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Iceni Magazine | July 3, 2022

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The History and Evolution of Women’s Workwear

The History and Evolution of Women’s Workwear

In today’s typical office, everyone has the choice to wear trousers – whatever their gender – and women’s tops in the style and shape of their choice, with no restrictions. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The past century has seen huge changes in both women’s rights and in fashion – so it makes sense that workwear has evolved since the strict rules imposed on females in the workplace around the First World War. Let’s see how much.


It was in this decade that women in the UK started to be allowed to keep their earnings – but there were very strict guidelines around what should or shouldn’t be worn in the workplace. Nonetheless, during the First World War, many women managed to show a bit of personality with a bright bandana or colourful laces.

1920s and 1930s

According to fashion historian Amber Butchart, “simple, neat dresses, or separates, were deemed appropriate” at work during this time. Although waistlines got lower and hemlines higher following World War 1, many females had jobs that required a uniform.

1940s and 1950s

During the Second World War, many women picked up the jobs left behind by men who’d left for the frontline. This led to a more masculine wardrobe for working women. Wide leg trousers were popular choices for office-based workers, while new overalls were created for ladies with jobs in factories. Although this seems progressive, they were still expected to maintain a high beauty standard and were often given guidelines on how their hair or make-up should look.

1960s and 1970s

It was during the 1960s that women started to have the opportunity to get back to work after having children. However, for many, the investment in a work wardrobe and the cost of trips to the beauty salon meant it wasn’t worth their while.

In 1966, iconic French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent designed the women’s formal tuxedo, Le Smoking, paving the way for female suits in the workplace.

1980s and 1990s

Enter the power suit. Bold colours and even bolder shoulder pads, these two-pieces allowed women to express their personality while maintaining a masculine style.

Hilary Clinton courted controversy when she became the first First Lady to wear a suit for her official portrait, as a clear sign of her ambition to achieve equality.

2000s and 2010s

When London receptionist Nicola Thorp was sent home from work for not wearing heels in 2017, she launched a petition to ban sexist rules in the workplace. It was signed by more than 150,000 people and following a heated debate amongst MPs, the government finally published dress code guidance for employers and employees.

The workplace wardrobe divide then became less about gender and was more influenced by industry. For example, the banking sector required a more formal, traditional look, whereas creative workplaces prioritised comfort and kept it casual.

Now and the Future

Today, there are more women than ever working in high profile positions. Workplaces want to seem professional but modern, meaning women are free to wear what they want – just as they should be.


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