Sarah Waldron pays homage to the trouser suit…
There is a remarkable moment in the closing scene of the finale of the second-to-last season of Mad Men. Peggy Olson, who has spent a decade working her way up from secretary to executive, sits in her now deposed boss’ office with a glass of bourbon, surveying the world she has debatably conquered. For the first time in six seasons of the show, Peggy is literally and figuratively wearing the trousers.
This was a deliberate choice on the part of Mad Men’s costume designer, Janie Bryant. “Peggy really is a modern woman, and for her to make that choice to wear pants shows how far women have come.” Peggy has had a decisive, powerful moment. “I wanted to see Peggy in pants to illustrate that she had come so far. It was such a strong expression of empowerment,” says Janie.
Here, the choice of a trouser suit is not a fashion statement – the suit in question is a red and black houndstooth number paired with a snazzy red polo neck – a far cry from the normal, grey-suited uniform typical of the Sterling Cooper office. Peggy Olson is no trendsetter. Then again, that’s the point. The trouser suit is beyond fashion. The trouser suit is a powerful statement of intent.
Women in Ireland didn’t really come into their own with the trouser suit until the 1980s, when the notion of “power dressing” gained a solid foothold in the public imagination. The women’s power suit, as imagined by Giorgio Armani, had exaggerated, obnoxious shoulders bolstered by pads. The power suit, and the trend for perms and bouffants, made a woman coming into what was once traditionally a man’s world a bigger presence – in a very obvious sense. In films like Working Girl and 9 to 5, the female characters wear trousers while asserting themselves and bringing down their nefarious bosses (though, interestingly, Melanie Griffith’s character manages to save the day in a pair of jeans).
In Ireland, the corporate infrastructure was – and in many ways, still is – dominated by men. The trouser suit was a suit of armour for women, projecting a visible sense of capability and dominance to people who were too deeply set in their ways to realise that women are now and always have been powerful tools in every sector of the workforce.
This translates to politics too. For over two decades, US politician and former First Lady Hillary Clinton has been wearing a variation of the same trouser suit: a semi-relaxed fit, single breasted jacket, with trousers that hit just above the ankle. It’s the standard white-collar work uniform, and she has a suit in almost every colour imaginable. The suit is an attempt to be relatable to as many people as possible and, in a world that has as many political opinions as it does people, it is a valiant and largely successful effort.
The power suit has become so synonymous with Hillary that, with rumours of her contemplating running for President in 2016, Time Magazine ran a cover story featuring the trademark ensemble. “Can anyone stop Hillary?” they asked, a tiny male figure clinging onto the disembodied pant suited leg that dominated the cover space.
While sexism is still rife in both business and politics (the Time image of a man holding on for dear life to Hillary’s political hem can only be described as sexist if we’re feeling charitable, totally odious if we’re not), the meaning of the trouser suit has shifted. With the realisation that women can still do a good job regardless of how their legs are clad, the trouser suit no longer makes a woman powerful; instead, it makes her polished. Wearing a suit is no longer caricaturing a man’s outfit in order to project a woman’s ability to do what was once a man’s job.
Now, it’s a more nebulous, androgynous thing. The woman herself is the source of power. While clothes maketh the man, the woman makes herself. The modern suit-wearer knows that tailoring is the most important aspect of a suit. A good suit communicates a sense of confidence and innate self- assurance. It doesn’t even have to have matching parts, but it does need to fit well and look good.
Tailored trousers and sweaters worn over crisp white shirts have even made their way out of the office and into evening and casual wear – the ideal sartorial antidote to bodycon dresses and tracksuit pants.
With the power suit no longer retaining its sense of power, it has fallen out of vogue onto the fashion wayside. It’s a relic, a reminder of the bad old days. However, there is a place for the contemporary trouser suit, and that place is almost everywhere. From the elegant, casual English deshabille of Margaret Howell tweeds to stalwart middle management uniforms from Marks & Spencer, there is a suit for every woman, and a woman for every suit.
Sarah Waldron @The_Licentiate
This article originally appeared in the August issue of the magazine.