The return of the pantsuit

The Best Film fiasco at this year’s Oscars distracted us from the big fashion trend that emerged from the 2017 awards season. Carolyn Moore celebrates the return of the trouser suit. 

IN THE usual sea of sequins and tulle, this year’s Oscars red carpet may not at first glance have seemed like a hotbed of political activity, but if you looked closely, the signs were there.

Little blue ribbons on the dresses of Ruth Negga and Karlie Kloss in support of civil liberties; gold Planned Parenthood pins worn by Emma Stone and Dakota Johnson; director Ava DuVernay in a dress by a Muslim designer; and Meryl Streep in a teal satin Elie Saab jumpsuit.

Unlike the sombre trouser suit Jane Fonda wore to the Oscars as a feminist protest in 1972, Streep’s Oscar look - with its off-shoulder cut, beaded bodice and full overskirt — didn’t have the appearance of a radical political statement, but in the Oscars’ almost 90-year history — 30 of which have included televised red carpet coverage — only a handful of women have broken protocol and worn trousers to the awards.

The last year, though, has seen a growing number of actresses opting for trousers on the red carpet, so fashion watchers were eager to see if anyone would follow suit at the Oscars.

Susan Sarandon attends the opening night gala of the Cannes Film Festival last year, wearing pointed flats and a tuxedo in protest against a ban on women from wearing flat shoes. Picture: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
Susan Sarandon attends the opening night gala of the Cannes Film Festival last year, wearing pointed flats and a tuxedo in protest against a ban on women from wearing flat shoes. Picture: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

After eviscerating Donald Trump in her speech at the Golden Globes, it was fitting that Meryl — on the occasion of her historic 20th nomination — would be the one to give a knowing nod to the biggest trend to emerge from the 2017 awards season: The return of the pantsuit.

Throughout the history of fashion, the popularity of suits has always reflected the changing role of women in society, so unlike trends spawned by awards seasons past — a new neckline here, a particular type of embellishment there — the emergence of the suit on the red carpet is a politically charged symbol of defiance.

Having become emblematic of Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential bid, tailored trouser suits have taken on a new sartorial significance for women living in Trump’s America.

Given that so many women wear trousers on a daily basis, it’s hard to believe they can still wield the power to be politicised today, a century since the First World War first put women in trousers, before Coco Chanel then popularised them as a fashion garment. 

It’s 50 years since Yves Saint Laurent gave us the iconic “Le Smoking”, a women’s tuxedo he called his most important design.

With myriad trouser-based options now available to women for casual or occasion wear, we might seem far removed from the days when socialite Nan Kempner was refused entry to a restaurant for wearing “Le Smoking”, but when it comes to policing what women wear, the red carpet remains the final frontier for traditional ideals of femininity.

Consider the controversy just last year when the Cannes Film Festival banned women from wearing flat shoes, prompting actress Susan Sarandon to storm the red carpet in pointed flats and an androgynous tuxedo.

Flanked by Julianne Moore in a beaded chiffon gown and Naomi Watts in a restrictive column, Sarandon — defiant behind dark sunglasses — was a powerful symbol of resistance, refusing to play by outdated red carpet rules.

As 2016 disintegrated into the ultimate annus horribilis, it was apt that more women would follow her lead.

The political climate has been nothing if not polarising, and whether denouncing Trump from the podium or marching against him, a host of celebrities have made their feelings known. 

Taking a stand against misogyny by resisting the gendered expectations of the red carpet is merely an extension of their protest.

As Tina Fey quipped at the 2015 Golden Globes, it took two hours of hair and makeup to prepare Steve Carell for his role in Foxcatcher, but it took longer to prepare her for her role as a human woman, such is the weight of expectation on female celebrities to walk the red carpet as living embodiments of archaic feminine ideals — a paradox which sees them setting those standards even as they are beholden to them.

Tina Fey
Tina Fey

But the resistance has begun. 

As an awards season contender this year, Evan Rachel Wood declared at the outset that she would only wear suits, telling reporters at the Golden Globes that with her Bowie-inspired Altuzarra tux she wanted “to make sure young girls and women know dresses aren’t a requirement, and you don’t have to wear one if you don’t want to”.

“Just be yourself, because your worth is more than that,” she said.

At the same show, Octavia Spencer opted for a Laura Boschi suit.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to an awards show and had as much fun as I did this time,” she later told Ellen DeGeneres.

“I chose to wear a tuxedo and in doing that, I was able to be freer.” 

Specifically that meant: “A lot less underwear,” she said.

Actress Alia Shawkat marched on Washington and found the experience “life changing”. 

Wearing a tuxedo to a Harper’s Bazaar event earlier this year, she told reporters: “Fashion that’s made a difference has always been political. Something revolutionary, like women wearing pants. That’s politicalised.

“It shows that we can’t be affected by the ideals of the people in power, and how they view sexuality and the roles of women,” she said.

Singer and actress Janelle Monáe understands this too. 

In a 2010 interview, she said of her then largely androgynous wardrobe, “I feel I have a responsibility to young girls to help redefine what it looks like to be a woman.”

When a male fan complained to her on Twitter that he was “tired of those dumbass suits” she replied, simply: “Sit down. I’m not for male consumption.”

And therein lies the enduring power of the suit.

It’s the reason misogynists find them so inherently threatening; the reason the White House was rattled by seeing Melissa McCarthy impersonate press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live; the reason Trump reportedly requires his female staffers to “dress like women”. 

A woman in a suit doesn’t need permission to resist.

By subverting traditional perceptions of femininity, a woman in a suit is already resisting.


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