I have never had to wear a suit. Never been to court, never competed on Dragons’ Den and, most importantly, never held or interviewed for the kind of job where one might be required. I’m in my mid-twenties, with a career of my own making that lodges me somewhere between freelancer and member of the precariat. There is a huge possibility that I will never really have to wear anything more formal than a kilt, Chelsea boots and a Breton jumper (my current default) for work, if I don’t want to.
It’s not just me – the suit has loosened its grip on a wide range of professional careers, at any age, and, in recent years, our definition of “dressing smart” has broadened hugely. A 2014 survey of 1,000 UK professionals found 34 per cent wear suits to work only for important meetings, and 72 per cent believe smart-casual attire can look just as professional as business dress.
But when did this happen? How we dress is generally a potent reflection of social change, as anyone who has seen Mad Men can verify. And the way women have dressed in the workplace has changed rapidly in the post-war years, as society has changed more broadly.
In the 1960s, a shorter skirt might have indicated a loosening of society’s attitudes towards sex, while blue denim moved from utility fabric to a countercultural staple among young people. But what does it mean when suits – the traditional emblem of power in professionalism – no longer have a place in our wardrobes?
Workwear has long been a way of representing a particular occupation, although, as women entered different parts of the workforce en masse in the 1960s, the idea of uniforms and dress codes began slowly to diffuse. With a boom in cheaper, imported clothes, fashion appeal became a component of the 9-to-5 for many women. There was more choice than ever – colour, hemlines and silhouettes became ways of expressing personality in a stuffy and masculine workplace.
But clothes were not to be confined to a frivolous role in a woman’s life. In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher used clothes as a kind of armour, believing that dressing formidably would help to signify power in a man’s world. Describing her style as “never flashy, just appropriate”, shoulder pads, pussy-bow blouses and heavily hairsprayed hair all contributed to her hard-edged look. While elements were already familiar then from shows like Dallas, Thatcher’s style did influence a certain kind of professional woman at the time, and you can still see traces of it in the dress sense of no-nonsense politicians like Angela Merkel today.
During the late 1970s, Diane von Furstenberg’s jersey wrap dresses became a hit, representing the day-to-night routines of many women in cities like New York. Suddenly, a woman could go from the office to the nightclub without so much as an outfit change. It allowed the wearer to display a little sex appeal and glamour – a pivotal moment for many women as they found a way to fight for liberation on their own terms. As von Furstenberg said of her own career, the wrap dress let women “live a man’s life in a woman’s body”.
Of course, as time went by, women became a little more concerned with living their own lives, in their own bodies. By the 1980s, more women were in the workforce than ever and, in the US, the proportion of women holding management roles doubled from 1972 to 1985. In 1985, Donna Karan launched her own line centred on Seven Easy Pieces. Enter the capsule wardrobe: a simple range of garments that could be worn and mixed together, so the busy woman doesn’t have to stop and consider each time she gets dressed. This whole concept would filter through to the high street and, by the 1990s, we had a range of reasonably priced retailers filling the gap between business attire and Saturday-night glamour. The new millennium brought with it an emphasis on personality and trends. The buzz around the It-accessory reached fever pitch, with waiting lists forming for Jimmy Choo heels or a Louis Vuitton bag. But much of this was about to change, thanks to both the global economic slowdown coupled with the rise of the tech industry.
There are fundamentals that remain the same in every office – water-cooler gossip, disagreeable colleagues – but many of the jobs and companies where women work today did not exist 20 years ago. As roles like “social media executive” or “UX designer” have emerged, the mores around them are slower to define themselves – what is a tech CEO or a chief financial officer is supposed to wear? It doesn’t help that the default icons of our time are men – Steve Jobs in his black Issey Miyake roll necks and New Balance trainers, or Mark Zuckerberg’s Peter Pan-like adherence to grey hoodies and T-shirts. Dressing so casually and uniformly is supposedly a sign of creativity, and got subsumed into 2014’s ultracool Normcore trend.
But one wonders if female CEOs could get away with it. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have adopted a leadership look based around vibrant shift dresses and heels – more Michelle Obama than Mark Zuckerberg. While the suit seems to be anathema to the spirited world of start-ups, where does that leave the woman who wants to convey power and professionalism without one?
Emma Young worked in book publishing before moving to SoundCloud, where she is now head of PR. “Tech companies don't tend to be very hierarchical and, walking into our office, I think you'd find it hard to work out who's more senior at the company,” she explains. Her typical outfit might be a dress and Church’s brogues, or a shirt and cords, and her wardrobe is a mix of high street and designer. “Start-ups don't tend to associate dressing in a certain way with professionalism, and don't really distinguish your work self from the rest of your life – and that's reflected in how I dress.”
Aislinn Lucheroni completed a PhD in law and worked in education and academia before moving to an ad-policy job at Google’s Dublin office earlier this year. “A key principle in Google is ‘You don’t have to wear a suit to be serious’, so the guidance is to wear what you are comfortable in,” she says. “But I make more of an effort for work [than at the weekend], because the office is such an exciting, stimulating place.” An average outfit for Aislinn could be a poloneck and a skirt with brogues.
In the late 2000s, certain designers stopped viewing that workwear-versus-weekend divide so clearly, too. Appointed as creative director of Céline a mere fortnight before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Phoebe Philo’s reign at the house has run parallel to some major shifts in how we work in the Western world. Philo, as well as peers such as Clare Waight Keller at Chloé, and Stella McCartney, took the lives of real women as her inspiration, with Philo saying that, “I felt it was time for a more back-to-reality approach to fashion – clothes that are beautiful, strong, and have ideas, but with real life driving them.” We lapped it up – the appeal of smart, trendy clothes that took cues from tailoring and yet didn’t look stuffy was huge. The press pegged it as a feminist fashion moment – clothes designed by “real” women, to be worn by “real” women. Philo’s relaxed silhouettes – a roll neck with wide-legged trousers and clean Adidas Stan Smiths, perhaps – could be worn by entrepreneurs as much as account managers.
It’s not only a mode of dressing for wealthy women, either. On the high street, stores like & Other Stories and Whistles offer more of this mode of dressing, where beautiful fabrics or prints take precedence over adherence to a formal dress code. According to Jane Shepherdson, chief executive of Whistles, the move from suiting is a tangible one. “We have seen a significant shift away from traditional suiting over the last couple of years,” she explains. “Relaxed separates, dresses or softer suits have become much more popular amongst our customers.”
Could you blame us for seeking comfort? On average, people in the UK are working longer hours now than many of our European neighbours and, on any given day, women are juggling so many roles and tasks that go far beyond the office, bringing work home to look at between being partners, flatmates, mothers. Modern life is so busy and we’re being pulled in myriad directions. Why would we do it all in a pencil skirt and heels if we didn’t necessarily have to?
However, some sectors haven’t been as quick to adopt a more casual mode of dressing. Emma Curran works part-time in university admissions in Manchester and, even without a formal dress code, she relies on a separate weekday wardrobe that she describes as “smart”. ““Basically, I wouldn't be seen dead in my work clothes on a weekend! [For work] I like to go for black trousers, a top and a black cardigan.” Rather than heels, she opts for leather ballet pumps from Clarks.
Grace, a solicitor in her twenties, never wears heels, choosing brogues instead.“Many young women at my firm only wear heels when they're going to a meeting, and then flats when they're just working at their desk,” she explains. “The more senior women always wear heels – it's a status thing.” As well as that, it’s clear to her that attitudes are changing with time: “Young women solicitors, I think, can now be more adventurous with their office clothes – you see a lot of Alicia Florrick-inspired outfits.”
Could you blame us for seeking comfort? On average, people in the UK are working longer hours now than many of our European neighbours
It’s not as if the move away from the formal dress code spells a power deficit in women’s closets. Let’s call it “power-lite” – a shift towards key pieces in our wardrobes: the special-occasion dress or trousers worn for important meetings and events, rather than the sharp suit, bought for a new job and worn repeatedly. The difference is that the new power outfits are more amenable to our real lives, both in the office and out of it. Jane Shepherdson pinpoints the dress as an option that is both practical and fashionable. “The dress is an easy, quick solution – makes the morning rush less stressful and can be formal, feminine or oversized and a little more casual.” Depending on your workplace, it could even be a pair of jeans. “Appropriate for work or not? In my mind, if you work in any of the creative industries, then absolutely yes – as frayed and cropped as you like, preferably with a smarter shoe, or clean white trainers.”
Maybe, then, the new power-lite look is what you make of it. The old rules are gone – if you feel comfortable and professional in a sweatshirt, then why not? “I’ve worn things like a leather dress, a tracksuit top and a selection of outrageous vintage shirts to work since the beginning of 2016,” says Aislinn. “I’m thankful I can wear what I want, because it’s very liberating.”
“At SoundCloud, we draw the line at wearing pyjamas to work, and I've yet to see a onesie in the office, but anything else goes,” says Emma.
In truth, there is a suit hanging in my wardrobe. It’s unworn and still bears its tags, and I bought it in the midst of a quasi-quarter life crisis last year. After a bout of flu, I read an interview with Matilda Kahl, an NYC art director who wears the same white silk shirt and black trousers every day. To Kahl, the idea isn’t strange at all: “To state the obvious, a work uniform is not an original idea. There's a group of people that have embraced this way of dressing for years—they call it a suit.” Reading the article, I thought the answer to all my problems would come in the form of a skinny grey suit, bought on sale from Zara. It’s lovely, but my life right now just doesn’t require it. I’m saving it for a court appearance.