The return of power dressing - ‘Gender-appropriate dress codes can now be flipped on their head’
Gender fluidity and the #MeToo movement brought the power suit back in style, writes Rose Mary Roche
Since the shocking revelations about Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, fashion has been re-assessing how to portray women. Amidst the backlash against predatory male sexual misconduct, the new sensitivities created by the scandal and a heightened awareness of female modesty versus the male gaze, designers have had to re-examine their design strategy.
The initial reaction for female actors to wear black on the red carpet, although laudable, was not one that could be perpetuated indefinitely. Something more enduring was required. In the post #MeToo world, acute awareness of political correctness and a desire to dress women in clothes that convey both substance and style, while also emphasising female empowerment, has heralded the revival of power dressing, particularly the trouser suit.
If you want to look the epitome of grown up, independent elegance, then a trouser suit is the outfit to trump all others. Katherine Hepburn, a long-time champion of trousers, once quipped: "Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, 'Try one. Try a skirt'."
Hepburn was one of many independent women who found suits a sartorial expression of their desire for freedom: Marlene Dietrich in black tie, Betty Catroux in Le Smoking, Patti Smith on the cover of Horses, Annie Lennox in pinstripes, Grace Jones in Issey Miyake power shoulders, Madonna in Gaultier suit and corset or Tilda Swinton channelling Bowie in Vogue Italia. Although very diverse personalities, their love of fine tailoring echoes their strong, unconventional personalities and taste for subversion.
Currently, women want to look strong, modern and without whimsy in a world with renewed feminist sensibilities, so tailoring and suiting are enjoying a major renaissance. While the trend had been simmering for a few seasons, the #MeToo movement propelled women in suits into a visible representation of the sentiments that drove actresses and women in many other spheres to cry "Stop". The sisterhood had had enough and, suddenly, revealing dresses didn't seem quite appropriate. What was needed was structure, strength and clean authoritative lines - tailoring was perfectly suited to the task.
Tina Brown, the magazine editor, recently recalled her days of 80s power dressing as "the sartorial equivalent of suiting up for the Battle of Agincourt" but younger women are finding the novelty of tailoring cool and contemporary. As Autumn/Winter 2018 is heavily nostalgic with multiple references to both the 80s and 90s, expect to see suits on many women this winter. The sartorial armour of suiting is prevalent throughout the collections and after a summer of floral dress saturation, it feels fresh and palate cleansing. This is clothing that speaks of confidence, intelligence and an appetite for change.
Shelly Corkery, Brown Thomas Fashion Director, explains: "The new classic tailoring this season is absolutely deconstructed. Broad shoulders, cinched in waists and louche oversized trousers all give an edge. Power shoulder jackets are feminine with nipped-in waists either worn with trousers or a pencil skirt."
The growing popularity of the new tailoring was highlighted at the Cannes Film Festival in May where Kristen Stewart, Cate Blanchett and Lea Seydoux all looked confident and chic in suits from Chanel, Stella McCartney and Louis Vuitton respectively.
Shelly Corkery sees colour and pattern as major elements of the trend: "There is a strong focus on checks - whether it's windowpane, hounds-tooth, tweed to Prince of Wales - it's everywhere. My hot favourite for the season is Loewe's take on the trend - the magnificent hounds-tooth cape jacket and bootleg trouser suit. Saturated colours - think cobalt blue and bright pink - is power dressing at its best! Sharp and structured with clean lines keeps this reinterpretation of tailoring ultra-modern and super-cool."
A stalwart fan of the tailored suit is the Duchess of Sussex, who recently wore a Givenchy trouser suit that complemented her understated yet self-assured style in Dublin. The alleged revelation that the Royals don't necessarily approve of Meghan's trouser suits makes them appear archaic.
The trouser revolution materialised in the late 60s when unisex fashions emerged - early in the decade André Courrèges introduced long trousers for women; later, the modern trouser suit was created when St Laurent's Le Smoking featured as part of the designer's 1966 collection. Back then, a woman in a tuxedo was perceived as shocking.
However, it was quickly adopted by chic women including Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minelli, Lauren Bacall and Bianca Jagger. Here was a new creature as portrayed in Helmut Newton's iconic shot of Vibeke: a sexually adventurous and provocative woman who pushed the boundaries of femininity. She was strong, financially independent and seductive. Deneuve articulated its appeal when she stated: "It really does make you feel different as a woman."
Urban legend recalls that Nan Kempner, a socialite and devotee of YSL, was turned away from a table in La Cote Basque in New York in the 1970s wearing her Le Smoking. Nan reportedly shrugged, stepped out of her pants and was seated in her bum-grazing jacket, re-imagined as a very short mini dress.
Soon the trouser suit was de rigueur for fashion pioneers and working women who adopted it as an integral part of their wardrobe.
While the 80s and early 90s witnessed the peak popularity of the trouser suit, courtesy of Amazonian Valkyries in gigantic shoulder pads à la Working Girl and later the androgynous monochromatic minimalism of Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, the end of the decade saw its decline. The Noughties saw the revival of the dress as the backbone of women's working wardrobe and trouser suits waned.
Today with the rise of androgynous dressing, gender fluidity and third wave feminism, the fuss generated by Le Smoking seems quaint. Fashion reflects society's aspirations, liberalism or conservatism and can convey subtle or overt sexual messages. In a time of social upheaval, cultural norms such as gender-appropriate dress codes can be flipped on their head. Now with widespread global unrest and polarising political philosophies, it is not surprising that trousers for women have become a serious sartorial statement again.
A trouser suit speaks of work to be done and a dedicated no-bullshit approach. And in a world where women still aspire to look competent, efficient and attuned to the demands of a competitive corporate landscape, there is no place for worrying about hemlines that ride up, necklines that gape or sleeves that aren't there. Sleek tailoring is one of the most confidence-boosting dress codes a woman can adapt. And it helps that it's ultra-comfortable too.
How to buy a trouser suit
- Choose carefully and concentrate on the fabric and fit - good tailoring costs money so spend the most you can afford to maximize longevity.
- Buy natural fibres or natural fibre blends - high twist wools, cottons and silks are excellent fabrics and have good recovery properties (i.e. creases will drop out of them quickly). Some synthetics are lint magnets and natural fibres are more breathable.
- Inspect fabric compositions, linings, buttons and zips to ensure they are suitable for wear and tear.
- Seams should be straight and smooth.
- Buttons should be well sewn on and look classic rather than gaudy.
- The lining shouldn't pull or dip and shouldn't crackle with static.
- Checks and stripes should always match, particularly at the shoulder seam.
- Jackets hang off your shoulders so the fit here is critical. The shoulder-line of jackets and coats must fit your natural shoulder - it should never sit short of it and if choosing a stronger shoulder, be careful it doesn't swamp you.
- Rise of trousers - if the crotch is too short, the fit will be tight and if it is too long, your trousers will appear saggy and sad. Some brands offer different trouser styles for a suit jacket to allow you choose the most flattering cut for your shape.