Say the term “power suit” and an iconic 80s image might pop up in your mind: big hair, shoulder pads, exaggerated angles. But, of course, the power suit as we know it has evolved from a long, illustrious history that began in the 1920s. From there, women began taking on menswear both literally and figuratively, in their own way. The image of a powerful, strong woman in a suit, it seems, has always been in vogue.
Speaking of strong, powerful women, we can give credit where credit is due to the person who gave womankind the freedom to dress in separates and matching suits: Coco Chanel. After decades of corsets and confinement, the Chanel suit was born in 1920 and today remains one of the most covetable (and expensive), fashionable looks for women.
Say the term “power suit” and an iconic 80s image might pop up in your mind: big hair, shoulder pads, exaggerated angles. But the power suit actually has a long, illustrious history that can be traced back to one woman, who gave womankind the freedom to dress in separates and matching suits: Coco Chanel. After decades of corsets and confinement, the Chanel suit was born in 1920 and still remains one of the most coveted (and expensive) looks for women.
Recognized for its clean, unstructured simplicity, the Chanel suit began its life as an easy wool jersey cardigan style jacket with bold black trim, iconic gold buttons and pockets (which were revolutionary at the time) worn with a simple, straight knee length skirt. While the Chanel suit frequently morphs into new variations from season to season, the standard remains as chic and classic as ever.
Coco Chanel in her own iconic suit. (Photo by Roland Schoor/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Hollywood played the starring role in fashion during the wartime years with Marlene Dietrich and a young Katharine Hepburn as the original arbiters of the menswear look, not a la Chanel, but with real men’s suits. Whether they were wearing pinstripe trouser suits with a classic shirt and tie, a full tuxedo with a top hat or a more feminine skirt suit, Deitrich and Hepburn led the way for countless women to experiment more openly with clothing right off the backs of the opposite sex. By proving that a woman could look truly herself in menswear, they inspired women to think differently about fashion.
Marlene Dietrich, 1935. (Photo by Imagno/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Elsa Schiaparelli’s earlier use of shoulder pads in jackets and even glamorous evening gowns made their way into women’s daytime suits in the early 1940’s, giving the look a timely nod to the military. The broad shoulder pads of the decade gave women a brand new silhouette, their new power shoulders contrasted a small nipped-in waist and shapely hips.
And in 1947, French Couturier Christian Dior changed the look of fashion and the power suit forever with his controversial New Look, a curvy fitted peplum jacket (called the Bar Jacket) worn with a full, luxurious circle skirt. The controversy stemmed from the audacious amount of fabric he used to create the skirt due to the severe fabric rations during the wars. (Incidentally, that also included the fabric used to make women’s stockings. Women not so eager to let go of their beloved silky seamed hose drew a skinny black line up the backs of their legs to achieve the look. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.)
Elsa Schiaparelli and her husband, The Baron Philip H. Rothschild (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
The strong suit shapes from the forties gave way to longer, leaner look in the 1950’s. The new high fashion silhouette demanded a different body as well. Designers shrunk the proportions down eliminating the fuller busts and hips of the past decade. Now, slim was seriously in. Matching jackets and skirts, kitted out with appropriate gloves, hats and handbags, the new suit defined a stylish snob appeal that gave women a supremely elegant appearance, but one not necessarily so easy to achieve. Alfred Hitchcock and his icy leading ladies were proponents of this new sleek chic.
(Photo by Chaloner Woods/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The dawn of The Mod & the revolutionary Youthquake produced designers like Courreges, Paco Rabanne and Mary Quant opening up the world of fashion to young women who had been previously ignored. Boundaries were broken with hemlines that rose to nearly unacceptable heights, dresses made from metal discs and topless bikinis shocked and titillated society ready for a transformation or not. Suits moved along with the tide too, converting the ladylike into the cool. Short, boxy jackets with bracelet length sleeves sat comfortably over the new mini A-line skirt giving women a neat graphic look. Sharp black and white and pops of bright color made for a powerful fresh look emboldening a brand new generation of women ready to make their mark on the world.
While many of us may define the era of the 1970’s by hippies and counter-culture movements, there were many sophisticated, chic moments that evolved the power suit further. The pristine white YSL suit Bianca Jagger wore when she married Mick is a brilliant example. Another is the iconic image taken by Helmut Newton of a woman at night in an alley wearing an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo. It defines the seventies power suit style: a woman with slicked back hair, lit cigarette in hand, looking totally nonchalant and every inch the rich sophisticate you know she is. She is powerful, sexy and extremely feminine, despite her androgynous appearance.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was everyone’s favorite cool girl of the times, Annie Hall. Diane Keaton was the ideal role-model for the carefree, slightly disheveled young woman playing up her sexuality and challenging society’s standards while wearing men’s clothing in the most natural, uncontrived manner.
Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca, shortly after their wedding ceremony in St Tropez, 1971. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
Oh, the eighties. Yes, there were many, many unfortunate moments in this decade like giant shoulder-pads in everything from evening gowns to tee-shirts, endless amounts of spandex and “Working Girl” hair aided by an endless supply of Elnet Hair Spray, but hopefully we learned some important lessons. Apart from the Dynasty suits that dominated mass style, one Italian designer single-handedly put women in a new elegant suit cut in beautiful, masculine fabrics that draped like never before, yet were cut for a woman’s body: Giorgio Armani.
Armani managed to completely revolutionize women’s fashion, particularly for the serious ‘career girls’ out there. His new tailored trouser and skirt suits took the sex out of fashion and gave it a much needed hit of seriousness. His suits became the new gold standard.
Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in “Dynasty,” 1983 (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
Rebelling against the decade of excess before, the 1990’s saw fashion turn upside down and inside out, literally. With deconstruction becoming the major buzzword among fashion insiders, clothing changed dramatically. Linings were removed, hems left to fray, proper sizing went out the window.
A group of Belgian designers (called the Antwerp 6 – Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, etc.) left an indelible mark that remains today. Women’s clothing became more androgynous with suiting resembling actual men’s garments. Black, sludge, carbon and coal were the preferred colors. Femininity lost its footing in this decade with grunge and minimal silhouettes taking preference. This was a whole new kind of power dressing. The power to be the individual of your particular choosing.
American singer Evan Dando (left), of the Lemonheads, cross-dressing with Icelandic singer Bjork, circa 1990. (Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images)
Crossing over into the new century seemed to unleash boundaries historically held by the fashion industry. No longer were women saddled with ‘the look’ of the moment, now fashion became about freedom and choice. If you wanted to wear a suit to work, so be it. A dress, that’s fine too. Platforms and flats now co-existed. But some might argue that all these options lead to confusion too, particularly in trying to navigate the perplexing fashion waters for a look that fits professionally. The new micro-trend, meaning the trend of the minute, continues to hold sway today offering up new ideas faster than the wind changes direction.
Ralph Lauren 2008 fashion show (Photo by Chris Moore/Catwalking/Contributor/Getty Images)
Coming back full circle from where we began, fall’s new micro and macro-trend is most certainly menswear-inspired: wide-leg trouser suits, mannish brogues, and classic overcoats hit every major runway, proving that “tradition” knows no gender lines. Traditional menswear suiting fabrics with patterns like houndstooth, herringbone and pinstripes are the preferred choice for more feminine inclined garments as well. You can dip your toes into the look without going the full Monty, or the full Keaton if you will. Adding in a few menswear inspired pieces to your wardrobe will bring a fresh new spin on the power suit tradition, seen through the eyes of today.
Lanvin, Fall 2013 (Photo by Dominique Charriau/WireImage)