It is common knowledge that women in the United States were traditionally relegated to working in the home and caring for their children. Beginning in the nineteenth century, women began to seek employment out of the home, either out of financial necessity or the desire to make a professional contribution. Late-nineteenth-century working women were usually working class, employed at a factory or in a domestic capacity. Women of higher socioeconomic status enjoyed the opportunities of an education and were able to gain employment as teachers, nurses, lawyers, writers, and social reformers.
Throughout history, women have been objectified for what they wear and this has been especially true in the workplace. The professional world was a male-dominated sphere, pressuring women to dress less feminine. During the late 1800’s, in response to a growing sense of autonomy and more women joining the workforce, we begin to see masculine styles and tailoring become popular in women’s clothing.
Throughout the twentieth century, the evolution of women’s dress in the workplace has changed considerably. The origins of the power suit can be seen in the Chanel suit of the 1920’s. Chanel suits were a turning point for women and consisted of a tight skirt, a wool collarless button-up jacket, metallic buttons, and fitted sleeves. Coco Chanel combined masculine elements while leaving room for feminine sophistication. In the 1940’s we begin to see more tailoring and suits with pants become acceptable for working women. The 1980’s saw the height of this journey, with the design of the quintessential power suit. Women desired a professional way to dress that was not reminiscent of their male colleagues. Designers like Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Donna Karen designed suits for women that were different in fabric, cut, color, and ornament. The woman’s power suit allowed women to assert their professional authority, creating a clear visual presence.
From the 1990’s on, women have shifted socially and the popularity of the power suit has declined. New power looks reflect women at the executive level who have the confidence to embrace more integrated and diverse looks. Professional women believe they no longer have to look tough because they have proven they are tough.
You can see different versions of women’s working suits from the 20th century on display at the Women’s Museum of California’s current exhibit, Women in Law.