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Death of the pantsuit

Posted in fashion, Style & Travel, and Women's issues

claire underwood dress wellI went to a lecture a couple of days ago, held by three doctors, all female, all professionals with their own practices and/or research laboratories. It certainly wasn’t a frivolous occasion and I noticed that all of them, women in their early to late 40s, wore either a skirt or a dress and high heels. One of them, in particular, sported a lovely periwinkle sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist, with a wide skirt and golden sandals. Not your typical work attire.

 

But what is the typical work attire these days? Remember the late 80s and early 90s when it seemed that to compete in a male corporate world women had to wear an armor in the form of a pantsuit? Especially in the United States, the pantsuit ruled.
Even in Europe, where women were more reluctant to sacrifice their femininity on the altar of their career, from Giorgio Armani down to the high street, it was not uncommon to see women clad in trousers and matching jackets. The addition of shoulder pads in the 80s gave ensembles a menacing look of the take me seriously or else variety.

Mercifully, things have changed. Women in corporate or academic careers everywhere are free to express their individuality and/or femininity (or not) as they please through their clothes, ranging from trousers, shirts and flats to pencil skirts and heels. And I have noticed such changes are reflected in both fictional characters and real women.

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Take Claire Underwood, the character Robin Wright plays in “House of Cards” who goes from being the executive at a non-profit to wife of the Vice-President to first lady to UN Ambassador. Whoever is in charge of her wardrobe carefully mapped her evolution through her clothes: skinny pants and crispy shirts; simple and feminine dresses; more structured outfits, including a stunning evening gown for a state dinner, to the final outfit, when she leaves her husband wearing a Miu Miu jacket buttoned up to her neck that proclaims her independence. What all her clothes have in common is an age-appropriate femininity that does not reveal skin and complements the character’s personality.

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The same can probably be said for Mrs. Obama’s sartorial choices – while a first lady traditionally needs to come across as feminine, i.e. demure and subservient to the office of her husband, it is clear that Mrs. Obama dresses as befits her position but also to please her sense of style and never sacrificing her point of view, that of a smart, educated and opinionated woman who is not President herself but is in no way overshadowed by his office.

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And then we come to Hillary Clinton who has just declared her candidacy to the highest office in our land, the queen in chief of (dreadful) pantsuits. Mrs. Clinton stepped into the limelight, as first lady, following a string of much more demure and less engaged first ladies, at a time when she felt that to assert her brain and her power she had to obliterate the obvious fact she was female – and there she was, in an endless series of color block and forgettable pantsuits or skirts with long, matching jackets.
As her team of advisers is busy styling a makeover, trying to make Mrs. Clinton more appealing to as many voters as possible, it will be interesting to see which sartorial way she (they) will choose. Not that it matters but, ultimately, whether we like it or not, the message a woman can convey through her clothes can be powerful.

Clothes can be a mirror of our personality: they can become a protective layer and, in an office environment, also a way to inhabit and own the persona we want to project. I think, at least in most of the Western world, the clothes battle has been won – we can assert who we are, be taken seriously on the basis of merit, regardless of what we wear. Or has your experienced been different?

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14 Comments

  1. Yes, I’ve always relied on my white coat to delay my entry into investing more “grown up” attire 🙂 My excuse has always been, well, they can’t see what I’m wearing underneath the white coat anyway. Perhaps a good spring cleaning is in order for me. I love J Crew and Boden too!!

    April 23, 2015
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  2. Hillary needs some Max Mara in her life. The clothes Claire Underwood wears are not custom. A lot of Max Mara, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren. All off the rack.

    The thing is those pantsuits HRC wears are made by a designer popular with corporate women and they are not cheap. I can’t think of the name. I believe Jezebel wrote a piece about the designer. I was shocked when I saw how much the clothes cost.

    What is interesting is that attention is also being paid to the way the male candidates dress. Rubio, Rand, and Cruz have horrible suits. I know the latter two can afford to have a suit tailored (not sure about Rubio) but they are pandering to their base. I guess a man running for President while wearing a suits that fit well and look nice is a bad thing?

    April 19, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Max Mara is a perfect match! I suspect you are right, pandering to a vague base. Still, Mrs. Obama wears a lot of high street and comes across as stylish. Different age group but there has to be a middle and sensible away while getting her way from those horrors!

      April 21, 2015
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  3. I have to wear a suit every day. It wasn’t until a few years ago that women were ‘allowed’ to wear pants in my industry. So, to set an example to young women coming into the profession, I wear pants most days. Some days I still wear a skirt, but it’s nice to not have to worry so much about what I wear to be considered intellectually and professionally an equal. We’ve come a long way baby, but there’s still a long road ahead.

    April 18, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Still a long way ahead to gender equality, but isn’t it incredible that it wasn’t so long ago that employers could request female employees don’t wear pants?

      April 19, 2015
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  4. Wow, I wish I know how to dress better as a professional woman! I am in my 40’s, and am still wear things from my college and med school years. Speaking of pantsuits, I have one pantsuit that I bought for interviews: first it was for med school, and later residency and job interviews. It was a big splurge when I was a senior in college! I remember coming out of the J Crew store, feeling so grown up 🙂 I recently bought a couple of Kate Spade dresses and shoes that I wear for work conferences. But other than that, I think my wardrobe is still stuck in my 20’s. Maybe I should pay attention to what other professional women are wearing these days 🙂

    April 17, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I think you are a doctor, right? Are you stuck in your doctor overcoat all day long anyway? I noticed that my big wardrobe transition started in my late 40s, when I got rid of all skirts above the knee or little revealing dresses (while I am still skinny, I don’t want to look ridiculous). If you need an update, I was just browsing the latest JCrew catalogue and there is plenty to find. A good internet shopping destination is bodenusa.com. It’s a quirky English company with plenty of pretty things at affordable prices.

      April 17, 2015
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  5. sofagirl
    sofagirl

    I would totally wear pantsuits. But not any of those pantsuits – I would go for carefully curated pants/jacket combos with cool tops. They don’t need to be the monstrosities in bright pastels that HC opts for. With her money – the trouser suit is easy peasy – there are great designers that can help her out. What she needs is some decent stylists.

    April 17, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I don’t quite understand…she could call up Anna Wintour if she really wanted. I have never been terribly fond of coordinates, other than maybe a black suit, but I do love jackets and trousers.

      April 17, 2015
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  6. I’m kind of happy that my workplace has a uniform, so I don’t really have these problems. But we do get the option of either trousers or pencil skirt, and people’s preferences seem pretty evenly split

    April 17, 2015
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I was reading just yesterday a blog post on a woman who adopted a uniform once realizing the men at her firm wore exactly the same thing day in and day out. At first her female colleagues thought she was crazy but it does take the guessing out of what to wear early in the morning!

      April 17, 2015
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      • Indeed! I think I’d do the same if I didn’t have a uniform. Something similar you might be interested in is Karl Stefanovic’s “same suit” experiment. He’s an Australian breakfast TV host who wore the same suit every day for a year to prove a point about how women get way more criticism than men about appearance etc

        April 18, 2015
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  7. camparigirl
    camparigirl

    Are there places where they would suggest you wear one (other than Clinton’s campaign HQ?). I shudder to think…

    April 17, 2015
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  8. What a sorry line up for Hilary. I’m so surprised than in the Hollywood-ified American political arena, she didn’t have a (better) stylist. They’re ten a penny and all looking for work! I have never worn a pant suit and will vow to make my career path about choosing jobs that never make me wear one. So there! 🙂

    April 17, 2015
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