Evolution of the power suit and how it contributed to women in the working place

Let’s talk about power dressing. What comes to your mind? Probably, you're remembering images of women's work clothes from the ‘80s. While you're not wrong, you may think this is when the term appeared. However, the power suit's beginnings date to the late ‘1880s and early ‘1900s.

But first, what exactly is power dressing/power suit? For those who aren’t familiar with these terms, power dressing is a fashion style that helps women to establish their authority in a professional and political environment originally dominated by men. Knowing this, we can start to learn about its history.

Unbelievably, the appearance of the bicycle (John Kemp Starley patented it in 1885, basing his design on others made during that century) played its part in this history.

Victorian riding habit circa 1847. 

Because of her clothes, for a Victorian lady, it was quite hard to get into one. Adjustments were needed. Bloomers, button-down blouses, and new types of tailoring appeared, all made with comfort as the objective. Look at the image above, as you can notice pre-bicycle women rode side-saddle. The new clothes allowed them to ride with their legs on each side.

Group of Victorian women (1901). 

These new clothes laid the foundation for the New Woman, who found her voice outside of the house and chose a wardrobe that represented her changing roles. During World War I, in which women entered the workforce, changes continued in women's fashion: hemlines became shorter, fabric lessened, and workwear separated from normal clothes.

World War I Women.

In the ‘1920s, Coco Chanel designed what we will know as the first true power suit. Chanel’s power suit was made of tweed with a fitted skirt, tailored jacket, and masculine-inspired hardware.

Coco Chanel’s power suit. 

Until that decade, the female body was trapped in a corset, a lot of volume, layers, and full coverage. This new design had a fitted skirt and jacket, bringing comfort and allowing women to breathe. The coat was a key factor, made from a man’s closet but adapted for a woman. During this time, women started to enter the job market, and the suit let them move confidently and naturally. Chanel’s design was known as “the new woman’s uniform”. Here it is. The power suit was born.

By the ‘1930s, Katharine Hepburn introduced a men-like suit on the big screen, including a jacket and pants. Throughout mid-century, the suit kept changing towards a more androgynous look: wider shoulders and straight lines. The ‘60s even saw the creation of tailored pants by Yves Saint Laurent, called Le Smoking. This “masculine” style proved that you could still be sexy and feminine.

Katharine Hepburn.

Le Smoking took its name from the 19th -century smoking jacket, which silk lapels and design allowed any ash falling from dinner cigars to slide off. The concept of a man drinking, and smoking being compared to a working woman able to pull off a similar look, was why this idea was so revolutionary. As expected, the suit and the brand were both heavily criticized. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop the growing popularity of Yves Saint Laurent and the consolidation of Le Smoking as one of the most recognizable pieces of fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking.

Okay, Le Smoking was a revolution, but we still have many issues to solve. By the ‘70s, women started to “invade” the workforce and prove that they were as capable as the men working with them. In the words of Shira Tarrant, professor and author of “Fashion Talks: Undressing The Power Of Style”: “Wearing a pantsuit was the expectation at the time if you were to be taken seriously as a businesswoman, but women were still criticized for trying to emulate men because it was a derivative of menswear.”

Because of this vision, the Annie Hall clothes were born. Meant to combat the traditional and strict male attire and fight against society’s gender roles, these women wore men’s clothes in an everyday style. Using business clothing as a casual outfit was a sign of rebellion at a time when women weren’t allowed in restaurants if they were in trousers.

Annie Hall, of the homonymous film by Woody Allen (1977).

Bianca Jagger in 1979. 

We’re entering the ‘80s, home of the classic power suit image. While Dynasty was showing the return of the shoulder pads on the TV, an Italian designer was figuring out how to use a masculine silhouette in a woman’s body. With women having more positions in the corporate world, new wardrobes were required. We’re talking about Giorgio Armani, whose work showcased the rising career women were having. His tailored pants and skirt suits separated the gender from fashion and gave it a much-needed seriousness.

Giorgio Armani’s campaign from the ‘80s. 

Although blurred, Armani’s suits were attempting to emulate a masculine presence. Those big, shouldered blazers and pants disguised a woman’s figure and took the focus out of her gender, creating a feeling of authority while traditional sex roles continued to evaporate. Besides Giorgio Armani, designers such as Ralph Lauren, Anne Klein, and Donna Karan offered power suits with pants and skirts. Shoulder pads created strong shoulders and jackets had straight lines, giving the chance to walk into a boardroom with a strong appearance. But, as mentioned before, suits still took inspiration from men’s closets to offer a sense of empowerment and credibility.

Looks by Donna Karan (1987). 

Power suits took a turn once more in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. This time it’s a more fun road, and away from men’s clothes. Think about colors, volumes, cutouts, and shorter clothes. We’ve to thanks Gianni Versace for that.

Linda Evangelista at the opening of the Gianni Versace store in Milan in 1990.

Versace Couture Fall 1994. 

Nowadays, suits a no longer mandatory to be the leader of a corporation or take part in the political arena, yet still hold that formal and stylish vibe. Your power suit of choice may vary from the original definition. It can be an item or an outfit that makes you feel energetic and confident at work.

Blazer by Zazza. 

Check out Zazza’s website for more business clothes: https://es.zazza.co/collections/new-business-wear