There are few categories of garments as historically significant and controversial as the women’s suit – a literal pièce de résistance, a symbol of power for the softer sex, a turning point in the feminist movement but also a double-edged sword, a binding proposition, an enforcer of stereotype.
Early women’s suits were functional, created for riding: fitted top halves with full-skirted and long bottoms, which evolved into the bloomer suit for practical reasons – having loose trouser legs tied at the ankles underneath the skirt proved to be a useful addition for those horse dismounts. In the early 1900s, the suit often consisted of a hobble skirt, structured and constricting things that gave the air of propriety while impeding natural stride.
Marlene Dietrich is credited as being the first champion of the pantsuit in the 1910s, but trousers for the ladies were denounced as proper attire as late as 1938, when a Los Angeles kindergarten teacher appearing as a witness in a court case was held in contempt of court for refusing to appear in a skirt and sentenced to five days in prison for the infraction (the citation was overturned in a higher court, and also drew hundreds of public protest letters).
The year 1910 was also when the American Ladies’ Tailors’ Association introduced the Suffragette Suit, which featured a skirt, still, but one that allowed comfortable movement of the legs.
By 1966, times had changed – this was the year that Yves Saint Laurent designed possibly the most defining women’s suit of all time, the tuxedo dubbed Le Smoking. Its legacy lives on, an emblem of power and sensuality, of French chic and devil-may-care confidence. Helmut Newton’s iconic 1975 black-and-white photograph of Le Smoking for Vogue Paris remains one of fashion’s most enduring images.
You’d think that the power suit’s allegorical associations would have died down in the ensuing half-century, but the pantsuit has long been a focus – and ongoing joke – in many women’s career, where it would frame them as “sensible” person in the workplace, but also undermining their femininity.
Is it then ironic – or liberating – that, in 2019, the brightly coloured pantsuits that were once an object of derision are now a bona fide runway trend? For indeed, a rainbow riot of suits dominated this season, bringing a sunny dose of fun to an outfit once considered drab and stuffy that is now evolving into a wardrobe staple even for the weekend.
That, indeed is a key philosophical update: the suit exists no longer purely in the domain of business, or even merely as a radical androgynous choice for the red-carpet rule breaker. An evolution of the blazer-and-jeans combination that has become de rigueur for any occasion, the suit – particularly in coloured editions – is now ready to go for any occasion.
Think Emporio Armani’s fire-engine red renditions: a waist-length doublebreasted jacket with loose matching shorts might even look a little risqué for the office, but perfectly on point for a night on the town with heels, or for Sunday brunch with tennis shoes. Similarly, a relaxed-fit crimson pants paired with a trench-length coat (in the same hue, if not an identical material) was event-ready with the runway styling, a pointed flat loafer and a sheer bejewelled top, but could even be a somewhat “extra” dog-walking outfit on a morning before work with a T-shirt and oversized sunnies.
For a more classic take on the suit, we loved Chanel’s prim-and-proper tweed number, hailing from Karl Lagerfeld’s final collection for the brand. Covered from neck to knee, this was a Jackie O-appropriate choice, though there were a great few others more boundary-pushing, notably in turquoise check with an upper half more inspired by motorcycle jackets than office blazers, and in fuchsia, with baggy trousers and a caped coat.
While bright suits were already on the agenda last season, it was the luxe fabrications that made them truly stand out for autumn. As a counterpoint to Chanel’s puritanical tweed, Ferragamo gave us leather: stand-outs included the coordinated combo of a midi pencil skirt slit to there with a bomber-style jacket in maroon, and a mismatched pantsuit consisting of a burnt sienna pants and shirt (those pants, in particular, would be a fantastic and versatile investment piece) with a pink overcoat. Though not in leather, an orange suit with high-waisted pants and a collarless blazer was also worth a second look.
In fact, was there a colour of the rainbow that did not hit the catwalks this season? There was red at Chanel and Emporio Armani; Ferragamo’s orange ... at Tory Burch, a mustard-yellow dress and overcoat combination; at Lanvin, colour-blocked wheat and daffodil; at Off-White, a surprising tailored, almost-neon-green duster coat; at Givenchy, a classic emerald pantsuit with exaggerated curving shoulders styled with a contrasting belt; at Louis Vuitton, a true-blue jacket-and-pants set – aviator rather than executive; with its white piped edges, large patch pockets with flaps and zipper detailing, with the house monogram as lining; at Alexander McQueen, one of the best renditions of the season: an indigo sleeveless pantsuit with satin lapels and draped detailing at the cinched waist.
Another mean look at McQueen: a nipped-waist double-breasted jacket with pleated A-line skirt, in unapologetic red, a surprisingly flattering and versatile pairing that did not even require the addition of heels – flat, studded lace-up boots added to a tough-as-nails aesthetic that still felt darkly romantic and feminine.
Designers did more than step out of the neutral zone with their experiments in colour. Who said matchy-matchy was a must? At Versace, a soft-peach jacket was teamed with lime-green trousers, cornflower-blue polo neck and a sharp orange harness bra for one look; its matching bottoms showed up in another runway outfit, this time with a saffron blazer, under which sat three different tops: an orange polo neck, blue buttondown shirt and green cowl-neck tank. Burberry showed how to execute the same concept with a more conservative take, hiding a tan jacket and baby-blue collared shirt featuring the new house monogram under a green overcoat that matched the skirt precisely (tan gloves and shoes tied the whole idea together).
Maison Margiela, located at The Parisian Macao, pushed the boundaries, with a suit that was unquestionably bright, but ruled by print: blue, green, pink and black, acid-trippy and psychedelic.
But to truly rule the street-style circuit, ladies, the ultimate accessory to that bright suit is, undoubtedly, a similarly dressed man. Roberto Cavalli provided just the stuff: one look was claret down to the shirt and shoes, another dark teal suit looked sharp with monastic white shoes and a top with a swirling digital print. A 70s’-inspired cut in cerulean at Givenchy was another unsafe option, with pants cut so well, you might just steal this number for a borrowed-from-the-boys look.