By Kate Betts
Raf Simons must have known instinctively that he couldn’t open his debut ready-to-wear show for the House of Dior with one of the ultra-feminine 1950s skirt suits the French couturier made famous in 1947. No, yards and yards of sweeping skirts and tiny nipped-in waists—what Dior called the Corolle, or flower look—would be totally passé for one of the trendiest designers in today’s fashion firmament. As they say, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Like many designers this season, Simons instead responded to the alpha women and power brokers who dart from the boardroom to the banquette at the Four Seasons or the bulkhead seat in a G5. Those maneuvers require something sleek and fitted, such as Spring’s ubiquitous pantsuit. Simons accessorized his tailored black pantsuits with feminine flourishes such as a chic red lip and a scarf tied at the neck. Even in the evening, Dior customers will be suited up in pencil-thin pants topped by strapless bustiers in colorful jacquard fabrics. He hasn’t been the only one appealing to the workingwomen who buy designer clothing. Stella McCartney, Giorgio Armani, Victoria Beckham and Hedi Slimane also bet their Spring 2013 collections on slim, tailored pantsuits. McCartney cut hers in baggy, low-slung shapes, while Slimane turned back the clock to Yves Saint Laurent’s romantic 1970s slouch. The ‘80s made a subtle comeback on Beckham’s runway, where skinny black pantsuits were shown over strappy bra tops. And at Balmain, suits equipped with linebacker-sized shoulder pads were a flashback to the days when women needed reinforcement to smash glass ceilings.
But let’s not forget just how long it has taken for the pantsuit to gain credibility in the workingwoman’s wardrobe. Coco Chanel was one of the first to introduce pants for women back in the 1920s. Inspired by the sailors on the Duke of Westminster’s yacht, Chanel’s pants were for casual dress and had to be accessorized with masses of gold chains to soften their masculine look. Chanel’s idea didn’t really catch on, unless you count adventurous daredevils like Amelia Earhart, who made pants part of her iconic look out of necessity. Hollywood screen sirens such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and, later, Katharine Hepburn gave the masculine look a sexy edge. Dietrich famously swaggered around a nightclub in top hat and tails in the 1930 film Morocco. But for workingwomen who couldn’t play with gender-bending looks at the office, pants didn’t become a reality until World War II, when “slacks girls” headed off to the factories in coveralls and dungarees. By the time the GIs came home, Rosie the Riveter had slipped back into her girdle, hat and gloves.
It took a cultural revolution to finally liberate women and get them into pants. By the mid-1970s, women were joining the managerial work force in record numbers and adopting the menswear look—but with a skirt. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent had tested society’s rigid dress codes when he introduced his famous Le Smoking tuxedo. Women’s Wear Daily called it Saint Laurent’s “elegant reign of terror.” But women loved the freedom of the suit, particularly at black-tie galas. And in 1975, Armani came to the rescue of workingwomen, offering up a softer version of the cookie-cutter menswear-style suit by combining fluid fabrics with firm shoulder pads. At the time, Armani said that he was reacting to the masses of women who were breaking into the workplace. He felt they needed a stronger, more dignified image that adhered to the rules of men’s uniforms. The power suit was born. Donna Karan further smoothed out the wrinkles of dress codes by layering her famous bodysuit under draped jackets and pants. In the 1990s, minimalists such as Helmut Lang and, later, Slimane further streamlined the pantsuit, tightening the armholes of jackets and cutting skinny, sexy pants.
The image of Melanie Griffith strutting across the big screen in a black pantsuit with huge shoulder pads in the 1988 movie Working Girl remains a leitmotif of the breakthrough moment when pants became acceptable in the workplace. But the reality is that progress in the dress-code department has been slower in the power corridors of Wall Street and Washington. As Madeleine Albright once reminded me, it wasn’t until the 1990s that women were allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor. No matter how many glass ceilings they shatter, many powerful female CEOs and CFOs on Wall Street still feel they cannot risk their hard-earned status by fooling around with fashion. A while back my friend Alexandra Lebenthal, the president and CEO of Lebenthal & Co., told me a story about switching outfits between appointments because she couldn’t wear something frivolous to a meeting with the treasurer of a big bank. She changed into a pinstriped pantsuit because she couldn’t risk looking inappropriate. Hillary Clinton has changed all that with her signature, brightly colored Oscar de la Renta pantsuits, a beacon of confidence in any crowd of dark suits
They say women opt for pantsuits, and something more secure, when the economy tanks or politics get dicey. You could blame the current crop of pants on the looming European debt crisis or even stagnant unemployment, but as Raf Simons confirmed on his runway, the trend is really all about modern glamour. And Hollywood’s award season has proven him right, as celebrities such as Anne Hathaway and Emma Stone traded in overblown ball gowns for Saint Laurent’s stovepipe pants or Gucci’s emerald-green jacket and pants on the red carpet. Worn with a feminine silk blouse or sexy heels, the look is hardly masculine. Even Christian Dior would approve.