Work It: Women’s Work Wardrobes Through the Decades

Work It

Believe it or not, we spend a third of our lives at work. Our coworkers see at least as much of us as our families do, if not more. Still, even though we’ve had lots of practice getting dressed, most of us have no idea what we should be wearing to work. In our weekly column, “Work It!”, titled after our book on creating your ultimate career wardrobe, we’ll be providing guidance to keep you inspired and excited about getting dressed for work, every day. In our more than twenty years of image consulting, we’ve discovered formulas that work, and we’re here to share them with you.

This week, let’s take a peek back at women’s wardrobes throughout the 20th century to present day. Looking at women’s clothing over the past century, it’s amazing that these gals got anything done. The corsets, the girdles and stockings must’ve made it hard to even think straight! Whenever you find yourself complaining about having to wear pointy-toe shoes, just remember those who came before you.


1910s style

1910s style

Progressive ladies practiced their shorthand in menswear-inspired dark wool suits, called “tailor-mades.” The floor sweeping skirts and short, fitted jackets were personalized with elaborate, lacy, ruffled shirtwaists. Designer Paul Poiret spearheaded the movement toward a looser, more natural silhouette, but the punishing S-shaped corset worn underneath was still there.


A group of high school flapper girls pose for formal portrait, ca. 1925

A group of high school flapper girls pose for formal portrait, ca. 1925

Style-setting Coco Chanel dressed Jazz Age career girls in boxy, boyish suits made of soft jersey. Hemlines rose, and flapper fashionistas made the most of their newly discovered lower legs with patterned stockings and vibrantly colored shoes.


Joan Crawford in "Mannequin", 1937

Joan Crawford in “Mannequin”, 1937

Working dames of the ’30s patterned themselves after silver-screen career girls, like Joan Crawford  in Mannequin or Greta Garbo in Sad To Be Back.


Joan Crawford mildred pierce

Joan Crawford In Mildred Pierce

Nobody shouldered the wartime silhouette better than Joan Crawford in movies like Mildred Pierce. Hollywood designer, Adrian, made the most of the star’s linebacker proportions with padded wasp-waisted jackets paired with short, gored skirts. Those who couldn’t get their hands on war-rationed nylons drew seams up the backs of their legs, while real-life Rosie the Riveters feminized their factory cover-ups with towering cork platforms.


"New Look" - Photo by Serge Barkin for Vogue, 1947

“New Look” – Photo by Serge Barkin for Vogue

Dior’s “New Look” brought waist back into vogue – and the girdle along with it. Women in typing pools paired petticoat-laden skirts with sweater sets or slunk around the office in streamlined wool sheaths. Coco Chanel made a design comeback with the instant-classic boucle suit.


Two London birds wear Christian Dior's striped suits, 1966; Jackie Kennedy

Two London birds wear Christian Dior’s striped suits, 1966; Jackie Kennedy

Doris Day and Jackie O set the trend with simple, tailored suits in pastel colors, worn with pointy-toed shoes and pillbox hats. The invention of panty hose allowed hemlines to rise to micromini proportions; the tiny new skirts stimulated the advent of textured tights, socks and knee-high boots. Trousers became acceptable almost anywhere (Laugh-In star Judy Carne made headlines when she was refused entrance at the tony 21 Club in a pantsuit; she removed her bottoms and was ushered in wearing the shortest of tunics).


Diane Von Furstenberg in her revolutionary wrap dress, 1970s

Diane Von Furstenberg in her revolutionary wrap dress, 1970s

In 1970s, women were donning hot pants (with tights and platform boots) and wrap jersey dresses designed by model mogul Diane von Furstenberg.


Mellanie Griffith in Working Girl

Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, 1988

The hugely popular book “Women’s Dress for Success” pushed ladies into masculine suits, worn with bow-neck blouses and low heels. Thankfully, innovators like Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne pioneered mix-and-match separates for those who, like Working Girl’s Tess McGill, had a “head for business and a bod for sin.” 


Jil Sander 1992 and 1993

Jil Sander 1992 and 1993

After the excess – and shoulder pads – of the ’80s, nothing seemed more modern than a streamlined pantsuit from Calvin Klein or Jil Sander, worn with a utilitarian nylon Prada bag. Casual Fridays took their place in the American workweek, bringing along a thousand misuses of denim and khaki.


Work Wardrobe 2000s

Work look from 2000s; Image from Visual Therapy’s “Work It!”

The first decade of the new century has been about freedom. From flannel suits to flannel shirts, women can wear what they want to the office.  The most notable was the rise of separates. Instead of buying suits, women invested in coordinating pieces they could mix and match in lots of different combinations to show off their own unique sense of style.


Victoria Beckham's power style

Victoria Beckham’s power style

When it comes to today’s work style, it’s all about a sleek and powerful look  – whether it’s separates or dresses. Victoria Beckham has nailed the look, showing by example how a woman can mean business and look feminine at the same time.

Check out our book “Work It! The Visual Therapy’s Guide to Your Ultimate Career Wardrobe” for more style advice, and make sure you subscribe to our email newsletter to get career wardrobe tips every Monday.

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