When asked to think of a symbol representative of sartorial masculinity and power, what comes to mind? Most likely, the answer is “a suit,” with a freshly-pressed starched shirt tucked neatly beneath the veneer of a well-fitted ensemble. Yes, the suit has undoubtedly come to be a trademark for virility; some would say the two go hand-in-hand. And yet, on August 5th, 1923, it became much more.
In a salon within the first arrondissement of Paris, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel turned something so characteristically masculine into an emblem for female liberation. On that day, she opened the doors to her boutique to a handful of journalists that would be the first to view her new collection, limelighting what would become one of the most pivotal vogue statements in history: the two-piece skirt suit. It’s uncertain whether she knew the invariable effect that her tweed twosome would have years later, but her point at the time was loud and clear: anything they can do, we can do... well, if not better, then just as well.
Unsurprisingly, the reveal was met with harsh criticism, denoting the further female encroachment into male dominated territory. But like so many other great artists whose work was overlooked only to be rewarded with inexorable infamy down the road, Chanel held steadfast to the idea of a woman donning the same prowess and faculty that any man could, even if others related her designs to that of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
A decade later, her belief was shared by the masses. Entire articles were being published on the debate over women wearing trousers, a decision that could land them behind bars . The likes of Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were working to subvert the patriarchal scripture that once stated “There shall not be an article of a man upon a woman,” yet their wardrobe choices were attributed more to a sexless androgyny than a plea for continued femininity under the drapes of characteristically male decor.
Then came perhaps the most paramount of turning points - World War II. While men were off fighting on the warfront, the battle of the sexes was intensifying on home soil. Women went to work in the stead of their male counterparts, taking up positions where a pleated skirt and twinset just wouldn’t cut it.
Wartime propaganda disseminated into the collective consciousness, causing the fairer sex to ditch their frocks for factory attire, being fueled by statements like “We can do it!” And they did. In a way, a glass ceiling (in a long line of glass ceilings) was broken and progress was made in the women’s liberation movement that could not be rescinded after the war ended. The men would return for their positions, but the women had had a taste of walking in their shoes, and they liked the fit.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the suit had become less of an inherently-male statement piece and more of an idea for working women to explore their roles in a man’s world. A play on the pantsuit would be seen in major motion pictures like Flashdance (1983), 9 ½ Weeks (1986), and Working Girl (1988). A two-piece became synonymous with the success of the sex; the bigger the shoulder pads, the higher the chain of command. And that command would eventually make its way to the White House.
Perhaps the most well-known embodiment of the modern coalition for female empowerment, Hillary Rodham Clinton remains the only First Lady to don a pantsuit in her 2003 White House portrait. The leader of the self-proclaimed “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits,” Clinton literally wears her tenacity for feminist morale. Beyond supporting the interest of Americans on a political platform, she also embarks to lift up the women who are creating the suits to fit the space of this liberating female-dominated zeitgeist.
Today, almost 100 years following Coco Chanel’s debut of her rebellious, would-be signature tweed two-piece, the suit shares a close, symbiotic relationship with the feminine success story. It is no longer just a staple of men’s closets, but an insignia of the many vagaries marking the evolution of women’s rights over the decades. Within the scope of the recent Me Too and Time’s Up movements, it has become now - more than ever - the armor of choice for the likes of celebrity icons such as Blake Lively and Lady Gaga as they show that they, too, can “wear the pants.” For women breaking free from the persistent yoke of domestication and subservience, those words seem more than well-suited for the occasion.
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