How Elsie Fisher, Zendaya, And Young Hollywood Are Reclaiming The Pantsuit

Wearing a suit on the red carpet can be an act of defiance against ageist ideas that often plague Hollywood's young female stars

By Sara Radin

Though in Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade her character was awarded the school superlative for “most quiet,” if Golden Globe-nominated teen actor Elsie Fisher were given an award in real life, she would be high on today’s list for Hollywood’s best dressed. Wearing a spectrum of suits throughout this past awards season, the teenager has donned everything from an all-pink suit by A.L.C. to the Gotham Awards — where she took home the honor for Breakthrough Actor — to a custom maroon velvet Kenzo suit to the Globes, and a black, three-piece set with piping by Thom Browne with a white button down shirt to the Academy Awards. Then there was the time that her and her IRL BFF Burnham both showed up to the Governor’s Awards wearing tailored black suits. She shared a picture of the occasion on her Instagram with the caption, "I’m still just so in love with these outfits…"

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Elsie Fisher Red Carpet

Elsie Fisher's awards season looks

Tailoring has been having a major moment from the runways to street style, according to Melissa Moylan, creative director at trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops, but Fisher’s choice is, “a big deal not only because she's one of young Hollywood's most promising stars, but because she's 15 and showed up at the Oscars in a suit.” Moylan considers it surprising that the actor has already made pantsuits her signature red carpet look at such a young age. While the look has previously been done by actresses such as Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon, there’s something refreshing about a younger person donning such a classic look.

"In today’s day and age, wearing a suit is not as much about identity as it is about making a statement, especially with the #MeToo movement, women are trying to take the power back," says celebrity stylist Jennifer Moore. According to her, wearing a suit on the red carpet is a strong statement to make for a young woman because it defies expectation.

Traditionally, young female stars have worn puffy or frilly, youthful and feminine dresses to awards shows, subscribing to gendered red carpet customs that have been in place for many years. For example, when we think of past outfits of ingénues, Gwyneth Paltrow’s light pink Ralph Lauren gown in 1999 comes to mind, as well as the blush pink Marchesa gown Hailee Steinfeld wore to the Academy Awards in 2011 when she was 15.

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Oscar dresses

Gwyneth Paltrow in pink Ralph Lauren at the 1999 Oscars; Hailee Steinfeld in a blush-colored Marchesa gown at the 2011 Oscars

Moore says the idea that outfit must be age appropriate is no longer relevant to today’s younger generation. "In the past there were stigmas attached to being a young girl but now with social media these kids are growing up fast and forming strong opinions at a younger age." Due to this, there’s no typical 15 year old girl. "It's important to get the actor's opinion and viewpoint [through fashion] as its sets them apart from people who aren’t comfortable expressing themselves yet," she affirms. Accordingly, the suit doesn’t necessarily signify maturity or an older perspective, it’s now more about making a statement than it has anything to do with age.

Fisher’s series of suits seems to represent something deeper, whether it was intentional or not. In fact, Ben Barry, Chair of the Fashion program and an Associate Professor of equity, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson University in Toronto, claims that while young women like Fisher and Awkwafina both wore suited looks to the Oscars, this performative act is actually nothing new.

According to him, while the suit originates from wealthy white European men in the 17th century, "in its most idealized form, it has always represented a manifestation of white middle- or upper-class masculinity." However, throughout history, different marginalized groups, particularly women, have appropriated the look to claim space and embody power. The Smithsonian’s website claims that women who participated in a 1913 suffrage parade used clothing, such as suit blazers, as one of the tools to get their message across. Though the first suits for women did not include pants, the look was deeply embedded with the women’s rights movement, giving way to a new world order in which modern women could work, and be more outspoken and socially active.

And while Coco Chanel is credited with designing the first suit for women in 1914, it wasn't until 1932 that designer Marcel Rochas paired a suit jacket with a set of gray wool trousers — sparking the birth of the pantsuit, a term specifically used to denote a suit worn by a woman.

As pantsuits have recently become associated with women in politics — in 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s set of colorful suits sparked an entire cultural movement called the Pantsuit Nation, while Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a white suit while being sworn into office in January 2019 — in these ways, wearing a suit on the red carpet was not only a bold statement about Fisher’s identity as a woman, but also an act of defiance against ageist ideas that often plague young female stars like her.

It’s also worth considering the ways in which Fisher might be using the power of the suit to separate herself from the fictional character she portrayed in Eighth Grade by putting forth a message of self-confidence in her own identity through her style choices.

As actors are often typecasted in similar roles, wearing a suit sends a message about her as individual — that despite her age and the youthful roles she's previously played, she is an actor who demands to be taken seriously on the merit of her work. By wearing a suit on the red carpet, Fisher, like other young female stars who have worn suits, including Saoirse Ronan, Yara Shahidi, Millie Bobby Brown, Zendaya, and Lorde, all have nodded to the legacy of the powerful women that came before them, who also used dress to promote specific messages, while bringing their own refreshing flare to these more mature looks.

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Red Carpet Suits

In 2017, Shahidi wore a gunmetal silver suit by Camilla and Marc on Larry King Live to talk about the challenges of being a Black actor in Hollywood, including typecasting for POC, and how she doesn’t feel those roles reflect who she is or wants to represent. During the interview, she mentioned the pressure she feels in which everything she does has some type of message — and her outfit undoubtedly sent one of tenacity and outspokenness.

Lorde, on the other hand, has been praised for her "offbeat" style by not following the antiquated fashion rule book, donning several pantsuits and often wearing her hair naturally curly. Which begs the question: When a woman wears a suit, why is it considered unusual or revolutionary?

By taking on a form of dress that has traditionally been considered more masculine, these women seem to be promoting a message of confidence in who they are and reclaiming the look as a way to challenge outdated gender norms. Barry says that, "When younger women wear suits, it's a means to push back on the way Hollywood has historically limited the ways women are represented in film and the very narrow notions of femininity." In this way, wearing a suit allows women to expand cultural ideas of how they’re seen, not just for the general public but for writers, directors and producers, which could ultimately push Hollywood to reimagine how women do gender in film and in everyday life.

While wearing a suit doesn't mean that a woman is completely abandoning femininity, Barry claims that when women choose to wear something different like a pantsuit on the red carpet, it can have a real effect on their careers. For example, he made the point that maybe Fisher won’t get casted for a more traditionally feminine role. However, Barry also acknowledges that actors usually recognize the consequences of crossing conventional gender boundaries with their style, and make intentional choices about their wardrobe.

But Moore believes Fisher could be opening herself up to even more opportunities by donning slacks on the red carpet. "It’s important for actors to set themselves apart from their roles," she said. "Fashion can open doors for them and show that they’re capable of taking on different things.”

So the next time you see a young starlet rocking a pantsuit at a fancy Hollywood event, know that they're making more than a statement — they're making potential career moves.