When we look at the professional clothing wardrobe of women today, there is no question that we have a great deal of variety to choose from. While dress codes at workplaces vary from place to place. There is still a considerable amount of clothing that women are able to choose from, and these choices are only becoming more varied as the years continue to pass.
We know it wasn’t always like this, though, so what was it like before, and what has changed since then? To find out, we’ll have to look to the past.
Working Women: 1890s
The Victorian era was, generally speaking, the first period in which women were able to work outside of being mothers. In the late 1800s, middle-class women were granted the privilege of working in offices. There, a woman would tend to the duties the office expected of her.
What would a woman wear to the office in the late 1800s? It would be customary for the woman to wear a dress with a full skirt supported by a crinoline (petticoat). Hair might have been braided or pulled back into a bun or updo. This formal dress was not our definition of comfortable, but for the women who wore them, they seem to have been manageable.
The formal dress of the Victorian period marks our starting point for clothing expectations of working women.
The first major change to women’s professional clothing: 1910s to 1920s
The first major change to women’s professional clothing in the United States can be traced back to the invention of sportswear. Prior to this, dress for most occasions was more or less quite formal, and not necessarily designed with comfort in mind. However, from the late 1910s to the early 1920s, sportswear made its way onto the scene, and things began to change.
Suddenly, consumers had the option to wear clothing items such as “tweed, belted Norfolk suits” for men and sweaters and “gored skirts” for women. In hindsight, from the relatively casual attitude toward dress of the present, even these choices in dress seem quite formal. At the time, however, these clothing items were revolutionary: this was the most casual fashion had ever been.
In the 1910s workplace, however, things were still a little more formal, though arguably more comfortable than fashion of the previous period. A woman might have now worn a white blouse and a long skirt to work, with her hair pulled back into a loose bun. Though less common, it wouldn’t be unusual for a woman to wear a necktie along with her blouse.
When women needed to fill men’s places at work in the First World War in the late 1910s, things became slightly more lax. Women still wore their hair up, but often a little looser, in long ponytails rather than buns.
Furthermore, during the 1920s, bicycling was massively increasing in popularity. For women, cycling was an activity requiring a new wardrobe option: culottes (or, in other words, a skort). This skirt with shorts underneath could provide mobility not possible for a long dress on a bike, while still remaining appropriately modest. Shorts themselves were now also deemed appropriate for women – for specific times and places.
In the workplace, compared to decades previous, you might have been able to see women’s dresses in increasingly varied patterns, with slight fluctuations in length, though most likely remaining below the knee.
For women, these sportswear clothes may have been some of the first items that could be worn with any relative comfort. So it must have been hard to turn back to such restraining clothing after that. While the workwear is still formal, it is clear that it has already become more laid back than the Victorian era.
Adopting shorts into the casual wardrobe: 1930s and 1940s
In May of 1930, Dartmouth College, all-male at the time, the student paper called on men attending the college to embrace the freedom that could be found in wearing shorts. This was deemed the Shorts Protest of 1930. Over 600 students participated, and shortly after, shorts also became an accepted part of men’s wear.
As for women, something unusual in the 1930s has begun to happen. The women who began working when young during the late Victorian period are nearing retirement age. In photos, many can still be seen pulling their hair back into buns. For a younger generation, however, shorter hairstyle trends are in, so many keep their hair in a perm at shoulder length.
Additional workplace style trends include blouses with semi-sheer material, or wearing sleeveless dresses over a long-sleeved blouse. Some even choosing to come into work with bare arms.
In the 1940s, women turned Bermudas, plaid wool shorts into a fashion item and wearers played with daring experimentation with length for casual wear.
At work, women are wearing dresses, skirts and blouses with increasing variety and more decorative patterns, such as polka dots. Necklines also vary: some are V-necks, while others are a more traditional brooch. Hair is often shoulder length or pulled back. On occasion, you might find someone wearing a pearl necklace.
Higher appetite for new genres: 1950s
The 1950s was a period of significant modifications to men’s and women’s fashion with far more genres. While it hadn’t necessarily been uncommon in previous decades, pants weren’t worn with frequency by women until the 1950s.
In the office, women are still expected to wear mostly skirts and dresses, but there is an ever-increasing variety of fits, decorative patterns, and materials. It is important not to go too far with experimentation, however; modesty for women is still key in the workplace at this point.
Though patterns are more varied, colors and styles of the 1950s workwear are conservative, so as to not draw too much attention. The lengths of suit dresses fall just below the knee. Many women wear pantyhose rather than showing off their bare legs. Shoes are a solid color with a modest heel and closed toes.
Accessories during the 50s are far more common: there are a variety of scarfs, earrings, and broaches available to compliment an outfit.
Outside of work, a growing number of women are wearing unisex clothing: jeans, t-shirts, button-up shirts, cardigans and the like. Clothes for all occasions are becoming designed with comfort in mind.
Continued migration of casual attire: 1960s
By the 1960s, it becomes clear that the unisex clothing of the previous decade has made its way into the women’s workplace. In photos of women working at their desks, you can see many wearing visibly more casual short-sleeved shirts in brighter colors (pastels are growing in popularity) and more eye-grabbing
Women’s hairstyles are also increasingly varied, with many using considerable amounts of hairspray to add lasting volume to their looks.
Throughout these changes, many relics of fashion’s past still remain in workplace photos. You can still point out women wearing cardigans over their shirts. Others are still choosing to wear long-sleeved blouses, often in more vivid colors. Hair is still commonly shoulder-length when not pulled back with all that hairspray.
Varied and more relaxed: 1970s
During the 1970s, there is increasingly more room for casual looks in the workplace for women. Vivid stripes might be displayed on a t-shirt. Hair might be worn down naturally. Cotton – typically used for that casual t-shirt – is becoming an increasingly common fabric in clothes women are wearing to the workplace.
Cardigans are still brought to the office, but when they aren’t needed, they might be hung loosely on the edge of a desk or the back of a chair.
For women who still wear suit dresses, there are now options for lengths above the knee. Possible accessories might include a belt for accentuating physical features. Hairspray may still be used to keep stylized hair in place.
Collared, button-up blouses are also available, with a wide choice of colors and patterns. These may be paired with wide, loose bellbottom pants.
Glam and glitz: 1980s
With the more relaxed looks of the ‘70s, it would be difficult for the ‘80s workplace to become more relaxed without losing office credibility. Therefore, you will notice the workplace wardrobe for women becoming slightly more formalized once again. Patterns are still varied, but many employees opt for solid colors and decorative patterns that are simpler in style. The same goes for colors and fits.
That said, there are still more modifications being made to the long-sleeved blouse. Some women can be seen wearing blouses that are more form-fitting, as opposed to the looser styles that hide women’s figures. Possibly to compensate for bringing out a woman’s physical figure and regain some modesty, many of these form-fitting shirts are solid colors rather than displaying bold patterns.
Hairspray is still commonly used to volumize elaborately styled hair and hold it in place. Meanwhile, hair clips are frequently used to tame and pull back naturally styled hair. There is also a middle ground for lightly feathering out layers of hair and setting with a mist of hairspray.
In some places, women might have been expected to wear a workplace uniform, and men might have their own separate uniform in these places. For women, this might mean matching suit dresses or identical blouses with double-breasted jackets.
Most notable, perhaps, is the variety of accessories available to working women of the 1980s. Gold, showy earrings, decorative bags and shoes are also options to pair with workplace attire. The reason for more reserved clothing patterns in the 1980s could very likely be to compensate for the showy accessories available to them.
Natural and casual: 1990s
For the working woman in the 1990s, workplace style has become more casual than ever. You might expect to see long-haired women wear their hair down naturally and without hairspray. Side-swept bangs are also a common trend during the 90s.
As far as clothing items go, you may expect to see a woman wearing a loose, long-sleeved, pin-striped jacket with matching pants and a bold shirt. Short sleeved-shirts with bright colors, floral patterns (a Victorian remnant?) and stripes are widely being worn.
Layered necklaces and chokers, which are a major trend throughout the 1990s, have also found their way into the workplace. Depending on the office, plain t-shirts and jean-jackets, which are other popular trends of the time, may also be acceptable, so long as they do not show cleavage and become immodest.
Formal dresses like those seen in previous decades are becoming less frequently worn by young woman who have just recently entered the workplace.
The 1990s workplace fashion for woman remains professional, but it is arguably the most relaxed overall. While women are still expected to dress within certain modesty guidelines, they seem to take more fashion liberties than working women of any time before.
All of this, and then some: 2000s and 2010s
The twenty-first century has brought all of these trends back at different times, and workplace dress codes vary considerably from place to place for women.
One of the most restrictive dress codes of the present are flight attendants for major airlines. Which call to mind workplace fashion of the 1950s and 1960s. Still, even these airlines have become more lax in their dresscode requirements.
For the current working women, there is a number of styles, colors and patterns to choose from, with more freedom of choice than ever before. Women can wear shirts with jeans, suits with pants or traditional dresses with a variety of styles and fits. In previous years, sizes may have restricted as to which women could wear what. But now, even plus size lines offer a considerable amount of workplace clothing for women.
The Future of Workwear
In the years to come, women will likely have even more styles to choose from. It is only a matter of time before innovative designers create new patterns, styles and fits. Most owners and managers are already becoming increasingly willing to allow women to what they are most comfortable and productive in at the office.
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