On Women Wearing Suits: A True Fashion Statement

The inevitable question posed to any woman making her way down the red carpet press line for any event is about what she’s wearing and why.

The inevitable question posed to any woman making her way down the red carpet press line for any event is about what she’s wearing and why. Out actress Evan Rachel Wood donned an elegant black and white Altuzarra suit to the Golden Globes on Sunday night, and while it wasn’t the first time she’s chosen slacks and a jacket over a dress, she told reporters on the red carpet why she made such a specific choice.
 
“I started feeling like some people needed a gentle reminder that we are more than just the dresses we wear. We are people; we work hard and put our souls into what we do,” Evan told Vogue. “I made a promise to myself that I would wear a suit to every awards show this year. Not to protest dresses, but to let young girls and women know that they are not a requirement.”
 
Many other women (celebrities and otherwise) have suited up in more masculine-tinged evening attire for special events—galas, award ceremonies, fundraisers—but most of the time, it’s seen as a fashion choice—more of a chic nod to androgynous style than a statement. So when Evan Rachel Wood made sure to note that the reason she chose a suit was not just to look different from the rest of the gown-wearers at the Globes, but to let women know there isn’t an expected dress code they are expected to execute at their own large life events—proms, weddings, quinceañeras—it spawned a little bit of a media frenzy compared to the times she or others have dressed similarly before. There were criticisms over Evan’s both wearing a suit and what she had to say about it, proclamations over how she isn’t the first and what right she has to make such a comment. Interestingly, all of these proved exactly what Evan was hoping to create conversation around—what a woman wears is often valued more than what she has to say. 
 
During this last election, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits were ripped apart before they were revered. What Hillary wore to debates and appearances were discussed at length, sometimes more than anything she spoke about. Even if she wore something seen as aesthetically appealing or expensive, it was a topic touched upon by mainstream media, feminist blogs, politicos and fashion magazines alike. After Hillary had won the Democratic Primary, she wore an Armani jacket from the 2016 spring line that the internet discovered cost more than $12,000. The Observer writes:
 
“Sure, it seems contradictory for her to wear a jacket that costs as much as a minimum wage worker makes in a year while speaking about income inequality. It is certainly ironic, especially with the ability to put an exact price tag to her faux pas. But, just a couple of months earlier, Barack Obama, during his State of the Union address in January, did the same thing. He wore an expensive, well-tailored suit made of fine Italian wool that costs thousands of dollars while dedicating the main portion of his speech to income inequality. The difference? Obama is a man. And men in politics are rarely derided for spending money on clothes.”
 
And would a dress have caused as much of a conversation? Michelle Obama’s high-fashion is often praised, and if a price is mentioned, it’s done in a way that begs envy, not denigration. Which isn’t to say she’s not judged based on that choice—are her arms too bare? Her cleavage too revealed? A slit an inch too high?—but that choice is given more weight and more respect, somehow, than if a woman decides to put on a pair of pants for a public appearance and dares to speak about a reason other than how it fits her body.
 
In the 1920s, blues singer Gladys Bentley paired her suits with canes and top hats for her traveling act. In the following decades, actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn favored tuxedos and slacks, causing a stir in Hollywood with their daring nods at masculinity. And yet 87 years after the former appeared in drag in the 1930 film “Morocco,” there is still an expectation and judgment about how and why women wear what they do, and what it means about them. Evan Rachel Wood’s Globes attire was inspired by Marlene’s tux, as well as the famous Helmut Newton shot of Charlotte Rampling in a high-waisted YSL suit (and “a bit of Bowie and also steered a bit into the direction of Fred Astaire.”) 
 
Interestingly, all four of these performers were (and are) queer, which may also why their subverting the “norm” feels so threatening to some who prefer to see women in “sexier” or more “glamorous” get-ups. It appears their androgynous aesthetic ultimately lessens their appeal to men because it signifies that they aren’t there for them, something musician/actress Janelle Monae made note of in response to a fan who tweeted at her to stop wearing “those dumbass suits.” She replied: “sit down. I’m not for male consumption.” 
 
The fan apologized, but Janelle’s point was made—her artistry, her individuality and what she has to contribute to the world is so much more significant than how she looks, and how she looks is a direct reflection of how she feels and who she is. Too bad if that’s not what men (or women, for that matter) find appropriate or appealing. And this directly affects women like teen lesbian Aniya Wolf, who was kicked out of her proms for eschewing the formal dress dictated by her Philadelphia high school.
 
“I think my experience shouldn’t be any different than anyone else’s because of something I was born with,” Aniya told the local news, explaining she feels most comfortable in a suit—most like herself. Whether it’s what you’re putting on your body or how you’re moving through the world with it, being forced into something that feels so false for the acceptance from others is an incredible disservice. The same can be said for femmes or those who are gender-fluid—choosing to wear what you want how you want and ultimately being who you want to be is still seen as subversive, but it’s also sincere. Personal style is powerful, and, for better or for worse, it sometimes holds the same weight to be as threatening as what a woman has to say. So when someone like Evan Rachel Wood is doing both on such a large scale, she’s daring; dangerous. 
 
“You don’t have to wear a dress if you don’t want to,” Evan Rachel Wood told Vogue. “Your worth is beyond that. If this small gesture shows someone it’s okay to be themselves, then the look is a winner for me.”