By Rae Hadley

Is fashion a barometer of social norms, or does it set them? Can society be moulded by mere cloth and accessories?  A question consistently asked by viewers of the march of culture, and its facades and zeitgeists.

A great place to start this consideration is in the history, evolution, and current resurgence of the suit. Women around the world have taken up this particular style, be it skirt or trousers with a jacket, over the past 100 years and have utilised ‘power’ dressing as a means to challenge the status quo, with their eyes focussed on the levels of power denied to them for too long.

Women have made their own statements with the conceptual attire which determined authority in spheres originally designated within the male domain.

Subverting The Times

Cultural icons and fashion houses have long been at the fore of visual expression, taking the idea of ‘power’ dressing, gendered attire, and in their unique ways, subverted our social expectations. In 1899 aged 55, Sarah Bernhardt, an actress known for her ‘eccentric behaviour’ and her love of suits played Hamlet to the delight of some and the disgust of many critics. A visible stand for both age and gender.

In the 1920s Chanel designed and produced her first tweed suits. In the 1930s, Marlene Dietrich famously wore a tuxedo and a top hat, and in the 1960s, Nan Kempler challenged New York City restaurants who were refusing entry to women wearing ‘pantsuits’. She famously removed her trousers and entered the restaurant wearing just the top and jacket of her Yves Saint Laurent suit in the style of a mini dress. 

The most visible and recent proponent of the trouser suit has been former First Lady and Presidential Candidate of the USA, Hillary Clinton –with the music and media glitterati who support her, quite literally ‘following suit’– Beyonce being the most notable.

Politics and rebellion often join with fashion to create visible, tangible, textural moments, and thus, movements for people to follow. Women dressing for utility became more prevalent as they took on more traditional ‘male’ roles during both World War I and II.

In the 1950s, Mexican-American women, ‘pachucos’ and in the UK Teddy Girls or ‘Judies’ both used the suit as social and political statements of power, class, and economics. Then we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, the visual expression of repeatedly hitting the glass ceiling and remaining undaunted, through ‘power dressing’ to the max–enormous shoulder pads, bright colours, and an incredible amount of sparkle — alongside punk feminist ‘riot grrrls’, who subverted ‘the norm’.

Warp And Weft In The Fabric Of Time

Throughout each era, style icons and global brands have made visual statements regarding their views of gendered attire across the workplace, governance, business, social life, and within cultural, linguistic and social politics.

AW (Autumn/Winter) ‘19 is no different. As social norms change fashion provides both the mirror to reflect it, and the stick to usher it along. Not only is the suit making a resurgence in menswear, but it is paralleled in the still separate fashion industry of womenswear. However, gone are the days of having to eschew ‘femininity’ to be taken seriously in a ‘man’s world.’ The current trend is for suits with striking shapes to complement the different female forms and a flippant laissez-faire attitude which echoes social structural changes. 

Loose fit, relaxed, ultra-feminine tailoring with laid back silhouettes and a total lack of rigidity, stiff formality, or corporate connotations are part of the new way. 

There are also levels of androgyny in current tailoring trends, which are allowing brands and buyers to redefine what is menswear and womenswear. Greek-born, Eftychia Karamolegkou’s label, shortlisted for the LVMH (Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton) Prize, earlier this year, has exemplified this relaxed cut while giving a nod to edgy street style.

Like suits in neutral tones? Good, because they are here to stay. Soft creams, light and dark browns, understated style, and versatility which makes your suited-self the envy of every event, no matter the initial designation. Rejina Pyo combines gorgeous textiles, with incredible street style and sophistication, and whilst there are strong lines, there is also a love of draped fabric. A visual strength and dominance underpinned with a supple softness.

Rejina Pyo

Longer hemlines and 70s structures are the seasonal gifts from designer/photographer, Hedi Slimane. Neutrals, blacks, fluid pleats and textures, and an abundance of gold sparkle give a decadent, and even a flamboyant look to your wardrobe.

Photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images

The signature style of power suits is the sculptured shoulder, and this season wouldn’t be complete without them. With boxy blazers, Acne Studios create the stage for the shoulder to reign supreme. The powerhouses of Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Maison Margiela are also creating statements with this visually dominant style, combining it with a spectrum from neat precision tailoring to androgyny and chunky swathes of fabric.

Maison Margiela

If you love an autumnal colour palette, utilising forest greens or fiery oranges, then check out Janashia. Consider printed fabrics or colourful plaid to make a bold style and structure statement alongside incredibly beautiful and colourful matching jacket and trouser combos by Brøgger or Stine Goya

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the level of irreverence and autonomy possible between the old power suit ‘uniform’ and the current style set. Previously there was a need for women to demonstrate their assertiveness and their capacity for power through their clothing.

Times have unequivocally changed and the new styles of ‘power dressing’ and suits, while acknowledging their historical comrades, step up and take self-generated prime positions. Centre stage, and with no apology or dilution of whim or style, the suits of this season are more than a bolt of fabric or a colour combination. As with all attire, they are a statement of the era we are in, where women unapologetically wear their hearts, souls, and rightful authority, in combinations they choose, on their power suited sleeves.