Do Women Still Need A Power Suit? Of Course.

The suit has evolved in tandem with female emancipation, and has come to signify women's empowerment.

Do Women Still Need A Power Suit? Of Course.

The suit is the biggest trend for Autumn/Winter 2019. Comprising a jacket and matching bottom, it’s a surprisingly effortless way to look smart. That’s why many women turn to it as the foundation for a strong, minimalist look, or as a starting point for piling on the extras.

And, depending on cut, colour, fabric, silhouette or detail(s), a suit is destined for greatness both in the boardroom or ballroom. It allows you to blend in or stand out, to cover up or show some skin.

Leading the way was Givenchy, where Clare Waight Keller’s generously-proportioned pantsuits featured single-breasted button-down jackets with curved, rounded shoulders. Belted at the waist, with models’ sandaled, pedicured toes peeking out from under the hemline of straight-cut trousers, the look was womanly and refined.

Similarly, Alexander McQueen’s renditions were definitely not borrowed from the boys: a Prince of Wales checkered jacket, with its curvy tailoring, and worn over trousers and combat boots, channelled the 1940s wartime heroine. As a counterpoint, Sarah Burton also referenced ’80s TV hit Dynasty, sending out a black satin pantsuit adorned with bright fuchsia sleeves styled like roses as an alluring alternative to the fussy ballgown.

Saint Laurent’s icy white dinner jacket — worn sans shirt over sharply tailored pants, and paired with a black cummerbund, black stockings and platform heels — proved that even after almost 50 years, Le Smoking smoulders with as much shock value and sex appeal as in 1971. That was the year Bianca PerezMora Macias wore for her wedding to Mick Jagger the iconic suit, in place of a traditional bridal gown.

And demonstrating that monochrome dressing can be modest, sensuous and feminine all at once was Tom Ford. The new chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America called his collection a “search for security”. This culminated in crimson velvet jackets, cut to emphasise the waist and accompanied by Bordeaux knit turtlenecks, pants in cherry or grape satin, and cherry open-toe platform sandals.

Master of minimalism Maison Margiela’s narrow, cleanlined skirt suit in black was ornamented only with extra-long sleeves in charcoal grey. Drawing on the label’s deconstructed aesthetic and building on John Galliano’s spliced and reassembled decortique approach, this considerably muted collection was meant as a respite from the digital decadence. But the tailoring remained powerful as it manifested in trousers reworked into skirts, outsized flannel coats and faux leather shorts.

Of course, we’d be remiss to not mention fashion’s earliest creators of women’s suits, circa 1916. Chanel’s offerings this season comprised jackets worn over skirts or dresses, and capris, all in clashing boucle tweed and herringbone weaves that go beautifully together, thanks to a palette of black, white, grey and beige.

Even Alessandro Michele toned things down a notch at Gucci. He conceived a couple of surprisingly subdued suits, such as a double-breasted coat in offwhite worn over a matching gathered calf-length skirt, cream lace socks and sensible ecru pumps, as well as a deconstructed grey pinstriped pantsuit that looked like it was still a work in progress.

Call it a reaction against the past few seasons, where we struggled with the onslaught of excess (think Gucci’s exuberant, eccentric maximalism) while simultaneously trying to take comfort in the idea of wearing workout pants everywhere.

Over time, we’ve come to realise that neither of these sartorial approaches really worked. The former was too high-maintenance and hard to pull off, and the latter so easy to pull on that we constantly looked as if we were on our way to catch an overnight flight or attend yoga class.

Amid such confusion and uncertainty, the suit became an option so much more attractive, most significantly because it’s evolved in tandem with female emancipation and has come to signify women’s empowerment.

In the 19th century, females made do mostly with long dresses (and underneath them, restrictive corsets and crinoline petticoats). They were permitted to wear jackets and long skirts only when engaging in outdoor activities such as horse-riding or walking.

In the early 20th century, skirt suits became common everyday wear, but skirts were hemmed so tight at the ankles that walking normally was impossible. It was only after the American Ladies’ Tailors’ Association created a “suffragette suit” that women could move more freely.

In the 1930s, French designer Marcel Rochas created the first pantsuit for women, since more of them had entered the workforce, which led men to accuse women of taking jobs away from them. In the ’70s and ’80s, big-shouldered power suits reflected women’s ascent in the corporate world while underscoring the fact that women needed to look and behave like men in order to be taken seriously.

Up till 1993, American congresswomen were banned from wearing pants on the Senate floor. Since then, power dressing has evolved to the point of “anything goes”, so much so that even Giorgio Armani (the godfather of ’80s and ’90s suits) said: “[Women] have edged out their standing in the world. Today, they don’t have to wear a suit jacket to prove their authority.”

Unfortunately, recent events — like the sheer scale of female sexual harassment uncovered by the #MeToo movement, misogyny, male sexual entitlement and violence propagated by the Incel movement, the troubling finding that only one in five young women considers herself a feminist, and the fact that one of the world’s most powerful nations is headed by an overtly sexist male president — has led many women to sober up to the fact that much more still needs to be done in the name of female empowerment.

In 2017 and 2019, Democratic women in the US Congress wore all-white pantsuits (white was a colour worn by suffragettes) to highlight their visibility and broadcast a message of solidarity with women across the country; in 2018, they invited members of Congress to wear black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement.

As Dr Rhonda Garelick, professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons School of Design, told TIME.com: “It’s crucial not to reduce women to their appearance, that is all too easily and all too frequently done, and is a huge, sexist mistake. But that does not mean that we can’t acknowledge, appreciate and interpret fashion as part of their communications.”

After all, if the personal is political, shouldn’t how we dress reflect that?

This story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of A.

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