The History of the Power Suit

Updated: October 05, 2010

In the fast-paced world of business and power, its not only about who you know, its also about how you look when you walk into a room. Over the course of time, the outfits that have endowed the successful with a look of power and prestige have changed. Men and women of greatness have taken wardrobe inspiration other cultures, presidents, and actors in Hollywood, to piece together the garments that dominated various times in history. Today we explore the evolution of professional attire, how it has changed, and where it is headed in the future.

Our Founding Fathers

In the days of our forefathers, no one had any idea what a power tie was, much less the inclination to wear one. Instead, the great men of old signified their status with big powdered wigs and frilly white shirts. The aspiring leaders of our new country frequently traveled between cities to deliver documents of untold importance and hold secret meeting in the smoky corridors of elite power. Since their horse-drawn carriage didn't have climate control, the long, heavy overcoat because a fashion statement that told told passers-by, "Move plebeians! I am in haste!"

Much of early American fashion was borrowed from the English, and an unfortunate consequence of this was the popularization of tight leggings that the politicians and businessmen of that time strutted around in. The English (and therefore the early Americans) were the ultimate in lavish expressions of wealth, and the gold-colored vests worn by the Thomas Jeffersons of the 1700s - 1800s were borrowed from this tradition.

Business from 1920s - 1940s

Prior to the 1920's, top hats were a big part of business fashion (to match their tail coats and pocket watches, of course), but the turning of the decade brought about a new trend to replace Lincolns famous headwear: the fedora. This new style of hat was less ostentatious than its predecessor, and became the accessory of choice for young men making their way in the world. recalls that the '20s also saw the rise of the longer pants, known as Oxford Bags, which would often drag on the ground beneath the heels of the wearer.

Despite the economic fall out of the great depression, the businessmen of the 1930's still flaunted their best pinstriped pants, dark sport coats, and bold ties when they were to be seen in public. According to a 30's issue of the London Portfolio, this was "the way to dress if you are so sure of yourself, under the New Deal, that you are unafraid of offering a striking similarity to the Socialist cartoonist's conception of a Capitalist."

Slimmer and Dimmer: 1940s - 1950s

World War II, though not fought over fashion tastes, impacted the clothing industry tremendously in the 1940s. Constraints put on the fashion industry put pressure on designers to use less cloth, which resulted in thin looking suits with fewer pockets. Gone were the days of the extravagant double-breasted suit, though people who owned them before the constraints took hold would frequently still wear them. MentalFloss reports that "before the war, double-breasteds made up almost 50% of all suits made; by the end of the '40s they accounted for only 12%... Wartime cloth restrictions squeezed the second breast right out of the suit."

The Kennedys and Fashion: 1960s

There can be no denying the Kennedy family's impact on American fashion. John F. Kennedy's suits became the look of the industrious young men in America for much of the 1960s, destroying the austere designs of the 1940s and establishing the two button sport coat as a sign of youth.

Of course, fashion in the 1960's can't even be spoken of without mentioning first lady Jackie Kennedy' tremendous influence. The young, bold lady wore clothing by European designers that were not often seen in the states, and certainly not expected from someone of her exalted status. Her shorter skirts and sleeveless shirts inspired women everywhere to change the way they shopped for professional attire.

The Power Tie - Wall Street from the 1980s - 1990s

The rise of Donald Trump combined with Michael Douglas' iconic role as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street set the new standard for what men of power should be dressing like in thr 1980s. Every businessman around wanted to look like the meanest, sharpest cat in town, and so striking ties and luxurious designer suits became the pyrex by which others would measure your success and influence. Suspenders and contrasting collars saw a come back in the 1980s - early 1990s, but this wouldn't last too long.

The suits of the 80s gave way a new, much different look in the 90s - khakis. The idea of business casual took hold strong, and soon a good pair of Dockers became the "power tie" of the 1990s. The trend of dressing down would not reverse with the coming age of Internet riches, but instead continued in a way that would have shocked the formal forefathers.

The Power Smart Phone - Today's Casual Businessman

After more than a century of suit wearing, the modern business culture seems to have rejected the traditional outfit of achievement and have opted for an intentionally laid-back look. Following perhaps in the image of Steve Jobs, this new generation of "techy" entrepreneurs often show up to work in jeans and tee-shirts, a far cry from the flashy-formal stylings of power in the 80s. Billionaire founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg is the poster child for this image, frequently attending photo shoots in sandals, jeans and a sweater.

The "power tie" of yesterday can best be compared to the power smart phone of today. While many new age entrepreneurs lack the expensive suits, you can bet they all have a data-ready smart phone on hand, and many of them can practically manage their entire business from it.

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