A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE POWER SUIT

March 15, 2017

 

When then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in an all white two piece pant suit, sharp as the woman who wore it - the historical weight of the moment became very clear. Not only was she literally where no woman had been before, but her choice of a suit and the color white was a direct nod to both the first suffragettes and the legions of women who suited up to enter the workforce and fight for equality. The next day, women everywhere donned their power suits with hope and pride. Now, at a time when the social, political, and economic wellbeing of women is at stake, the power suit has completely taken over the fashion landscape. Everyone from Gucci to Céline and Off-White sent their versions down the runway this past month, but this isn't anything new - the roots of the power suit run deep.


Katharine Hepburn, one of the most iconic actresses of the 20th century, is easily the patron mother of the power suit as we know it. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood film actresses were the chief influences on women's wardrobes, behaviours, and beauty routines - so the major look was flowing hair, dramatic lips, and figure hugging dresses. Hepburn, however, saw herself as an equal to her male counterparts, and honestly, just didn't like skirts. She was insanely confident. She knew the weight of her own glamour, and it was because of this confidence (along with a powerful defiance of industry conventions) that propelled her and her suits into the icon-osphere. Women everywhere traded their house skirts for wide-legged belted trousers and matching blazers hoping to gain not only the look of the brassy Kate Hepburn, but her strong and independent attitude along with it. Or, we can look at the iconic Bianca Jagger who in the 70s and 80s, along with marrying rocker Mick Jagger in a structured blazer, turned to friend and designer Yves Saint Laurent to create for her a wardrobe centered around his iconic Le Smoking suits. Again, women everywhere wanted to look and feel like Bianca, sending suits back into the mainstream at a time when women were really coming into their own. This is really when "power" found its way into power suit, because it was precisely what women were claiming for themselves when donning the suit. In the way that American women took "Nasty Woman" from an insult to a coat of arms, women of the Second Wave Feminist movement - determined to make their place in the workplace - chose to turn assimilation into empowerment. No way were they going to wear suits to just blend in with their male counterparts. No, they wore suits because in them, confidence was bountiful, freedom fruitful, and strength attainable.


It's this that makes me believe that this latest resurgence in the power suit is more of a form of self-discovery and affirmation than the simple pursuit of a trend. As we endeavour to protect the rights of our fellow sisters, Muslim, Hispanic, LGBTQIA+, black, and disabled friends, as we fight for our voices to be taken seriously, we look to the power suit to energize us, protect us, and empower us. When Elaine Welteroth of Teen Vogue wears her millennial pink power suit, it isn't covetable just because it's a good look. It gets its power because as both the youngest and first black female Editor In Chief of a major magazine, she's using her voice for change, and her confidence feels attainable by means of her symbolic choice of clothing. The same goes for the thousands of women who wore white like Hillary, or red for the International Women's General Strike last week. Yes, the suit saw a revival in the F/W runway shows, but that's not what we're striving for, because we don't just want the look, we want the power. 

 

Main Image via Celine FW17

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