History of Women's Suits


Tweed Suit Ladies

A well-tailored suit is such a staple of bespoke ladies clothing these days that it’s almost hard to imagine a time when it could be considered controversial, but the emergence of the suit as an acceptable item of daily wear was hard fought. There is a lot to be said about the rise of the suit as a parallel to the rise of the women’s liberation movement, from the early days of the Suffragists and Suffragettes through to the power dressing days of the 1980s when women finally claimed their places as leaders in the workforce. But one fact that bears repeating and is of particular interest to tailors and fans of quality fashion, is that the women’s suit isn’t simply a re-worked and feminised version of the men’s equivalent. 

It goes without saying that a finely tailored suit designed for a woman will have significant differences in proportion and cut than one designed for a man, but many commentaries on the subject are quick to paint this as a more recent development. French actress Sarah Bernhardt famously caused controversy in the 1870s by wearing a suit for a photo shoot, but her suit was itself designed for a man, and she even referred to it as her ‘boy’s clothes’ – something that clearly distinguishes it from the elegant and feminine designs that are known and loved today. In fact, the women’s suit evolved in stages, in a way that was parallel to but independent of the men’s version.

Women's Trousers

First to come to the fore was women’s trousers, which slowly gained traction during the 19th century more as a matter of necessity than anything else. As colonial expansion and industrialisation brought more and more women into the workforce, skirts proved to be impractical when working in dusty conditions or near dangerous machinery, and women’s’ trousers became more common. While trouser-wearing women were still occasionally arrested for obscenity, even traditionalists conceded that tripping downstairs while holding a baby or carrying the washing was far from ideal, and forms of ladies’ trousers, like the short-lived Bloomers, began to become fashionable. Ironically, it was prudishness that further cemented trousers as a practical necessity if nothing else, because as more women took to riding horses and bicycles, it became clear that the chances of wardrobe malfunctions when undertaking these activities in petticoats was just too high for the men of the day.

Women's Jackets

In tandem with the growing acceptability of women’s trousers, women’s jackets were also evolving, and gradually replaced the bulky and trailing capes that had previously served as outerwear for women of all classes. A greater variety of manual activities, as well as leisure pursuits, meant women needed greater range of movement and flexibility, so a variety of coats and jackets emerged that could easily be worn and put on or taken off as necessary. Lacking precedent in women’s fashion, these shorter, sportier coats tended to take their lead from a similar trend that was affecting men’s fashion and looked similar to the smoking jackets and blazers that were being worn by stylish men at the turn of the century.

Ladies suit jacket

History of Women's Clothing

Ladies clothing has evolved over time, this takes us to the early 20th century, with women of the day now comfortable wearing outfits that are similar to, but not the same as the modern suit. This was a time of great experimentation as the Suffragist and Suffragette movements pushed ever closer to decisive breakthroughs in the franchise for women, and in rights for women across other spheres, and women began to wear clothes that were consciously practical and ‘masculine’ in defiance of the impractical and uncomfortable designs that were made for women. As we have seen, there was already a fairly rich tradition of women wearing antecedents of the suit with roots in practical applications, but unlike in men’s fashion nobody had yet tamed them for formal settings, and you were more likely to see them on the factory floor than in the ballroom. 

That is, until Coco Chanel began designing during the First World War. Her clothes relied less on corsetry and on other undergarments and instead used tailoring to create the kinds of subtle feminine shapes for which her work became famous, finally uniting the disparate evolution of the women’s trousers and women’s jacket into one outfit that was a mirror of the ones being adopted by men. This was also practical, and while the trousers and jackets had let women work the machines and drive cars alongside men, the suit now let them walk the corridors of business and power alongside men as equals rather than being constrained or defined by their radically different fashion. 

It wasn’t until the era of power dressing in the 1980s that the women’s suit with trousers combination as a masculine equivalent really appeared, as women wore shoulder pads and aggressively straight legs to finally breach the final frontier of the worlds of business and politics. Despite this, it was a suit that owed its existence to a unique lineage of clothing that told a separate but parallel story to the male equivalent – which has led to some of the most incredible tailoring in the world today.

Check out our fantastic range of bespoke women's fashion, here at Barrington Ayre!

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