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HISTORY OF...TROUSERSUITS: Popularising the Trouser Suit - part 2
Women of today should not underestimate the evolution of the trouser suit with regards to females, as those who have sported it have grown from controversy, to modern-day ease. One of the most fundamental influences that helped the trouser suit to blossom in the public eye was the shifting of cultural platforms. Ultimately, the trouser suit embodies the transformation of gendered prejudices throughout time. Different mediums – ranging from television and film, to magazines and newspapers – that spread the work and innovative designs of forward-thinking fashion designers have significantly aided in our mass internalisation of the trouser suit as gender-bending, bold attire.
In our previous
article chronicling the history of trouser suits, we focused upon the social changes that occurred to set the stage for change and the inspiration behind newer trousersuit designs; in this piece, we'll explore the influence of radically daring fashion designers and reflect on the politics underlying the trouser suit's evolution.
FASHION DESIGNERS that PAVED the WAY
Going against the grain of traditional feminine garments was a daring move by early fashion designers, a feat that Marcel Rocha did not shy away from in his 1932 collection. Following Chanel’s introduction of their own rendition of the skirt suit from 1914, Marcel Rocha reflected attitudes of women stepping into the male sphere and out of their sole role in domestics when creating the first wide-shouldered trouser suit for women. It consisted of a pair of wool trousers and a shoulder-padded matching jacket, which was revolutionary at the time, as many women were already criticised for emasculating men with their increased presence in the workplace and finding of employment. By laying down foundations for the path of experimentation, designer Elsa Schiaparelli redrafted traditional menswear with an inspired wool pantsuit in 1939: it consisted of a brown wool jacket with four large buttons down the front and a pair of cuffed slacks with a single pleat.
As a catalyst for historical fashion in women’s fashion, Schiaparelli’s pantsuit is now displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a permanent reminder of how the trouser suit enabled women to feel empowered. Decades later, we see the emergence of French designer, Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ suit in 1966, which was a tuxedo specifically designed for women and which included a dinner jacket, white shirt and black bowtie paired with a satin side striped trouser and cummerbund. As a stereotypical formal evening suit for a man, Saint Laurent distorted gendered guidelines and heavily contributed to the intriguing rise of androgyny in fashion. As an article by a male columnist stated in the influential ‘Life’ magazine in 1968, Yves Saint Laurent were contributing to the destruction of gender norms – although intended as an insult, we will take that as a compliment!
Yves Saint Laurent, ‘Le Smoking’ (1966)
THE TROUSER SUIT under the SPOTLIGHT
Nevertheless, these designers need fearless women to publicise their collections. Following trends is not a modern phenomenon and, although often criticised, is often necessary when such trends enforce gender-bending morals; this can be dated back to German American actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, as a prime example. As a woman often in the spotlight, Marlene used her influential power as a tool to contribute to feminist fashion. For her 1930 Oscar-winning role in ‘Morocco’, we see the actress sporting a tuxedo designed by Travis Banton (see image NUMBER), distorting and rejecting the feminine look that dominated the film industry and was imposed upon women. This then went on to be one of her signature looks, becoming revered and admired by mass audiences. A further icon who regularly wore trouser suits in front of the camera was American actress Katherine Hepburn. Adapting from Marlene’s masculine attire, Katherine adopted a more feminine version of the trouser suit – a fitted jacket and a wider pant. In her film ‘Women of the Year’ released in 1942, Katherine wore her trouser suit but it didn’t stop there. Daringly, Katherine dressed in this attire both in and out of the spotlight, testifying that such clothing was not merely destined for the screen, but also for day-to-day life.
Marlene Dietrich (1933)
Katharine Hepburn (1938)
Marlene Dietrich (1941)
Marlene Dietrich in 'Morocco' by Josef von Sternberg (1930)
Trouser Suit in the 1930s
Trouser Suit in the 1940s
Trouser Suit in the 1950s
Trouser Suit in the 1960s
THE POLITICS of CLOTHING
As we have seen in contemporary times with Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, it is extremely influential when we see political leaders and First Ladies making controversial fashion choices such as the trouser suit. Asserting their feminine authority, we can trace the development of the trouser suit in political climates back to Illinois’s Representative in 1968, a woman named Charlotte Reid who was the first woman to wear trousers in US congress. Despite this achievement, it wasn’t until 1993 that Barbara Mikulski helped to lead the Pantsuit rebellion that paved the way for senators Mikulski and Carol Moseley-Braun to inspire change by being the first to wear trouser suits on senate floors. Following this, in 1972, Pat Nixon was the first American First Lady to model trousers in a national magazine. By popularising females wearing trousers in male dominated environments, these brave women demonstrated how risky fashion choices could empower women and represent wider attempts to equalise the genders.
The gradual evolution of the trouser suit transformed what was once a fashion statement into a deeper symbol of distorting gender boundaries. Visibly empowering women as a whole, these notable female figures took risks irrespective of their position under the spotlight and, as a result, rewrote cultural norms of femininity.
Now that we've explored the impact of haute-couture fashion on the popularity of the trouser suit, as well as the political undertones of the ensemble, we are going to focus upon a succession of empowered women for whom the trouser suit has become a rebellious uniform,, and establish the impact of this on the female quest for social change. Who consistently acts as female champion whilst sporting a trouser suit? Who has helped to rewrite the rules fo the trouser suit? How has this impacted the following generations of women? Find out in part 3, From Trouser Suit to Power Suit.