Some cosmic joke must be afoot because while I’m on the phone with Sarah Jaffe, Sheryl Sandberg announces that she is stepping down from her powerful seat as Meta’s COO. The death knell on the nose of the leaning Era is appropriate because Jaffe and I have a very real conversation about women and work. Her book Work won’t love you explores the downsides of our culture’s extreme devotion to the grind—quite the opposite of Sandberg’s approach of kicking in the C-suite doors. And while she might not be your typical source for a fashion article, Jaffe’s insight is proving useful right now.
A frankly confusing array of spliced, deconstructed suits walked the fall catwalks in what could be read as a response to our ever-changing world of work. The lines between career and personal life are increasingly blurred by remote offices and our digital shackles, as well as those that separate dressing for work and play. We saw that at Coperni, where Arnaud Vaillant and Sébastien Meyer designed a cropped miniskirt in a gray flannel that was a far cry from Organization Man — more like Chaos Girl — and at Fendi, where Kim Jones jazzed up the primitive fabric with shorts and Gloves. The “working girl” in pinstripes and the girl boss in a bright pink suit had given way to a tongue-in-cheek, ultra-girly recitation of masculine officewear tropes. Jaffe sees it as a post #MeToo reaction: “Sexy work clothes, as in, ‘Actually fuck you I wear a hot suit to work and if you touch my ass it’s still your problem.’ It also feels like a rejection of some of the gendered dynamics of the modern workplace. “What COVID has shown us,” she says, “is how much unpaid care work women still do outside of the workplace.” And she adds, in the workplace.
This growing awareness and the small revolutions that come with it seem to be driving designers to reinvent the pillars of traditional office attire. Take the new Kind Regards line, helmed by Shopé Delano, which launched with a convertible jumpsuit style that bridges the gap between work and play. Ripping open pinstripe suits, like designer Ashlynn Park did for fall, and turning them into a tube top and miniskirt feels like a tiny shot across the bow of the Patriarchate’s official uniform. While Park’s design tweak is meant to be playful, she’s deadly serious about equality in the workplace. As a mother of two, she struggled with the long working hours of fashion, and with her own brand she wanted to send a message to her daughters to “create the right environment in this industry”, which is why her studio finishes the day at 5am.
For Copernis Vaillant, he and co-designer Meyer aimed for something “between office attire and a teenage vibe”. He says her miniskirt look was a bestseller, but admits even he’s not sure what circumstances people are buying it for. “You can wear it on special occasions,” he says, “but of course you can also wear it to the office.” (Maybe in France.)
It’s more likely that most of these pieces will never find their way into fluorescent cabins, if only because of their high storage quality. “The suit has always been drag,” says Jaffe. It’s a classic garment, one that “changes at a rate that doesn’t change at the same time, and men are always safe in it. As long as they’re wearing a suit, it can be a really bad, ill-fitting Donald Trump suit, but they’re still going strong, right?” she says. “While there’s a lot more pressure on women about what to wear. Because you have so many more choices, there are so many more choices to be wrong.” So while people aren’t necessarily heading to watercooling in pinstriped minis and suit jackets that become drainpipe tops anytime soon, the club is a different one Story. If anything, these are not work clothes; they are clothes around Work, our way of dealing with a world that has lost stability and certainty. “The romance of work is never perfect,” as Jaffe puts it. “It always has cracks and there are so many opportunities that come out in the culture.”
This article will appear in the October 2022 issue of ELLE.