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.