As women swept into the workforce in the 1980s, the power suit – from designers such as Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren (and, closer to home, Carla Zampatti) – took up space in women’s wardrobes. And while former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was alternately pilloried and praised for her colourful pantsuit choices, she too helped make the suit a more mainstream option for women: comfortable, classic and cool.
“Suiting is very much a fashion item now,” says Chloe McCormack, head of womenswear at bespoke suiting company Oscar Hunt, which, after 10 years of offering made-to-measure suits for men, has introduced a women’s line.
“Off-the-rack options just weren’t meeting the mark for so many women who came to us,” says McCormack. “Our model challenges the off-the-rack options. We can have women from sizes six to 20 in suits that have great movement, look beautiful, and can be worn forever.”
Most of Oscar Hunt’s female clients are from the corporate world, but she says women increasingly want made-to-measure suits for evening wear and even for weekend lunches. As NSW and Victoria reach vaccination targets and begin to lift lockdown retrictions, she expects Oscar Hunt to be busy.
“The great thing about a suit is that it is flexible. It can have a ‘ladies who lunch’ vibe and a glamorous night-time vibe. It all depends on the cut and how you style it.
“Some women come in and say, I want a boyfriend look, something a bit looser. But other women like suits more fitted. Irrespective of trends or personal preferences, we can cater to everyone, really.”
The Melbourne-founded label isn’t the only brand jumping on the women’s suiting bandwagon. In Sydney, tailor P. Johnson launched P. Johnson Femme, and in Melbourne, Emma Nolan’s E Nolan brand offers bespoke suiting for women.
Many men’s tailors will make a suit for a female customer, too. Brisbane’s Mitchell Ogilvie has made suits “for the wives of our male clients for years. Women will come in and say, ‘I want what he has: a suit made for me, not something off the rack.’”
COVID-19 restrictions, ironically, have led to greater demand for suiting, says The Outnet buying director Kate Benson. As lockdown restrictions have eased in countries with high vaccination rates, the luxury e-tailer has seen a spike in interest in investment pieces.
“I definitely believe in the psychology of clothes and, after working from home for over a year and living in elasticated waists, women want to get dressed again. Wearing something tailored feels more polished and lifts the spirits.”
She name-checks Joseph and Gabriela Hearst as two brands offering suits worth your investment.
Deborah Sams, of Australian label Bassike, agrees that while suiting has “always had a place in the modern woman’s wardrobe”, the look is experiencing a surge in popularity.
“The difference is that now we are seeing suits in more diverse settings,” she says. “Where dresses once reigned supreme on the red carpet and for occasion wear, now women wear suits. You only have to look at the recent Balenciaga fall couture collection to see how far tailoring has come and the impact a well-cut suit can have.”
The suit itself has changed too, says Net-a-Porter’s buying director, Libby Page. The era of Margaret Thatcher-esque navy and grey-beige is long gone, and in its place is a veritable riot of colour and shape.
“We have noticed our customers leaning towards more trend-led tailoring pieces such as boxy blazers, pastel hues and hourglass styles from brands including Acne Studios, Jacquemus and Frankie Shop, as opposed to more traditional ‘office’ pieces,” says Page.
Trousers are more relaxed, blazers have a longer line and, like Harris, more women are pairing these pieces with statement sneakers rather than heels.
“It all aligns with the trend we’ve seen for customers to invest in pieces that work harder in their wardrobes,” says Page. “Suits are not just for work any more.”
And while much has been made of the death of the suit as many of us continue to work from home, for women, wearing a suit makes more sense than ever. “They’re a one-stop shop,” says Oscar Hunt’s McCormack. “You put your suit on and you’re good to go.”
It’s a notion understood implicitly by style icons, from musician Janelle Monáe (who favours tuxedos) to fashion designer Phoebe Philo (rarely seen in anything but a loose-cut suit with Stan Smith Adidas sneakers): a suit dresses you but never complicates matters.
McCormack herself has a powder blue suit with a candy pink lining “just for fun”.
“The sky is the limit, there is truly so much choice,” she says. “And women love that, because they are used to buying things off the rack and this is a much more personal method.”