Sapphic Style and the Evolution of the Female Power suit

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

OTwo co-editor Lucy Cleere discusses ‘sapphic style’ and the roots of the power suit, championed by icons such as Marlene Dietrich.

Berlin. The Roaring 20s. The Weimar Republic is booming. The cabarets and theatres are crowded, women are posing naked, there is a sense of jovial camaraderie as performers make sexual references on stage. The rigid morales of the nineteenth century have been usurped by the frivolous ladies of modernity. Spanning across the social classes, in a multitude of gay and lesbian bars dotted across the capital, men are wearing wigs; women are wearing tuxedos.  

Queer spaces dominated Berlin in the 1920s, which almost seems dystopic considering what the following decade had in store with the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism. Although most of the emphasis at this time was placed on gay bars, some of the most famous hot spots such as the Eldorado characterised Berlin's lesbian space through its short lived ‘golden years’. By the mid 1920’s there were over fifty lesbian bars and cafes in the city. Chez ma Belle Soeur was well renowned with its Greek style frescoes and furnished private curtained booths for couples. 

In the wake of this modern mystique, a new trend had risen to prominence. Women are now wearing tuxedos; the rigid gender conformities have been snapped in half. This androgynous style was perhaps a sign of emancipation and social progress after the struggle and uniformity of World War One. Icons such as Marlene Dietrich, swept up from Berlin into the Golden age of Hollywood perpetrated this ideology as she shot to fame. In her American cinema debut Morocco (1930) she shocked audiences by cross-dressing as a man, while kissing a woman on the lips. This display of outward homosexuality had been very much frowned upon and to this day, the dashing three-piece suit she donned is understood to be a lot more than a few pieces of fabric. Dietrich had a rich understanding that fashion could embody your social values. She was openly bisexual herself, bold and audacious in her right and paved the way for change, beginning with the fashion industry. She effectively turned women’s fashion upside down, sporting iconic tuxedos and white double-breasted suits into infamy.  

The three-piece suit she donned was a lot more than a few pieces of fabric. Dietrich had a rich understanding that fashion could embody your social values.

The popularity of the women’s three-piece suit fluctuated throughout the 20th century. The trend saw a particular lull in the wake of the Second World War, with many women yearning for the traditional domestic roles they were denied during the war. Dior’s “New Look” had caught the attention of the 1950’s housewife with nipped waists and full skirts. But no fear, the women’s power suit made its swift return throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s – postmodernist decades that saw watershed moments in women’s equality. Of course nowadays the conversation surrounding gender expression is open and fluid, and the idea that clothing is either feminine or masculine is continuing to dismantle.  

As trends fly off the shelves at a disturbingly rapid pace these days, who can tell what will be popular in the next week? Is the sapphic style of the ‘power suit’ experiencing a resurgence in popularity? With viral TikTok trends such as ‘Eclectic grandpa’ circulating around the feed, we could argue that in some respects, yes. On the other hand, I would be wary of flaky microtrends that are an imitation of authenticity. I am not too convinced that ‘Eclectic grandpa’ is concerned with the values that past ringleaders of the trend would have embodied. To quote Vogue, “The eclectic grandpa is a trend hell bent on commodifying an idea of personal style without actually having it”. Dietrich would be horrified.