How the pantsuit can help women reclaim their bodies and sexuality
A fashion choice laced with provocative meaning
When Lady Gaga chose to express an experience that had set her on a journey of extreme pain, anger and then power at the ELLE Women in Hollywood awards in October, she wore a voluminous Marc Jacobs pantsuit. Its outsized proportions seemed somehow emblematic of both her vulnerability and strength as she spoke of her survival of sexual assault and her solidarity with the #MeToo movement.
Girls are all too often brought up to believe that being female equates with being sweet and assenting; always mindful of others’ feelings over one’s own. This all too often segues into women being submissive, dominated and repressed.
But, no longer.
Over the past year, #MeToo has swept across the globe, with women sharing their experiences of sexual assault, harassment, and everyday sexism. Women are refusing to continue to contain their anger at the daily avalanche of micro and macro aggressions that assert the inviolability of male power in ways that are pervasive and insidious. Social media has given women a way to recognise and share each other’s experiences, and find pathways to truth and justice. How could women visibly express this new-found collective sense of self? How could they signal the desire to reclaim their bodies, space and power?
For many, it was by the liberating feeling of wearing a pantsuit. This past January, at the first Golden Globes to be held after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, female actors pledged to wear all black. A sartorial revolt against the way that actors—who happen to be women— are dissected by the global media not for what they do, but for what they wear. Male actors do not suffer a similar fate. Even then, it wasn’t just the fact of wearing black that made actors like Claire Foy, Debra Messing, Alison Brie and Susan Sarandon stand out. It was the fact they wore black pantsuits. GLOW actor Brie said, “Tonight is about women wearing the pants, so I chose to literally wear the pants.” The pantsuit has a long tradition of being used to symbolise both refusal of and rebellion against the repression of women. A refusal to be circumscribed and objectified as a narrow idea of gender based on biological sex. Tailored men’s suits have often allowed women to pass for men and move through spaces forbidden to them, which is exactly why many women around the world have found such freedom and pleasure in wearing them.
Shockingly, until 2013 it was theoretically illegal for a woman to wear trousers in Paris. The law was last applied in the 1930s, and for much of the 20th century, Parisian women happily disobeyed it. The law was created in 1800, when French women began to demand the right to perform men’s jobs and wear men’s clothes. By 1900, a legal exception was made for women riding horses or bicycles, but they needed a police permit. Nonetheless, by the 21st century, it was still there: an arcane undercurrent, a reminder of what women have battled, and must struggle against still.
It was during the course of World War II that wearing trousers as part of suits became a form of signalling, and a way of inhabiting the new roles in public life and the workplace that opened up to women.
Hollywood icons such as Marlene Dietrich, who risked her life to entertain troops at the front line, wore one in a subversive nod to her secret bisexuality and the permissive underground world of the Berlin cabarets she frequented.
In the 1940s, Katherine Hepburn wore suits in ways so modern that women still emulate her over seventy years later.
It’s no coincidence that in the process of revolutionising French fashion with the introduction of ready to wear, that in 1966 a young Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking, a man’s tuxedo tailored for a woman’s body, credited with pioneering the power suit or pantsuit for women. And it was photographer Helmut Newton who made this style truly iconic; his eye for the undercurrents of fetishism in dress drew out the truly subversive nature of Le Smoking. Newton’s image in a 1975 edition of French Vogue featured an androgynous woman in a Parisian alley wearing a Le Smoking, entwined with a model that was naked save for her black stilettos.
In Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1996), Sita (played by Nandita Das) expresses her growing rebellion against the claustrophobic household she has been married into by secretly trying on her husband’s suit. We share in her palpable glee as she poses in front of the mirror smoking a mock cigarette. The suit is her uniform of liberation.
More recently, the pantsuit became synonymous with the eloquent candidacy of Hilary Clinton against a bellicose Trump. In a male-dominated world, quite literally “wearing the pants” has become a key signifier of women’s determination to be seen on their own merit, as equal candidates for roles many men feel are their own unique entitlement. The power suit is a sartorial signifier in the political realm that began with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, who set the tone for women negotiating spaces of power then opening up for them in the corporate world. Soap operas such as Dynasty (1981-1989) and films like Working Girl (1988) showed powerful women in pantsuits and giant shoulder pads, in a kind of “if you can’t beat them, join them” battle of the sexes.
By the 1990s, as women grew into their roles of power, pantsuits with quarter-back shoulder shapes gave way to slimmer, more minimal iterations by designers like Helmut Lang and Jil Sander.
But to return to the Marc Jacobs creation that Lady Gaga wore, this wasn’t any old pantsuit. It wasn’t just antifit, it was outsized: voluminous, not voluptuous. It spoke to the tradition of design exemplified by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo whose designs overtly reject the male gaze, which seeks to squeeze women into figurehugging, body– constricting forms.
Lady Gaga spoke eloquently of her oversized suit as a form of revelation. She didn’t want to be remembered for what she wore but what she said. The suit felt like a freeing escape from the lavish gowns she was asked to choose from.
“In this suit, I felt like me today. In this suit, I felt the truth of who I am well up in my gut. And then wondering what I wanted to say tonight became very clear to me,” she said.
As it is, Lady Gaga will be remembered very much for what she wore, as well as what she said at the awards. Her choice was made all the more powerful because she is usually known for her hyperfeminine styling. Women no longer have to wear a pantsuit to prove their worth in the workplace. But it remains a sartorial choice laced with provocative, subversive meaning, especially when worn in the glare of public scrutiny. In the #MeToo era, the pantsuit symbolises how far we as women have come, and how far we yet have to go.
Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for ELLE US (Lady Gaga at ELLE’s 25th Annual Women in Hollywood Celebrations)