5 Workwear Trends That Changed Women's Lives

Think about what you wear to work every day. Jeans? A blazer and shift dress? Sneakers and leggings? Making up 47% of the U.S. workforce, women have innumerable options when it comes to acceptable office attire. But in 1960, when just one-third of the workforce was female and the Civil Rights Act hadn’t yet instituted anti-discrimination protections, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Since then, we've witnessed abundant change — legal, economic, social, and yes, sartorial. As more women stepped into professional roles, their 9-to-5 wardrobes took on new dimensions. "When we talk about workwear, we’re really talking about looking appropriate at a given cultural moment," says Emma McClendon, assistant curator at the Museum at FIT. "That’s why appropriateness is hard to pin down; it’s constantly changing in response to what’s going on in the world."

Consider the female characters in Amazon's ripped-from-the-headlines drama, Good Girls Revolt, who entered the office in the '60s and aligned their daring calls for change with shorter hemlines and less-restrictive silhouettes (i.e. the miniskirt). Or think back to the 1990s when more women than ever walked away with MBA degrees, became primary breadwinners, and made their presence known in pantsuits. In every decade in between and thereafter, women paved the way for the anything-but-business-casual work wardrobes we enjoy today.

Ahead, see five milestone trends from the last 50-plus years, each styled in a way that not only honors heroines past but which can also inform your modern wardrobe. Let's learn some herstory.
Photographed by Jacob Sadrak & Carrol Cruz at Factory Downtown.
M. Martin top, Carven skirt, Chiarra Ferragni shoes.
1960s Miniskirt
Although the '60s call to mind great national discord sparked by the anti-war movement, nuclear threats, a tragic string of assassinations, and the struggle for civil rights, it was also a time of sweeping positive change for women. The momentum of the women's liberation movement and more specific developments like the introduction of the pill as birth control carried over into the fashion of the era, providing women a sense of freedom they hadn't yet experienced through their clothing. As hemlines got shorter and petticoat layers became superfluous, women opted for silhouettes like the miniskirt, which allowed for a greater range of movement than any piece prior. Paired with structured funnel-collar tops and hyper-feminine blouses, minis transcended night-out and weekend-wear to become a staple in creative offices.

The Miniskirt Today
Make this semi-retro A-line silhouette feel more current with the addition of a zipper-pull turtleneck and cheeky flats. Clashing prints also give the ensemble a more modern vibe.
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Photographed by Jacob Sadrak & Carrol Cruz at Factory Downtown.
Sandro top and pants, Chiarra Ferragni shoes.
1970s Androgyny
Given the rise of glam rock and the inclusion of gender-bending styles across mainstream entertainment, it's no surprise that androgyny emerged as a defining trend of the 1970s. "Before the '70s, it was really taboo for women to wear pants to work," says McClendon. "Then, it became not only not taboo, but also fashionable." As this gender-neutral attitude spread, women's styles became less about skin-baring frocks and more about masculine suiting. Specifically, this meant wearing bell-bottom pants, button-downs, and blazers to the office. And just as they challenged gender norms in fashion, women also did so in the workplace, finally moving beyond positions like secretary and assistant in large numbers. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the percentage of women in managerial roles increased from 16% in 1970 to 26% in 1979.

Androgyny Today
Never before has gender identity been as salient a topic as it is today. And we're proud that fashion is indicative of the positive direction in which our culture is moving. Just last year, New York City released a guidance preventing employers from imposing dress codes or grooming standards that are inconsistent between the sexes. For a fashion-forward look that reflects this progress, pair high-waisted trousers with a tucked-in graphic blouse, metallic red booties, and minimal accessories.
Photographed by Jacob Sadrak & Carrol Cruz at Factory Downtown.
Topshop top, Zara pants, Aldo shoes, I Still Love You NYC earrings, vintage belt.
1980s Bold Shoulder
As women sought out more executive positions in male-dominated workplaces, power dressing surfaced as the single most consistent trend of the next few decades. In the '80s specifically, it was all about the shoulder pad. However unnatural this bold shoulder may seem in hindsight, it worked to mimic the authoritative, broad shoulders emphasized in menswear suiting. "There is an argument to be made that when someone enters into a more executive position, she may be inclined to dress in a way that separates her from those in administrative roles and aligns her with her male peers at her level," says McClendon.

The Bold Shoulder Today
Consider toning down the severity of this look in favor of a structured sweater that emphasizes the shoulders in a more nuanced way. To balance the still-prominent silhouette, pair it with belted, narrow trousers.
Photographed by Jacob Sadrak & Carrol Cruz at Factory Downtown.
Club Monaco top, Topshop suit, & Other Stories shoes.
1990s Pantsuit
When shoulder pads fell out of vogue, more relaxed suiting took their place, settling nicely into the power-dressing statement of the '90s. Though significantly more comfortable than stiff, structured shoulders, the look remains iconic and strategic. As women experienced more professional successes — by 1999, women earned 40% of all conferred MBA degrees — the pressure to aggressively counter gender norms and workplace sexism via their wardrobes waned. This also explains why suits took on a softer edge, incorporating skirts (which many felt were too feminine for the '70s and '80s) and lacy camisoles in place of slacks and starchy button-downs.

The Pantsuit Today
Twenty years later, we'd be proud to rock this two-piece style in a punchy power print, like these neon stripes. Strappy Mary Janes and a black sweater help ground the loud look.
Photographed by Jacob Sadrak & Carrol Cruz at Factory Downtown.
Allina top, M. Martin pants, Billy Reid shoes, H&M earrings.
2000s Designer Denim
Ah, the early aughts, a time rife with questionable sartorial choices. But there is at least one style we're still embracing in 2016: designer jeans. As casual Friday chipped away at corporate dress codes, women felt empowered to wear their coveted denim pieces straight to work. Ultimately, this made way for the anything-goes office dress code many of us experience today, especially at tech startups and in coworking spaces. With 38% of millennials freelancing as of 2015, there's no disputing the decline of the 9-to-5 and, with that, the business-casual standard of dress.

Denim Today
To keep this casual staple somewhat professional, look for a wide-legged option with fashion-forward detailing, like frayed hemlines and shiny vertical stripes. These also help distract from the fact that you are, you know, wearing jeans. Tuck in your blouse, accessorize with your favorite jewels and block-heeled booties, and go pave your own path into existence.
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