Fashion History

Working Women’s Wardrobe: How the 1970s Opened Feminist Fashion

January 20, 2021 by Independent Lens in Beyond the Films

By Marlen Komar

In the early 1970s, a group of Boston secretaries came together to improve the working conditions in their offices. Tired of low pay, lack of advancement opportunities, and constant sexual harassment, they created the group 9to5, which would eventually grow into a nationwide revolution that would change the American workplace for women.  9to5: The Story of a Movement captures this previously untold story of the feminist movement that solely focused on opening opportunities for working women—both in boardrooms and in their closets. As women demanded regular salary reviews, written job descriptions, equal access to promotion opportunities, and benefits equal to men in similar job categories (women made 59 cents to every dollar,) some women also demanded freedom in their office wardrobes. 

Feminists recognized that fashion was (is!) political for many women, and even more so in the male-dominated workplace, where women were expected to play a passive and supportive role. While most women wore feminine dresses and pantyhose, or stylish pantsuits with womanly accents to work, feminists had a different idea of what would get women ahead in their corporate climb. Let’s explore what those wardrobe staples would have looked like, versus what women were actually required to wear.  

From Minis to Midis to Moving On

In the early 1970s, women were gaining control of their personhood one step at a time—and that included in their closets. The ‘70s marked the first time in history when women could choose their own styles, and not be dictated to by Paris or New York. Before, when designers came up with new trends, entire wardrobes had to be thrown out or modified in order to stay in fashion. That all changed in 1968, when the midi skirt was introduced with the intention of replacing the mini.

The thing was, women just endured a six-year campaign consisting of magazine articles, editorials, runway shows, and ads convincing them to replace their knee-length skirts with minis, and the abrupt change riled them.  Women refused to wear the ‘40s-inspired longettes, and no amount of ads, fashion shows, or articles convinced them otherwise.

“Decrees issued from the inner sanctums of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses aren’t clicking. Women aren’t paying attention to sweeping generalizations in fashion. They are approaching fashion subjectively. They’re wearing clothes that suit them, not designers…For once, women are captains of their own ships and designers are riding the crest of the trend,” The Santa Maria Times wrote in 1969.

Men Dictacting Women’s Fashion

But that sense of individuality didn’t extend into the male-run workplace. Women largely dressed in the way they were expected to, the rules of which were laid down by men. And it’s easy to see why they felt the need to dress within these confines: sexism was rampant.

In 1978, when the leaders of the education division of the United States Department of Health Education and Welfare were asked why all of their top staff members were male, one high official told UPI, “The jobs are very demanding. We often need people who can put in an 80-hour week and we do not want to require this of a mother.”

He also remarked he would be extremely reluctant to have a female special assistant working long hours with him because that might encourage gossip.

In order to work side by side with men in the workplace, women had to stay inconspicuous. But men also wanted to hold onto their status and control, and so women had to be “othered” in their dress. Which was why women’s workwear was largely feminine. Looking different gave employers an excuse to not give women equal opportunities in hiring and advancement. 

What women wore to the office in the late ’60s (via Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library)

If there weren’t severe workplace consequences for breaking dress codes—like being sent home to change, or being fired—feminists in the first half of the ‘70s would have encouraged women to dress as the men did. They would have encouraged the three “P’s”: pants, pinstripes, and pockets, blurring the line between the sexes in order to get ahead.  That is what feminist workplace fashion could have looked like, but instead, the majority of women wore skirt suits, pussycat-bow blouses, or feminine pants.

“All women look terrible in pants”—1974 male reader of Dear Abby It was easy to dismiss women when they dressed feminine, which was why seeing them in pants made society so uncomfortable.  “I’ve had several job interviews where people told me that if I were a man I could have the job,” a woman interviewed in the 1970s mentions in 9to5: The Story of a Movement. There were examples of that discomfort everywhere.

In 1971, a woman reporter for The Spokesman Review arrived for a meeting with acclaimed designer Donald Brooks in New York’s hottest restaurant Cote Basque, when the maitre d’ stopped her at the door, pointing at her pantsuit. “The hat-check girl ushered me into the ladies’ room, straight pins in hand, suggesting that the pants be ‘pinned’ up under my midi coat which was not to be removed,” she reported.

One male reader wrote into a Dear Abby column in 1974 lamenting women in trousers, claiming “that all women look terrible in pants” and that women should get back into skirts “because that really arouses a man.” Even the President hated to see women in pants. “Every time I see a girl in slacks,” Richard Nixon told White House reporter Helen Thomas in 1973, “it reminds me of China. Do they cost less than gowns?” When Helen replied, “No,” he grinned, “Then change.” 

Indeed, women in Congress weren’t able to wear pants until 1993.

“Dress for Success”

If feminists had their way, women would arrive to work in masculine pantsuits—with vests, ties, and pocket squares and all—because society wanted the opposite. Instead, most office workers showed up in skirt suits and pantyhose. And if women employees did wear pants, it was with feminine tops, or in hyper-feminine prints and colors.

From "9to5": Working women protesting wages in the 1970s

John Molloy, the author of 1977’s The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, warned women that dressing too masculine was akin to “a small boy who dresses up in his father’s clothing. He is cute, not authoritative.” It came across as a woman pretending to be a man. Or more specifically, pretending to hold the power and authority of a man, which would never be hers. “My research indicates that a three-piece pinstripe suit not only does not add to a woman’s authority, it destroys it. It makes her look like an ‘imitation man,'” Molloy concluded. He recommended wearing skirt suits instead.

Reading Molloy’s Dress For Success book, Ann Rinaldi, a Trenton, NJ newspaper columnist, found the whole thing absurd. “Briefly, it occurred to me that nobody had ever written a ‘Man’s Dress For Success Book,’ but then, minutes into it, it all fell into place for me. I am a failure because I don’t dress right,” she wrote cheekily. “I don’t package myself correctly.”

But then she thought briefly, “How much have we women improved if, just when we’ve learned to stop packaging ourselves as sex objects, we now allow ourselves to be talked into packing ourselves as authority figures?”

Molloy interviewed hundreds of top-level officials and executives to gather data for his book, but the majority of them were predominantly male. That meant his findings reflected what men wanted, and how they expected their women employees to dress —which further encouraged women to play by men’s rules. The pinstripe and three-piece suits would have directly gone against their wishes.

“The pinstripe suit on a woman is negative—for one reason. It is high-status for men, and you threaten men if you wear it,” Public Opinion wrote in 1979. The “no-nonsense, we-can-do-anything-you-can-do pantsuits” the Knight News observed, were “a protest against being shoved around in any direction.” 

Feminist Fashion

But as the 9to5 movement began to secure rights for women, and women became respected players in the workforce, the need for a masculine power suit waned.

That’s why if feminists were in charge of workplace dress codes, they would have switched tracks in the second half of the ‘70s.  Instead of pushing masculine pieces on women, feminist fashions would have encouraged women to wear what they themselves thought best. The first half of the decade was about carving out space for women where there was none. The second half was about occupying that space on their own terms. 

And that meant ditching what was “expected” to be worn, and instead trusting women to choose wardrobes that fit their industry, office, and own comfort. This would include wearing hyper-feminine chevron dresses, sleek pantsuits, high-fashion slit skirts, comfortable chunky-knit sweaters, or anything else women would see fit. 

Unfortunately, this was far from the reality of that time. Many women still had strict workplace dress codes, depending on which industry they worked for. 

They were policed, no matter what they wore. Wearing dresses instead of suits made them frivolous; wearing suits instead of dresses made them imitation men; and wearing anything else in between made them superficial or un-serious.

Vincel ad for women's work wear, 1970s, with tag "Stay cool you've got it made in Vincel"Women were tired of hearing they had to look a certain way in order to command respect or take up space.  In 1978, The Guardian in the U.K. interviewed a group of feminists on their relationship with clothing, and one feminist on the panel pointed out that, “Women have so often felt pressured into looking as others want them to look.”

Taking Back Fashion in the Workplace

The feminists explained to The Guardian, “Feminists feel that people should be able to look as they themselves want to look, wear clothes in which they feel happy and comfortable. But this should allow a woman to dress up as well as dress down, if that is how she feels at any particular time.” 

“We should feel like full members of society at any given moment of time—whether we’re at work, at play or out to dinner…,”  Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, American historian and a self-proclaimed feminist told a Rochester (NY) newspaper in 1980. “For women, it [fashion] should reflect what they feel—not what men or a confused society expect them to feel.” That means that a woman should be free to choose whatever workwear she feels most confident and comfortable in, male-created dress codes be damned. 

In the early ‘70s, feminist women shed their hyper-feminine pieces as a way to reject chauvinistic fashion norms and “othering” in the workplace. But in the late ‘70s, there was a period of “taking back,” where women embraced individuality and made their own decisions—whether that was wearing a no-nonsense power suit, or a pink chevron dress. 

Nowadays, women are still hounded by workplace dress codes, at least in non-pandemic times, which are disguised as “workplace culture” but mainly aim to “other” them. In 2017, a receptionist at a corporate finance company claimed she was sent home after refusing to wear high heels. The Cannes Film Festival is infamous for reportedly denying access to premieres to women who don’t wear heels, and there are still plenty of corporations that openly acknowledge they prefer women to wear skirts and pantyhose to work.

The difference is that today these dress codes are met with public outcry and pushback. Thanks to the women of 9to5, limiting women has consequences. True liberation is being able to choose. 

Marlen Komar is a fashion history writer based out of Chicago. Her work has appeared in TIME, CNN Style, and Vox among other publications.

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