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Trending: The Shorts Power Suit

Summer 2019’s most desirable garb isn’t a flowery dress, a flowy skirt or a ruffled blouse. It’s a shorts pantsuit. In a year that’s seen yet more fights for — and shifts towards — female empowerment and gender equality, that’s hardly surprising. Fashion often reflects the moods of its time, and trousers are an apt indicator of how women feel right now: determined to be recognised in a man’s world, sartorial choices included.


The trend comes hot off the recent revival of the classic pantsuit — tailored jacket, sharp long bottoms — first channelled by Rihanna in a Maison Margiela number at the Grammy Awards in 2015, then honed by Hilary Clinton during the 2016 US presidential campaign — so much so that the outfit became her trademark style.


Last year, Lady Gaga raised the two-piece’s profile further by wearing an oversized Marc Jacobs suit at ELLE’s Women in Hollywood reception, where she was honoured for her performance in A Star is Born. During her acceptance speech, the singer described the ensemble as a way for her to ‘take the power back’.

It’s a sentiment others have shared: from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Emma Thompson, Michelle Obama to Gigi Hadid, a number of strong and stylish female figures has made the look a power and fashion statement of sorts. As have designers: bold, loose-fitting, masculine suits were all over the 2018 catwalks of Celine, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Prada.


The latest and shorter iteration of the style showed up in every major summer collection, from Balmain to Isabel Marant, Gucci and Fendi. It’s taken things in a new direction — one that’s breezier and more relaxed (it’s summer, after all) but still carries the same message: in women’s attire, old (patriarchal) rules no longer apply.


The ‘female suit’ has a complex history. Its earliest version was the suffragette suit of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which was actually a skirtsuit featuring loose Turkish trousers under knee-length skirts. In America, the combo came to be known as bloomers, and adopted by women’s activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It broke conventions of what a ‘lady’ was expected to wear, and offered a sense of freedom both on an idealistic and physical level: wearing pants made it easier for women to do activities like cycling, for instance.

The ‘female suit’ has a long and complex history
Left: Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic smoking suit. Right: Rihanna’s modern pink take on the suit

The backlash against the garment was harsh — women who wore bloomers were often shamed and ridiculed publicly (and, in a few cases, even arrested for it).  Nevertheless, the look persisted. In the span of a few years, it was officially adopted by high fashion: in 1911, French couturier Paul Poiret debuted jupe-culottes, or harem pants, on the runway. In 1923, Coco Chanel introduced her ‘signature suit’, a knee-length skirt and a collarless wool button-down jacket with embellished buttons. Inspired by menswear but with a feminine silhouette, the boxy separates were designed for post-war women looking to join the workforce, and went on to change the concept of women’s fashion, paving the way for more utilitarian styles.


Those came in the following decade, as more women took up jobs traditionally reserved for men and, increasingly, began trading skirts for trousers.


In 1932, French designer Marcel Rochas took Chanel’s design one step further by creating what’s commonly considered as the first pantsuit: a pair of grey wool trousers and matching jacket with padded shoulders.

Around the same time and into the 1930s, actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn began wearing pants on a more regular basis, bringing the outfit from catwalk to (Hollywood) streets. More designers began experimenting with the revolutionary two-piece, too. For her winter 1936-37 collection, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli created a tailored suit jacket and a pair of single pleat cuffed slacks that exuded a strong masculine sensibility, and shocked quite a few when it was worn by socialite Millicent Rogers, known for her fashion bravado.


It wasn’t until the 60s, however, that pants and pantsuits began to be considered acceptable womenswear, aided no doubt by the second wave of feminism that defined much of the era. Yves Saint Laurent was the game-changer of that decade: in August 1966, he debuted his infamous Le Smoking suit, the first tuxedo designed specifically for women. By the 70s, slacks — tailored and otherwise — had entered mainstream women’s fashion, and the pantsuit had turned into the official uniform for a generation of businesswomen (well, almost: it wasn’t until 1993 that American politicians were allowed to wear suits on the Senate floor).

Then in the 90s, American Vogue ran headlines declaring that the era of power dressing was over, and the pantsuit fell into decline. It wasn’t until Rihanna that the look came back into the spotlight.


The shorts suit is the most modern version of this aesthetic: sharp but cool, it works as office wear or casual attire — just swap heels for flats or sneakers, and a crisp white shirt for an open-collar camisole — and shows both attitude and versatility, two qualities hard to find in most hot-season fashion. Its loose-fitting cut is also a sign of the times: women want clothes that are comfortable, functional and not too revealing, and the boxy blazer and shorts are just that. Call it power dressing with a summer twist.

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