I have a theory about women’s work clothes, in particular the suit, being a barometer of women’s status in the office.
Women in the 1960s wore skirts and dresses in feminine colours to work. Anyone who has seen Mad Men knows this. Women in the office were largely doing jobs that were seen as women’s jobs – they were secretaries, typists and receptionists. Men wore the suits and did the ‘real’ work, women wore dresses and were essentially the support staff for the men. There were clear sartorial distinctions between the sexes and job roles and little cross over.
In the 1970s, women began squaring up to men in the workplace and looking them straight in the eye. They demanded to be taken seriously and needed a wardrobe to match. The invention of the trouser suit in 1966 by Yves Saint Laurent provided just that. As Linda Grant says in the Guardian, “it was the perfect garment for the 70s and for women who went out to work. The trouser suit put women on an equal sartorial footing with men”. Simply put, to get ahead, one had to dress like and act like a man.
The 1980s was the advent of ‘The Bitch’, epitomised in film and television by the characters in Shirley Conran’s Lace and of course Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty. These women were ruthless and proud of it. They didn’t want equality, they wanted superiority. Skirt suits were back and now came with the enormous shoulder pads that defined the decade. The bigger the shoulder pad, the more fiercely ambitious the woman, they were a status symbol.
In the 1990s, women scaling the corporate ladder were becoming increasingly competitive and career-driven. Showing too much of an interest in a life outside of work, such as an interest in fashion or having a home life or social life, would have prevented them from being taken seriously and would have shown a lack of commitment. They needed to show complete loyalty to their careers and corporations and show that they fitted in. The intention was to portray an unrelentingly corporate image. The corporate uniform was symbolised by the understated elegance of a Calvin Klein or DKNY suit and a crisp white shirt. This look seems to have been inextricably linked with the legal profession – think Ally McBeal in her short skirt suits or the women from LA Law.
Seeing a woman in the City wearing a suit is becoming an increasingly rarer sight and the ones that you do see look like lawyers, and probably are. We are no longer judged on our gender, and by extension, our outfits. We can dress like women and not be disadvantaged because of it. Women can feel more comfortable in expressing themselves at work through fashion and showing individuality and don’t feel that they have to blend in and conform to an male-designed dress code.
However women unfortunately still feel the need to dress in ‘work clothes’, the current uniform mainly revolving around a black tailored pencil skirt. In part I blame the clothes shops in the City for giving us little choice. The inexorably dull T M Lewin seems to be on every street corner in the City, reinforcing the idea that we have to leave all self-expression and individuality at the city walls and adhere to a corporate look in order to be taken seriously at work. Even the high street chains such as Warehouse and Oasis adjust their stock so that they sell their more corporate clothing ranges in their City outlets and none of the fun stuff.
I would like to see women showing as much care and flair in their work outfits as they would when they dress for a Saturday night out. Women would look more confident and self-assured and the City would be a more interesting place for it. Perhaps until women assert and express themselves properly sartorially we will never have true equality in the workplace.
Update 15th April 2011
Most interesting to me from this four is Elizabeth Hammond, founding partner at financial services search firm Hammond Partners. She says:
I used to dress a lot more corporately in little matching suits – but that’s not what I feel comfortable in. I’m a lot more interested in fashion now and refuse to conform to a stereotype.
If the partner at a City headhunting firm – which is about as corporate as it gets – has ditched her suits then perhaps the tide really is changing?