Style history – Women’s Business Suit
The woman’s business suit emerged at the end of the 19th century, although it all started a little bit earlier. Middle class women, having made space for themselves among men in intellectual work, or, more precisely, having won for themselves a small portion of the sector on proof that they could write, count, and draw as well as men, couldn’t go to work in their home dress or evening wear. Therefore, women needed to have appropriate attire. But their choice was limited to a dark skirt and a high collared blouse. Such clothing was normally worn by teachers, secretaries, stenographers, and small business owners.
The situation changed thanks to John Redfern, the famous English couturier, who created fashion for the royal court. He created for Princess Alexandra a costume containing a jacket-coat the basis for which was the man’s frock coat. The costume consisted of a jacket and skirt of the same colour as well as a blouse with a high collar, and a ladies’ tie. Alexandra required the suit for travelling around Europe with her husband, the Prince of Wales. The outfit was known as a tailored suit.
By the way, Redfern created outfits for ladies at court. He also created small editions of suits, jackets, and coats for middle class women.
By 1910, ladies’ business suits were mass-produced, especially in the United States, where clothes production was a major part of the economy. Still, these were tailleurs (women’s town suits). The ladies’ suit we know today came a little bit later. The jacket, originally similar to a ladies’ riding coat, acquired a collar and lapels, and the skirt got shorter and narrower. Gradually, the suit moved into the category of daily wear and ceased to be remarkable.
A significant development in the development of business suits was made by the French couturier Coco Chanel (Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel). First, these suits were made from jersey fabric and were combined with sleeveless jumpers; these were followed by tweed suits.
By the way, the most famous design by Coco Chanel – her pièce de résistance – was the Little Black Dress. Initially, this dress came with long sleeves – absolutely everyone had a dress like that! – and although it was originally designed as a cocktail dress, it was worn not only during the evening, but also during the daytime.
Shoulder pads were the next step in the development of the business suit. It is believed they were the creation of the Italian designer Elsa Schiaperelli. Given that by that time the suit had become an integral part of women’s business attire, shoulder pads became a hit. And they remained in fashion for nearly 15 years!
During the Second World War the business suit became narrower, crisper, and squarer. This was dictated by the shortage of fabric. This is why, after the War, the business suit went out of fashion, because women missed dresses and looser outfits. The Spanish couturier Cristobál Balenciaga helped bring the suit back into fashion. The special feature of his designs was that, while they were minimalistic, they were at the same time very elegant. More important, his designs were suitable for any figure, which only added to their popularity.
In the 1960s, the popularity of the business suit was enhanced by Jacqueline Kennedy. For political reasons, she had to wear costumes produced domestically. She turned to the American designer Oleg Cassini. Especially for her, he designed what is known as a “box suit”. Box suits consisted of a double-breasted straight jacket, and a skirt which fell just below the knee. Subsequently, this suit became standard office attire.
Remarkably, the box suit happened to have a competitor. André Courregès created a trouser suit which had quite a futuristic appearance as if taken from sci-fi movie. The special feature of suits by André Courregès was that they were geometrically proportioned.
At the end of the 1960s, with the development of commercial aviation, ladies’ business suits got a new breath of life. The profession of air stewardess was extremely glamorous, and the uniforms were created by the most famous designers, for example, Mary Quant. The costumes usually came in navy or light blue colours, and were accompanied by a neck scarf.
A little bit later, two contrasting events happened. First, at the beginning of the 1980s, the so called “power suit” came into fashion. It was based on contrasts: broad shoulders and narrow waist with a short skirt. At the same time, a market for branded fashion emerged. Seven years later, following a recession, that style suddenly went out of fashion, and it was replaced by the ideals of authenticity and spirituality. Ethnic influences in fashion emerged, the basis of which were the traditional clothing of south and east Asia.
In the 1990s, the ethnic influence on fashion declined due to fashion becoming more casual. Businesswomen stopped following a strict dress code and started wearing jeans with T-shirts to work. We can observe this casualization still today.
Of course, the business suit has not gone out of fashion. However, it is unlikely that it will again enjoy the popularity it had in the middle of the last century.