Here’s How Women’s Workwear Has Evolved Throughout the 20th Century

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The evolution of women’s workwear styles over the past 100 years reflects changing attitudes and beliefs about women and power in the United States, as well as the struggles women have gone through to make it this far. While it might seem as if anything goes for women at work these days, a look at women leaders in different industries reveals there is still a social code to crack.

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 jewelry too saw a wave of sophistication in terms of design and quality.
The devastating effects of WWII left the Western world in a state of ration. General supplies were restricted, and clothing fabrics were no exception. Much of the 1930s focused on practicality, with women donning swollen suits and small accessories. ​And, with men fighting overseas in the early 1940s, many women were left to gather crops and take on more ‘male-orientated’ roles. This was directly reflected in their choice of clothing- durable denim overalls which saw them through the harsh outdoor conditions.
The late 1940s saw a return to ‘traditional’ femininity. Clothing fabrics were still rationed during this time, so the focus was on simple tea dresses- with curly hairstyles and makeup being used to soften the austerity of the 1940s cut. The 1950s brought back the nipped in waist to create dramatic feminine silhouettes. Formal workwear was still very conservative, but with the addition of white gloves and the introduction of full ‘poodle’ skirts.
It was by the mid 20th century that women’s workwear finally took a lead of its own. The 1960s 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 1980s 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.
A woman typing in an office, 1899. The calendar on the wall of the office dates this image, taken from a stereoscope card originally titled “Flirtation.” While this is clearly not a real office, British middle-class Victorian women were employed in offices across the late 1800s. The woman wears a very full skirt, apparently with crinoline hoops, which by 1899 were something of an anachronism. The typewriter had been commercially widespread since the mid 1870s.

Women in the editorial department of Clement’s Inn, The Strand, London, September 1911. That week’s edition of ‘Votes for Women’ is being cut and pasted by the young woman volunteers at the ‘making-up table.’ All the woman have long hair tied up in loose buns. Most of the woman wear white blouses and full skirts — two wear neck ties.

Office at the railway works in Horwich, Lancashire, England, 1917. During the First World War many male rail workers joined the army, so women were employed in their place, in a variety of roles including blacksmiths, welders and electricians. Most of the women in this office wear white blouses, but the blouses are more closely fitting than in the previous picture. Their hair is still worn up, though now more loosely, and one woman — at the card cabinets — has shoulder-length hair worn down, while another wears long braids. At least two younger women also have white bows in their hair. The woman in the left foreground shows a shorter skirt length and a leather shoe with a golfing-style flap.

Women sorting mail at the post office during the Christmas rush in England, ca. 1920. The women wear a range of blouses, and the woman front-left wears a cardigan and a set of pearls. Their hair is again worn loosely tied up. The woman front-right wears a striped dress, as we’re starting to see more patterns.

Women working on forms for the conversion of the war loan at Government Printing and Stationery Office in Harrow, England, ca. 1922. The older women wear their long hair tied up, though a number of the younger women have shorter, shoulder-length hair, some with a permanent wave or “perm.” Several wear over-dresses without sleeves, and one woman, right, has bare arms.

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