The Evolution of Women’s Workwear, From Shoulder Pads to Exposed Delts

Work work work work work.
Work work work work work.

To consider the wardrobe of the working woman in the early-to-middle part of this century is to remember that women in offices existed, at that time, largely as trophies. They did, yes, the indispensable work that kept the whole operation moving forward, and did, sometimes, ascend, but rarely if ever were they the recipients of much credit, or money, or of the offices in the corners that came with windows and raises and power. They sat at the gates of those offices, ornaments to male success and status. What they wore reflected this. Women in the office were to look beautiful, professional, presentable, but not threatening.

When the jobs became bigger, when the competition with the men became real, there was a brief and unflattering moment when the uniform was meant to signal equality — even indistinguishability. The idea seemed to be that if it was gender parity women sought in the workplace, then they should have a similarly straightforward means of getting dressed. (Diane Keaton in 1987’s Baby Boom: all-gray suiting purchased from biannual trips to Brooks Brothers.) Female executives adopted the boxy business suit, and since shoulders are one place not hidden inside the box where the male and female anatomy tend to diverge — and where power is often imagined to be held — they were made large, padded with a hunk of netting and cloth. Below, they’d wear oxford-cloth shirts and even ties. “It was like, Look at this, I can do the job you can do, and so I’ll dress like you do,” says Austyn Zung, the creative director of workwear staple Ann Taylor. And it was all epically body-obscuring. “I mean, the hair alone,” says Ann Roth, who designed the costumes for Working Girl (1988). “Everything was enormous.” You couldn’t see the woman beneath the clothes (though there were surely those for whom that gave an erotic Twelfth Night charge).

But as ideas about feminism evolved, so, too, did the accompanying wardrobe, which moved from masking differences between the genders to acknowledging and even celebrating them. This shift actually began before Working Girl, when Donna Karan introduced her 1985 Seven Easy Pieces collection, which took a new approach to workwear. It addressed the same problem those big boxy suits did — if women were going to trot out the door and into a corporate environment five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, they couldn’t be expected to surprise every day. They were going to need some kind of uniform too. But uniform didn’t have to mean men’s suit. The uniform was going to have to be feminized, and that’s what Seven Easy Pieces did. It was all black, it was all stretchy, and it started with a bodysuit. The key, Karan explains, is that it did not seek to be masculine — though in her view this was primarily a practical matter, not how to make a statement but how to be comfortable: “For women it was never the perfect situation, it was about reality, and so it had to be soft because you’re always trying to be in both worlds.” The working wardrobe evolved again: modest and serious, but also covetable and feminine. Karan’s 1992 ad campaign imagined the inauguration of a female president, this time in a double-breasted blazer with a lace camisole beneath.

Then the fitness revolution happened. Suddenly, starting about 20 years ago, female executives became gym mavens. Which meant that the clothing itself stopped being quite as important as a signifier of power (though certain items, like very expensive handbags and shoes, will always carry their weight in that regard). Instead the body took pride of place — powerful, well-defined Michelle Obama arms and flat abs. The body was not to be obscured in workwear but revealed, because mastering your body communicated far more than simple purchasing power or taste: Having a body worth showing off, especially for those women of executive age, signaled self-control, leisure time, money. But mostly control — mastery over the impossibility of demands that the world makes of its successful, working women (and mastery over essentially unmasterable time). To be soft or unfit is a signal of failure, of weakness. “Women definitely do not want to be hiding their bodies,” says Zung. “It used to be all about boxy shapes. Now they want to show it off, wear things that are more form-fitted,” she adds. “It’s not the Sigourney anymore.”

*This article appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

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