Suits designed by women, for women

Questioning the status quo through fashion

part of the front cover of a fashion magazine: stylised drawings of sleek women in fashionable thirties outfits
by
Marta Franceschini (opens in new window) (European Fashion Heritage Association)
Anna Carniel (European Fashion Heritage Association)

The suit has been very much associated with men and has become one of the most recognisable symbols of men’s fashion. However, throughout the 20th century, the suit has been appropriated by women and those of other genders for various reasons: to rebel against constricting and complicated attire, to be free to perform sport and tasks once exclusively in the domain of men, to assert equality in the workplace or on the street or to shock and play with the binary definition of gender.

a full suit ensemble in a creamy white colour, displayed on a mannequin

Although male designers are often celebrated for giving women ‘power uniforms’, female designers have been innovative and subtle in their response to the needs of their fellow women. Their shared experience of femininity has allowed them to cater to the needs and desires of the women of their generation, using the female body to make a statement through fashion’s key components: construction, volume, fabric and detail.

a page from a fashion magazine with a stylised drawing of women in red dresses and heels, one woman in a brown suit dress.
a page from a fashion magazine, with a stylised drawing of a woman wearing a dress and another woman wearing what looks like a silk patterned suit.

One of the first names that come to mind is Lucy Christiana, alias Lady Duff-Gordon and known to the fashion world as ‘Lucile’. Working in the early 20th century between Europe and America, the British designer became known for her elegant evening wear. But it is in her approach to daywear that her feminist views become more manifest: her simple tailored suits symbolised a new approach for women, confident to stride forward and campaign for their rights.

A coloured tailored jacket and skirt in dark grey wool serge displayed on a mannequin
Twilled silk and wool jacket and skirt displayed on a mannequin

Coco Chanel is widely acclaimed for her streamlined and elongated silhouettes, but it is her groundbreaking work on textiles that demonstrated her innate understanding of the feminine body and comfort. Her suits, cut in bouclé wool but above all in elastic jersey, are an ode to the carefree, almost brazen feminine attitude of the 1920s and 1930s.

Tailored two-piece suit with skirt in cream, brown and yellow colours, displayed on a mannequin
black-and-white photograph of a model in a hat and a wool dress, a stuffed fox scarf draped over her arm.
Person posing in a in dark suit and striped tie blouse, wearing heels

Elsa Schiaparelli and her witty interpretation of surrealism in fashion showed women how to turn a suit into an exploration of their inner self, and of the reality surrounding them.

Short black jacket with multicoloured sequins, displayed on a mannequin
black and white photograph of a person posing in a black and white skirt and a black vest, wearing a hat and carrying a thin black handbag.

The 1980s saw suits for women spreading across the world. Designers such as Giorgio Armani are said to have taken inspiration from masculine wardrobes to furnish women with an attire that could help them in their everyday battle to gain power and equal prominence in society.

two-piece suit made of sand- and ecru-coloured, striped viscose, displayed on a mannequin

While broad shoulders and rigid shapes were omnipresent in the designs of Armani, Thierry Mugler and Ralph Lauren, women designers started questioning the so-called ‘power suit’ and began playing with its characteristic details. Talented designers as Anne Marie Beretta and Popy Moreni proposed their ironic take on ‘strong’ suits, showing women that they did not necessarily need to abandon their own identities in order to succeed and get what they wanted - and deserved.

a model walks down the catwalk in black pants and boots, a black and white blouse and a black vest
a model walks down the catwalk in blue pants and a blocked white and grey blouse, the collar popped.

These women designers are examples of the ways in which feminine sensibility and first-hand experience made its way into the fashion system - a realm that is very much still in the hands of men, yet mostly aimed at female consumers. Recovering these experiences through the objects kept in heritage collections allows us to unveil relevant stories that can help to rewrite history and turn it into herstory, or at least to propose a nuanced version of what we (think we) know and often take for granted.

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

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