Why women should ditch their suits

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.

Photo courtesy of TM Lewin

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.

Photo courtesy of Omiru & The Satorialist

Update 15th April 2011

Last week I was sent the my wardrobe.com Spring/summer 2011 Style Guide and inside there is a four-page spread talking to four ‘über -chic’ women about how they mix business with fashion.

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?

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  1. I wonder what effect the emergence of corporate dress has had on women in the workplace. Men in corporate dress don’t look that much different, they still wear a suit and a tie. However, I have seen some very unflattering corporate attire for women – garish colours for blouses made from cheap-looking nasty material, and often with a rather silly necktie/scarf that no woman would wear by choice. I have never yet heard a woman say that they like their corporate attire, they usually hate it.

  2. I love the illustrations you chose….
    Have you read the Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant?

    And can’t believe all you city women are still conforming to the black pencil skirt.

    ring the changes, Annabel.


    • Hi Judy

      I’ve just sold my pencil skirt and only suit on eBay so am making a stand!

      I haven’t heard of that book but have just had a look on Amazon and it looks fascinating so have ordered myself a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Have a great weekend.


  3. Well there you have it. Anyone that ever said that skirt suits are anything other than gorgeous, look at the picture of Ally McBeal. Do you really need any more proof! Skirt and pant suits are the absolute best thing ever and every women should have one in her wardrobe.

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  6. I think women look very smart and in business suits when i was homeless many years ago a beautifull kind women in a business suit gave me ten pounds and her lunch when i was begging in a subway.

  7. Well considering that generations of men have been subjected to a strict, repressive, ultra-conservative dress code, not only in the office but in other walks of life as well (e.g. Black Tie events), I think that shouldering part of the responsibility of drab, respectable and conservative attire and being held to the same standards as the guys is the epitome of equality. Men don’t have to wear make up? Women shouldn’t have to either. Men have to wear a suit? Women should have to as well. Both genders should really save their sleeveless dresses and plunging necklines for a day out in town. The purpose of plain and boring conservative attire is to enable anybody, male or female, to get a message across and be taken seriously by their clients, without drawing attention to their appearance. =)
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  8. I don’t agree. Women who want equality should be prepared to accept what comes with it and that means a formal dress code. I don’t think dressing like a Saturday night out portrays business at all you’re there to work not to relax. I don’t think there is a man out there who chooses to wear a suit and tie to relax. You also say that women hate their corporate attire in a way that suggests all men love theirs.

    Lift the standards, save the strapless dress for the weekend and get on that shirt and skirt!

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  10. Well there you have it. Any person that ever before claimed that skirt matches are anything besides stunning, take a look at the picture of Ally McBeal. Do you actually require anymore evidence! Skirt and also pant fits are the absolute best thing ever and also every females must have one in her outfit.

  11. Hi Annie,
    Such a lovely piece of writing and you shared the true things that why women should ditch their suits. I really appreciate all the given details and hoping that every women will understand your speech.


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