Fashion has always been a hallmark for the times we live in. There’s a great philosophy that exemplifies this – it’s known as the ‘short skirt theory’. Fashion folklore says that the hemlines of skirts rise and fall with the economy. In the post-war 1920s they shot up, in the austere 40s they dropped to the ankles; in the roaring 80s (think Donald Trump and Dynasty) the mini skirt reigned supreme, while the 90s heralded the return of the ‘midi’ and floor-skimming slip dresses. Admittedly, the scientific backing for this theory is shaky – but you can believe it, right? Style is inextricably linked with politics, economics… everything, and the history of the female suit is yet another potent example of this.
Men started wearing suits back in the year 666, but women didn’t get in on the action for – quite literally – another millennia. It was Sarah Bernhardt, a chic French actress, who changed things up, scandalising society by wearing made-to-measure suits in her heyday back in the late 1870s. A major starlet of her time, Bernhardt’s bold fashion choices coincided with a strong personal will – she demanded she be given the opportunity to play men’s roles and was successful, turning the notion of what constituted female and male on its head, and becoming the first woman to play Hamlet on stage in the process.
Bernhardt laid the groundwork for a whole generation of Hollywood stars who would channel her subversive style to create a new brand of sex appeal – first Marlene Dietrich in the 20s, then Katharine Hepburn in the 40s and 50s. Dietrich used masculine dressing (“I’m a gentleman at heart”, she once said) as a coded way to hint at her bisexuality, at a time where to be openly gay was career ending. Tuxedos – worn with perfectly coiffed hair and a deep red lip – became a characteristic of Dietrich’s both on-screen and off, establishing her as an enduring style icon whose influence on fashion is still evident today (Max Mara’s Resort 2020 show, staged in Berlin, was inspired by Dietrich).
Hepburn’s decision to wear trousers and tailored blazers instead of flouncy dresses and skirts was also an incredibly bold statement at the time. “I had a phase as a child where I wished I was a boy, because I thought boys had all the fun,” she once told a biographer. Her male alter-ego was named Jimmy, a character who she developed as a child but tapped into throughout her career. Now considered the greatest actress of all time (as well as one of the world’s most beautiful women), in her early career Hepburn was often written off as too masculine for both her fashion choices and her headstrong personality. Suits became for Katharine – as they have continued to be for women in the past 50 years – a way to tap into the powerful parts of male-ness and blend them with her own femininity.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the power suit in the 80s was partnered with the emergence of women in the workforce. In the USA, from 1972 to 1985, the number of women in management roles almost doubled, the number of female lawyers rose from 2 per cent to 15 per cent and the number of women working in finance rose from 9 per cent to 39 per cent. Women were working and they needed the wardrobes to match – believing, often, that the best way to be taken seriously by their male counterparts was to dress like them. It was around this time that Madonna entered pop music and blew up the game – subverting the idea of women in suits by adding lashings of sex appeal. She wore baggy, oversized suits with satin lapels, paired with a big bold lip, then changed into sheer corsets and skimpy bras for on-stage performances. Within her wardrobe seemed to exist the dichotomy of womanhood that she has balanced her entire career: man/woman, sexy/powerful, virgin/whore.
The legacy of women in suits has only grown as the years have passed. The past three years have seen suiting as the pre-eminent trend in women’s fashion, everything from slouchy iterations by Acne Studios to beautifully tailored separates by Alexander McQueen and sharp tuxedos by Saint Laurent. On one end of the spectrum you have Lady Gaga in a perfectly oversized Marc Jacobs suit – slicked back hair and bold make-up – on the other, supermodel Anja Rubik as the human embodiment of sexy on the red carpet at Cannes, in a black suit with no shirt, dripping in diamonds. Why is their appeal so timeless? The whole feminist conversation seems to be at a crossroads – do we progress by becoming more like men? Or by embracing the parts of ourselves that make us feminine? The answer is undoubtedly somewhere in the middle – and dressing in suits seems to be a tangible way of grappling with that conundrum. But they also look damn good – and sometimes, that’s reason enough.