Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The man who invented the trouser suit

My piece in the Guardian today

My first job as a teenage reporter on a local paper in 1969 had a dress code: no trousers. A man had to wear a tie and a woman wore a skirt. My workplace rebellion came the day I turned up in a grey flannel Young Jaeger trouser suit (as worn by Jean Shrimpton and photographed by David Bailey), and was sent home. As there was a time before the pill, so there was once life before the trouser suit, which Yves Saint Laurent, who died on Sunday, invented in 1966. Or rather he thought a new thought: Le Smoking, the tuxedo for women that would become a permanent feature of his collections and would morph into the single most transformative piece of women's wear since Chanel created the little black dress.

It was the perfect garment for the 70s and for women who went out to work. Women had been wearing trousers since the 20s, but pants had never managed to struggle out of the weekend and into the office. The trouser suit put women on an equal sartorial footing with men. And the trouser suit, not the urban myth about bra-burning, is what fashion gave to feminism. When wearing it, your legs took longer steps; men looked at your face, not your ankles, and were forced to listen to the words that came out of your mouth. It killed the miniskirt stone dead. Hillary Clinton, a woman who does not possess good legs, has lived in trouser suits on the campaign trail.

Yet, even when he dressed women in safari jackets and trenchcoats, Saint Laurent understood how to make them feel sexy. Le Smoking was not masculine but androgynous. At 21, he had been anointed Dior's successor on the death of the man who brought pleasure back to clothes after wartime rationing. In the early 60s, Brigitte Bardot declared that couture was for old ladies. Saint Laurent understood the next great change and the huge range of roles that women were about to play. For two decades, he had his finger right on the button of the times he lived in.


Patricia said...

I remember being maybe 8 or 9 years old (late 1960s) and being in town with my primary school teacher - myself and a boy had been chosen to go with her to purchase books for our classroom library, for which the class had saved their pennies. We were in the city square and a man stopped my teacher and spoke to her. The upshot was that he had seen her photo in our local paper, accompanying a letter she had written. She had been invited to a wedding and had worn a lovely tunic trouser suit in white and had been refused entrace to the reception! This was a very dressy outfit, but it was Dundee and so maybe she was a bit ahead of the times!

phyllis said...

I can't recall where I read it, but Coco Chanel herself said, before she died, that of all the couture designers, only YSL was her worthy sucessor. And she was right, so very very right.

Toby Wollin said...

"Women had been wearing trousers since the 20s, but pants had never managed to struggle out of the weekend and into the office." 1966 may have been the date YSL brought out the trouser suit for women, but I can tell you that in the state of New York, the red letter date is sometime during the winter of 1970. I was a senior in high school. We had never been allowed to wear pants. The news came down that there had been a suit, won by girls from the Massena School District, to allow them to wear trousers to school. (for those without maps, Massena, New York is on the St. Lawrence River, nestled cozily up to the Canadian border. It is also the childhood home of Almanzo Wilder, for those people who are Laura Ingalls Wilder-philes. It is also cold. Very cold) These girls made the case that as a rural school district, Massena (and by extension, the Education Department of the State of New York) was endangering their health by requiring them to stand outside on the roadway to wait for their school transport. They won and all girls in public schools in New York State received the right(or perhaps the privilege) of wearing pants to school. And some would say, it has been downhill all the way since.

Anonymous said...

I guess it's just opinion but I met Hillary a few years ago. She was wearing a dress and I remember a number of men commenting that she had nice legs. And she was much prettier than she appears in photographs or on camera.

I am a foreign national living in the US, which means I cannot vote. Therefore, this message is not approved by HRC or the Democratic party. :)


Deja Pseu said...

Great article, Linda. I have a similar story to Toby's. In 1971 when I was in 8th grade, we were still required to wear skirts to school even on the chilliest days, and the girls organized a "pants protest" and all showed up in pants one day. We were all sent home, but the administration relented the following week, and declared that "slacks" (no jeans) could be worn.

Arabella said...

The biggest sartorial influence of my life came with my Sindy doll in the 60s. Her first costume was what I came to understand to be a 'new-look' dress in navy blue with polka dots; but the second was a corduroy trouser suit with flared trousers and in a shade of mustard yellow that I still dream about.
I try to imagine how Dior felt when he first saw those sketches from the boy YSL, and how thrilling it must have been to be that boy, appointed an assistant to Dior at 17! What a life.

Anonymous said...

Do you remember the 'Charlie' advert on TV? That woman was my role model!

Great article, Linda! Have also gone out and got my copy of Vogue. Just the thing for a drizzly June day in the UK.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm old enough to've experienced the transition.

My high school (graduated 1973) went through: 9th Grade = no trousers
10th Grade = special days with wacky themes that allowed trousers
11th Grade = pant suits!
12th Grade = anything goes.

-- desertwind

bonnie-ann black said...

i remember finally being allowed to wear pants to school (we did not call them "trousers")... and immediately my favorite outfit in my senior year of high school became a pair of navy blue wool sailor pants and what had been a dress that i always thought was too short to be comfortable. it was navy blue with thin lime green stripes and alternating blue and green buttons (fairly small). i wore that outfit regularly and felt like a million bucks in it. i did wear a skirt to work when i first started working, but gradually switched over to all pants all the time. even when i went to court. but the prejudice against pants hasn't gone away -- a few years ago when i was job hunting, i was asked by the agency if i couldn't find "something in a nice dress" instead of the dark pants and red jacket i was wearing. i said, "no." i still found a job.

if YSL is the guy to thank for breaking us out of the hideous bonds of skirts and blouses then bless him.

lagatta said...

Well, just so we don't HAVE to wear trousers. I only do when it is bitterly cold or if I'm doing some physical activity which requires it.

Oh dear, blouses. The bane of the busty. Remember a columnist this year, or the last, decreeing that women had to wear blouses in professional settings. Not silk t-shirts (under jackets) no matter how nice they are.

But back to Linda Grant's article - crisp lovely writing, with not a word wasted.

Carlo said...

Good Job! :)