Look who's wearing the trousers

Look who's wearing the trousers

Trouser suits – much maligned during the Thatcherite era – are making a comeback, but not at the expense of femininity, writes Josh Sims

“Power”, Giorgio Armani recently announced, “can be feminine.” Look to the catwalks, and power is certainly in play.

If the 1980s saw women embracing the sober tailoring of their male counterparts – all the better to play them at their own corporate game – then so-called power dressing is back: the middle line of soft mixed separates, as espoused by Michelle Obama – not an unpowerful woman after all – has given way to a revival of the office style that some women working the greasy pole in big business once felt compelled to wear in order to be treated as equals to the pin-striped men.

Now the likes of Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior and, of course, Armani are back with those trouser suits for women – but this time with a softer, slender, more feminised silhouette than the broad shouldered kind of 30 years ago.

The power shades are still there – the black, navy and charcoal that look right around the boardroom table – but now too are more gentle, pastel shades of metallic neutrals, which can carry the look away from the office and into eveningwear. The style is not so rigid either – jacket and trousers may well now be co-ordinated separates rather than stiffly matched.

That the new power suit is a softer affair is just as well – figures suggest that the first women to buy into this more formal style are young enough not to have remembered power dressing the first time around, and are perhaps excited by the crisp air of authority and grown-upness that it brings; but of course the big fashion brands also need it to appeal to the wealthier, older customers for whom the power suit – as the makers of 1980s satirical puppet show ‘Spitting Image’ hyped in their Churchillian portrayal of Margaret Thatcher – often suggested a more overt masculinisation that was not always that appealing.

Today the power suit may be right for a more serious, post-crash working world, but women are, all the same, not quick to dress with androgyny in mind.

That was not always the case. If the sight of a woman in a trouser suit is unlikely to upset the horses these days, recall that it was enough to see women barred from entry into certain private establishments within the last three decades. The first power suits, indeed, very much had in mind the agency of the provocateur.

It was bold for any woman to play with gender stereotypes through their clothing during the 1920s and 30s. The exceptions perhaps were Hollywood stars the likes of Marlene Dietrich, who wore trouser suits by Elsa Schiaparelli, or Josephine Baker – a regular at the Parisian men’s bespoke tailors Cifonelli – or later artists the likes of Frida Kahlo or Lee Miller. Their celebrity and/or avant garde lifestyle somewhat permitted it.

Certainly, society has long held deeply-cultural prohibitions against women dressing as men, sometimes, as in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, even proscribing it in law. It was only from the early 1890s through to late in the first decade of the 1900s that women were permitted to wear trousers in public for, by turns, horse-riding and bicycle-riding.

This was not, however, an issue for most women. And fewer still would even have considered wearing what was strongly defined as a man’s two-piece suit – the choice of some early women’s rights campaigners during the 1920s precisely because of its scandalousness and bohemianism. This was dressing as politics.

In contrast, up until World War Two, most women who did wear trousers did so purely for acceptable reasons of practicality – for ranch or factory work, or because one happened to be an adventurer-aviator the likes of Amelia Earhart. But this was a trend that the War made much more commonplace, such that throughout the 1940s trouser-wearing by women became fashionable – again ably assisted by the endorsement of ‘slacks’ given by Hollywood stars the likes of Katharine Hepburn (whose characters often played on her supposed ‘mannishness’).

Trousers were worn for sport and leisure. For most the tailored suit, however, remained an outsider proposition – the stuff of theatre and androgynous play, and perceived as such. It was a perception that would last, as with Julie Andrews in ‘Victor/Victoria’ (1982), The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox or ‘Vogue’-era Madonna.

trousers Montage

Certainly the new, more flattering power suit appears to be conscious of one lesson fashion history has offered: what suiting would become accepted by society and fashion alike was a much softer, feminised version popularised through Anton Courreges’ and Yves Saint Laurent’s women’s tailoring of the mid-1960s – most notably the latter’s ‘Le Smoking’ of 1966, a velvet and wool dinner suit reinterpreted for the female physique which both helped revolutionise attitudes to women in trousers, and scandalised society in the process.

When singer Francoise Hardy wore it to the Paris Opera, “people screamed and hollered,” she recalled. New York socialite Nan Kempner was refused entry to upscale restaurant La Côte Basque in 1968 wearing hers – so she removed the trousers and wore the jacket alone as a kind of impromptu mini-dress. She was then admitted.

Through the 1970s the trouser suit was taken on by American designers the likes of Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass and Calvin Klein. The fabrics used may have been traditionally masculine – flannel, tweed – but the cut was more fitted in the body, looser in the leg and altogether less manly.

By the end of the decade – and in no small part thanks to the wardrobe of Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) – the wearing by women of what a few decades perviously would have been considered masculine clothing had entered the mainstream. Power dressing, in its harder edged 1980s incarnation, was just around the corner.

What, in 30 years, will women make of this latest round of sharply tailored style? Perhaps, in another three decades, the notion of a woman’s attire seeking to evoke anything perceived to be a masculine trait will have been consigned to history too. A trouser suit on a woman will be no more cause for discussion than one on a man.