From Lady Gaga to Ocasio-Cortez: why the pantsuit is making a comeback

Women and suits have a long, curious history, taking in the suffragette suit and the zoot suit. Now, after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election defeat, the two-piece is getting a rebrand.

‘There is a visual language to politics’ … Emma Thompson, Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton. Photograph: Getty Images; Rex

Women and suits have a long, curious history, taking in the suffragette suit and the zoot suit. Now, after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election defeat, the two-piece is getting a rebrand

When Hillary Clinton stepped out during the 2016 presidential campaign in her trademark pantsuit – yes, it is an Americanism, but one that has stuck – the initial feeling in mainstream liberal circles was that here, finally, was a woman ready to take on a job that had always been done by a man. Clinton, who often went for patriotic red, white or blue, said the pantsuits made her feel “professional and ready to go”. The presidency beckoned. Then, as we know, it all began to unravel.

So, news that Clinton may run again in 2020 places this back in the spotlight. In her memoir of the campaign, What Happened, Clinton said that wearing pantsuits helped her fit in with male politicians. She liked the “visual cue” that told her audience, apparently, that she was “different from the men, but also familiar”. Pantsuits have come to be seen as one with women in positions of power. They even spawned Pantsuit Nation, a campaign to get more women elected. But the fact the woman who introduced this uniform into our collective consciousness suffered a crushing election defeat somewhat took the shine off.

Dark, striking and un-Clinton … the Gabriela Hearst suit worn by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Interview magazine.

In the past few weeks, though, a new breed of pantsuit wearers – inside and outside politics – have rebranded the two-piece. For Erynn Masi de Casanova, a professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Buttoned Up, the word itself needs to be changed. “For some reason we cannot bring ourselves to say simply ‘suit’, which suggests it is an inherently masculine garment that we’ve borrowed – and that the word ‘suit’ is reserved for men,” she says.

Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, part of a new wave on the US left. After wearing a slim-fitting teal Gabriela Hearst pantsuit in Interview magazine, she was attacked by those on the right for wearing “expensive clothes” – something that no socialist is allowed to do, of course. The photoshoot in which the young Democrat – then a congressional candidate and now a congresswoman-elect – wore a striking, dark, un-Clinton pantsuit was just that – a photoshoot; Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t taking the clothes home. But it was an apt visual metaphor that she was entering the political melee.

While campaigning over the summer, the political commentator Briahna Joy Gray tweeted: “If I’m allowed one superficial comment about AOC, I’d just like to say how endearing it is that she wears this one blue dress everywhere.” On the day she was elected, Ocasio-Cortez eschewed a pantsuit for a white blouse and a beige skirt.

“No matter what a woman wears, it’s going to be criticised,” says Casanova. “Deeds and intellect come second after their bodies.” The pantsuit is a long way from becoming standard attire in the way that men have made suits theirs. “In politics, women don’t get to be the default.”

A fan of the mismatched suit … Angela Merkel. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Women and suits have a long, curious history. Standouts include the “suffragette suit” of the 1900s, which was actually a skirtsuit that allowed its wearer more room to move, and the 1940s’ zoot suits – high-waisted, flowing garments – that symbolised “rebellion”, according to Catherine S Ramirez’s, The Woman in the Zoot Suit. It wasn’t until 1993 that women were allowed to wear suits on the Senate floor, so it is hardly surprising that these double standards exist.

To talk about a woman’s clothes in a public arena may feel inherently problematic, but there is a visual language to politics, whether we like it or not. It is not so much that the clothes matter, but that they are part of the conversation and can be symbolic. A suit is a way to shield oneself from public scrutiny, or, as Gabriela Hearst put it, “one less thing for women to have to think about when getting dressed”.

Perhaps the answer is to do away with the matching suit and replace it with a mismatched version that is “less formal and more relaxed”, says Casanova. Angela Merkel is a fan – during the special meeting of the European Council last weekend she wore a blue jacket with black trousers – as is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who often wears a colourful jacket and dark trousers.

Alternatively, just go for it. Fashion has done its bit, with bold, loose-fitting, mannish suits dominating the 2018 catwalks of Céline, Tom Ford, Joseph, Marc Jacobs and Prada. Earlier this month, Emma Thompson accepted her damehood in an oversized Stella McCartney suit and trainers, entering the establishment fray in something completely unreconstructed. At Elle’s Women in Hollywood reception last month, Lady Gaga wore an oversized suit – this time by Marc Jacobs – because, she explained in an emotional acceptance speech that touched on mental health and sexual assault, it was a way for her to “take the power back”.

For Clinton, the struggle to be recognised as a woman in a man’s world often comes down to taking on positions that are close to the men who dominate that world. This is not to downplay that fight. But the generation represented by women such as Ocasio-Cortez can – thanks, in large part, to the generation of women that came before them – afford to succeed as women in a man’s world.

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