How the way we dress for work has changed over the last 100 years

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesPantsuits were a popular trend for working women in the 1970s.
  • Fashion in the workplace has changed drastically throughout the last century.
  • In the early 1900s, both men and women were dressed to the nines – but just 50 years later, casual work looks began to emerge.
  • Pantsuits dominated women’s fashion in the 1970s, and men in the ’90s began to rock the “business casual” look.
  • Nowadays, many people can choose to dress up or dress down for work.

It’s the age-old question: What should I wear to work today? And it has been at the forefront of peoples’ minds for decades.

Workplace fashion has undergone quite an evolution throughout the past 100 years, starting with dressy looks and succumbing to subtle casualness by the time the 1950s hit. Women began to rock pants – and pantsuits – at work in the 1970s, and men started the “business casual” trend in the ’90s.

Keep scrolling to see the complete evolution of workplace fashion throughout the past century.

Throughout the early 20th century, offices were very formal: women wore traditional gowns and men wore full suits.

Photo by Print Collector/Getty ImagesOffice in 1898.

Americans not only dressed up for work in the 1900s – they covered up, too.

“Women and girls never wore trousers and women kept their legs hidden with long dresses or skirts,” according to the BBC. “Men and boys often kept their coats, jackets and ties on, even in hot weather.”

As the 1920s emerged, women sported shorter haircuts and more boyish dress silhouettes.

Bettmann/Contributor/GettyFemale stenographers at the IRS circa 1920.

The “boyish” dress silhouette rose in popularity throughout the ’20s, as women abandoned the tight, feminine dresses of the past. Straight skirts were in, and “tailored suits for the working woman also featured the straight, curveless cut.”

Men’s suits became slightly less formal, and women began to sport men’s collars.

Bettmann/Contributor/GettyActors Nell Craig and Ernest Maupain in an office setting.

Much like women, men’s attire loosened up in the ’20s, leaning toward a more relaxed and flashier look.

“Colourful suits and patterned socks accented the wardrobe of the casually dressed,” according to the University of Vermont, though men still tended to go for the classy, creased, and conservative look at the office.

The 1930s saw an even more relaxed look, but suits remained the standard.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty ImagesChicago wire service journalists circa 1930.

The look of a long torso was in for men in the ’30s, so suits were adjusted accordingly, with widened shoulders and tapering sleeves. Men’s trousers were still creased, as seen in the portrait of Chicago journalists above.

Women’s work outfits throughout the decade began to add more feminine touches, like bows and necklaces.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty ImagesAn office Christmas party circa 1930.

Women’s dress silhouettes got a little softer in the 1930s, and many long dresses of the time featured feminine embellishments, like bows and ties at the front.

By the time the 1940s emerged, women embraced squared shoulders and more adventurous patterns.

The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesModel Carol Lorell working as typist in an office.

The idea of “utility fashion” permeated women’s work clothing in the 1940s, as many women went to work during World War II. Squared, padded shoulders and varied colours and patterns began to emerge.

And a double-breasted suit was key for men in the ’40s, along with the popular bowler hat.

John Phillips/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesColumnist Westbrook Pegler in the 1940s.

Loose-fitting trousers were also the move for men in the 1940s, and – in stark contrast to the low-rise fit of the ’30s – were often buckled high on the torso. They were part of the “de mob” suit look, which also consisted of a shirt, tie, and double-breasted jacket.

In the 1950s, many working women paired simple, sleek sweaters with pearls.

Sloping shoulders on simple, classic sweaters were a popular look for women of the ’50s. They also loved their narrow pencil skirts for work, and, as shown above, “separates” (that is blouses and skirts or blouses and pants) were all the rage. Adieu, dresses of the ’30s and ’40s.

Men’s suits returned to single-breast buttons.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty ImagesOffice in Chicago, 1958.

Suits were still the rage for men, and pocket handkerchiefs became a popular accessory in the ’50s.

The 1960s was known for its minimalist, colourful aesthetic, and that was reflected in women’s fashion …

Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty ImagesOffice water cooler advertisement, 1960s.

“Mod” fashion was all the rage in the ’60s, and working women favoured its minimalist, colourful aesthetic. They often paired their chic dresses with white pumps, and their hair was straight and sleek, cut into a bob.

… as well as men’s. Many opted for slender black ties paired with black suits.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty ImagesA medical conference in 1965.

Clean lines and skinny ties dominated men’s professional fashion in the ’60s (think early Beatles). Suits boasted slimmer-fitting pants and sleek silhouettes.

The pantsuit trend shook the women’s workforce in the 1970s, and bolder colours began to emerge.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesWomen wearing pantsuits, 1970.

According to VICE‘s history of the pantsuit, by the ’70s, “many young women were adopting pants either as an explicit symbol representing their fight for equality, or simply as a means for more comfort.” Many women who climbed the corporate ladder opted for the bold, revolutionary trend.

Men’s lapels were widened, and their ties grew in width.

Lambert/Getty ImagesA salesman in 1975.

The wide lapels seen on suits in the ’30s and ’40s began to reemerge in the 1970s – to an almost “comically” large width, according to GQ. Ties were wider, and colourful leisure suits burst onto the scene.

Pantsuits turned into menswear-inspired outfits for women in the ’80s. Broad shoulders and large blazers were in.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty ImagesMelanie Griffith and Harrison Ford in ‘Working Girl’ (1988).

Power suits and padded shoulders were the trend of working women of the ’80s, as exemplified by Melanie Griffith in 1988’s “Working Girl,” which led to an exaggerated, menswear-inspired aesthetic.

Men rocked more “relaxed” and broad suits.

Paramount PicturesRichard Gere in ‘American Gigolo’ (1980).

“Richard Gere’s game-changing Armani suit in ‘American Gigolo’ is legendary for its looser fit and effortless swagger,” according to GQ’s history of the suit. It paved the way for many men’s trends of the decade, like the power suit, which featured suspenders, pinstripes, and padded shoulders.

Blazers would still be in by the time the ’90s rolled around, and chunky, bold jewellery rose in popularity.

Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast via Getty ImagesModel Kristen McMenamy in Vogue, 1991.

The blazers and bold jewellery of the ’90s are experiencing a comeback these days, with models like Bella Hadid implementing the aesthetic into their everyday wear.

Men got increasingly “business casual” throughout the ’90s, too, opting for turtlenecks and khakis.

Pascal Rondeau / Getty ImagesA man dressed in ‘business casual.’

According to The Atlantic, “business casual” dress started to emerge in the ’80s and flourish in the ’90s: “Business casual consists of khaki pants, sensible shoes, and button-down collared shirts … By the time it was mainstream, in the 1990s, it flummoxed HR managers and employees alike.”

The 2000s saw the return of minimalism, with men and women sporting blazers and muted colours.

Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty ImagesSecretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in 2020.

Women opted for simple, muted pantsuits and men sported grayish ties and suit coats.

These days, bold colours are back in. And you can choose to dress up for the office …

Robert Kamau/GC ImagesAmal Clooney.

Human rights attorney Amal Clooney is known for her sophisticated work looks.

… or dress down.

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesFacebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Many companies are pretty lax with the dress code these days, leaving room for comfort for both men and women.

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