Trouser suits are back in business. Here’s what happened when the Stylist team ditched their jeans.
Words: Moya Sarner
Photography: Chris Floyd
Styling: Alisha Motion
What if we told you that there was one simple thing you could do to feel more confident every day? One easy way to make you lean in at meetings, command the room’s attention in presentations and focus more at your desk? Would you be sceptical? What if the suggestion was “wear a trouser suit”?
Trouser suits are everywhere this season, on the catwalks of Chloé, Lanvin and Dries Van Noten to Stella McCartney and Isabel Marant. Fabrics run from fluid silks to structured crisp cottons, from greys and blacks to Roksanda Ilincic’s yellows and candy tones, while designers such as Jacquemus, Anne Sofie Madsen and Vionnet are pushing the boundaries with clever cuts and playful lengths.
If ever there was a moment to try a trouser suit, this is it. Theresa May wore her ‘lucky’ Vivienne Westwood tartan trouser suit both to announce that she was standing for Prime Minister, and when she outlined the government’s plan for Brexit earlier this year.
On the other side of the pond, Hillary Clinton inspired a generation of young feminists to declare themselves the ‘pantsuit nation’. When Beyoncé performed at a Clinton fundraiser, she wore a Givenchy pantsuit. The stand-out look at this year’s Golden Globes was Evan Rachel Wood’s custom Altuzarra tuxedo and everywhere you look, A-listers are embracing the trend, from Janelle Monáe to Emma Watson.
We know what you’re thinking – fine, if you look like Janelle Monáe, or if you’re running for President, but does this trend really translate in the real world?
Well, here at Stylist, we love a challenge. So we decided to put the new breed of trouser suits to the test. Everyone in the office has pledged to swap their Vetements jeans for modern tailoring. We’ve got ourselves a working hypothesis – that there’s something more to the trouser suit than simply being a trend. We want to test whether suiting up affects the way we think, feel and behave. Oh, and we want to prove that there really is a suit out there for everyone.
“The idea that you can only wear suits one way is outdated,” says stylist Alisha Motion, who had the challenge of styling the 30 women and three men who make up the Stylist editorial team – and of reflecting their very different tastes. “Think about your personal style and translate this into how you wear your suit. If you want to look contemporary, find a cool shirt with an oversized collar or cuffs and emphasise them. Or go for one of the amazing styles of kitten heel that are around right now, and wear with a fishnet sock and a kick flare shape trouser. Logo T-shirts give more of a relaxed feel. If you want more of a summer look then go for a white wide leg trouser suit with minimal flat sandals.”
Motion tells me that the fittings she held for the team brought out people’s insecurities: “Everyone seemed quite unsure, most saying they had never worn a suit before and didn’t want to feel like they couldn’t be themselves.” But Dr Carolyn Mair, professor of psychology for fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL, says there’s a good reason why many of us feel uncomfortable in anything more dressy than our distressed boyfriend jeans and Stan Smiths: “Studies have shown that casual outfits make people feel more free, active and creative than formal clothes.”
From the twinsets and pearls of the Fifties, through the shoulder-padded power suits of the Eighties, office style has evolved to the point where there’s no longer a delineation between work and weekend wear. Thanks to the rise of 20-something tech billionaires, we no longer associate corporate power with corporate dress. And, as Mair points out, we tend to assume that “people who want to change the rules wouldn’t be the type of people to wear a suit”.
This is certainly reflected in the Stylist office, where the unofficial uniform is relaxed but professional. Tailored pieces teamed with slouchy jeans or a relaxed shirt with a heel. Our dress code reflects our working day, which encompasses everything from breakfast meetings in boutique hotels to running around on shoots to meeting with execs at the Google offices. Like women in creative industries across the UK, ours is a look that has to work on a lot of different levels.
But things are changing. We’re seeing a shift in style of dressing where simple casual no longer cuts it. “We’re dressing up in all areas of our lives and making more of a conscious effort to pull together a coordinated look,” says Stylist’s fashion director Alexandra Fullerton. “Dress-down Fridays and going casual feel outdated. Whether it’s a trouser suit or a lamé one-shoulder cocktail dress from Isabel Marant, we want to show we’re dressing with a sense of occasion. We want our look to say, ‘I mean business’.”
According to fashion commentator Caryn Franklin, the current trend for a more formal look is all part and parcel of the growing resistance to recent political events: “Trump is a signifier that women don’t have political equality – his whole mandate is undermining female progress. In the UK, we are still having to fight for the basics – for equal pay, for recognition that we are as deserving of promotion as men. One reaction to that is to seek more authority in the workplace, more autonomy over our lives at a time when the politics all around us seems to be less about diversity and inclusivity, and more about narrowing our horizons.”
And one way to do that is to sharpen our sartorial game. “That means a trouser suit in a beautiful fabric and in a flattering cut to create a decisive silhouette and make its wearer look magnificent,” says Franklin. “There is nothing like a trouser suit for giving you a sense of prowess.” So, did it work for us?
There is something undeniably different about our morning production meeting on day one of the experiment. All 30 women look more purposeful, more pulled together. There’s nothing identikit about this look. As Stylist editor Susan Riley noted, “The office had a sense of occasion. Meetings suddenly felt way more official. Like we were there to get down to business and not waste any time.”
Many people reported feeling a change in attitude, a subtle increase in self-esteem. Kayleigh Dray, Stylist’s deputy digital editor, found it easier to weave through the crowds and find a seat on the train while wearing her suit to work. Digital writer Sarah Biddlecombe agreed: “I loved it! It put me into ‘work mode’ much more effectively than my usual jeans and trainers. I felt more authoritative in everything I was doing.” I agree – I’ve even noticed I am less drawn to check Facebook because it just doesn’t feel right to do something that isn’t work-related.
I was surprised by the immediate impact, but Caryn was not. “A well-designed suit defines your waist, pulling you in, and presents your legs as long, active columns. It does a lot of good work, affecting how you sit and how you walk, accentuating the body in such a way that enhances its vitality. My body feels more dynamic in a trouser suit.” These are clothes to make you lean in.
Almost everyone on the team says wearing a suit has meant they have better posture. “I had a bit of swagger that seemed to have come out of nowhere,” said digital features editor Harriet Hall, of her encounter with a blush Isabel Marant suit in linen. “I felt like a total badass.”
For some, though, it wasn’t just about the suit – “As soon as I slipped back into my flats (about half an hour into my day – I’m definitely not a stiletto person) I found I didn’t hold my posture as well or feel quite so buoyed by the suit alone,” noted senior sub-editor Jenny Tregoning.
Dress for success
Dr Mair attributes our experiences and increased confidence to a phenomenon known as “enclothed cognition”. The term was coined five years ago by the psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam D Galinsky. In their study, different groups of participants were given the same task to perform while wearing white coats: one group was told it was a lab coat, while another was told it was an artist’s coat. Those who believed they were wearing a lab coat, associated with precision and rigour, performed the task more effectively than those in the other group.
As Dr Mair explains, in the case of suits, we associate them with “a more formal, intelligent, conscientious being, and a more managerial, more aggressive, more high status position in the workplace. If we believe that wearing a suit will influence us, that carries through to our behaviour, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We project the qualities we’ve invested in our suit onto those we interact with, so it becomes a reciprocal, complex process, and you can’t separate the person from the clothes they’re wearing.” Other studies show that wearing formal business attire can increase feelings of power and ‘abstract thinking’, meaning we’re better at things like long-term strategising.
This might explain why art director Natasha Tomalin-Hall reported that wearing a suit changed her interactions with the team: “I wear smart clothes to work every day anyway, but a suit took it to a whole new level. I was more direct with my staff, and felt like I could manage up more effectively. Because I was holding myself with more confidence, I actually spoke in a more direct way, and made my points with more authority.”
“I definitely detected a heightened sense of purpose in my colleagues,” adds editor Susan. “I thought the suits elevated the status of the more junior members of our team to that of a more equal footing. People whose roles aren’t externally facing do tend to dress down more, and so the uniform effect of the suits meant that, in this instance, you weren’t able to guess who did what. Which I rather liked.”
Interestingly, the women in the office got a more positive reaction from strangers than men. Editorial assistant Moya Lothian-McLean was complimented on her way to work by several commuters, but art editor Rob Timm felt like people were more hostile towards him. “I got cut up twice and had dirty looks thrown at me. I was just another banker in a suit.”
A man’s world?
The latest incarnation of the trouser suit is more than just another fashion trend. No other item in our wardrobe holds quite so much significance in terms of what it says about our personal power and freedom.
Throughout the centuries, it has been appropriated as a symbol of women’s status, to assert our right to behave just as the men do. As fashion historian Amber Butchart noted, Samuel Pepys wrote of his horror of seeing women wearing tailored riding jackets that mirrored masculine dress: “Nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde sight, and a sight did not please me.” Poor old Pepys. The Suffragettes adopted a ‘suit’ uniform – they may have worn skirts with their jackets but the skirts were designed with a split up the back to allow free movement, as a sartorial retort to the ‘hobble’ skirt. For Hollywood icons such as Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, masculine dress was a crucial element of their brand.
Over the years, the trouser suit has been used to conceal femininity – from Yves Saint Laurent with his “Le Smoking” tuxedo in 1966, to Giorgio Armani in the Seventies and John Richmond in the Eighties. As Franklin notes, “In the Eighties, it was a very specific, square shape, a caricaturing of masculinity; this overly pronounced upper body and slim hips. Later, McQueen’s versions were scary and spiky with pointy shoulders.” But there’s something distinctly different about today’s sensual, luxurious silhouettes. We’re no longer dressing to look like men – but powerful women. Wearing a trouser suit used to mean assimilating, adopting male armour to compete in a man’s world. But the modern trouser suit is more radical than that: it says, I have a right to wear whatever I want, because nothing is beyond my reach.
Wearing a trouser suit isn’t about trying to dress up as a businessman (or your dad); it’s about using a symbol that everyone can understand, and shaping that symbol in your own style. This is your meeting to lead, your world to run. As Franklin says, “Embracing a well-cut suit is not a return to tradition; it is a visual articulation of efficiency, authority and power.” It might not be something we would ordinarily wear, but these are extraordinary times. The resistance has begun, and every soldier needs a uniform.
Office photography: Sarah Brimley