When Gigi Hadid arrived wearing a suit to host the Much Music Video Awards on Sunday, nobody should have been surprised: 2016 is the year of the suit. Yes, as much as it resonated back in 1997, Romy and Michele’s Businesswoman Special™ has transcended late '90s pop culture and become a staple in the year’s quest for aesthetic assertion. Power suits are for pop music queens, and we can either suit up in solidarity or get out of their way.
Of course, fashion’s Boss Bitch resurgence didn't start yesterday. As far back as 2013, there was evidence that power suits were resurrecting after their early 2000s demise. Before that, they were most closely identified with the fashion of the 1970s. Seen on the likes of Diana Ross and Joni Mitchell, power suits in music piggybacked on the menswear trend established by Charlie’s Angels, Mary Tyler Moore, and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Where the fashion of the 1960s was defined by coordination and a rejection of '50s modesty, the '70s sought to showcase female power on literal sleeves.
In the 1980s, power suits evolved, as overexaggerated shoulders delivered the iconic Working Girl look. Meanwhile, onstage, Dolly Parton, Grace Jones, and Annie Lennox flipped and redefined the uniform of Wall Street brokers by dressing suits down or taking the traditional button-up away. In the '70s, it felt powerful to wear a business suit at all; the following decade allowed room for personal interpretation. Now, silhouettes didn’t need to hide curves or shy away from exhibitionism. You could still make music and suit up your own way. And the 1990s picked up and ran even further with that notion.
Mainstream pop in the early 1990s was dramatic and bold, with divas such as Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, Gloria Estefan, and Selena singing about sex and relationships and love in ways that most listeners under 12 (hi!) didn’t quite understand. Their sense of style went along with their material: Like a bona fide adult, Céline Dion wore an unfairly maligned backward tuxedo to the 1999 Oscars; Selena appeared on a 1995 talk show in a tailored blazer and white pants; Whitney Houston wore a white pantsuit to the 1994 Oscars; and Posh Spice wore a navy suit while delivering the choreography to "Stop." (Which effectively established her as the most Grown-Up, duh.)
All this stood in stark contrast to the broader style landscape of the decade: undone, messy, grungy, and then eventually super-feminine and weirdly childlike. (Remember Aqua? Of course you do.) In that context, a female artist in a power suit looked downright fearless. She was an adult, a grown-ass woman tired of everybody’s shit.
While Britney Spears performed briefly in a tux at the 2000 VMAs and Christina Aguilera opened her 2007 Back to Basics tour in a white suit, the noughties weren’t so much about suiting up as they were about showing everything off. (Which was fine: Without low-rise jeans, we wouldn’t have mom jeans today — and some of us are wearing those right now.) It was a decade rich in labels, bared midriffs, spiked belts, stiletto heels, and pop-punk skate clothes. Unless a blazer was accompanied by jeans and a camisole à la Marissa Cooper, a suit seemed tragically misplaced. Then 2013 rolled around, and they started coming back.
Even so, it wasn’t until recently that we began to see music’s biggest names pick up and embrace suit culture in a way no decade’s seen before. The 2010s, fashionably speaking, are less about proving something than about showcasing personal style and dictating one’s own aesthetic terms. So it was fitting to see Beyoncé show up to the CFDA Awards and claim her prize in a sparkly Givenchy suit. It's the reason why Zendaya has forged a union with tuxedos that’s landed her on countless "best dressed" lists. Or why, when Jenny Lewis staged her comeback two summers ago, she did so in technicolor, bedazzled white styles. It’s the '70s, '80s, and '90s on steroids: Now, you can wear a suit and do it in your own way, and also while asserting yourself as an actual boss. A suit says you’re the CEO of your own art, your own destiny — which is why we’re seeing them worn however the wearer wants.
In the 1970s, suits looked like suits. In the 1980s, they were worn by women who opted to wear them more androgynously — or who had "earned" them with a decade-spanning career (like Dolly). In the '90s, they accompanied women who boasted literal voices and established themselves as part of the diva costume (which is probably why we saw Céline Dion and Carole King wear black suits to Divas Live in 1998). Now, they represent all of the above, which explains why we’ve seen them on Taylor Swift (businesswoman supreme), Tegan and Sara (industry veterans), Selena Gomez (burgeoning diva), Miley Cyrus (aesthetic risk-taker), Rihanna (fashion goddess), and Demi Lovato (outspoken and unique). There is no wrong way to wear one, because each style demands respect.
This is exciting! Gender norms are being ousted out of fashion, and style has become more of an extension of personal power than a simple surface trend. May the resurgence of suits teach us that power is anybody’s for the wearing or taking — to be interpreted as you see fit. And remember that if you sell suits, there’s power in that too, no matter what Romy and Michele have taught us.