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From armor to icon: How women’s suits became cool again

Women first wore suits to mirror the men in their male-dominated workplaces. But in the now-casual office, women are redefining the suit in their own image.

From armor to icon: How women’s suits became cool again
[Photo: courtesy of Argent]

In her eight years rising through the ranks of J.P. Morgan, Joanna Dai spent her days–and late nights–in starchy business suits. In the male-dominated world of investment banking, the blazer and matching trouser set was like a suit of armor. Wearing this archetypal menswear garment–full of lines and angles–was a way to channel masculinity. The boxiness of the outfit downplayed her curves and masked her sexuality. “I wanted to walk into a meeting and mirror the man I was in there doing business with,” Dai explains. “It reflected how similar we were in rank and competence.”

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Women have worn menswear to work for decades now. The modern women’s pantsuit originates in the 1920s, when women were just beginning to enter the workforce in greater numbers and taking on leadership positions in government. But the golden age of the pantsuit is arguably the 1980s, when blazers with enormous shoulder pads were all the rage among professional women. This was the first time that more women were working than staying home, and their role in management positions jumped from 20% to 36%. Between 1980 and 1987, the annual sale of women’s suits increased by $600 million.

Over the last decade, however, the office has become increasingly more casual for both male and female employees. At Fast Company, we’ve been tracking how once-stuffy industries like law, consulting, and finance are loosening their dress codes to allow employees to reflect society’s more relaxed approach to clothing. This shift has been led by startups and tech companies, which encourage employees to wear whatever makes them feel the most comfortable. And the growth of “athleisure” is all about making it acceptable to wear yoga pants and running tights everywhere, including the workplace.

But despite these trends, the woman’s suit is as popular as ever. Some of the most powerful women of our time–Angela Merkel, Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington, Indira Nooyi, to name but a few–wear suits all the time. Hillary Clinton has spent her entire political life in a pantsuit, spurring her most ardent supporters to go to the polls wearing suits in solidarity, and affectionately referring to their community as Pantsuit Nation.

At VC pitch presentations, board meetings, and networking events,  women are still frequently in suits, even as their male counterparts have unbuttoned their collars or opted for sneakers and hoodies. “We’ve been hearing about the death of the suit for decades, but let me tell you, the suit is alive and well,” says Fokke de Jong, who founded international suiting company Suitsupply 18 years ago. “My teenage daughter and her friends wear suits to school.”

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To cater to this demand, there has been a spate of women’s suiting startups over the last few years. Last October, Suitsupply launched a women’s suiting label called Suistudio that is expanding rapidly around the world. The edgy two-year-old workwear startup Argent has fitted powerful women including Hillary Clinton and San Francisco mayoral candidate Jane Kim in suits. And startups like Ameliora and Citizen’s Mark have centered around creating luxurious tailored suits for women at reasonable prices.

Dai has seen the popularity of the women’s suit firsthand. A year and a half ago, she left the high-powered world of banking to launch a London-based fashion label called DAI that makes tailored workwear pieces out of the same materials you might find in yoga pants. Her best seller so far? A stretchy, wrinkle-resistant two-piece pantsuit.

[Photo: courtesy of DAI]

The art of power dressing

Suits have always been a power play. Even before women adopted the suit in the workplace, suits were a way for men to assert their elevated class and position in society.

The origins of the modern business suit can be traced to the royal courts of Europe in the 17th century, where men would wear trousers, long waistcoats, and cravats, which then evolved into the tailored suits that high-class men wore in the 18th. These clothes were made of fussy, expensive materials, and signaled that a man did not have to do hard work in the fields for a living. They were worn by men who either inherited his wealth or owned land that others tilled. But over time, men who simply wanted to appear as if they were respectable gentlemen would invest in suits.

During the industrial revolution, when a class of professional men doing desk jobs emerged, the suit was the de facto clothing choice for men who worked in offices and businesses. So it made sense that when women first entered the workplace, wearing a suit was a way to assert that they belonged and fit in with their male colleagues.

These days, however, as women rise through the ranks, it is less and less important for women to wear clothes to prove that they belong. According to Dai, who observed this in her time at J.P. Morgan, women with the most impressive titles and salaries could wear what they wanted to work: Some abandoned the suit for more feminine choices, like colorful or slightly sexier dresses. “When you’re an entry-level worker proving yourself, you opt for the suit by default because you think it imbues you with gravitas,” she says. “But as you take on more senior-level positions, women seemed to feel more freedom to wear what they want. They felt like they could take more risks.”

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But even when they don’t feel the pressure to fit in, a large number of high powered women still choose to wear suits. What is it about the suit that continues to have enduring appeal to women, even as men have decided they’re too stuffy?

[Photos: courtesy of DAI]

The functionality of the suit

For many women, the suit is no longer about making a statement. It’s just the most practical outfit for the office.

This was the thinking behind the fashion startup Argent. The brand’s founders, Sali Christeson and Eleanor Turner, wanted to launch a workwear line that incorporated functionality into the garments because they felt that so much of womenswear is designed to be decorative, rather than wearable. Shift dresses and pencil skirts can make a woman look polished and professional, but they restrict movement, ride up, and force a woman to think about how she is sitting. (Any woman who has been on stage for a panel discussion in a skirt has worried about flashing the audience with their knickers.) “The whole point of workwear should be to eliminate distractions and allow women to focus on their work,” says Christeson. “But that’s not how most women’s office wear is designed.”

For Argent’s founders, the suit stood out because it is perfect for office work. “It’s just easier to walk and sit and move when you’re wearing pants,” says Turner. “The jacket provides warmth when you need it and there are pockets everywhere. You don’t find that in a lot of traditional womenswear–as if women don’t have stuff to carry around.”

[Photos: courtesy of Argent]
And it makes sense that the suit is a garment well-suited for the workplace: It evolved to meet the needs of men who did administrative work at desks all day. In the late 19th century, for instance, business suits were equipped with special spaces for pocket watches and fountain pens.

Christeson and Turner wanted to update and modernized the functionality of the suit to make them even more useful to women. To this end, they use technical materials like polyester that doesn’t wrinkle and resists stains. They also include lots of high-tech details, like mesh pockets inside blazers for your phone, so you can glance at the screen easily, and a special pocket for your office keycard.

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They’ve found that their customers come from all industries, including creative and tech fields where there’s no dress code. But just because the suits are designed for function doesn’t mean that they are drab. Besides the obligatory black and blue suits, Argent makes suits that come in bright colors, like hot pink, and interesting patterns. Hillary Clinton, for instance, is a fan of the brand’s basketweave pattern. She’s worn it for many public events, including a photo shoot for Teen Vogue. “I think we’re finally moving away from seeing the suit as menswear,” says Christeson. “We’re trying to create suits that are perfectly designed for women’s bodies and women’s lives.”

[Photo: courtesy of Argent]

Designing the perfect woman’s suit

There was a time when women felt the need to downplay their femininity in the workplace, but that appears to be changing, perhaps because it is now the norm for women to have careers and rise up within companies. In other words, we’re finally at a time when looking like a woman is no longer a liability at your job. So some suit-makers are redesigning women’s suits to make them more feminine, fashion-forward, and sexy.

Take Suistudio, which launched less than a year ago. At the brand’s trendy boutique in New York, the racks are full of suits of many colors, from navy to white to pinks to lavenders. Founder Fokke de Jong says that what sets his brand apart is the stylish, creative ways the suits are cut. At each store, there are in-house tailors who customize the fit to the woman who is making the suit. “Suits come out of the world of tailoring,” says de Jong. “Most men have had their suits fitted and understand how much better it looks when it is adjusted to their body. But women’s suits are generally off-the-rack–and we wanted to change that.”

By adding custom tailoring, Suistudio can create suits with interesting aesthetic twists. Some suits have boxy shoulders with slim waists. There are nautical suits with buttons throughout the blazer that is meant to be worn without a shirt underneath. There are sleeveless suits and suits with shorts that are perfect for the summer. There are shirts that have enormous bows on the front, that peek out from under the blazer.

Show stoppers: Discover our new arrivals via link in bio. #SUISTUDIO

A post shared by SUISTUDIO (@suistudio) on

In each case, the look is distinctly figure-flattering, accentuating a woman’s curves. And as a result, de Jong says that women are wearing these suits in all kinds of contexts. Women have been wearing the brand’s tuxedo-inspired suits to black tie events or weddings. Those in creative industries have been wearing snazzy fashionable suits to the office every day. They’re buying suits to wear to fashion week. “We’re proving that everything we’ve thought about what a suit should look like and where a suit should be wrong is wrong,” says de Jong.

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Just look at Suisupply’s first ad campaign. In it, women in well-fitted suits are photographed in a high-rise apartment, full of leather couches, fur rugs, and floor to ceiling windows–the kind of wealthy corporate executive’s bachelor pad. But it’s a woman’s world.There’s a gorgeous well-chiseled man in the picture as well, but he’s totally nude. In one image, a woman sits on the back of a teal velvet sofa, with her high heel strategically situated on top of his private parts. The cheeky hashtag that went along with the campaign was #NotDressingMen.

The whole campaign signaled a new age for the suit, one where trends and shapes are dictated by women, rather than men.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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