From left: Acne Studios blazer, 4.500 kr. SAVE 40%. Acne Studios pants, 2.400 kr. SAVE 40%. Marni necklace, 4.400 kr. SAVE 50%. Stella McCartney blazer, 9.000 kr. SAVE 70%. Stella McCartney pants, 4.500 kr. SAVE 70%. Chloé earrings, 2.400 kr. SAVE 50+20%. J.Lindeberg blazer, 3.200 kr. SAVE 50%. Givenchy shirt, 4.425 kr. SAVE 60%. J.Lindeberg pants, 1.200 kr. SAVE 50%.
Suits have been considered the attire of elegance for men for hundreds of years. So much so, phrases were coined to bring attention to the different styles. But the idea that only men wore suits shifted many years after and became accessible for women. Today, the suit is a staple in most wardrobes regardless of gender, but the powerful message behind wearing one is not same for both. When brands such as Balenciaga and Celine, a few years ago, began bringing back the tailored suit in women’s fashion, it was about separating the suit from politics – hence, today’s casual styling of the suit. But a brief look at the history of the style the question emerges, whether it’s ever possible to separate the two?
Before the broad acceptance of women wearing suits, gender roles were clearly defined. However, French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt was recorded as the first woman in 1870 to wear a custom-made pantsuit and called it her “Boy’s Clothes”. It was seen as scandalous, and Bernhardt received backlash from the papers across Paris for her choice in clothing. “Sarah Bernhardt clearly used suits to challenge people’s perceptions of her and to gain roles that she may not have been considered for,” says Kathryn Sargent, the first woman Head Cutter in a Savile Row tailoring house, and who now runs her own boutique on London’s Savile Row. “Now, women dress for themselves and for who they want to be in society. They embrace the suit to make it their own”.
An early version of women suiting as we know it today, played a major role in the fight for equality. In 1910 women in England fought for their rights to vote and be heard – what was later known as the ‘Suffragette Movement’. As women took to the streets in rallies and marches of civil disobedience, the suffragette suit was birth and worn in protest. With its tailored jacket and long flowy skirt, the suit was seen as progressive for women and a direct response to the then restrictive Hobble Skirt with its hemline that sat two and a half centimeter off the ground. The movement later gave great inspiration to Coco Chanel who designed her first suit in 1914 – a fur trimmed jacket with an ankle length skirt. The Chanel house has since developed the suit over the years to match the ever-changing lifestyle of women.
Fast forward decades to Marlene Dietrich wearing a tuxedo suit on the red carpet attending her movie premier in 1932, the same year French designer Marcel Rochas designed the first women’s pantsuit. “Women used to wear suits in a very masculine way to try to fit in, make an impression and be accepted by men in male dominated industries,” Sargent explains. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking, the first female tuxedo suit in fashion. Le Smoking received negative feedback at its debut. In the 60s, the thought of women wearing pants was still shocking. New York socialite Nan Kempner, famously removed her trousers after being stopped at a restaurant in 1968 for being ‘inappropriately attired’, while dressed in a first generation Le Smoking suit.
Women began entering the workforce in large numbers during the 1970s and embraced the pantsuits. This was done so they would be seen and taken seriously dressing like their male counterpart. Giorgio Armani set precedent in the 1980s by revolutionizing the suit with his design and styling, thus giving birth to the ‘power suit’. Now you can see well-known artists and leading actresses in music videos, tv shows, at red carpets events and in movies wearing pantsuits elegantly. Not much has change in the design of the suit for both men and women to date, but it has changed how we view women’s role in society. You don’t have to be powerful or in politics to wear a tailored a suit, but the empowering message of the style lives on.