Like many things that have changed over time, hair styles, fashionable drinks, or furniture, fashion has managed to adapt to the world around it. Some pieces however, have managed to remain classics while still evolving to fit the needs of people. The women’s suit is one such garment. A classic staple that has managed to outlive many of its fellow trends well into the decades, it has also had the capability to evolve with the world.
Women’s fashion never really took comfort or flexibility into the equation. Why should it? With limited roles, society and the fashion world focused more on flattering or enhancing a woman’s features. This often meant less flexible fabrics, more restriction, and less comfort. Suits themselves were originally intended for men. While women during the Regency (late 1790’s — 1820’s) wore what we would call a suit, it was at that time referred to as a “ridding costume”, or just “costume” later in the Victorian era (1830’s — late 1890’s). Reserved for riding horses only or later on, as an extension of women’s outdoor fashion, it lacked any amount of freedom found in it’s later models. However as the world found itself plunging into WWI, and women began to enter the work force in droves, they began demanding a different kind of fashion. Looser cuts, comfier fabrics and styles that allowed a wider range of movement became the vocal point for women’s fashion.
Corsets began moving away from the skewed misshapening of the waist, towards a straighter, more natural form. This allowed for softer skirts, more supple material. With WWI requiring free movement in garmets, looser cuts formed an hems rose. One couldn’t nesisarily focuse on working around machinery or hospitals in a corset that restricted breathing or a long skirt that tangled around the ankles. However, as the Great Depression hit hems suddenly dropped. There was a need for simpler fashion, frugal styles but movement was still a desired trait. This desire carried well into WWII with “ration fashion” and many desiring houses and textile companies going under from the war. However, as the world began to crawl back out after the war and the economy steadily rose in the late 40’s and into the 50’s, women’s fashion followed close behind.
The suit, like most of women’s fashion, began reviving favorite qualities such as attention to details, higher hems and color. As the 60’s began the woman’s suit that most people are familiar with began to take shape, with the movement of women once again entering the career fields anew the suit became a classic image of the working woman. The popular pant suit of the 1980’s and 90’s was created during this time by André Courrèges in 1964, but would not take hold as the go to for some time.
Until then the skirted suit was the choice of women. One popular designer that managed to stand the test of time, through war and trends, was Lilli Ann.
A mid century American fashion line originating in San Francisco’s in 1934 by Adolph Schuman, Lillia Ann was one of the pioneers in women’s suits. Known for their elegance and elaborate suits and coats, Lilli Ann brought to fashion a desire for classic pieces fit for the modern woman’s needs as the years passed — examples of these can be seen in the transition into the 60’s where the brand came out with a knit and mod inspired pieces and later, the 70’s with a career woman’s line.
Lilli Ann was not just influential in its ability to adapt through history but by its operations. When WWII was causing many textile businesses in Europe to close, Schuman moved his companies production overseas where he employed the struggling companies ultimately saving them from closing. It’s here where “Paris” or “Londo” bin being added to the garmets tags. One can see the journey of each garmet and the transition to different places with each tag from Europe. After the war the company was moved back to the states where it continued to thrive. While the company had a long run, it came to an end in 2000 when the company finally closed.
Another power house in the area of women’s suits was Philadelphia designer Albert Nipon. Albert and his wife Pearl — whom he reportedly met after throwing her fully clothed into a pool, which should tell one about the carefree personality of the designer — entered the fashion scene originally with a maternity line in the 1950’s known as Ma Mere. It was with their ultra feminine women’s clothing that their name went international in the 1970’s. They sold their maternity line and began focusing on the career woman of the 70’s as women began making the transition into more and more careers. Smart, comfortable, fluid, details and fit were their focus for this new modern woman, and their suits reflected that. With smart lines, and elegant yet comfortable styles. The brand managed to survive Albert’s incarceration for tax evasion and bribery in the investigation of Philadelphia Internal Revenue Service, bankruptcy in the 80’s and even being sold. The company still runs by Leslie Fay Co, with the Nipon’s continuing to contribute to designs.
With the multiple transitions that took place in the 20th century, women’s fashion had a radical shift from “restriction” to “control” and gave way to the working woman, allowing her to pursue what she wanted without worry. The suit itself still remains a go to piece for many, and while the fabrics may continue to change, the suit will not doubt continue to adapt.