s suit, actress Sarah Bernhardt began wearing custom-made suits, what she called her “boy’s clothes,” in public in the 1870s to much scandal. The famous star had a revolutionary stance when it came to subverting the stringent gender constraints of the age, playing Hamlet in a production of the Shakespeare tragedy and dressing her son in women’s clothing. At the time she was criticised by the press but today is hailed as a groundbreaking icon, for setting in motion a change in both the way women dressed, their place in society and gender roles.

 

The Suffragette Suit

 

One of the less-salubrious trends in the history of women’s fashion, was the ‘hobble skirt,’ so-named for its narrow hemline that impeded the stride of the women who wore it, causing them to ‘hobble.’ In reaction to this, and the numerous other ways that fashion had previously-restricted women’s freedom of movement, the United Ladies’ Tailor Association of America created the ‘suffragette suit’ or the ‘suffragette costume.’ This ingenious garment was a split skirt, similar to culottes, “but the deft tailor has been able to make it appear as if it were a diminutive straight lined tailor skirt, when the suffragette is not in action.” Indeed, it was a multi-faceted piece of clothing that could be transformed to suit the time of day and the occasion, all while giving women a greater range of movement and, importantly, pockets!

 

André Courrèges 

 

 

The 1980s (yep, the whole decade)

 

 

Think shoulder pads so huge that getting through doorways was an eternal struggle, colours so bright that you’d need a pair of ridiculously-oversized sunglasses to shield your eyes. Think Annie Lennox pulling off androgynous chic with considerable aplomb. Think Margaret Thatcher (love or hate her) with her tweed and her bouffant hair. Think Melanie Griffiths in Working Girl, taking power dressing to the next level (and THOSE white trainers). Think Grace Jones on the cover of her album “Nightclubbing” in a structured suit so stunning that we shed a tear at its beauty. The eighties was the decade that the power suit powered up, with women taking the traditional business suit and turning it into something that could make them feel powerful and truly express their individual style. The suit as workplace attire was suddenly de rigueur and not going anywhere.

 

 

Hillary Clinton

 


We would be seriously remiss to even mention the history of women’s power suits without mentioning the queen of the “pantsuit,” Hillary Clinton. According to this article on CNBC, the former presidential-nominee has written in-depth about her love of the pantsuit and her reasons for going back to this old favourite. She writes that “I did this because I like pantsuits...They make me feel professional and ready to go.” She also speaks of the versatility and simplicity of having a go-to “uniform” that helped her to both fit in with her make counterparts but also stand apart. She writes that “as a woman running for President,” she liked the “visual cue” that she was “different from the men but also familiar.”

 

 

Janelle Monae

 

We are no strangers to music stars and their suits. They are often used as a way to signify that star’s personality, their style and their music. And this is all true for the sensation that is Janelle Monae, who is known for her tuxedo ‘uniform.’ These tuxedos come in a range of styles and colours and fits and Monae herself has said that "I don't believe in men's wear or women's wear, I just like what I like." And, when a twitter troll criticised her love of suits she replied with the absolutely iconic line, "Sit down. I'm not for male consumption." 

 

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