WTF Is a Pantsuit Anyway? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WTF Is a Pantsuit Anyway?

WTF Is a Pantsuit Anyway?

By Libby Coleman


Because if it looks like a suit and feels like a suit … it’s probably just a suit. Stop talking about it. 

By Libby Coleman

“We all know she loves her pantsuits, but … she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit.”

— Darryl Glenn, senatorial candidate

“Why must she dress that way? I think she’s confused about her gender [with] all these big, baggy, menswear tailored pantsuits.”

— Tim Gunn, fashion consultant

“She’s damn lucky she’s running against him, because she’s an empty pantsuit with no vision for the future except for her own ambition.”

— Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason

Behold but a small sample of the public criticisms rained not only on Hillary Clinton but also on the oft-scorned, much-maligned pantsuit.  

This very minute, a woman is entering the workforce, on her way to her first job. In the office, she’ll endure scrutiny, she’ll face backlash and she’ll be excluded from guys-only outings. She’ll probably have difficulty negotiating for a raise. Amid all that misogyny, the least of her concerns might turn out to be the biggest of her concerns: She’ll wonder whether what she’s wearing is all right, whether it strikes a note of professional presentability while not being desexualized. She might choose to wear a pantsuit, which may well raise a few eyebrows.

What is it about the pantsuit that merits such scorn? Maybe, similar to the way a fedora inspires ridicule, it’s the shape. Maybe we can chalk it up to the sexism, often latent, that condemns women who enter masculine spaces. We propose a different idea, based on the precept that words matter: Just calling it a “pantsuit” sets it up as an insulting punch line. 


Don’t believe us? Check the theory. “There’s something about the term ‘pantsuit,’ ” says Shira Tarrant, a writer on gender politics. “It goes back to [Simone de] Beauvoir, where he, the man, is the essential. The woman is the derivative.” The suit is a male garment that hardly attracts any attention. The pantsuit — also a trouser-and-jacket pairing — is abnormal, even freakish; it implies that the skirt suit is the norm. It’s not news that women’s fashion garners more scrutiny than men’s, in the workplace and elsewhere. By dropping the “pant,” though, we could head off the societal consternation that women’s suits apparently cause.

Besides, the term barely makes sense — it’s redundant balderdash, unless we believe that a woman who wears pants is an aberration. Historically, the right to wear pants “has been in great flux,” says Marjorie Jolles, director of the women’s and gender studies program at Roosevelt University, in Chicago. Not until the 1970s did many women finally get dressed one leg at a time — like the other half of the population. 

Sure, some will argue that we should change minds, not words. Still others believe “pantsuit” serves a purpose, distinguishing the garment from skirt suits. Still others, like Chris Lindland, CEO of clothing company Betabrand, believe the problem goes far deeper: Women’s businesswear needs a comprehensive redo. 

In the meantime, though, what if words help change minds? Hillary and your co-worker aren’t wearing pantsuits, they’re wearing suits.

So should women suit up or pantsuit up? Let us know in the comments!


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