A story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal entitled, "To Dress Well a Woman Should Shop Like a Man" got me reminiscing about the glory days of tailored women’s suits from approximately 1975 to 1990.
During that era, it was the general consensus that if a woman wanted to be taken seriously on the job, she had to dress in the equivalent quality clothing that professional men wore, namely, a tailored suit. Not only did women en masse accept this credo, but they found shopping for business attire simplified. These suits were made so much better than women were accustomed to-- they would last for years if not decades and were alterable if the woman’s size changed. Of course, this wasn't the first time in history women adopted men's fashion as exemplified by Marlene Dietrich's outfit shown above from the 1930's.
Here's the link to the WSJ article:
At Saint Laurie Merchant Tailors, women’s suits accounted for almost one half our production in the mid 1980’s. Our collection wasn’t limited to power stripes, but included a cornucopia of colors from cloths that had traditionally been used for men’s sport coats. And since, propriety at that time required a skirted suit instead of a pant suit, we offered an array of pleated, dirndl, “A” line and straight skirts to accompany our handmade jackets. See below a Saint Laurie image from 1979:
So what happened around 1990 to reverse this trend?
Three factors—fashion dogma, human nature, and demographics.
Fashion dogma holds that the seeds for the ultimate demise of a fashion trends lie in its very popularity. In other words, when a style of dress becomes ubiquitous, the fashion leaders who started the trend rebel and start over. For example, sometime in the late 1980’s, MS Magazine ran a cover showing a tailored woman’s suit being thrown into a garbage can with a headline, “You no longer have to dress like a man to succeed.” (One would think that the MS editors would have been in favor of women having access to quality clothing, however, they seemed to be more alarmed by the conformist nature of the dress code of that era.)
Human nature played a role in the decline of women’s suits in keeping with the philosophy that “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus.” Under this theory, men are instinctively hunters and go after something specific avoiding distractions along the way. Therefore, the shopping experience for most men has a clearly defined mission. The theory also holds that women are instinctively gatherers and more flexible by nature because their labors are dependent on what happens to be available in the market or in the field. Therefore, the highly structured and logical way that men shop was inconsistent with nature's pull on women to be more spontaneous and seek variety in their purchases.
And, demographics also played a role, although few women at the time might admit to it. The 23 year-old Boomer woman in 1979 who was thrilled to take on an androgynous look to be accepted by her male peers was less interested in doing so in 1990 when she was 34 and still unattached. Maybe it was time to play the siren instead of the school marm!
So, the tailored women suit has been pretty much out of style for the last 20 years except in the wardrobes of those women who could care less about fashion trends. (In fact, in 2009, our single biggest sale of custom suits was to a woman!)
And, not surprisingly, during much of this time, men actually started dressing like women. No, they didn’t start wearing dresses. But, during the “Casual Friday Era” which has thankfully come to an end, men did adopt many of the non power dressing habits of contemporary women—shirt (blouse), pant, shoulder bag. Gone were men’s pinstriped suits that seemed so authoritative and non-collaborative. Of course, this went against most men’s instinct to compete and conquer and was doomed to fail in the worlds of finance and law.
The cycle seems to be swinging back in favor of the tailored women's suit. It will bring a lot of new energy and creativity to our somewhat staid industry. Let's just hope that it doesn't get so popular that its demise will be unavoidable. I would also like to think that we’ve reached a more advanced stage in human evolution when men and women both can choose their clothing free from peer pressure and make their own personal fashion statement.
That’s the Saint Laurie way!