Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, tailored suits were the norm for upper and middle-class women – although quite specifically, a skirt with a matching, fitted jacket. When women began wearing trousers in elite circles in the 1930s, and more generally in the 1960s, the term ‘trouser suit’—or ‘pant suit’ in the US—was born (to differentiate from the skirted style). This, however, caused controversy.
One of American Vogue’s earliest trouser-suit images is from a September 1933 feature, Riviera Days and Nights, which saw Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich in a summer trouser suit. Dietrich and others, such as Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, raised eyebrows for boldly wearing these suits in public. Wearing trousers was controversial, but much less so than the whole suit; until the 1950s, women could be arrested while wearing them for “impersonating a man”.
Why was the trouser suit such a divisive fashion statement?
During the second world war, some women wore trousers and overalls when working in more practical or dangerous jobs. Still, women had to wait until the 1960s for the trouser suit to gain broader public support. A full-page image by photographer Horst P. Horst from American Vogue’s March 1964 issue ran alongside an article called “Norell’s prophetic trouser suit”. The magazine called the look “the be-all, end-all travelling costume” and the “essence of what pants have become today […] pure fashion, correction easy, contemporary.”
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking, an elegant trouser suit for eveningwear. At the time, the style was still controversial enough for American socialite Nan Kempner to be turned away from a fashionable New York restaurant for daring to wear her suit instead of a dress or skirt (rumour has it she took the trousers off and wore the blazer as a very short dress). An issue of Life magazine from 1968 reveals just how divisive the fashion was: in the front pages, a male columnist lamented that Yves Saint Laurent’s trouser suits were contributing to the “destruction” of gender norms, while at the back of the magazine, a woman is quoted as saying that “a well-cut pant suit is most appropriate for city-wear”. And as for those restaurants that refused trouser-wearing women entry, the woman comments: “I would rather change my restaurant than my clothes.”
The politics behind the pant suit
In the 1970s, polyester trouser suits and platform shoes were the preferred uniform of the liberated career woman. Yet, the style was still considered to be risky, and women who wore such ensembles often had to deflect criticism from their male colleagues or bosses. Historian Daniel Delis Hill notes that trouser suits were not simply the women’s version of the men’s equivalent (cut from dark or pinstriped worsted cloth). Instead, women’s trouser suits came in vivid colours, textures and weaves, with the jackets sometimes cut into tunic-like shapes. Diane Keaton’s vest-and-tie-wearing character in 1977’s Annie Hall, as well as her public appearances in trouser suits, helped popularise the style even more.
Wearing trouser suits continued to be provocative throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While Pat Nixon, wife of President Richard Nixon, was photographed in trouser suits in 1972 (the first sitting first lady to have done so), it wasn’t until 1993 that women were allowed to wear trousers on the US Senate floor. The rule was unofficial, but enforced by the Senate doorkeepers, despite the fact that trousers had been accepted at federal agencies since the 1970s.
That year, freshman senator Carol Moseley-Braun wore her favourite trouser suit to the Chamber, unaware of the unwritten rule and igniting the ‘pant suit revolution’. Soon after, the doorkeepers received new orders explicitly stating that women could wear “coordinated pantsuit (slacks and matching blazer, no stirrup pants)”.
The sartorial message of solidarity
In the early 2000s, the trouser suit garnered a fusty and conservative image, despite its radical history—but mid-decade, the look made a strong comeback. Designers such as Bottega Veneta and Chanel sent stylish trouser suits down the runway for autumn/winter 2015, while Rihanna wore an oversized black version by John Galliano at Maison Margiela to the Grammy Awards that same year.
In 2016, 2.9 million supporters joined the Hillary Clinton Facebook group ‘Pant suit Nation’ to champion her style and follow her presidential campaign; Angela Merkel and Theresa May also adopted trouser suits as part of their political imagery.
Many women now wear trouser suits to cast their ballots for female politicians, in a nod to the suit’s feminist history. In 2019, dozens of US Congresswomen wore white (many of them trouser suits) during the State of the Union address—a joint sartorial message of solidarity to the earlier female suffrage movement and a way to show support for women’s issues. Meanwhile, designers such as Elie Saab and Alberta Ferretti sent trouser suits down the runways during Spring 2019 Couture.