As I flicked through the latest issue of Glamour, I fell upon a photo of Jessica Biel wearing a suit matching her husband Justin Timberlake’s, at the premiere of his new film, Runner Runner last September. At this point my friend looked over my shoulder and laughed as he asked me in astonishment, “Why isn’t she wearing a dress?!” Then I couldn’t help but wonder myself, why did she decide to wear a tuxedo? And why do girls, as we get ready for balls and proms, automatically decide to wear a dress? Is it because society expects us to wear this? Because that is what we have always done?
The history of women in trouser suits dates back to 1933, when Marlene Dietrich appeared in the film Morocco by Joseph von Steinberg wearing a tuxedo. Although, at this time, women were liberated from their corsets by a snip of Coco Chanel’s scissors and started to embrace ready-to-wear fashion, this included higher hemlines and exaggerated shoulder pads, but did not extended to trousers. Dietrich shocked the audience, not least because she also kissed a woman in this scene. This type of behaviour on the part of women was seen as a social taboo, but as Dietrich continued to wear trousers in her personal life, she inspired other actresses to do the same. While Chanel and Schiaparelli introduced dinner jackets, it was not until Yves Saint Laurent designed “Le Smoking” in 1966 that women were given the opportunity to wear smart trouser suits. This alternative to the Little Black Dress was a tuxedo suit of velvet or wool accompanied by frilly white shirts, cummerbunds and satin lapels. At first Saint Laurent’s couture collection was met with some resistance: the Côte Basque restaurant in Manhattan turned her away for wearing trousers as this was deemed as inappropriate as women turning up for lunch in swimsuits. However, when Kempner stripped her trousers off and wore her long tuxedo jacket as a micro mini, she was seated right away. It is clear that at the time, women wearing trousers outside of the home was considered gauche, if not scandalous. However, this new look soon hit the runway, the designer opened his Rive Gauche boutique in Paris, selling affordable smoking suits. Young women were falling over themselves trying to get hold of one of these “pantsuits”. Le Smoking ran parallel to the women’s movement and encouraged the power and beauty of the youth revolution. In creating a smart, chic and elegant trouser suit, Saint Laurent liberated the woman from the rigid sartorial constraints and gave her “an indispensable garment with which she finds herself continually in fashion because it is about style not fashion. Fashions come and go, but style is forever,” the designer explained in the catalogue of his 2005 exhibit “Smoking Forever”.
It was not long before everyone was hooked. Bianca Perez Morena de Macias wore a Saint Laurent cream jacket when she married Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger, in 1971. Other designers such as Chanel and Bill Blass created their own versions of the smoking to create a suit with effortless style. As women were more and more prominent in the workforce, the suit soon became a synonym of power. Women would wear an oversized jacket, often double-breasted and wide at the shoulders, matching a skirt or trousers in dark colours such as black, grey, blue or beige. The power suit not only made a woman look rich and influential, but also made her look like she was somebody. Renate Gunthert, designer of the German Rena Lange collection said, “A suit is a power suit when you arrive at a board meeting or a hotel and everybody takes note. You are nicely greeted, they know who you are.” The suit gave women a new confidence and helped them assert their power and influence in the work environment, which was male-dominated in most places.
With this in mind I think there is a strong tendency for society nowadays to label women in suits as grumpy lesbians. Many men, and women for that matter, believe that in order to be sexy, a woman should be in high heels, wearing a dress with a spectacularly plunging neckline. This is quite frankly pathetic and out-of-date. Marlene Dietrich also seduced two men in her tuxedo and her cool and detached look, gazing off into the distance was discreetly admired by many. Dietrich teased her audience by wearing a man’s costume, but also by concealing her legs. The tuxedo acts as a layer guarding women from others, while simultaneously planting a desire to know, and see, more. Perhaps she was met with such shock because men suddenly felt threatened by a woman in their clothes. The power suit is a similar concept. Therefore men and society place women in a category and try to undermine them because of their overwhelming rise to power.
However, the idea that women need trouser suits to assert their power and influence is now obsolete. Women no longer believe their career trajectory has to be predicated on the appropriation of masculine gestures. Power, after all, should come as naturally to talented women as it does to talented men. Trouser suits have stopped becoming a statement of the liberated and powerful woman, and have become a choice. Now women are free to rock the androgynous look without being frowned upon by society. From Hedi Slimane to Raf Simons and Tom Ford, more and more designers are embracing le smoking. Fashion A-listers such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Alex Chung and Anne Hathaway have been spotted in trouser suits and tuxedos, showing that attitudes to androgynous fashion have certainly evolved. Fashion does not have to be gender normative: so boys, get those skirts on!