Over the years, few things have reflected changing mores quite like the office dress code. Today, as office culture continues to push the limits of informality, office dress codes have followed suit. And now, “athleisure,” the practice of wearing activewear outside the gym, has begun to infiltrate offices. Leggings are “great for business casual,” a Boston University student told The Boston Globe last month. “As long as your butt isn’t showing, they’re very dressy.”
Though many have scoffed, and even cringed, at the thought of dubbing leggings “business casual,” the trend isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Though activewear is certainly not a mainstay in every office, women are increasingly including activewear in their everyday arsenals, accounting for an 8 percent jump in apparel sales in 2014.
And according to fashion industry analysts, “athleisure” has become a permanent part of the fashion landscape. Sneakers, and fitness-inspired garments that pair form with function are showing up on runways, and the mass market has taken note. The term has become so ubiquitous that it will be added to the 2016 Merriam Webster Dictionary.
A look back through history shows a steady climb in the comfort and functionality of women’s workwear — a change that correlates with women’s increasingly prominent role in the workplace. Below, take a look at some of the game-changing women and wardrobe choices that helped to shape office culture today.
1. Jacqueline Kennedy (1961)
A survey of professional fashion would be incomplete without including “Jackie” O. Far from being defined by the iconic men in her life, Jackie became an accomplished career woman after serving as First Lady from 1961-63. She worked in publishing and edited over 100 titles. Her tasteful, conservative style was an inspiration, but she also experimented with bright colors and daring prints. Though some wondered why she worked, she wrote in an essay in Ms. Magazine in 1979, “You have to do something you enjoy. That is the definition of happiness: ‘complete use of one’s faculties along the lines leading to excellence in a life affording them scope.’ It applies to women as well as to men.”
2. YSL’s “Le Smoking” jacket (1966)
When Algerian-born designer Yves Saint Laurent debuted this menswear-inspired look in 1966, critics were less than impressed. The outfit, which he called “Le Smoking” consisted of a tuxedo jacket and pants for women, meant to serve as a chic alternative to the little black dress. The look helped to pioneer androgynous styles for women, along with pantsuits and power suits of later decades. Former actress and fashion icon Bianca Jagger made a bold statement when she wore the “Le Smoking” jacket to her wedding with Mick Jagger in 1971.
3. Diane Von Furstenberg’s Wrap Dress (1974)
Diane Von Furstenberg designed her famous “wrap dress” in 1974, and by 1976 she had sold over a million of the legendary frocks. The ready-to-wear dress quickly established its place in the world of women’s fashion as a symbol of power and independence. It was proof that women’s clothing could be comfortable, functional, and retain elegance. Von Furstenberg went on to create a fashion empire, focused on empowering women through clothing.
4. Faye Dunaway in “Network” (1976)
As loose-fitting and flowing garments of the 1970s took over runways, women brought wide legged-pants, broad belts, and scarves to the workplace. For inspiration, look no further than actress Faye Dunaway’s performance in Network, where she flexes her #girlboss muscles as the head of a TV network’s programming department. “The next time I send an audience research report around, you better read it or I’ll sack the f***ing lot of you, is that clear?” she says casually to her team in the scene above.
5. Margaret Thatcher and the dawn of power dressing (1979)
Early on in her career, the “Iron Lady” became one of the queens of power dressing, donning structured suits that were as tailored as those her male counterparts were wearing in Parliament, where she served from 1979 until 1990. Thatcher’s styling was immaculate, always pairing feminine with masculine. Her wardrobe came to symbolize the calculated, assertive way in which she ruled.
6. Oprah Winfrey, champion of shoulder pads (1988)
Another proponent of power dressing, by the 1980s, television presenter Oprah Winfrey was as much a style icon as she was a household name. Below, in a segment from a 1988 broadcast, Winfrey and stylists weigh in on shoulder pads which, apparently, were the solution for every imaginable fashion dilemma. “The bigger the shoulder pad, the better,” exclaims one stylist. “I have them in my pajamas, my t-shirts, everything,” remarks Oprah. Though they’re now laughable, shoulder pads were an important part of office culture in the 1980s, when women began dressing in a more masculine style in order to assert equal footing in the workplace.
7. Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl” (1988)
Though ripe with romantic comedy clichés, Working Girl is in many ways emblematic of the “yuppie” generation working on Wall Street in the 1980s. Melanie Griffith plays Tess McGill, a secretary who dreams of an executive position, and eventually masquerades as her female boss in order to put forward her own business plans. She spends the film clad in shoulder pads and silk blouses with “pussy bows,” charming a young Harrison Ford, and going head to head with Sigourney Weaver. “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin,” she says to Ford. “Is there anything wrong with that?
8. “Casual Fridays,” courtesy of Levi’s (1992)
What’s now considered “business casual” was once reserved only for Fridays. But unbeknownst to most, the “casual Friday” tradition wasn’t exactly a spontaneous one, promoted by buttoned-up office executives looking to insert more fun into the workplace. In the early 1990s, Levis saw an opportunity to tone down the “Aloha Friday” looks that men were sporting at the office (think Hawaiian print shirts, shorts, and sandals), by marketing their casual khaki Dockers as a suitable alternative. They launched a guerrilla marketing campaign to promote the look, and directed their ads towards women, too.
9. Hillary Clinton wears pants in her official White House portrait (1992)
Painted in 2003, Hillary Clinton’s official White House portrait features the first lady in her iconic pantsuit, with her hand resting on her best-selling book. Clinton’s choice to wear pants was a first for first ladies in White House portraits. Though the pantsuit was, and remains Clinton’s signature look, the portrait symbolized her independent career as a politician and reflected a shift in professional dress for women in government.
10. From stilettos to sneakers, anything goes (2013)
Though not everyone can sport sneakers at the office these days, gone is the era of mandatory heels. Flats made their way into the mainstream years ago, offering women a welcome respite from often uncomfortable stilettos. And now, women are embracing sneakers as smart, fashion-forward footwear. The photo above shows Texas Senator Wendy Davis rocking a pair while addressing senators during an 11-hour filibuster, in defense against a package of abortion restrictions that would cripple women’s access to healthcare in the state.