To See How Far Women Have Come, Just Look at Their Work Clothes

To See How Far Women Have Come, Just Look at Their Work Clothes
Source: Getty
Source: Getty

You'd think we'd be over it. But Hillary Clinton's pantsuit was back in the conversation last month, with the debut of the cheeky "Everyday Pantsuit Tee" in her campaign store.

We're still talking about what Hillary wears to work, not to mention what fashions Michelle Obama or Marissa Mayer sports. But rather than being simply a sexist fixation, examining our work wardrobes can provide valuable social analysis: What women wear to work says a lot about how far we've come in gender equality.

"Dressing for work" may no longer apply to a mass of casual millennial workers, but the mantra's history reveals a timeline of slow-but-steady progress for women at large. Women's wardrobes reflect their places in society, including how much power and authority they hold — and whether they're free to embrace their female identities while holding those positions of power.

Luckily, women have found more and more workwear options at their disposal as the decades progress, said Patricia Mears, the deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Choice is really a wonderful thing," Mears told Mic. "It's like an overabundance of riches."

But women haven't always had so much choice, either with their clothes or out in the workforce. Here's the visual evidence of just how far we've come.

1910-1930s: If women are working, they're wearing men's clothes... or pearls.

Although women worked outside the home prior to the 20th century, often in fields or, as industrialization took hold, in factories, workplace attire was still an evolving concept, Mears told Mic. In 1920, women constituted just 21% of the workforce. Those who worked in factories often wore the same uniforms as male workers. For the small number of women who worked as stenographers, teachers, bookkeepers or secretaries, clothes were the same in the office as out — think pearls, skirts and heels.

Women working in a bomb factory of Cherbourg in May 1916. They are putting together torpedos for the Navy.
Source: Getty Images
Woman working at the dead letters office, circa 1920.
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1930s-1940s: Women workers welcome, as long as they stay in their skirts.

After the war, women were working (many had moved into jobs men abandoned to fight in the war) but it still wasn't the norm. Thus, the 1930s saw the creation of the standard dark suit, which changed very little once the troops returned home, Mears said. The clothes were modeled after menswear styles, with elements like pinstripes and wool. The feminine component, however, was the skirt. In the postwar decades, knee-length skirts, cinched waists and heels remained the norm for women inside and outside the home.

Ernesta Barlow (left of mic), director Marjorie Ochs (in booth) and the all-female cast of the all-female produced four-week public service program, "Now Is The Time," that praised the work of women in the military in 1944.
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Pentagon employees on their break in Arlington County, Virginia, in June 1945.
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Switchboard operators at the Empire State Building work under the eye of their chief in December 1946.
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1950s: At work or at home, it's all about the "good housewife" look. 

The booming 1950s saw the explosion of middle-class America and more clearly defined roles for women inside and outside the home. Designers like Claire McCardell developed the "all-American" look, which highlighted the waist with smart dresses but offered more practical options like washable fabrics. After all, women were essentially wearing buttoned-up housewife clothes in and outside the house, as one look at Peggy's early workplace attire from Mad Men shows.

Woman machinist at work, circa 1950s.
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Aproned housewife vacuuming den, circa 1950s.
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1960s: As they move up, women remain "respectable" with ladylike dresses and high necklines.

As the American economy grew and legislation for equal employment gave women incentives to join the workforce, more women populated offices across the United States, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women also remained single for longer periods of time and stayed in school longer, the report found, thereby increasing their chances to move up the career ladder.

To cement their rising positions amid the tumult of "youth culture" outside office doors, women adopted loose but conservative styles. Thin sweaters, above-the-knee dresses, modest shell tanks — women still looked like women, and they still weren't running the place.

General Chairman of women's activities for Congress is Mrs. Mackay, left; shown working in office with J.T. Gurney and W.A. Hand.
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Women plan a national League of Women Voters convention for Denver.
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Woman works at main frame computer, circa 1960s.
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A secretary listens to dictation while typing at her typewriter, circa 1960s.
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1970s: Women find form-fitting work clothes that actually work for them.

As growing numbers of women entered the workforce, they wondered more openly how they could convey authority while remaining feminine, Mears said. Older women shied away from blouses, deeming them too youthful, and began opting for more structured jackets. Books like John T. Malloy's The Woman's Dress for Success Book, published in 1978, outlined the rules of day for dressing appropriately at work.

And, of course, that "youth culture" started creeping in. In her essays on style, the New Yorker's Kennedy Fraser captured how casual separates like jeans, T-shirts and sneakers made their way into workspaces — yes, even for women.

A receptionist sits at her electric typewriter, circa 1970s.
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Women work in a telephone exchange office in Paris in 1975.
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1980s: Women can be powerful, so long as they dress like men in "power suits."

The '80s saw the rise of the "power suit," which helped women convey newfound levels of authority while working in conservative, mostly male-dominated environments. This was the era of major changes in women's fashion and workplace styles, Mears said — the percentage of women in professional jobs increased to 49% by 1985, according to the Atlantic.

With more women working and climbing to higher heights, designers like Donna Karen created collections with easy-to-mix separates that a woman could wear to work and to cocktails afterward. A jacket with strong shoulders was a key part of the power look, Mears said.

Meredith Baxter, as Elyse Keaton, appears with Gary Grubbs, as Mr. Willis, in the "Wrecker's Ball" episode of "Family Ties."
Source: NBC Photo Bank/Getty Images
Disability activists meet with their governor, circa 1970s.
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Attorney Melissa Lebedeck uses a private law library.
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Donna Karan showed a grasp of what career women wanted.
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1990s: Women get comfortable at the top with oversized jackets and low-heeled shoes.

With views from the top, the power suit started relaxing. The 1990s saw an even more dramatic change as workwear clothes for everyone steering in a more casual, everyday direction. According data cited in a paper by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, 52% of people surveyed in 1997 said they could dress casually any day of the week. Other research in the paper states that more than half of women owned a skirt suit, but only 16% wore it regularly. 

Pantsuits, worn best by our then-first lady Hillary Clinton, were more and more the norm, but so were skirt suits. Comfort was key for women in the workplace, in all respects.

The authors of the Telegatti, a TV show giving awards to the best broadcasts of the year, gather around a meeting table.
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Sally Murray, of the Fauquier County Chamber of Commerce, sorting through and packing, as she prepares to to leave her job Jan. 1, 1997.
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Left to right: Daniele Binot Santer of the European Commission, Cherie Blair of the United Kingdom, Kamiko Hashimoto of Japan, Naina Yeltsin of Russia, Hillary Rodham Clinton of the U.S., Aline Chretien of Canada, Flavia Prodi of Italy and Rita Kok-Roukema of the European Union pose for photographs in front of the Continental Divide in Winter Park, Colorado.
Source: Getty Images

Today: Our skinny pants and heels prove that being powerful and being feminine aren't mutually exclusive.

With the exception of Hillary, pantsuits are largely gone — and it's a good sign. The last decade has seen women explore more style choices than ever, Mears said. Leading female figures like Michelle Obama and Marissa Meyer have opted to convey their authority with power dressing all their own. As the New York Times' Vanessa Friedman noted recently, our current first lady often wears outfits that are downright "girlie":

In choosing to meet young women in clothes that, perhaps, make her look like them — or how they may want to look if they didn't have to wear school uniforms — Mrs. Obama was implying: You can dress like a girl and dream about getting a Ph.D. (or a law degree, if we are being picayune), too.

Jenna Lyons, president and executive creative director of J.Crew, stands at the vertical garden barricade for the brand's new Sloane Square store in London on May 1, 2014.
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Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer delivers a keynote address at the 2014 International CES at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino on January 7, 2014.
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Museum director Adam Weinberg and first lady Michelle Obama applaud at the Whitney Museum Of American Art Ribbon Cutting Ceremony on April 30 in New York City.
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Yes, we're still paid less. Yes, we still face far more scrutiny about our appearances than men. But when those scrutinizing women's clothes take a close look, they'll find we've got more choice than ever.