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Feminism at the office: the evolution of workwear fashion

Women’s workwear has not had a stable, stagnant relationship as its male counterpart. The history of women’s office wardrobe has seen its ups and downs both it terms of size and style. Here’s a brief history of how work fashion has evolved and what workwear looks like in 2020.

The birth of women’s workwear

Woman were seen as the caregivers and homemakers while the men folk went to earn a living. This all changed particularly during war times when women took jobs as the men were off. Thus, war times can be regarded as the first time in history when the need for women’s workwear rose.

Work meant that women had to move around and get things done. The current clothing silhouettes did not necessarily allow this to happen. Due to the lack of a distinctive office wear clothing line, women thus picked up silhouettes from the men’s wardrobes and borrowed pieces like jeans, dungarees and pants for work.

Sophistication of wardrobe

By the 20th century, the number of women in the office rose though they retired to family life once married. With this young and blaring workforce, a new office wardrobe emerged. Think silk blouses paired with skirt and blazer separates. Elegance and sophistication were key factors in making a line of workwear.

Skirt and dress lengths were still modest, falling below the knees. Blouses were loose but not baggy with high necks and long sleeves. Hats were a common accessory and jewellery too saw a wave of sophistication in terms of design and quality.

Workwear trends for women

It was by the mid 20th century that women’s workwear finally took a lead of its own. The 60’s saw the introduction of the mini skirt. While wearing it to work was still considered a rebellious move, the mini skirt did get a tweaked office version with short, straight and modern look for work.

The 80’s brought with them the ‘Boulder Shoulders’. Padded shoulders finally meant that women were shedding the feminine look and opting for a powerful masculine approach both at work and in their wardrobes.

The end of the century saw womenswear finally at par with men with the advent of the ‘pant-suit’. While the basic structure was picked up from that of a man’s wardrobe, the female edition had its own tweaks. A comparatively shorter collar length with a wider gap in the blazer to highlight the neck and collarbone. The straight pant meant that women were finally able to reveal the shape of their legs like never before.

Thus 20th century did not just define modern day office wardrobe but also brought with it functional changes that made life at office much easier.

The casual-formal balance

Up until now, office wear has been considered a formal atmosphere but this all changed in the 21st century. With a shift from process-oriented economy to a result-oriented economy, employers were more concerned with getting the job done rather than what clothes you wear at work.

This meant that office clothes didn’t have to be all that formal. Casual wardrobe staples like t-shirts, jeans and jackets were now making way into the office setting. The rise of ‘smart-casual’ meant that a t-shirt, jeans, blazer with sneakers were considered workwear appropriate.

As the restraints of wearing formals fell, the opportunity to show personal style rose. Blaring colours, daring silhouettes and bizarre accessories were ways to be fashionable as well as professional.

Even though retailers today sell formal silhouettes for the office, the clear line of distinction between workwear, casual wear and home wear has disappeared. We see an overlap of ideas and silhouettes.

This is by far the greatest achievement in office fashion.


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