Some of the earliest recorded women’s suits were designed for horse riding and worn by the gentry in the 1660s. They consisted of a tailored coat and matching skirt. These were made from practical cloth, a world away from the ornate, elaborately patterned, delicate silks worn in polite society at the time.
It was not until much later in the 19th century that jacket and skirt ‘ensembles’ appeared to be worn for activities other than riding. In Victorian times, ‘walking suits’ referred to as ‘costumes’ became popular with design details reflecting the trends of the time. The shorter skirt allowed increased freedom of movement, although tight corsets must have limited the wearer to only light exercise including walking and archery.
In the 1870s Sarah Bernhardt scandalized Paris when she appeared in what she referred to as her boy’s clothes – a custom-made trouser suit. Many women still wear the tuxedo style that she pioneered nearly 150 years ago. Sarah continued to cause scandal when she played Hamlet on stage in 1899.
In Edwardian times (1901-1910), costumes evolved, the Sears catalogue of the era offered the opportunity to make your own made-to-measure tailored suit. ‘Tailor-mades’, as they were known, had a narrow silhouette and were less restrictive making them more practical for travelling and sporting activities. Women were travelling more, exploring the world and making great strides towards emancipation.
Smart suits were adopted by the suffragettes, using fashion and personal style to give out a positive message, membership numbers grew as it became fashionable to identify with the votes for women cause. Purple, white and green became a fashion and political statement – a colourful and original use of branding. The suits consisted of long skirts with matching long jackets or coats and this style continued to be worn until the first world war.
In 1914 Coco Chanel designed the first of the now iconic Chanel two-piece suit, a fur trimmed jacket with an ankle length skirt. She introduced trousers to women in the first world war for modesty and practicality as they took on traditional male roles supporting the war effort. Many of today’s designs are based on Chanel’s original styles.
Read The History of the Suit - Part 1 - Men In Petticoats
Read The History of the Suit - Part 2 - Covering up one's Knickers