From Le Smoking to Pantsuit Nation: The Legacy of the Power Suit

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Gabriela Hearst Spring 2019 Ready-to-Wear Pantsuit at NYFW. Photo credits: https://www.tag-walk.com/en/look/124918

In September, 2018, Grabriela Hearst’s lux pantsuit was greeted with an uproar of applause during her Spring 2019 Ready-to-Wear NYFW presentation. Sleek, architectural, and minimal, yet elevated, the silk ensemble pays homage to the notion of the “feminine mode” in everyday reality. It pairs a single-breasted blazer with tailored trousers, straddling the line between everyday workwear and high-end luxury. In fact, just one out of many that took the runway by storm these past two years, the pantsuit has become one of the most powerful trends of the decade.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and a cultural shift towards greater female representation in the political realm, a resurgence in feminist tropes have become ubiquitous in the fashion industry. The “power suit,”in particular, heralded by Harper’s BAZAAR as a staple trend of the year, has become a pervasive motif for women’s empowerment in both the workplace and popular culture. It has trickled across various consumer demographics and price points, a staple on both the red carpet and in the millennial closet. 

While the pantsuit might seem like an established garment category today, it was practically perceived as a crime just one century ago. Mere pants did not emerge as a trend for women until the early 1900s, when French designer Paul Poiret designed womenswear pants that were inspired by a harem costume. Few women in Europe and the US wore them, however, as they were viewed as outrageous and inappropriate. In Puerto Rico in 1919, social labor organizer Luisa Capetillo was even sent to jail for being the first woman to wear pants in public. As Marjorie Jolles, a women’s studies professor at Roosevelt University, articulated, “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.”

Following the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, women began to harness new agency in not just the political realm but also the social sphere. As able-bodied men left for World War I, women took their places in the workforce, which offered new opportunities in terms of dress. In 1918, for instance, Levi Strauss introduced the “Freedom-Alls,” a women’s trouser-style cotton tunic over balloon pants. Similarly, in the luxury sector, French couturier Coco Chanel launched her 1923 “signature suit,” a two-piece set inspired by menswear and designed for post-war women to enter the workforce. A symbol for women’s growing agency in the workplace, the bottoms consisted of a knee-length skirt instead of pants but laid the groundwork for the modern pantsuit.

As the film scene skyrocketed in the 1940s, many Hollywood stars — most notably, Audrey Hepburn — began to adopt fitted tuxedo-esque jackets with wide-leg trousers. Menswear-inspired apparel did not become ubiquitous in the womenswear market until World War II, however, when the percentage of women in the workplace rose from 27% to 37%. Levi’s womenswear finally gained consumer appeal, and women’s workwear began to emerge as a segment of the industry.

Le Smoking, 1967. Photo credits: https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/yves-saint-laurent-le-smoking-couture/

In the 1960s, a decade of great political upheaval and particularly huge strides in women’s rights, French designer Yves Saint Laurent pioneered the modern day pantsuit in 1966. Known as Le Smoking, this first tuxedo-suit for women consisted of a dinner jacket, trousers, a white shirt, a black bowtie, and a cummerbund. It received mixed responses, as YSL was the first couturier to present pants as a form of women’s evening wear. Many women who ventured wearing this bold look were denied entrance at restaurants and conferences. When New York socialite Nan Kempner was refused entry at restaurant Le Côte Basque in New York, she removed her pants, donning her blazer as a mini dress. Heralded as the epitome of the YSL woman, she received widespread praise, helping to popularize Le Smoking and challenging regulations against antiquated gendered dress codes. 

Throughout the 1970s, Le Smoking became an increasingly ubiquitous evening-wear staple, especially when actress Bianca Jagger adopted the look on her wedding day in 1971. Four years later, the look was shot by photographer Helmut Newton, personifying the power and modernity of the YSL image in a captivating editorial for Vogue Magazine. As Saint Laurent himself articulated, “For a woman, Le Smoking is an indispensable garment with which she finds herself continually in fashion, because it is about style, not fashion. Fashions come and go, but style is forever.”

While in the 1930s, actress Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrick dismissed the pantsuit as “mannish” and inappropriate, its widespread appeal in Hollywood trickled down into contemporary culture in the 1970s. It became a workwear staple in upper-middle class America. Many Italian and French ateliers, in particular, became renowned for their sophisticated, form-fitting, and professional attire. It was really in the 80s that the pantsuit became a lucrative garment category in the fashion industry; between 1980 and 1987, annual sales of women’s pantsuits rose by 60 million units. The 80s also catalyzed a wave of women pursuing higher education, and the pantsuit became a symbolic uniform for the movement. Designers such as Giorgio Armani popularized pantsuits with oversized lapels, sharp cuts, and broad shoulder pads, which blurred traditional gender roles and emulated power and authority. 

Hillary Clinton at North Carolina State University for the last campaign stop before election day on November 7, 2016. Photo credits: https://www.bustle.com/articles/194023-hillary-clinton-wrote-pantsuit-nation-a-heartfelt-thank-you-note-it-sets-the-tone-for-her

In 1993, Senators Babara Mikulski wore pants in the Senate in defiance of the rule forbidding women from wearing pants. Later that year, Sergeant-at-Arms Martha Pope amended the rule, allowing women to wear pants on the floor as long it was paired with a jacket; thus, the tradition of pantsuits in the political realm was born. In the 2016 Presidential election cycle, Hillary Clinton’s well-known pantsuit became a battle cry among her supporters, many of whom wore pantsuits to the polls in her support. After referring to her campaign team as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits” at the Democratic National Convention, “Pantsuit Nation,” a Facebook group that was eventually composed of 2.9 million Clinton supporters, was formed. 

In the wake of the election, the pantsuit became a feminist rally cry, infiltrating both the runway and the mass market. It has come a long way since the groundbreaking invention of Le Smoking, when an androgynous uniform symbolizing power and authority was perceived as outrageous for women to wear. Reigning as one of the top trends these past three years, the pantsuit has become a powerful motif for women’s empowerment in both the workplace and on the runway.

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Photo credits: Tagwalk, InsiderW Magazine, Bustle