100 Years On, Suffragette Suiting Couldn't Be More Relevant

Suiting is seen as modern armour, and its appeal is a no brainer: suits are equal parts utility, mobility, and easy sex appeal. A suit takes a second to put on and poof! Instant authority. For fall 2017, Raf Simons dubbed the suiting section of his Calvin Klein collection “Wall Street,” and for good reason: A suit works just as well to close a deal as it does to make an impact on the red carpet. Yves Saint Laurent and Marlene Dietrich figured it out. So did Hope Hicks. And now Zara has a mass-market piece of the pie, with a dedicated “suits” section on its navigation bar.
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The dowdy “dress for success” and Working Girl baggage that once saddled the female pantsuit (and beleaguered Hillary Clinton since her time as First Lady), has all but disappeared. Retreads of iconic versions from the past (such as the louche tailoring Tom Ford did for Gucci) have shown up on Kim Kardashian West; Claire Foy’s minimal, double-breasted Stella McCartney number turned heads at the Golden Globes. An oversized, slouchy black one with a strong shoulder has taken me from a Friday spent at my desk to dinner at The Odeon.
But from what’s been shown on the runways in both September and February, the suiting iteration of the moment is evolving out of its ‘80s power idiom. Various designers are softening the angles of sharp tailoring and swapping in skirts as the bottoms of the traditional two-piece. Many of them are long or pleated, and moving into a direction that feels less 21st century, and more like the beginning of the 20th — and that might not be a coincidence.
2018 marks the centennial of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK, when some (but not all) UK women got the vote; the US and France followed in 1920 and 1944, respectively. Now, after a succession of seasons of Helmut Newton redux, this change in silhouette signifies a timely shift to a feminine softness and puts a refresh on ideas of conservatism. To advocate for wearing one recalls the tagline Diane von Furstenberg used to sell her signature wrap dress in the 1970s: “Feel like a woman, wear a dress!” But it also reminds us that the suffragettes of this first wave movement strategically wielded their wardrobes to further their cause. Branding is everything, and as the June 18, 1908 issue of Votes for Women told its readers, “You may think that this is a small and trivial matter but there is no service that can be considered as small or trivial in this movement.”
These women were regarded by society as highly dangerous rebels. But while someone like Emmeline Pankhurst, the activist and founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, was known for her militant tactics like arson, smashing windows, and hunger strikes, she and her fellow sisters-in-arms presented themselves with immaculate consideration: conforming to the conventional Edwardian ideals of the era in long skirts, frilled blouses, tailored coats, and feathered hats. Their dress — fitting in with expectations of the status quo — belied any radical leanings. The suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a co-editor of Votes for Women, also devised a colour system — white for purity, green for hope, purple for loyalty and dignity — for participants in the movement to wear during rallies and parades, serving as a morale-boosting uniform. Common signifiers united these woman, while their clothing brought their actions — not their wardrobe — to the forefront of the conversation.
Photo: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.
Today, designers are innovating the decorous dress concept with their own versions of prim suiting — a move that can be seen as both a nod to the past and a reflection of our times. Take, for example, a dusty rose, ankle-skimming version with a double-breasted jacket and peaked lapel shown at Gabriela Hearst. The Uruguayan-born designer styled it over a skintight zip-up top, with a baseball cap and chunky boots, bringing the Victorian silhouette back down to earth. Max Mara leaned into a sense of propriety with skirt suits in check with a floor-length skirt or a tuxedo version with a knee-length pleat, while Louis Vuitton invoked the archetype of the Chanel tweed-wearing bourgeois French woman with an updated version layered over a slinky tank. Perhaps most subversively of all, at Calvin Klein, Raf Simons retooled the idea of an executive power suit with long-hemmed skirts (in pleats or thigh-high slits) anchoring oversized jackets, adding a protective shield from the elements: environmental, political, or otherwise.
Female power has long been tied to a pair of pants — wearing them was a provocative move by Dietrich, as well as Katharine Hepburn, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others. But breaking out of the rigid line of the power suit and adopting a strategy of “soft power,” to borrow a foreign policy term, allows the idea of softness to take a different approach — one that's a healthy, effective form of transgression.

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