Why the pantsuit is making a comeback

Pop star Lady Gaga wearing an oversized pantsuit by Marc Jacobs to the 25th Annual Elle Women in Hollywood celebration in Beverly Hills in October.
Pop star Lady Gaga wearing an oversized pantsuit by Marc Jacobs to the 25th Annual Elle Women in Hollywood celebration in Beverly Hills in October. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • When Mrs Hillary Clinton stepped out during the United States presidential campaign two years ago in her trademark pantsuit, the initial feeling in mainstream liberal circles was that here, finally, was a woman ready to take on a job that had always been done by a man.

Mrs Clinton, who often went for patriotic red, white or blue, said the pantsuits made her feel "professional and ready to go".

In her memoir of the campaign, What Happened, she said that wearing pantsuits helped her fit in with male politicians.

She liked the "visual cue" that told her audience, apparently, that she was "different from the men, but also familiar".

Pantsuits have come to be seen as one with women in positions of power. They even spawned Pantsuit Nation, a campaign to get more women elected.

But the fact the woman who introduced this uniform into the collective consciousness suffered a crushing election defeat somewhat took the shine off.

In the past few weeks, though, a new breed of pantsuit wearers - inside and outside politics - has rebranded the two-piece.

For Dr Erynn Masi de Casanova, a professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Buttoned Up, the word itself needs to be changed.

"For some reason, we cannot bring ourselves to say simply 'suit', which suggests it is an inherently masculine garment that we've borrowed - and that the word 'suit' is reserved for men," she says.

Take Ms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, part of a new wave on the US left.

After wearing a slim-fitting teal Gabriela Hearst pantsuit in Interview magazine, she was attacked by those on the right for wearing "expensive clothes" - something that no socialist is allowed to do, of course.

The photoshoot in which the young Democrat - then a congressional candidate and now a congresswoman-elect - wore a striking, dark, un-Clinton pantsuit was just that - a photoshoot.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez was not taking the clothes home. But it was an apt visual metaphor that she was entering the political melee.

Women and suits have a long, curious history. Standouts include the "suffragette suit" of the 1900s, which was a skirtsuit that allowed its wearer more room to move, and the 1940s' zoot suits - high-waisted, flowing garments - that symbolised "rebellion", according to Catherine S. Ramirez's book, The Woman In The Zoot Suit.

It was not until 1993 that women were allowed to wear suits on the US senate floor, so it is hardly surprising that these double standards exist.

To talk about a woman's clothes in a public arena may feel inherently problematic, but there is a visual language to politics, whether one likes it or not.

It is not so much that the clothes matter, but that they are part of the conversation and can be symbolic.

A suit is a way to shield oneself from public scrutiny, or, as designer Gabriela Hearst put it, "one less thing for women to have to think about when getting dressed".

Perhaps the answer is to do away with the matching suit and replace it with a mismatched version that is "less formal and more relaxed", says Dr Casanova.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is a fan - during the special meeting of the European Council last month, she wore a blue jacket with black trousers - as is US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who often wears a colourful jacket and dark trousers.

Fashion has done its bit, with bold, loose-fitting, mannish suits dominating the catwalks of Celine, Tom Ford, Joseph, Marc Jacobs and Prada this year.

Last month, actress Emma Thompson accepted her damehood in an oversized Stella McCartney suit and trainers, entering the establishment fray in something completely unreconstructed.

At Elle's Women in Hollywood reception in October, pop star Lady Gaga wore an oversized suit - this time by Marc Jacobs - because, she explained in an emotional acceptance speech that touched on mental health and sexual assault, it was a way for her to "take the power back".

For Mrs Clinton, the struggle to be recognised as a woman in a man's world often comes down to taking on positions that are close to the men who dominate that world.

This is not to downplay that fight. But the generation represented by women such as Ms Ocasio-Cortez can - thanks, in large part, to the generation of women that came before them - afford to succeed as women in a man's world.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2018, with the headline 'Why the pantsuit is making a comeback'. Print Edition | Subscribe