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Last Updated:  Friday, 7 March, 2003, 07:51 GMT
Dressing for success
By Emma Clark
BBC News Online business reporter

A woman enters a smoking train carriage dressed in 'masculine' clothes
The suit was the uniform of the liberated woman
A rebellion against the collar and tie is the latest skirmish in the battle of the sexes.

Men around the country are griping that women in the workplace are not forced to maintain the same sartorial standards.

Matthew Thompson, an administrative assistant at Stockport's Jobcentre Plus, told an employment tribunal last week that it amounted to sexual discrimination.

So it seems the wheel of working fashion has come full circle.

Just over a century ago, it was professional women who were only too keen to ape their male colleagues.

Since then, women have become increasingly adept at using the subtleties of dress to reinforce their own role in the workforce.

A suit of her own

"Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening," designer Coco Chanel once said.

In the late 19th century, middle class, educated women first began to wear suits as a symbol of their professionalism.

Coco Chanel in a wool suit in 1934
Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening
Coco Chanel
In its earliest incarnation, the suit consisted of a tailored jacket and skirt, which didn't necessarily match. Later, they were both made of the same material.

"In the 1890s, a suit made women look serious, and capable of doing a man's job," says Anthea Jarvis, the principal curator at Manchester's Gallery of Costume.

Early adopters, however, were ridiculed in the press.

Male caricaturists portrayed the suits as sexless, shapeless clothes worn by unattractive women in spectacles.

So much so that the Suffrage movement urged its members to wear their best clothes on the marches in 1908.

"They told the women: 'Don't dress in a way that will get the public's back up. Show them you're feminine and womanly,'" says Ms Jarvis.

'Hands off'

The suit also helped in the Victorian era to differentiate white-collar workers travelling home on the tram from prostitutes.

A mannequin from the Manchester Gallery of Costume
Women in the 1890s wanted to emphasise their professionalism
"Men were unaccustomed to seeing women unchaperoned on the street, but the suit sent out the right message," says Ms Jarvis.

"It meant a woman out on business - 'hands off!'"

Many of these professional women were journalists, book keepers, typists and employees of the telegraph service.

Although they were rarely paid as much as men in the same job, their buying power did not go unnoticed.

Advertising to women began to flourish at the same time as the suit, tempting the new workforce with skincare, hair dye, medicines and make-up.

The wronged trousers

That other borrowed male garment - a pair of trousers - was not so quick to find its way into the woman's working wardrobe.

Even though female munitions workers started wearing trousers during World War I, in peacetime trousers were strictly for leisure.

A 1962 suit (Marks and Spencer Company Archive)
A working woman did not wear trousers in the 1960s
This taboo has taken time to die out.

As recently as five years ago, most companies preferred female employees not to wear trousers as part of their corporate uniform, says Jacqueline de Baer, a designer of corporate clothing.

Richard Branson, for example, is said to prefer his female staff in skirts.

The trouser suit started to become socially acceptable in the late 1960s, when it was popularised by designer Yves Saint Laurent.

But it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that it crossed over into the working wardrobe.

"As women became more established and occupied powerful positions, they had the confidence to wear trousers," says Pamela Church Gibson, a lecturer at the London College of Fashion.

Padded shoulders

The 1980s also saw the birth of power dressing, as women like Dynasty's Joan Collins embraced padded shoulders and primary colours.

A 1985 trouser suit (Marks and Spencer Company Archive)
An M&S trouser suit was working wear in the 1980s
However, a best seller at the time, Dress for Success, by John Molloy, reinforced the old stereotypes.

"It laid down the rules that women must wear a skirted suit with the odd feminine touch," says Ms Church Gibson.

"Women should not look overly sexual in case it undermined their professionalism."

She believes that the character Miranda, from the TV series Sex in the City, embodies the Molloy principles.

"Miranda is the most successful in professional terms - by the end of the fourth series she is a partner in a corporate law firm.

"She wears dark tailored suits, feminised with a necklace."

Different codes of dress?

Although there is no female equivalent of the tie, Ms Church Gibson refutes Mr Thompson's argument that there are lower standards for professional women.

"There are rules that govern the way women dress - he doesn't realise this. They are just more subtle rules."

She believes that women feel obliged to wear dark clothes to climb up the ranks, and only turn to brighter colours once they are in a powerful position.

"You see so many ambitious young women climbing off the tube in the City, in navy suits, skirts to the mid-calf and court shoes."

The employment tribunal has reserved judgement on Mr Thompson's case, but if he wants to dress for success, perhaps he should put his tie back on.

The Manchester Gallery of Costume is exhibiting "A Suit of Her Own: A History of the Working Woman's Wardrobe" until 30 March 2003.

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