Power dressing: How women have styled suits over the decades

Fashion can be a hugely political force, and few things are as charged with meaning as a suit. Traditionally, a two-piece matching trouser and blazer situation was the remit of men – it was their uniform and a symbol of dominance over skirted and pocket-less women.

However, over the decades, there’s been something of a reclamation, as women have increasingly started making suits their own. Initially, it was a huge statement to shun dresses and the trappings of femininity. But now it’s more of an area for fashion experimentation.

Now, the suit is much more of a common sight on the red carpet and indeed as wedding guest attire than ever before. But how did we get here? Women have been making suits their own in different ways for decades, and here’s how.

1960s: Suits enter the mainstream

Women in suits

1960s suits were simple and feminine

It was in the 1960s that Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking – a black tuxedo suit specifically designed for women. This started a huge trend, with various other designers realising there was (gasp) actually a market for women’s suits. The result was a huge uptick in production.

1966 model in suit

Patterns tended to be graphic

Styles tended to be plain – like Le Smoking – or featuring graphic prints, like checks or stripes. Sure, the latter type looked a little bit like pyjamas, but at least it was becoming more acceptable for women to actually wear trousers for all manner of occasions.

1970s: More experimentation

Raquel Welch

Raquel Welch in a leather trouser suit

By the Seventies, suits weren’t quite the novelty they used to be for women. This gave rise to a whole lot more experimentation in patterns and materials – we’re talking full leather situations, or funky patterns with an excessive amount of jewellery.

Mick and Bianca Jagger

Bianca Jagger’s uniform was a white suit

Bianca and Mick Jagger were married between 1971 and 1978, and as a high-profile relationship it was closely followed by the paparazzi. This is arguably when suits were really catapulted into the limelight, as Bianca was partial to a well-tailored white two-piece, and was regularly photographed in one.

1980s: Power dressing

1982 model in a suit

Wide legs and big shoulders – it must be the Eighties

The 1980s was the era of power dressing, and what could exude more dominance than a woman wearing a suit? This was a time where women were increasingly wanting to make their voices heard, particularly in the office. They were a visual cue that the female wearer wasn’t actually that different to men, in the room, and should be treated similarly.

This was still the Eighties, so the styles matched that – we’re talking big shoulders, wide legs, and an overall glam rock vibe.

1983 model in leather suit (left)

Yes, that really is a metallic suit

Power dressing is a technique that is still very much in use today. Just take Hillary Clinton, who has become well-known for her penchant for pantsuits. In her recent autobiography What Happened she describes how they helped her fit in with male politicians, adding: “They make me feel professional and ready to go.”

1990s: Sexy minimalism

Model in a suit 1998

This was a time where women started giving shirts a miss

After the aesthetic overload of the Eighties, the Nineties came as something of a palate cleanser. Shoulders were toned down, patterns were kept to a minimum, and there was less of a focus on power dressing for the office.

As with much of Nineties dressing, the general vibe was minimalist, with a healthy does of sex appeal, as increasingly suits were worn with nothing underneath.

Celine Dion backwards suit

Celine Dion and her iconic backwards suit

However, this isn’t to say there wasn’t room for any experimentation at all. Perhaps the most famous suit of the decade comes courtesy of singer Celine Dion, who wore a John Galliano backwards white tuxedo to the 1999 Oscars. This avant-garde outfit caused even more of a splash at the time as women still largely wore dresses for formal and high-profile events.

2000s: Three-piece ensembles

Stella McCartney in 2003

Stella McCartney’s style certainly has come a long way

Look away now, lest your eyes are afflicted by some Noughties fashion disasters. Considering it’s the decade of skirts over jeans, scarf belts and Von Dutch trucker hats, we can’t really expect female suiting to have come out any better.

Juliette Lewis 2005

Suits were rarely complete without a mini waistcoat

Our main beef with suits in the Noughties were how they were styled. Instead of keeping things crisp and tailored, everything was completely overdone with mini waistcoats and unnecessary hats to complete the look. It really went by the ethos of “more is more” and everything was accessorised to within an inch of its life.

2010s: From the red carpet to the street

Angelina Jolie 2014 BAFTAs

Angelina Jolie wore a Saint Laurent tux to the 2014 Baftas

The 2010s brought with them the realisation that suits don’t have to be overstyled – they are powerful enough on their own. On the red carpet, female tailoring has proved it’s more than just a trend and is here to stay.

The fashion for the moment tends to revolve around sleek and well-fitting two-pieces – at premieres they are more often than not worn with just a bra underneath for extra sex appeal.

Solange Knowles

Solange keeps things sleek but jazzy with a hint of sparkles

Luckily, nowadays women don’t feel quite so compelled to wear carbon copies of male suits to assert their dominance in the workplace. It’s become more of a place of experimentation, and women have started playing around with patterns and colours.

Suits have become so prevalent that they’re no longer reserved for the red carpet or the boardroom, but work just as well with a pair of trainers or comfortable boots out on the street.

Floral suit

Suits are increasingly worn in day-to-day life

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