The Power of What We Wear
It’s (finally) official! Kamala Harris is the first woman elected Vice President of the United States. She will go on to inspire generations of girls around the world by being “the first but definitely not the last".
Amongst the commentary detailing her major accomplishments and the incredible journey ahead, most coverage made note of what the VP-elect was wearing during her acceptance speech on November 7th, 2020. Thus illustrating the power of what we choose to wear as women.
Subconsciously, I knew what the Vice President-elect would choose for the big night. The white pantsuit and pussy-bow silk blouse (yes, that is the technical name), designed by Carolina Herrera, has become the uniform of choice for women stepping up to knockdown the patriarchy.
The most influential women in western politics have used this powerful ensemble to send a strong message – we can do the job just as well (if not better), and we’re here to stay.
As I’m editing the final draft of this article (I know I'm a few days behind, I'm breastfeeding a small child), Vogue released two cover photos showcasing the Vice President-elect, dressed in, you guessed it, suits.
Ahead of the inauguration tomorrow, let's dive deeper into the history of how the feminized male wardrobe has become synonymous with the 100+ year journey of women’s political activism and how this outfit continues to inspire the modern woman from the White House, to the board room and those walking down the aisle.
Photographer Unknown, Women on Bicycles 1898: Source The Victoria & Albert Museum.
The pussy-bow blouse and the changing role of women
Women’s clothing has drawn inspiration from menswear for centuries. As we approached the end of the 19th century, the world and the women in it were rapidly changing thanks to the industrial revolution. As the oppressive Victorian era came to a close, women made their way to the big cities filling new factory jobs, picking up rackets on the playing fields and zooming down bike lanes. Female employment outside the home doubled during this time as did an increase in education and involvement in local politics. Now we weren’t burning our corsets just yet, but with this new-found freedom came the need for a “relaxed” way of dressing that allowed movement physically and socially. Think of this as the first foray into athleisure.
These young trailblazers of the 1890’s were idealized by the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, becoming known as The Gibson Girls. Their wardrobe consisted of the “shirtwaist” button-down blouse made from starched cotton fabric with a ruffled or tucked collar and cuffs. The look was finished with a ribbon or banded fabric bustled in a bow at the neck. A feminine alternative to the men's dress shirt and tie. The fitted high-waisted skirts were shorter in length and slightly wider below the knee to allow for a greater range of movement. Tiny design details to you and me but big impactful changes to women’s lives at the time. These small steps help set in motion the suffragette movement to come.
As we move into the early 20th century, the shirtwaist evolved in fabrication from cottons to silk and new blends. The styling became softer and more feminine, moving away from the stiff starched look borrowed from the boys. It was now more commonly called the "pussycat-bow blouse" or "pussy-bow blouse" drawing inspiration from a bow tied around a kitten's neck.Suffragette March in the US: Image Library of Congress
The Women’s Suffragette movement of the early 1900’s sprang up across the US and Great Britain as women took to the streets to protest for the right to vote. By dressing in white the movement helped to visually sway public opinion and was an effective branding strategy on multiple fronts. White was worn to represent purity and bring civility to their political message. The contrast of white dresses in black and white photos on the cover of the morning papers made the movement more visual and recognizable. The color also created great opposition to the dark black suits worn by men.
By wearing the fashionable walking dresses of the time, the suffragettes were still considered socially presentable in public. Yet the white color expressed loyalty and solidarity to the cause. White dresses were less expensive to produce and easier to maintain than fabrics that had to be dyed. This allowed women of all social backgrounds to join the movement.Coco Chanel
The emergence of the women’s suit in popular culture
Through the 1920s and 30s, the women’s suit was popularized by fashion designers and Hollywood alike. The original Chanel suit was designed as part of a small collection in 1925 and was inspired by Chanel’s love of menswear and sportswear. A version of the pussy-bow blouse was the perfect feminine touch paired with her skirted suits. Coco Chanel played with the convertible bow-tied shirt across many collections and it is still a house staple today. Chanel recognized the modern women’s need for freedom and ease of movement as she herself would often wear the clothes of her boyfriend or lovers.
Chanel’s work coincided with the golden age of Hollywood and the early 1930’s pre-code era of film, an amazingly creative period for movie making. Leading ladies’ Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn pushed the boundaries of acceptable social dress by sporting men’s suits and pant ensembles in their personal lives, on red carpets and publicity shoots. The American film debut of Marlene Dietrich in 1930 Morocco, has forever cemented the megastar’s iconic image. Director Josef von Sternberg decided to dress the actress in pants after seeing her waltz around a party wearing them. After much collaboration between the actress, director and the film’s brilliant costume designer Travis Banton, the tuxedo look, complete with top hat, was born. What’s even more iconic than the look itself was the opening scene in Morocco where Dietrich’s character wows the nightclub audience and kisses a female club goer. What a way to start a movie! The manner in which Dietrich commands the room with such confidence and polish is incredible to watch. For her work, Marlene was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. This scene is one of many daring acts Hollywood pushed during the pre-code era. The Hays code was passed in 1934 heavily censoring what could be shown and said on screen.
Marlene Dietrich as Amy Jolly in Morocco, 1930: Image Paramount Wardrobe Department.
Becoming a wardrobe staple
The slow chiseling away of gender stereotypes through dress continued to move forward as more women enrolled in universities, moved to cities and into the work force through the 1960’s and 70’s. As woman transitioned into the work place, the pussy-bow blouse was styled with a pantsuit or tailored jacket. It was during this time it became referred to as the “secretary blouse”….yeah we hate the name too. If you have been keeping up with Netflix’s The Crown, you would see the first British Female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s endless collection of pussy-bow blouses in a range of colors and prints during her time in office from 1979 to 1990. Secretary we think not!
Yves Saint Laurent’s first presented his perfectly tailored female tuxedo in his 1966-67 collection dubbed "Le Smoking". The look was paired with a ruffly organza blouse reminiscent of the early shirtwaist. Controversial and initially snubbed by his Couture clientele, Hollywood's elite Liza Minelli and Catherine Deneuve came calling and were seen wearing YSL's suits everywhere. It wasn't until iconic photographer Helmut Newton restyled Le Smoking for a 1975 Vogue shoot that refined the daring look. Pants for women, once reserved only for working in the fields and factories or the rule breakers of Hollywood, were now a closet staple representing timeless style. Remember this the next time you see a Hollywood actress walk the red carpet in pants. The Le Smoking collection made ladies pantsuits acceptable attire for black-tie occasions. YSL’s collection has directly influenced womenswear of the 1970’s, the power suits of the 1980’s and that oversized double-breasted blazer from Zara you have hanging in your closet today.
YSL "Le Smoking" photographed by Helmet Newton for Vogue 1975.
The now iconic bride Bianca Jagger wore a skirted version of YSL’s Le Smoking suit to her 1971 wedding to Mic Jagger. The perfect marriage of femininity and power that continues to look fresh 50 years later. Opting to wear the look sans shirt caused absolute madness outside the Saint-Tropez church where the nuptials took place.
What does this all mean?
As the events of the past year have directly affected how we celebrate, many brides are rethinking their choice for the big day. But I actually think it goes a lot deeper than the need to match the ensemble with a more intimate sized wedding. Inspired by the #metoo movement and the ever-evolving gender roles within modern marriage, the white pantsuit is a powerful statement – one that seems perfectly poised for today’s bride. It signals to the world that we have met our equal, not just our match, and the families and communities of the future will be better and stronger for it.