The Revolutionary History of the Pantsuit
A century after women could be arrested for wearing pants, the two-piece still reflects the aspirations of women seeking to defy gender norms and incites the ire of those intent on keeping us in our place.
All illustrations by Amanda Lanzone
For six weeks during the summer of 2010, I traded in my high-waisted skirts and oversized T-shirts for a modest cropped black blazer and a pair of slim-fitting slacks. I wore this professional ensemble every day while I interned at a small nonprofit in the stodgy Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC. I spent my days there assisting boss women who hobnobbed with politicians as they wore patterned jackets with shoulder pads and matching pants that just brushed the top of their heels.
Their pantsuits were from pricey places like Ann Taylor and Bloomingdales. However, as a lowly intern, I paid $45 for my set after discovering it at the bottom of H&M's clearance section. Because the jacket was a size too small, I could only really wear it open. But it kept me warm when the office was colder than an igloo. And my flared trousers were crucial for the mornings when I had to dart up DC's steep hills to catch the bus on my way to work.
Although I wore a pantsuit nearly every day that summer, I never stopped to think about what it signified or how it became so ubiquitous. The truth is, the pantsuit, as innocuous as it might seem, has an incredibly complicated history and still exists in a strange space within our culture, reflecting the aspirations of strong women seeking to defy gender norms and inciting the ire of those intent on keeping us in our place.
According to Marjorie Jolles, a women's studies professor at Roosevelt University, pantsuits are an essential tool for American women operating in spaces historically dominated by men. "[Pantsuits] hid [a woman's] femininity—and by that I mean their femaleness—because it is a serious liability," she says.
This is understood by measly interns like myself in 2010 all the way up to the highest echelons of political power. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is so closely associated with the silhouette of a two-piece, it could probably be her Bat Signal. There's certainly no coincidence that she is the only first lady to ever wear one in her White House portrait and the only first lady to ever run for president. The pantsuit embodies her ambition to be taken as an equal force—to carve her own space in a place where few women have been before. Unfortunately, her affinity for pantsuits has also garnered her a great deal of criticism, especially from asshole style guys like Tim Gunn, who once flippantly described her as being "confused about her gender" because of her "big, baggy, menswear tailored pantsuits."
But on the other hand, specifically because the pantsuit is deemed as masculine in Western culture, it can also be seen as incredibly sexy and chic when a women wears it. You only need to look at the runways of Christian Dior or performances of classic artists like Grace Jones and even pop stars like Janelle Monae and Rihanna.
"After having a resurgence on the spring runways at Bottega Veneta, Chanel, and Christopher Kane, the pantsuit found its way onto Rihanna at this year's Grammy Awards," wrote Vogue in 2015. "Granted, the version she wore by Maison Margiela was intentionally oversized and had a slouchy cool about it, but the message was clear: The boardroom stalwart is back."
Rihanna's pantsuit especially made waves because it didn't look too dissimilar from the ones worn by the men, Kanye West and Paul McCartney, who shared the stage with her. Her gender-bending look harkens to a carnal allure that according to Jolles is nothing new in our culture and in fact inherent in the way the garment has evolved in our collective consciousness. "There's something sexy there because it's about the intimacy: A woman is inside men's clothes,"she says. "That means someone was naked at one point and exchanged clothes. There are so many ways to evoke sex. So to think now that the pantsuit is what you wear to be safe and conservative is a big shift."
The funny thing is that no matter how you view the pantsuit—sexy or sexless, less than 50 years ago, it would have been scandalous for a young professional woman like me or a first lady like Hillary Clinton or performer like Rihanna to don one in polite society. Women were literally getting arrested just for wearing pants in America as recently as the early 1900s, and we're not even talking about pairing them with jackets that have padded shoulders and lapels.
But it wasn't just pants that we were excluded from at the outset of the 20th century. Pretty much in every realm imaginable, women were second class citizens. They couldn't vote, they couldn't hold office, and they couldn't work the same number of hours as men. But things were evolving rapidly, in part thanks to World War I, which called all able-bodied men into service, and helped women take their places in the workforce. Due to the agency women harnessed during the war, they were able to organize and push the country to recognize their right to vote in 1920.
It was in this exciting time of women taking control of their own destiny and breaking out of the limited roles men wanted to keep them in that Coco Chanel laid the foundation for the pantsuit. In 1923, the French fashion designer introduced her "signature suit." Like the two-piece garment we know today, the inspiration came from menswear, but Chanel tailored the silhouettes for what was suitable for post-war women looking to join the workforce. So instead of pants, it consisted of a knee-length skirt and a collarless wool button down jacket with embellished buttons. Chanel's boxy workwear separates would go on to change the game for women's fashion.
By 1930, 24.3 percent of American women were employed. But, those lucky enough to land a job were often placed in lower paying positions in domestic service and clerical work, so many were actively organizing to gain equal rights in the workplace. Even though women in the West had been wearing pants while working on farms and ranches, it wasn't until WWII that women around the rest of the country started trading their skirts in for slacks.
Emboldened by this, designers continued to take Chanel's controversial signature suit and women's desire to wear pants one step further by bringing the two together. French designer Marcel Rochas is credited with originating the idea of pairing pants with women's suits in 1932. The influential designer whose label is still around today introduced a pair of gray wool trousers and matching jacket with extreme padded shoulders.
After Chanel and Rochas opened the door for the pantsuit, other designers began to experiment with the controversial set. In 1939, Italian fashion designer and rival to Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, designed a menswear inspired wool pantsuit for her fall/winter collection. The wool two-piece was a speckled brown wool jacket with four large buttons down the front and a pair of single pleat cuffed slacks. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the outfit has been on display, during the time of its debut "only the most unconventional designer would offer a straightforward pantsuit, and only a fearless woman would wear it."
One of those fearless women was Marlene Dietrich, who became one of the early pioneers of wearing pantsuits as streetwear. The German-born actress and singer gained international success in the early 30s and moved to the US to act in Hollywood films. The glamorous star was dressed in a tuxedo by renowned costume designer Travis Banton for her Oscar-winning role in Morocco. In the movie, Dietrich plays a cabaret singer who in one scene dresses as a man and kisses another woman on the mouth—a very scandalous moment that Morocco is now best known for.
Only the most unconventional designer would offer a straightforward pantsuit, and only a fearless woman would wear it. —The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Despite the public's disapproval of androgynous women, Dietrich adopted the menswear garment as one of her signature looks.
"When I moved to New York, I was very influenced by Turner Classic Movies and all the beautiful glamour," says designer Kay Unger, who founded her namesake womenswear label and has dressed women from Oprah to Hillary Clinton in pantsuits. "In the films, you see Marlene Dietrich in that tuxedo look and Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story wearing beautifully fitting jackets and a wider pant."
American actress Katharine Hepburn, who also came up in an era of actresses who would often wear sequins dresses and boas but not pants, was another early adopter of the revolutionary two-piece.
In 1942, Hepburn iconically donned men's style suits with thick lapels and wide trousers in her film Woman of the Year, which features an ambitious journalist who is committed more to her work than her relationship. But she also chose to wear them out of the spotlight. Her choice of dress was very forward thinking and unusual for most women at the time. Hepburn's fearless approach to style was officially recognized when the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented her with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985.
WWII ushered in a new era of women infiltrating the workforce. From 1940 to 1945, the percentage of women in the US workforce increased from 27 to almost 37 percent. They began to fill industrial work roles previously held by men, so they were in need of trousers. Women's Levi's, which were first introduced in 1935, hadn't gained ubiquity just yet, so while their husbands were away, women would typically alter their oversized pants to fit their feminine frames.
Still, when women were off the clock, they were expected to wear skirts. In November 1939, Vogue fashion editor Elizabeth Penrose spoke out against women who would wear their new utilitarian clothing outside the workplace, whether it was to a restaurant or even at home, saying those women "who pad around in hairy sweaters and flannel bags, on duty and off; letting themselves go—and other people down—slackers in slacks."
But the 60s was revolutionary time for women, marked by the accomplishments of second-wave feminists like the passing of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which barred private employers from discriminating against women. It was also an era when the pantsuit would be completely transformed by Yves Saint Laurent. The French designer debuted his infamous Le Smoking Suit in August 1966. It's considered the first tuxedo designed specifically for women, consisting of a dinner jacket, trousers with satin stripe down the side, a white shirt, a black bowtie, and a cummerbund. The powerful look pioneered what the fashion world thought of women in pantsuits and the idea of androgynous dress.
"It was just top-to-bottom sex. And that, I think, can be traced to the fact that for at least some of our recent Western history, a divided crotch—so pants as opposed separately encased in fabric—was thought to be the height of immodesty," says Jolles.
Because of this quality, pantsuits constantly courted controversy in the late 60s. One of the most notorious instances involved New York City socialite Nan Kempner, who was known for her forward-thinking style. She was turned away from Le Côte Basque in Manhattan, when she showed up in a Le Smoking in 1969.
"Nan Kempner, to my eyes, always represented this modern, free, independent, and elegant woman. She is probably the woman who best wore my clothes, with whom I shared the longest and greatest complicity," Yves Saint Laurent once mentioned of Kempner.
After being denied service, Kempner stripped off her pants and entered again in only the jacket worn as a minidress. The manager of the restaurant responded by saying, "Pants... do not belong in a restaurant any more than swimming suits... We will continue our policy."'
By the 70s, so many young women were adopting pants either as an explicit symbol representing their fight for equality, or simply as a means for more comfort. They became so ever-present that in 1972, the US government was pushed into allowing girls to wear pants at public school under Title IX of the Education Amendments. Similarly, for enterprising young women who had climbed their way into predominantly male-dominated spaces, the pantsuit became the uniform of choice. You can see the inklings of the burgeoning phenomenon in an iconic black-and-white photo of a 26-year-old Hillary Clinton. Taken in 1974 at President Richard Nixon's impeachment hearings, Clinton looks empowered and poised as she works among the inquiry staff investigating the Watergate scandal.
"[Wearing a pantsuit] was the expectation at the time if you were to be taken seriously as a business woman, but women were still criticized for trying to emulate men, because it was a derivative of menswear," says Shira Tarrant, professor and author of Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style.
Despite its growing popularity, the derision of the set was far and wide. Take, for example, consultant John T. Malloy's 1977 best-seller The Woman's Dress for Success Book. Malloy writes, "In most business offices, the pantsuit is often a failure outfit... If you have to deal with men, even as subordinates, you are putting on trouble... If you want to be a liberated woman, burn your polyester pantsuit, not your bra. The polyester pantsuit will keep you in corporate serfdom, while your bra can help you up as well as hold you up."
Despite the critics, women continued to embrace the pantsuit. From 1980 to 1987, annual sales of women's suits rose by almost 6 million units, a $600 million gain for that sector of the fashion industry. A great contributor to this growth was the power suit trend. Pushed by fashion houses like Giorgio Armani, power suits updated pantsuits with broad shoulder pads, bigger lapels, and sharper cuts that emulated a man's silhouette. These big shouldered jackets and pants disguised a woman's figure and took the focus off her gender, creating a feeling of authority as the traditional sex roles continued to blur.
"In the 80s, with the dress for success and the yuppie era with Reagan in office, women were starting to get MBAs. They were going to crack the glass ceiling, and in order to do so, they wore the big shoulder pads and the shirts that have a homage men's ties," Tarrant said.
This growth in pantsuits also mirrored the growth women had in the workplace. From from 1972 to 1985, women in the workforce grew to 49 percent and their role in "management" jobs almost doubled going from 20 to 36 percent.
However, just when the pantsuit had seemed to finally hit it's zenith as a fashion staple, mainstream women's fashion shifted once again in the early 90s. Vogue ran headlines declaring that the era of power dressing was over, and department stores like Neiman Marcus quickly eliminated women's suits from its stores. But there were still strides to be made in allowing women to wear the once radical set.
The day I walked on the Senate floor in slacks, I became the first woman ever to do so. You would have thought that I was walking on the moon. —Senator Barbara Mikulski
Even though Vogue may have felt pantsuits had been done to death, there were still many women across the country who were not even permitted to wear them in the workplace. Women in the government bodies like the Senate were still expected to wear skirts, while men were able to dress down in khakis on certain occasions. But in 1993 Senator Barbara Mikulski was fed up.
"When I first came to the Senate, being a woman was viewed as a novelty," says Mikulski. "It was very much a men's club. What women wore became a very big deal."
So, one winter morning Mikulski along with other female staffers, showed up to a meeting wearing pants for the first time.
"It was a snowy day, and I found out more bad weather was coming. I just really wanted to be comfortable. I'm most comfortable wearing slacks. Well, for a woman to come on the floor of the Senate in trousers was viewed as a seismographic event," she recalls.
"I had to alert Senator Robert Byrd, a stickler for tradition, that I was going to do it. The Senate parliamentarian looked at the rules to make sure it was OK. Senator Byrd gave the nod—he didn't say yes, but he gave a nod—and the day I walked on the Senate floor in slacks, I became the first woman ever to do so. You would have thought that I was walking on the moon."
More than two decades after Senator Mikulski made it possible for women to wear pants in the Senate, I was freely donning my first pantsuit in Washington, DC. At the time, I didn't realize how many other brave women had helped make it possible for me to benefit from the freedom and comfort of the two-piece suit. I had simply put my discount version on because I wanted to be on par with the confident older women with whom I was working.
On one hand, that's a sign of progress. The reason they stuck their neck out was so that we wouldn't be burdened with those issues today. So to honor their work, we should understand its complex history, and keep fighting for gender equality because there is still a lot of work to be done. Today, the media is still critiquing Clinton on the color of her pants as opposed to her politics. We've got a ways to go before society as a whole sees us as women in power, instead of just women in a power suit.
Follow Erica Euse on Twitter.