Tailor Gang: The Political Evolution of Women’s Suits

By Andrew Benson

Illustrations by Rebecca Baruc

“I saw an oversized Marc Jacobs suit buried quietly in the corner,” Lady Gaga said as she spoke at ELLE’s 2018 Women in Hollywood event. “As a woman who [was] conditioned at a very young age to listen to what men told me to do, I decided today, I wanted to take the power back. Today, I wear the pants,” she says to the silent crowd.

Everyone attending the event is gathered to celebrate the empowerment of women in Hollywood. Gaga’s speech went on to cover sexual abuse, toxic masculinity, and feminism. Her outfits have always made statements, from her meat dress to her camp presentation at the 2019 Met Gala where she unveiled four different outfits. The oversized beige suit Gaga wore at this 2018 event makes a statement women have been thinking for a century.

Suits usually symbolize power for men in business and are often attributed to a certain kind of man who is competitive and will do anything to get what he wants. Men like this may abuse their power and wield it upon the women they encounter. What’s worse is that women are conditioned to think that this is okay. Gaga’s speech attempts to reclaim the power that women deserve by fighting the facade of these men’s suits. What makes Gaga’s simple outfit choice so smart is the historical significance of women’s suits.

Suits from the Early 1900s
The University of North Carolina took a look at how women’s suits have changed throughout the course of the United States. In the 1910s, the suffragette suit became popular. The suit falls to mid thigh and has a matching skirt that falls to the mid calf. The suit was made to combat legislation that forced women to have a corset and hemline more than an inch from the ground. In the 1920s, Chanel made a skirt that eliminated the corset. The jacket is loose and falls to the waist, while the skirt falls just past the knees. The corset was replaced with a cardigan style wool jacket. The new design was much more functional, and women could now eat, laugh, and enjoy their life without fighting for breath.

In 2018, we see Lady Gaga being swallowed by her suit, but in the early 1900s, many of the limitations that women fought were based on functionality. The corset controlled the image that women were supposed to fit in the eyes of men, but the women that wore these corseted suits couldn’t live properly in their day to day life functions. Changing the function of suits was a step toward equality.

The Political 30s and 40s
In the 1930s and 1940s, we saw women’s suiting change based on the state of the world. The New Deal and WWII changed the roles of women and clothing accommodated these roles. In the 1930s, the pantsuit was introduced by Marcel Rochas. The jacket falls right to the hip, while the legs extend to the bottom of the shoes. During the Great Depression, women were introduced into the workforce at a higher rate, because they could be hired for lower wages. After the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal led to women in higher government jobs. In the 1940s, women’s suits were simplified because of wartime rationing. The suits were in typical army colors: greens and browns that represented typical military styles. More women were serving in the war during this time, so the military style was streamlined to reduce waste.

The Domestic 50s
In the 1950s, women wore tight jackets that ended at their hip with a flowy bar skirt. The new style was freeing and more fashionable, as women were encouraged to appreciate their body and their femininity. During this time many women stayed at home in a return to the traditional roles given to them by men. Now, feminism continues to be present in fashion. We continue to be more aware of the gender roles placed on us and seek to combat them through fashion. Drag Queens are becoming fashion inspirations and androgynous models, such as Rain Dove, are in the spotlight.

The 60s and 70s Revolution,
The gender roles of the 1950s led to a feminist revolution in the 1960s. This new decade welcomed casual looking minidresses and miniskirts. The jacket stops above the waist, where the skirt starts and ends above the knee. During the 60s, when the feminist movement began, the suit became synonymous with women’s rights. With the growing activism, women came closer to acheiving equal pay and mitigating sex discimination in employment. In the 70s, discussion of women’s rights was more present than ever. Thus, fashion started changing. Women’s suits typically had a loose jacket, matching pants, and an accent colored shirt. Pantsuits were popularized again so women could avoid objectification. Pants became so popular that girls were finally allowed to wear pants in public schools under Title IX.

As a result, the 60s and 70s brought the revolution that we see in the current day. They fought for equality, social justice, and an end to toxic masculinity. Women were saying the same thing Lady Gaga said on the Women in Hollywood stage. The battle for gender equality continues to happen. We will look towards the 80s to see how the fight continues.

The Excessive 80s
In the 1980s, women flipped the gender role and adopted the large suit jacket to their style. The suits donned a jacket with big shoulder pads and tight ankle length pants. These suits were known as the “power suit” and rose in popularity as more women obtained higher qualified jobs. The grandeur can be seen in Lady Gaga’s oversized suit. The campy fashion punched gender in the face. It allowed women to mimic the broad-shouldered man and employ their own drive and passion.

The 90s and 2000s
After the extravagant 80s, the suits of the 1990s focused on minimalism. The suits were simple and stuck to colors like black, beige, and white. As women became financially independent, they began to wear what they wanted. In the early 2000s, women’s suits became more casual. Oftentimes, a blazer was paired with jeans or trousers and a blouse. Dresses became much more popular in the workplace. In current times we aren’t seeing the suit as much. Women are drifting away from the garment that defined a movement.

To beyond
With Lady Gaga’s oversized suit, the iconography of women’s rights is embodied. Women like Kristen Stewart, Janelle Monáe, and Mindy Kaling are all wearing suits. It continues to be a piece that women wear to emote professionalism, power, and pride. Lady Gaga is transparent about her sexual abuse at the hands of men and her own encounters with toxic masculinity. Her speech at ELLE continues the message of the old school feminist movement we can see through the evolution of women’s suits.

Women’s suits have been iconic since the early 1900s. The pieces made women fight for a different future in the early 1910s. Then, the garments became a symbol of power in the 1980s. Heading into the future, we are seeing suits missing the political statement that they used to. Lady Gaga reignites the power that fashion has to offer in this sensitive political climate.