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  • Writer's picturePatrick Cabasset

Timeless or outdated? The truth is in the tailoring

As we celebrated the ESMOD Fashion Business graduation, the school’s

Heritage department pointed us in the direction of an example of women’s

workwear that hasn’t always been feminist: the suit. We asked fashion

historian Xavier Chaumette, author of the book Le Tailleur, un vêtement-

message published by Syros and the earlier Le Costume Tailleur published by

ESMOD Editions, among others, to talk us through this archetypal ladies’

workwear— a meaningful part of the creative history of fashion that also tells a

story of social and societal development.

Three elegant English women in stylishly feminised suits circa 1930

Planet ESMOD: When and why did you start looking into the suit issue?

Xavier Chaumette: This book was written in the early 1990s, when the suit was still

popular but was starting to show signs of decline. The suit experienced a real

comeback in the 1980s in a way that was both quite dated and at the same time

innovative. Then in the early 90s it became a somewhat conservative uniform. The

fashion world began to look for other forms of urban workwear that would offer

greater freedom of movement. The jacket remained but without the suit trousers.

P. E.: How did this book take a different approach to the history of fashion?

X. C.: I focused on women and how, from the late-19 th century onwards, they had

been able to use the men’s jacket to emancipate themselves, despite still

experiencing complete social and legislative confinement! The jacket helped to

liberate them. There were still limits, of course, such as the trousers, which would

only gradually be introduced from the 1920s onwards, and even then for a few avant-

garde women only. The jacket didn’t really become part of every woman’s wardrobe

for that matter until the late 1960s. The original suit was therefore a skirt version.

P. E.: Why is the suit so important?

X. C.: The suit is a wonderful frame of reference for understanding the history of

women and of our societies. This highly innovative and disruptive garment in the

early-20 th century, for example, would become ultra-conventional in the 1930s, with

women even wearing it to mass! The suit had come to conform to a democratic

reality, but women who wore them came to convey conservative values. Meaning

that, over the course of a century, the suit had come to embody two completely

opposing images of a woman.

Hermès suit, Winter 1941-42. Even during World War II, Parisian fashion managed to convey a sense of hope. In the book Le Tailleur, un vêtement-message, by Xavier Chaumette

P. E.: What place does the suit hold in today’s society?

X. C.: Just like its male counterpart, the ladies’ suit has been seen as a somewhat

conventional uniform since the early 1990s. Do we really want to be subjected to this

garment, and if so, why? It’s both an unremarkable, formal and slightly old-fashioned

garment, in the case of the skirt suit, and a positive thing in the case of the trouser

suit. And the gap between these two poles of femininity continues to widen. That

said, creative luxury brands are trying to bring the skirt suit back into fashion,

although I’m not sure they’re having much success. On the contrary, images of the

trouser suit such as those created by Yves Saint Laurent with photographer Helmut

Newton, and snapshots of Marlene Dietrich dressed as a man, continue to fuel its

avant-garde vibe; this is the ‘liberation’ suit, with an intellectual touch. It’s ultra-

positive and interesting. The skirt suit as women were forced to wear it is still

somewhat conventional.

“The suit is a wonderful frame of reference for understanding the history of

women and of our societies”—Xavier Chaumette

Suit by Edouard Molineux, 1967, in the ESMOD Heritage archives

P. E.: What made this suit so inflammatory in its early days?

X. C.: The suit generally represented the idea of a neutral, unadorned garment that

contrasted with the highly elaborate designs of the late-19 th century. It also

represented a merging of the genders. The suit that was originally made by men, at

men’s tailors, was suddenly being adopted by women, and in appropriating it, women

also gained access to the freedom that men had, to the ability to go out into the

world, the ability to work, etc. The suit therefore came to represent some extremely

important social and democratic values, taking women’s clothing into the modern


P. E.: What values are you referring to, specifically?

X. C.: The suit helped establish a sort of egalitarianism between women in that it

enabled those from the provinces and from less privileged social classes to look just

as good as more affluent Parisian women. A bit like jeans did later on. The suit was a

democratic uniform, which wealthy women didn’t always agree with, so the haute

couture sector quickly appropriated the suit. For women who could travel, it was still

more practical to wear a suit than a dress with a bustle or a complex parlour attire.

The suit, and even couture versions thereof, erased social differences; it created a

blurred picture of social representation, which came as a great shock to the ladies of

high society of the time.

The notion of opening or removing a jacket and revealing bust in public was simply

not the done thing at the time. It was not considered acceptable. The coats and

visites of the late-19 th century were uncomfortable and heavy but dignified; the

buttons weren’t visible and they would never be taken off outside. Lots of faux suits

then started to emerge at the turn of the century in the form of dresses that created a

visual illusion of a suit. The men’s suit jacket, like men’s coats, conversely, showed

women that they could wear several layers of clothing and remove them as they saw

fit, depending on their mood or the temperature.

Another gripe in the early-20 th century was that suits were too simple, requiring less

work than late-19 th century fashion, as if tolling the death knell of embroiderers,

lacemakers, featherworkers, etc. This resulted in it being largely blamed for the

imminent collapse of the French fashion economy!

Thierry Mugler suit, 1990. ESMOD Heritage archives

P. E.: In today’s world, and where ESMOD alumni are concerned, for example,

the neutrality of the suit still plays a key role in the process of finding a job,

doesn't it?

X. C.: These days you might opt instead for a different type of outfit for an interview

with HR, for example, without going down the evening wear route or choosing

anything overly fancy or elaborate. More comfortable knitwear or at least a more

modern look than the conventional suit that is inevitably seen as the typical work

uniform. Like the ones worn by air stewardesses—and many airlines are even

removing the jackets from their uniforms these days—and hostesses in the hospitality

industry, at trade shows, etc.

Whereas the trouser suit is possibly too decorous, I think. It’s an act of courage

bordering on bravery in the context of a job search, I’d say.

Reading list:

Le Costume Tailleur - La Culture Vestimentaire en France aux XIXème et

XXème Siècles by Xavier Chaumette, published by ESMOD Editions.

Le Tailleur. Un vêtement-message, by fashion historian Xavier Chaumette and

archivist Emmanuelle Montet, published by Editions Syros Alternatives, Droit

Fil collection.

Serge Kogan basque suit, circa 1950-53. ESMOD Heritage archives

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