Evolution of Women's Workwear

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Evolution of Women's Workwear Since the 1980s

In the 1980s, importance was given to fitting, which meant more masculine styles of suits were the most popular choice. In the 1990s, a more minimalist approach followed, with suits becoming more form fitting and feminine. In the 2000s, clothes became a way of showing off women's toned bodies as signs of power. Nowadays workwear fashion is more casual, with companies introducing "business casual" into their dress codes.


During the eighties, 51.5% of women were an active part of the U.S. workforce. Therefore, this decade is known as the decade of the "power woman". The main design was a menswear-inspired jacket. From 1980 until 1987, the sales of women’s suits increased by almost 6 million pieces or $600 million in revenue. During the 80s, the suits started to be designed in boxier shapes and feature a looser fit. This was done to remove the emphasis of gender and coined the phrase "power dressing" which is used today as well. The suits often were tailored more towards how men dress, and shaped in a masculine style. One of the most popular styles during the 1980s was a pinstripe suit with shoulder pads which was a way of showing that women's ambition was equal to that of men. In this era, women were actively joining the boys' club and were trying to find a way to fit in. When it comes to suits which featured skirts, the skirt length was a bit below the knee, usually in gray or dark blue. With the skirt came a white blouse, a scarf tie, heels and skin-toned pantyhose. Women were advised to avoid dresses, floral patterns, sweaters and platform shoes as those were considered signs of the lower class.


During the 90s, the percentage of women participating in the U.S. workforce increased to 57.5%. The overall 1980s trends were so excessive that this following era resulted in minimalism, mostly simple cuts in muted colors such as black, cream and beige. The designs overall were more focused on a woman than her clothing.
In 1985, Donna Karan introduced a collection called Seven Easy Pieces, which signaled a new approach to workwear. The new workwear uniform became more feminized. The pieces were all black, stretchy and featured a bodysuit. Karan explained that workwear didn't have to be masculine to be professional. Also in this decade, women were increasingly gaining more financial freedom. An end result of this was when, "in 1993 U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley-Braun forced the Senate to lift its ban on women wearing trousers by wearing pantsuits on the Senate floor".


59.5% of women participated in the U.S. workforce in the 2000s. There were also legal changes when it came to attire in the workplace. On December 21, 2015, the NYC Commission on Human Rights put out a statement with new guidelines that prohibited "enforcing dress codes, uniforms, and grooming standards that impose different requirements based on sex or gender." In practice this means that companies are now legally allowed to require men to wear ties only if women are required to wear ties. At the same time, women are not required to wear heels unless men are also required to wear heels.

The 2000s also switched focus from the clothes themselves towards women spending more time on their bodies. Women in power started focusing on going to the gym and having toned arms and flat stomachs. With that, the clothing was there to show off their effort and their bodies as signs of self-esteem and power.


Nowadays, the trends which are taking over workwear with women is power dressing. This means women are allowed to apply the rule of "anything goes" in the workplace. Today women don't feel the need to prove their working status by wearing suits. However, many women still do, especially recently after the long presidential campaign in the US where Hillary Clinton almost exclusively wore pantsuits. The main difference when it comes to this era compared to those before, is that suits today come in virtually all fits, colors, and shapes. The reason why suits are still a popular choice is that a suit carries an authoritative significance and displays value.

W Magazine gave a very conclusive overview of the difference between the 80s workwear and today: "If power dressing in the 1980s was simple, sexless, and boringly steadfast, 40 years later it is ­wide-ranging and refreshingly individualistic".

Many male CEOs and high executives find that today's workwear trends are too casual. More than 47% of the interviewed executives said that they thought their employees dressed too casually, and 32% thought their workers showed too much skin. However, companies, in general, seem to be embracing the switch from formal workwear to a more casual approach. One of the best examples is JP Morgan who recently introduced business casual into its business code.


During the 1980s, masculine styles of suits were the most popular choice. In the 1990s, suits took a more form fitting style. During the 2000s, workwear fashion started to become more casual, and some executives nowadays think it has actually become too casual, with employees showing too much skin.