The Power of the Pantsuit in Government, Past and Present

Women in government have been changemakers and revolutionaries for decades. Women have fought for suffrage, inched towards the glass ceiling, and have fought tirelessly for what we all believe is right. Women have sat in tiny cubicles, answered calls, gone on coffee runs, taken notes and witnessed the pay gap for themselves. Women have put in the hours, dealt with sexism in the workplace, and put in an extra amount of thought into thinking about an appropriate work outfit.

Unfortunately, though, what we wear at work isn’t always taken seriously, and more recently, with this upcoming Presidential election, the phrase “pantsuit” has become laughable, mocking, and disturbingly sexist. Whenever Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes an appearance, it seems way too much attention is given to her appearance, and more precisely, what she is wearing. Her pantsuits have been hailed as too masculine, boxy, unflattering, boring, and just plain ugly.

However, by wearing her pantsuits, Clinton is not only reflecting on the sexist past (and present) of our nation, but also recalling the discrimination that women in government faced not so long ago. In fact, women have been allowed to vote for longer than they’ve been allowed to wear something other than a dress or skirt on the Senate floor.

It wasn’t until 1993 when Barbara Mikulski and Carol Braun, dared to wear pantsuits on the Senate floor, technically breaking a long-standing rule of only allowing skirts and dresses to be the attire of Senate women.

Yep, “Achy-Breaky-Heart” technically predates the mandate that women can actually wear pants in the Senate. But now that women can finally rock their pantsuits in government, there seems to be so much controversy and negative imagery surrounding this. Think of the words you’ve heard lately, calling pantsuits “old lady pants” or “ugly box suits.”

So, why has one particular outfit gotten so much negative attention? We’re talking about the classic pantsuit. Historically speaking, any woman in government wearing a pantsuit is a relatively new phenomenon.

It’s saddening to see such pejoratives used against this outfit, because the history of the infamous pantsuit is a notable one. The pantsuit itself wasn’t even designed and implemented until 1932, and even though designers like Coco Chanel, Marcel Rochas and Elsa Schiaparelli all introduced a variation of the pantsuit into their collections, “only the most unconventional designer would offer a straightforward pantsuit, and only a fearless woman would wear it,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The controversy of women wearing pantsuits, and even pants in general, can be further proven by the kindergarten teacher, who in 1938 was sent to jail for wearing slacks while testifying in a courtroom. Even though Levi-Strauss introduced the women’s denim jean in 1934, it really wasn’t until World War II that the everyday woman started to realize the need for pants. Actually, women industrial workers during World War II started altering their husband’s pants to fit them to wear to work, because it was still a novelty to find pants in an average store.

Finally, when designer Yves Saint Laurent showcased the now-famous Le Smoking women’s pantsuit in 1966, more and more women started to tout the new silhouette. However, there was still a lot of debate. In fact, a well-known Manhattan socialite, Nan Kempner, was denied service at a restaurant in 1969 for wearing an YSL pantsuit. This sparked something, it seems. After that, and into the early 70s, women began to wear pants, jeans, and pantsuits more and more. So much so, that in 1972 the US Government introduced Title IX of the Education Amendments, which officially allowed girls to wear pants to public schools.

So, please, let’s stop harping on pantsuits–regardless of who’s wearing them. Women have earned the right to wear them, and society has clearly come such a long way. Appreciate the pantsuit; bask in the beauty of suffrage. Revel in our progress towards cracking that glass ceiling. Band around the pantsuit, regardless of whether you choose to wear one or not. Because you could if you wanted to, and that’s what really counts.



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Thank you for the research on that. I am in my mid fifties and remember having to wear skirts or dresses to school every day in grade school. We could wear snow pants over our clothes to get there, but they came off at the door. I didn’t know that it was TItle IX that changed that (rather than just local policy), but I was certainly happy when it changed. Now I virtually never wear dresses.