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The Historical Evolution of Women’s Office Style

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The historical evolution of women’s office style is one that represents and lies at the center of our transformative culture. For over a hundred years, women have been a part of the United States workforce and as their roles have developed and changed, so has the historical evolution of women’s office style.

(photos via UNC)

The Rise of the Pants.

The inception of women wearing pants in America was actually out of necessity, not fashion. In the American West, long skirts and dresses would end up muddy or dusty and would hinder productivity during labor which was physical and outdoors as the women worked in the frontier. In fact, historical city records show that it was women by the name of Marie Susie that lobbied the Board of Aldermen for the right to wear pants during Gold Rush-era in San Francisco. She claimed that she had worn “masculine habiliments” for twenty years and wanted to be protected from the police for doing so as women would often be harassed by the police for wearing anything “different” or “out of the norm”.

Marie Susie began dressing as a man when she first came to San Francisco to work in the gold mines, as her only other options as a woman would be to work as a prostitute or maid. In fact, most women who did not want to work as a prostitute or maid chose to work the mines, but had to dress as men, as it was a place that workers were heavily needed and if the women looked enough like men then there would be no questions asked.

Out on the frontier, women wore pants working in logging camps and operating heavy machinery. Dressed in men’s work clothes women rounded up cattle, raised families and were allowed to run businesses. We can assume it was no coincidence that the women in the West were some of the first to have the right to vote, as they were the first to show that they were more than equal to the men. Unfortunately at this day in time, women had to wear pants and “dress like men” to do that.

During WWI and WWII times were obviously tough and the workplace was more lenient than ever, as factories and labor companies needed to fill job slots from the men that left to war. This allowed for women to wear pants while working as conductors, miners and factory workers. Even though after the wars were over women were fired and told to go back home, resume their wifely duties and return to wearing dresses, because pants had become more socially acceptable as well as fashionable for sportswear and casual dress, the resistance to regress back to old fashion was present and resilient. It also helped that movie starlets like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn had made wearing pants seem cool and trendy.

Once the 1950’s rolled in the majority of young women were comfortably choosing pants for casual wear and with the rise of denim jeans and pant suits, in the 1970’s women of all ages were wearing pants at work and at home. With the increased number of women both entering the workforce and getting elected to Congress and state governments, women were able to take charge of their growing political power and challenge the laws restricting women’s clothing choices. In a defining moment in pants-wearing history, Rep. Charlotte Reid wore pants on the floor of the House in 1969 with no known adverse effects to society.

In the 1990’s, Hillary Clinton made history by being the first, and so far the only, First Lady to wear pants in her official portrait. Wearing a pant-suit was a bold political statement and she continues to do so.


Significant dates in the historical evolution of women’s working style

1870s: The decade actress Sarah Bernhardt scandalized Paris by wearing a custom-made trouser suit, which she called her “boy’s clothes.” She continued to blur gender roles when she played Hamlet in 1899.

1914: The year Coco Chanel designed her first suit—a fur-trimmed jacket with a matching ankle-length skirt.

1963: The year President John F. Kennedy suggested that his wife wear a pink Chanel suit to an event in Dallas. When he was assassinated in the presidential limousine, the suit was splattered with blood, but Jacqueline Kennedy still wore it to the swearing-in of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

1964: Year André Courrèges introduced slim, minimalist pantsuits for women for day and evening. Until then, women had worn pants only for informal occasions.

1966: The year Yves Saint Laurent designed a woman’s formal tuxedo that he named Le Smoking. In a 1981 interview, he called it his most important design, and an updated version has been included in every new collection from the brand.

1980s: The decade the power suit—complete with shoulder pads, decorative buttons, and bright, feminine colors—was popular among corporate women. Soon the trend spread beyond the office, thanks to TV shows like Dynasty, which launched a line of power suits.

1987: The year Margaret King became Margaret Thatcher’s stylist, later saying that the prime minister wore primarily suits because “she was in a man’s world, and she had to look the part.”

1992: The year the “Long Island Lolita,” Amy Fisher, wore a dark suit and dark lipstick to her trial for the attempted murder of her lover’s wife, prompting disapproval from defense experts who believed the 17-year-old would have gotten more sympathy if she had dressed like a schoolgirl.

Women Prove What They Wear Has Nothing to Do With Them Breaking Glass Ceilings.

Just in the last few years we have witnessed women making history for all the right reasons, their #OOTD put aside. Along with society breaking down sexist anti-female laws too. In 2012, Spanx’s Sara Blakely became the youngest self-made female billionaire. In 2013, the Pentagon ended its ban on women in the military serving on the front lines. In 2014, a record 100 women were elected to serve in the 114th Congress. In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ensured that his cabinet had an equal number of women and men “because it’s 2015.” And in 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first-ever female presidential nominee of a major party.


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