“Fashion is a reflection of our times. Fashion can tell you everything that’s going on in the world with a strong fashion image.” – Ana Wintour
A pantsuit or pant suit, also known as a trouser suit outside the United States, is a woman’s suit of clothing consisting of pants and a matching or coordinating coat or jacket.
Formerly, the prevailing fashion for women included some form of a coat, paired with a skirt or dress—hence the name pantsuit.
The pantsuit was introduced in the 1920s, when a small number of women adopted a masculine style, including pantsuits, hats, canes and monocles. However, the term, “trouser suit” had been used in Britain during the First World War, with reference to women working in heavy industry.
Women were literally getting arrested just for wearing pants in America as recently as the early 1900s, and we’re not even talking about pairing them with jackets that have padded shoulders and lapels.
But it wasn’t just pants that we were excluded from at the outset of the 20th century. Pretty much in every realm imaginable, women were second class citizens. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t hold office, and they couldn’t work the same number of hours as men. But things were evolving rapidly, in part thanks to World War I, which called all able-bodied men into service, and helped women take their places in the workforce. Due to the agency women harnessed during the war, they were able to organise and push the country to recognise their right to vote in 1920.
Chanel and Rochas opened the door for the pantsuit, other designers began to experiment with the controversial set. In 1939, Italian fashion designer and rival to Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, designed a menswear inspired wool pantsuit for her fall/winter collection.
Coco Chanel famously started wearing pants in the 1920s, making the look more appropriate for women, and also introduced her signature suit in 1923, consisting of a boxy jacket and a knee length skirt. Although the ensemble didn’t feature pants at the time, it still was one of the first occasions high fashion for women borrowed from menswear.
While Chanel’s innovations truly were outstanding for their time, it still took quite a few years for pants, suits, and ultimately the pantsuit to really get accepted into mainstream fashion. Though Chanel already showed her signature suit in the 1920s critics didn’t really approve of it back then and it took until the mid 50s for the ensemble to finally be embraced by the public. In 1938, a woman in Los Angeles even got arrested for wearing pants instead of a skirt to testify in court – she was sent back home by the judges, with the session rescheduled, and the order to wear a dress next time as pants weren’t seen as appropriate.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that women began wearing pantsuits into the office. And they were not popular. The encyclopedia remarks that “Younger women began wearing them and were scornfully viewed not only by the male establishment but by their older female coworkers as well.” Older women, sadly, are sometimes not thrilled about younger women demanding better conditions than they themselves were accorded.
Yves Saint Laurent often gets the credit for the pantsuit’s massive surge in popularity. He designed the famous Le Smoking tuxedo suit in 1966, and advertised it paired not with other deliberately masculine attire, but with bright lipstick and high heels. His biographer, Alice Rawsthorn, wrote, “An Yves Saint Laurent smoking became the uniform of a new generation of women who, by appropriating a masculine style, were signaling that they did not defer to men as second class citizen.”
Pantsuits offered women in public office some new freedoms, like being able to walk and sit more comfortably than they could in skirts. But ultimately, the reason for women in power to wear suits
Which brings us right to the 1980s and the pantsuit finally being seen as a powerful look for women, with shoulder pads adding all the more of a strong attitude, Grace Jones appearing on the cover of her album “Nightclubbing” in a broad Armani suit, and the piece eventually finding its way into mainstream fashion – and Hillary Clinton’s closet, in every shade imaginable. And although it might have lost a bit of its revolutionary feel, with women in the past literally wearing it to prove their equality and break boundaries, the pantsuit remains an iconic statement for empowerment, and an immaculate example for how fashion and its designers can reflect and affect the times and lives of their wearers.
As I’ve reported time and again, suits have historically been associated with male power, and when women first began wearing suits, they were taking on and projecting some of this power. “Power suits developed in order to convey women’s economic and professional power, and to put them on more equal footing with men in the workplace,”