I own a lot of books. Many of them fashion books. Some I bought on a whim, others because I felt inspired by the images and others because I wanted to learn more. From time to time I revisit these books especially when I crave a moment of calm or I am feeling uninspired. The "Style Book - fashionable inspirations" by Elizabeth Walker is one book I keep revisiting. It's hefty 475 pages are packed full of historic, inspirational and iconic fashion images through the decades. Every time I look through the book something new catches my eye or intrigues me. On this occassion, I was particularly captivated by women's tailoring through time and more to the point intrigued to know what lay behind each image. Why was it taken? Who took it? What inspired it and what did it represent?
Some of the faces in the images you will recognise, others not. But the common theme is women suited up, feeling empowered, breaking the mould and not being afraid to be themselves.
An image from the photo journalistic magazine Picture Post published in the UK from 1938 to 1957. It was and still is considered a pioneering example of photojournalism selling 1.7m copies a week only two months after launch. Today, no one would blink an eye seeing a woman wearing a trouser suit. However, in 1941, it was viewed as controversial. This image accompanied an article titled "Should women wear trousers".
An image of Charlotte Rampling on set, filming the 1976 film Foxtrot.
The film was a British-Mexican drama directed by Arturo Ripstein and starred Peter O'Toole, Charlotte Rampling and Max von Sydow. It was re-released in 1977 as the Far Side of Paradise. It's the story of a very chic, Romanian count and countess that escape Europe by yacht in 1939 during WWII for a private island paradise somewhere in the Pacific. Most striking about the film is the set and wardrobe. The set is full of art deco interior under a tent on a deserted island. The clothes (overseen by Jorge Ramirez) are a seemingly endless supply of pristine white couture and custom tailoring.
An image of American model and actress Lauren Hutton at the world famous Studio54. Studio54 was an iconic nightclub opened in 1977, in New York, by Steve Rubell and Ian Shrager. It was housed in a building which was previously used by CBS as a radio and TV studio dubbed Studio 54, hence is name. Launched at the peak of the disco era, the club had a long list of famous patrons including Bianca Jagger, Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, Diane Vreeland among others. The club was also noted for its restrictive and subjective entry policies based on one's appearance and style.
A 1932 trouser suit from a Nichol's of Regent Street fashion show during which the iconic designer Charles James show cased his revolutionary wrap-around skirt. Charles James was known as a genius in the world of fashion and was known for his ability to sculpt, fabric into inventive fashions. He never had any formal training in dressmaking. Instead he developed his own method, using maths, architecture and sculptural concepts as they relate to the body to create his designs. Dressing the crème-de-la-crème of society, he was a visionary in many respects. The 'Clover Leaf', 'Butterfly', 'Tree', and 'Swan' designs being particularly iconic due to the highly complex patterns, some of which were made from 30 different pieces. He was also known and credited for having introduced an early version of the puffer jacket and at one point, for having made the zip fashionable.
The iconic Katherine Hepburn in 1941.
In 1942, she filmed " Woman of the Year". A film that would become the first of nine films that she would make with Spencer Tracy that would mark the beginning of their unconventional 25 plus year relationship. In the film, Katherine Hepburn introduced and showcased what would become her signature style. In the film, she plays Tess Harding, a political columnist. Her film wardrobe is almost entirely made up of smart suits that include skirts and her beloved 'slacks'. She also wears a velvet smoking jacket and trousers when working at home, a look that later influenced the likes of Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970's (and his iconic 'Le Smoking') and many other designers. The style story of Woman of the Year demonstrates the birth of feminine career suiting. Modern, yet conceived at a time when women were only just entering the workplace en masse due to the demands of WWII.
American actress Faye Dunaway wearing a pinstripe suit and holding a William Tell apple. Taken in July, 1987.
This image was taken by Terry O'Neil CBE one of the most collected photographers, with his work hanging in national art galleries and private collections worldwide. He photographed figure heads in politics and pop culture, film and fashion for over 60 years. While other photographers focused on earthquakes, war and politics, O'Neil realised that youth culture was a breaking news story and begun chronicling the emerging faces of film, fashion and music that would go on to define the Swinging Sixties.
French actress, Bridgitt Bardot shopping on the Via Margutta, Rome, Italy, 1967.
Suits can feel constricting and stuffy. But historically, they offered freedom and power - and controversy. In 2016, Hillary Clinton made the 'pant suit' centre stage with women's power dressing making a comeback. The 'pant suit' was first introduced in the 1920's when some women adopted a more masculine style by wearing trouser suits teamed with hats, canes and even monocles. In the UK however, the term 'trouser suit' was used during the WWI effort when women first started to work on heavy industry. During the 1960's trouser suits become more widespread. Designers such as Foale and Tuffin in London and Luba Marks in the US being the first proponents. Whilst Yves Saint Laurent is often credited with introducing his famous Le Smoking it was noted in 1968 that some of his trouser suits were very similar to Luba Marks designs. Whereas London based designer Ossie Clark offered trouser suits to women in 1964 before Yves Saint Laurent introduced his Le Smoking in 1966. In Britain, 1967 marked the watershed of the woman's trouser suit when Lady Chichester, wife of navigator Sir Francis Chichester wore a trouser suit when her husband was publicly knighted. Trouser suits have had their fair share of controversy over the years. For example, as recently as 1993, women were not permitted to wear trouser suits on the US Senate floor. Today, the trouser suit is a show of confidence, assertiveness, versatility and the modern version of power dressing for women.
An image of 'Le Smoking' classing Yves Saint Laurent, 1967 - the ultimate chic suiting.
Algerian-born Yves Saint Laurent launched his namesake couture label in 1961, in Paris. In 1966, his couture collection featured a style that caused a stir and divided fashion critics. A tailored jacket tuxedo with a satin side stripe, worn with a white ruffled shirt. He called it 'Le Smoking'. It was the first time a couturier had presented trousers as an option for evening wear. It was such a shock, that women wearing the look were refused entry by some restaurants. When socialite Nan Kempner was turned away from the restaurant Le Cote Basque, she simply removed her trousers and wore the blazer as a midi dress. A clear two fingers to the establishment's stuffy and outdated dress code. This signalled the start of the confidence of the modern YSL woman. In the 1970's 'Le Smoking' was seen on Bianca Jagger and it soon became her signature style. She wore a white tuxedo blazer on her wedding day to Mick Jagger in 1971.
Four years later, fashion photographer Helmut Newton shot the 'Le Smoking' look in a moody Paris scene with the model holding a cigarette with slicked back hair and dramatic make-up. Power dressing became personified.
Saint Laurent is famously noted for saying, "For a woman, Le Smoking is an indispensable garment with which she finds herself continually in fashion because it is about style not fashion. Fashions come and go, but style is forever".
Power dressing. An image of a suit from Pierre Balmain, Spring/Summer collection, 1983, Paris.
Get big shoulers, get noticed. That is what 1980's fashion history shows. As the fashion for female identity in the workplace took hold, so shoulder width grew. Many women's outfits had Velcro on the inside of the shoulders where various sized shoulder pads could be attached for the desired effect. At the time, Donna Karen who was working as the head of design at Anne Klein noticed that all women dressed in power suits looked like drones and she wondered - "where is the sensuality?" Few designers at the time were considering working on women's feminine side and making women feel like women. Women's tailoring eventually started transitioning into softer-shouldered jackets that we are familiar with today, giving women more freedom to be women without feeling held back or trying to prove a point.
For me suiting today is defined by the women I dress. Creative, mindful, expressive and curious. For today's women, tailoring is not a representation of conformity, but a clear statement about self-confidence, not armour, but an expression of self, not a uniform but an expression of individuality. What they wear is not just a matter of looking good, but an expression of who they are. They are not just one type of woman. There are many sides to them. They can be complex, they can be fierce, they can be feminine, they can be vulnerable, they can be blazé faire, they can be who they want to be. No judgement, no comparisons, just the unique them.