A Treatise on Pantsuits

By Nicole Block

A pantsuit is pretty much the same thing as a suit, except that it refers to a suit worn by a woman. The differentiating term here is “pant,” reminding us of the fact that women wear pants nowadays. As ridiculous as it sounds, universal pants-wearing was once revolutionary. Women couldn’t wear pants a hundred years ago, let alone vote in this country until 1920.

Women started working outside the home during World War I because most of the capable men were sent off to fight. Subsequently, women found that skirts weren’t all that practical for working. Only because industrialists needed women for the labor force did the public finally allow them to wear pants. Go figure.

Although it began as a rebellious statement in those early days, pants are now a staple of modern clothing. Men and women wear pants with varying tones of formality, eventually leading to the revolutionary invention of the legging. But still, the suit has maintained its role as business attire, pressuring women to distinguish their seriousness and professionalism with pantsuits.

There are a few arguments surrounding the pantsuit. One is that the hotly-contested pantsuit is somehow anti-feminist, encouraging women to look like men and disguise their femininity. Indeed, in earlier times (and still today) when the female sex was seen as physically and intellectually inferior, appearing outwardly feminine was a liability. Hiding womanly curves and assets in large, looser-fitting suits did make them look more male and perhaps conveyed their capability.

But at the same time, it’s also indicative of women taking control in the workplace; if a power suit helps women gain higher-paid executive positions, then what’s your damage? Women taking over typically male roles and styles is an act of agency. Perhaps women had to (and still do) make themselves more like men to gain respect and leadership, but it’s a move toward equality, a far cry from the almost total absence of working women for hundreds of years in Western society.

The pantsuit was first “invented” in 1923 but none other than Coco Chanel who adapted the comfort and pockets of menswear for women. Wide-shouldered suits caught on in the 1930s, redefined by designer Marcel Rochas, and in 1942 superstar Katherine Hepburn was wearing them. Slowly, the pantsuit got edgier and more powerful, and by the 80s served as a suit of armor for women in the workplace, solidifying its place as a businesswoman’s wardrobe staple. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal declared that power suits were over and that patterns and soft colors like pink were back in.

The publication echoed the feminist disapproval of the pantsuit as repressed femininity that favored appearing more masculine and taking on men’s corporate virtues. Their argument against the pantsuit claims that if we’re true feminists, wouldn’t we be reclaiming effeminate styles and flaunting them?

At this point, I would hope that what a woman wears doesn’t determine our opinion of them or how well they perform their job. Women can succeed wearing dresses, skirts, slacks or pantsuits, embracing whatever style appeals to them. While current trends affect our style, and it remains necessary to dress appropriately in the workplace, it’s ultimately a personal choice that leads a woman to select the fabric to go on her body.

While our lovely First Lady Michelle Obama slays in designer dresses, our (likely) next Commander in Chief’s wardrobe is stocked entirely with pantsuits. Hillary Clinton is the pantsuit poster woman. Hillary is one of the first image results when you Google pantsuits. She even wore one in her official White House oil-painted portrait when her husband was in office.

It’s a bit stodgy and stuffy for kids these days, but isn’t all formalwear? Formal attire for a politician is rarely attractive and appropriate at the same time, and powerful women’s outfit options can be interpreted in a lot of ways. Clinton’s appearance is always under scrutiny, and her pantsuits and coifs are often ridiculed, but how would you expect a female presidential candidate to dress, without looking flashy or unprofessional? As a nearly 70-year-old woman running for the highest office in America, a pantsuit is the way to go. Her outfit shouldn’t distract from her platform or her qualities nor should it be a political statement.

The pantsuit has an illustrious history indeed, but its future is even brighter. Pantsuits have already been popularized by different celebrities, and now you can find a casual or formal set from any H&M. And if Clinton becomes president, she will be inspiring children everywhere to don pantsuits like her and keep the style alive.