When people think of a suit, they often imagine it on a man’s body. While this assumption would have been accurate in the late 19th and early 20th century, it no longer stands true. The second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s encouraged women to work, thus creating a demand for women’s professional clothing. The Power Suit, a term used to describe women's suits featuring shoulder pads, was introduced by the renowned Italian designer Giorgio Armani. His collections from 1980 to 1990 helped pave the way for women's success with one look.
One of the first examples of women wearing suits dates back to 1923. Designed by Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, the Chanel tweed suit allowed women to wear a traditionally male jacket paired with a feminine skirt. In contrast to men's exaggerated suit silhouettes, it was form-fitting and lavished with gold buttons and lace often associated with femininity.
This creation was monumental for women as their clothing prior was layered with various fabrics and fell to the ground, making it nearly impossible to do basic activities. Until this point, women wore corsets, but the creation of the suit allowed them to release themselves from the bodice's tight hold. Stars like Audrey Hepburn and Romy Schneider could be seen regularly in the suit, giving them a certain credibility in their workspace. The invention of the Chanel suit came with the opportunity for women to be practically involved in day-to-day life.
While Coco opened doors for women by creating her tweed suit, none of them were bold to the point of incorporating pants. This all changed when Yves Saint Laurent created the aptly named, "Le Smoking," which translates to "The Tuxedo". People shook in discomfort at the collection that was released in 1966 because of its undoubted masculinity. Until this point, women kept to wearing dresses in casual and formal settings.
"Le Smoking" was a tuxedo for women, a complete one-eighty from the classic skirt seen until this point. The ensemble was form-fitting and slightly mimicked men's suits. The concept was to create a look that women felt comfortable enough to walk outside for a smoke break in. The ads associated with the tuxedo were promiscuous for the time, making the pieces controversial for women to wear. "Le Smoking" accentuated the female form and was quickly sexualized.
In 1967, Saint Laurent extended his "Le Smoking" concept and proposed the first women's pantsuit. The sleeves were tight and the jacket cinched at the waist, creating a form-fitting ensemble. In the initial drawings of the suit, the model's figure is prominent and almost overtakes the clothing itself. The suit was usually accessorized with lavish jewelry and leg-accentuating heels. While the creation of the suit was groundbreaking, it was feminized and seen differently than a man's professional suit because of its tight fit and traditionally feminine embellishments.
When a woman walked into an interview, her clothing was what the man interviewing likely saw first. This point of view gave women another immediate disadvantage from the get-go. Historically, the typical work environment was not interested in diversifying their group of employees and usually hired an in-group of white males. When someone did not fit into their tightly sealed box, they were likely not awarded a position.
Women have been seen as less than men from the beginning of time. This means that women's intelligence, strength, and capabilities have always been questioned in comparison to men. Women's clothing was another separation from the already tight-knit group of working men and there was no way for them to fit in because of their contrasting appearances. While seemingly simple, the similarities of the Power Suit to men's professional wear started the process of men seeing women as equal to them.
Source: Musee YSL Paris
In the 1980s, Giorgio Armani's gender-bending suits became the uniform for working women. Whether worn for a formal event or a job in a corporate office, this suit became the blueprint for women's professional wear, dubbing it the name, Power Suit. This creation felt different than the Chanel and Saint Laurent suits, although those were iconic in their own right. Armani changed the game for women because it was the first time women's formal wear did not revolve around their bodies and could just be about who they were.
The fit of the Armani suit is what makes it so unique in comparison to the prior options. The pants, usually ankle length and in muted colors, are baggy as could be. They disguise the outline of the leg. The waistband of the pant is form-fitting and high-waisted, making it clear where the waist ends and the top of the suit begins. At the waistband, there are subtle pleats that extend to the knee. The fit of the pants makes the legs look long and dominant. The suit jacket is loudly oversized, almost swallowing the body of the wearer in its fabric. Shoulder pads extend centimeters past the actual ridges of the body and have a square-like shape. A white blouse and tie can usually be found under the jacket if not completely buttoned.
In creating this androgynous look, Armani allowed women to be more than a body. The boxy fit of the suit allowed women to take up space in an environment they were constantly told to be small in. Models who were seen solely for their appearance were able to strut the runway in confidence by wearing the Power Suit. The conversation surrounding the runway became more than just what the model was wearing, but rather how they wore it. This suit transcended beyond the fabric itself and into the positive social implications that came with it.
Infamous British fashion designer, Amanda Wakeley, created Princess Diana of Wales' iconic Power Suits. Aside from just being her designer, Wakeley and Diana were close friends. In an interview with Vogue France, Wakeley recalls that "Diana used clothes to empower her." This is evident when seeing old photos of Diana confidently wearing a Power Suit. This was not the usual attire of a princess, as they were normally seen with intricate and feminine dresses on. The Power Suit differentiated Princess Diana and became her way of relinquishing control over her overly planned life. Diana wearing these suits allowed European women to envision themselves in a powerful position wearing standard professional wear.
Today, it would not be an oddity to find Power Suits on women. If anything, it has become the standard in many work environments for women to only wear suits. During the 2016 presidential election, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton notoriously wore power suits in various shapes and colors. This gave her a certain credibility and professionalism needed in a male-dominated space. At the annual Elle Women in Hollywood event, Lady Gaga wore a beautifully oversized Marc Jacobs suit sans a shirt, making the look uniquely hers. The shaping and color are reminiscent of the 80s, but Gaga made it her own and exuded powerful energy while delivering a moving speech.
Now being sold on the Armani website is the Armani 80s capsule collection that pays homage to the iconic Power Suit. Still similar to the 80s look, the new collection has an upgraded more fitted silhouette that blends in well with a regular suit. The original pleating is still prominent and the length of the pieces has stayed the same. Mr Porter also created an exclusive collection with Giorgio Armani to bring back the power suit. With vibrant colors and wonky shapes, this collection takes a twist on the usually mundane-looking suits. One can choose to purchase the new collection or pieces that are almost identical to those sold in the 80s. In mixing both the old and new, this collection is staying true to the brand's roots while allowing for a fresh take.
Source: Harper's BAZAAR
The relevance of the Power Suit dates back decades and has been an anchor for women to fall back on in prominently-male professional spaces. The evolution of women's suits speaks to each time period they were created in. From a more feminine look with the Chanel Tweed Suit in the 1920s to the boxy Armani Power suit in the 80s, women's workwear has progressed immensely. While seemingly irrelevant, this oversized and structured suit has changed the way women are seen for the better.