Let’s face it: the way you dress at work says a lot about who you are, what you do, and where you want to go. Just as women no longer have to “act like men” to succeed, women no longer have to dress exactly like men to be taken seriously. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Women’s steady climb up the corporate ladder has been reflected in their wardrobes. The stay-at-home moms of the 1940s turned secretaries of the ’50s turned CEOs of today have traded in their aprons for power suits.
Business attire has become more relaxed, more feminine, and more flattering, but just how much have women’s workplace wardrobes evolved through the decades? Let’s take a look.
Even though World War II and wartime rationing put a damper on flair, women still managed to turn the simple into the elegant. While the everyday lady of leisure never stepped out in anything but a dress, women who worked in factories and shops chose comfort over elegance. Due to limited materials and diminishing stock, many women wore service uniforms and mended clothing around the clock.
However, practicality couldn’t keep a stylish woman down. Minimalism was encouraged, and women used scarce fabrics to their advantage, turning drab into sexy. Scarce nylon stocking meant showing bare legs (scandalous!), and limited materials meant shorter skirts and jackets. Suits were often made of recycled fabrics, but were still cut with a feminine edge. While most sets consisted of blouses and knee-length skirts, trousers burst onto the scene, thanks to film star Marlene Dietrich. However, dresses, peplum, and full skirts remained the style of the times. Scarves, elaborate accessories, and hats helped add a little oomph to the dark times.
As the country emerged from the depths of war, women longed for the luxury and extravagance they’d once enjoyed. While their “office” typically remained inside the home, working women didn’t skimp on style. Trousers were acceptable, but the proper lady wore dresses or skirts at home and to the office. That’s not to say they were dowdy or frumpy—youthfulness and femininity blossomed. Popular pencil skirts flaunted a woman’s hourglass figure, and girdles helped cinch the waist. Short, cropped jackets also helped accentuate a tiny torso. Gloves and hats rounded out a dainty, yet smart and elegant, look.
As more women entered the workforce and took on nine-to-five jobs, comfort became top priority. Fashions in the early years of the decade reflected the elegance of the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. The once billowy silhouettes became more streamlined and tailored. Typical attire usually consisted of A-line shift dresses, knee-length skirts (the minis were for after hours), and simple blouses. Formal pants were now considered acceptable as everyday wear to the office, and many of the styles of the era were somewhat androgynous.
Elegant suit sets, usually in pastel colors, were often paired with vests, with short, boxy jackets, or with full-length coats. Collars and cuffs were often trimmed with mink or other plush materials. Outerwear consisted of swing coats and dyed fake furs. Footwear included low-heeled sandals and kitten-heeled pumps. Ornate buttons, pillbox hats, and gloves accessorized the outfit.
Disco divas donned flower prints and bell bottoms at night, but their inner working girls put a spin on their office attire, too. Inspired by Faye Dunaway in the movie Network, many women went for feminine yet polished silhouettes and retro trends to add glam to the somewhat austere suits of the ’60s. Shapes became less boxy and more fitted to women’s hourglass figures. The fitted blazer, which flared slightly at the hip, came in a variety of fabrics, including wool, velvet, suede, and leather. The buttons were covered and the lapels wide. Trench coats, wrap dresses, and tweed helped round out a woman’s wardrobe. Silk scarves and tie-neck blouses added a little sex appeal to the suit.
Women’s increasing power in the workplace was reflected in their wardrobe. And what better way to show they were equal to men in the office but to “power dress”? And that meant shoulder pads, shoulder pads, shoulder pads. Thank you, Dynasty and Dallas. The widely popular soap operas influenced women’s workplace styles and firmly established shoulder pads as the go-to accessory of the decade. Wool, cotton, and silk returned to popularity and replaced the synthetic fabrics of the ’70s.
Women’s suits remained highly tailored and tended to look a bit masculine. The somewhat harsh lines were softened with floppy scarves and silk bows tied at the neck. Costume jewelry and chunky gold earrings were all the rage and were tastefully paired with skirt sets. Patterned tights, pantyhose, feathered hats, and clutch handbags added glitz and glam to an everyday ensemble.
While the classic ’80s pantsuit remained a hot trend (sans shoulder pads), blazers paired with straight or bootlegged trousers or even (gasp!) jeans became acceptable attire in the office. Conservative dresses and knee-length skirt sets also made a comeback and were often paired with funky leather jackets. However, the late ’90s saw women increasingly pushing the envelope. Their skirts were shorter, popular fabrics like Lycra and cashmere hugged curves, and necklines continued to plunge. A short, sleeveless, boat-neck shift dress under a matching-length jacket added a sexy spin to the everyday suit.
Nowadays many workplaces have grown out of their conservative dress codes and allow their employees to wear almost anything that they feel comfortable in. Women’s business attire has become more relaxed, more feminine, and more flattering. But the classic business suit remains a staple. Nothing says “in charge” or “professional” more than a crisp, well-tailored suit. Pencil skirts paired with delicate blouses exude a powerful yet feminine style. Necklines, ruching, and buttons help dress up an average suit.
Even as workplaces become more casual and khaki and jeans become the norm, there are still some things women should never wear to work. And remember, regardless of what is in fashion from year to year, the women’s business suit is always in style. Invest in a classic set and use it as a building block for the rest of your wardrobe.
Originally published on Excelle