Practical, political and powerful, the suit is having a fashion moment all over again, says Annmarie O’Connor.
Fashion and feminism historically share little in common. Their relationship is contentious, combative and coloured by sexual stereotypes. You could say, they have issues. That said, their paradoxical pairing has created a high-def lens through to view gender politics.
This season’s trouser suit is no exception. Having been a fixture on the trend circuit for several seasons now, the tailored two-piece remains sovereign in its status. Equal parts practical, political and powerful, it’s clear that the suit isn’t any old fashion statement; it’s a statement of intent.
The vast permutations on the spring/summer 2019 catwalks provide ample evidence: optimistic brights at Escada and Gucci; Haider Ackermann’s unisex cuts; oversized silhouettes at Stella McCartney; and abbreviated Bermuda shorts providing a leg-up for the Instagram generation. Whatever your preference, it’s clear: women are choosing to wear the pants. Not that this is anything new.
The trajectory of female emancipation has always allowed for social reinvention through the codes of fashion. The convention of cross-dressing, regularly used by Shakespeare to facilitate plot, operates similarly in matters sartorial. The bard’s female characters who dressed as men could craft less binary identities, move and speak with greater ease, be taken more seriously, and, more importantly, shape their own futures. Suiting up, you see, is more than just a mode of dressing; it’s an equal opportunities employer.
The early Suffragette movement parlayed this plot pivot when trading the titular hobble skirt (the clue is in the name) for a blouse, jacket and ankle-length split skirt that allowed for strident movement. By World War I, the increased mobilisation of women in the workforce called for a new paradigm.
French fashion designer Coco Chanel responded in creating separates from jersey fabric and launching the eponymous Chanel skirt suit; while designer Marcel Rochas went further with the controversial introduction of matching trousers in 1932.
It wasn’t until 1966 when Yves Saint Laurent tapped into the cross- dressing rebellion with his titillating ‘Le Smoking’ tux. The irreverence of this sexy, subversive look subjugated previously held archetypes of dress, thus paving the way for the iconic `80s ‘power suit’.
Although the exaggerated shoulders and mannish proportions proposed by Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren, did little to help women break through the glass ceiling; it helped pave the way for a quieter revolution where women dressed for life on their terms.
Freelance journalist and one half of Cupl Creative, Niamh O’Donoghue, cites Céline’s former fashion director Phoebe Philo and Victoria Beckham as post-modern progenitors of this volte-face. Rather than reneging our femininity in a bid to be accepted, these disruptors capitalised on women’s differences to create a blueprint for today’s wants and needs.
“Philo helped to reimagine the modest female suit as more than just cultural zeitgeist with her collections of fluid, feminine and elegant pieces,” says O’Donoghue.
“In a similar vein, Victoria Beckham’s recognisable silhouettes have become fundamental cornerstones for many wardrobes around the world. Apart from technical detailing, and fantastic craftsmanship these designers have one thing in common that keeps customers returning again and again: functionality.”
Indeed. If the real yardstick of emancipated dressing is in not having to think too hard, then life waving its magic wand with late alarms, multi-tasking and desk-to-diner dashes doesn’t always facilitate fashion’s finer nuances. Perhaps it’s why uniform solutions like today’s suit allow women be comfortable in a variety of settings.
The paradox of sticking to a uniform, as such, is that although it appears abstemious; it is, in fact, incredibly freeing. By adapting a network of pieces (a Philo-esque suit with t-shirt and trainers or Beckham’s silk shirts and heels), the mind is free to concentrate on other things rather than be cluttered with the words, “What shall I wear?” or in the case of politicians, “What shall I wear that stops people from focusing on what I’m wearing?”
Most notably, former First Lady Michelle Obama swapped her right to bare arms for elegantly cut tailoring for her Becoming book tour schedule. With 21 further international dates scheduled for this year, it makes sense to offset cognitive dissonance with a no-nonsense approach to looking put together.
Fellow former First Lady Hillary Clinton didn’t get off so lightly. Despite having weathered the 1993 ‘Pantsuit Rebellion’ which repudiated the rule barring women in the US Congress from wearing trousers on the Senate floor, Clinton’s trouser suits have been the focus of much scrutiny, implying there are unspoken social codes for women when it comes to what they wear - neither too feminine nor too masculine.
Where the political stage might be fraught with double standards, the red carpet is increasingly becoming a platform for social redress.
“I love seeing a strong female wearing a beautifully cut suit on the red carpet,” says stylist Ingrid Hoey, whose clients include Amy Huberman and Laura Whitmore. “Women wear what they want, for themselves and that’s how it should be.”
Just look at Lady Gaga. Wearing a beige Marc Jacobs suit at ELLE’s Women in Hollywood event, the singer visually challenges the patriarchal ideas of a woman’s role in the entertainment industry. From that meat dress in 2010 to this slouchy devil-may-care diffidence, Stefani Germanotta demonstrates women should be recognised for their bodies of work, not their bodies.
Likewise, Black-ish actress and activist Tracee Ellis Ross often champions up-and-coming black designers like Selam Fessahaye and Pyer Ross for her stellar suits. Most notably, her white sequin Carolina Herrera creation, worn for W magazine’s pre-Golden Globes party served as a symbol of historic female members of Congress. With women now holding approximately a quarter of both houses, the homage to suffrage in a post #MeToo era is timely and perfectly tailored.
That’s the thing about fashion; sometimes its silent protests make the most noise. When it comes to being heard, it makes sense to suit ourselves. Long live the suit.