In mid-century America, where racial tension was about to give way to an explosion of social movements, pachucas—Mexican American women who dressed in a modified version of the male-dominated subculture of zoot suiters, or pachucos—exemplified a feminist resistance similar to that of the Teddy Girls across the pond. Their male counterparts already earmarked racism and segregation for criticism, but the pachucas also targeted gendered social norms. Both pachucos and pachucas ignored wartime fabric restrictions by wearing oversize pants, elaborate hats, and sharp shoes. Pachucas expressed dissent through extravagant looks, ultimately inspiring the iconic East Los Angeles style.
Pachucas were inimitable but still erased from mainstream histories. The author Catherine S. Ramirez writes in The Woman in the Zoot Suit that pachucas undermined the look of Hollywood glamour by making it their own and “laid claim to an American identity, one defined in great part by leisure, consumption, and the conspicuous occupation of public space.” A keen vision of self, despite dominant culture’s dictate, was everything.
* * *
The term “working girl” is a double entendre. Used to describe women’s labor outside the home—whether that was sex work or desk work—the turn of phrase also connotes class.
Melanie Griffith played the part as the starring role of the titular 1988 film, in which she steals her boss’s clothes and identity to transcend her Staten Island–rooted ranks.* The film addresses class, but only at the top, an imaginary corporate space that Griffith’s character accessed easily by way of her quirky hijinks. This film might have done more than any other to cement the power-dressing trend of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, off the screen and in Washington, power suits became the unofficial uniform for women taking command in office.
Women’s ongoing fight against workplace sexual harassment was most notably led by a woman in a flawless turquoise power suit, Anita Hill. She wore it during the 1991 confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whom she accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace. To many, Hill became an icon of strength and determination, laying the groundwork for other women. (That project continues today, more than a quarter-century later, as women reveal widespread workplace harassment in this year’s Weinstein Moment, as it’s become known.) “More women were elected to Congress in both the house and the Senate, but even more importantly, more women became engaged in politics throughout the system,” Anita Hill recently told The Washington Post.
In the following election year, declared “the Year of the Woman” by media outlets, four women took seats in the Senate—an unprecedented event in political history. “We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year,” said Maryland Senator Barb Mikulski, who became the first woman to wear a pantsuit on the Senate floor in 1993, inspiring Hillary Clinton literally to follow suit.**