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In Milwaukee History

In Milwaukee in 1970, the skirt was out, and the pantsuit was in. (PHOTO: Flickr/Classic Film)

This week in history: Milwaukee had important thoughts on the pantsuit

With a minor political event coming up next week, we're in the middle of a pretty significant moment for the pantsuit in American history. However, this isn't the first time pantsuits have been at the center of political discussion in early November – at least in Milwaukee County, which apparently deemed it necessary to make an official, and literal, fashion statement more than 40 years ago.

Earlier this week, as a of Throwback Thursday post of sorts (or Way Back Wednesday considering the publication date), Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele posted a short policy announcement made by the County Board on Nov. 2, 1970. The deeply pressing policy subject: pantsuits.

"Sometimes, just reviewing past policy in the course of research, staff will find things like this," said Melissa Baldauff, director of communications for the County Executive. "I came across this from another staff member who found it, and I just thought it was kind of fun and relevant to share it on that date, having a little look back at what Milwaukee County was talking about in 1970. I just thought it was a fun thing people might not have seen otherwise."

Now, 46 years later, the brief announcement is certainly a fun oddball piece of old Milwaukee policy – once you're done eye-rolling at the implied sexism of the County's second bit of reasoning for its new official pro-pantsuit stance: "Distractions peculiar to the mini skirt would be minimized."

But according to style expert Jordan Dechambre, what seems like a goofily mundane piece of policy in 2016 was likely a major step for Milwaukee women in the workplace in 1970.

"In the late '60s, private employers were banned from discriminating against women through the Civil Rights Act, so women were already making strides (in the workplace), but there was still this idea that we could only wear dresses – or a pantsuit, or a two-piece suit, for a woman was considered a skirt and jacket," Dechambre said. "So it was a opportunity for them to say, 'Hey, we're getting equality in so many other areas; why can't we be dressed the way we want to be dressed?'"

The fashion tides at the time were already changing in favor of the pantsuit anyway. According to Dechambre, it was around the late '60s when Yves Saint Laurent introduced the smoking suit, the first tuxedo specifically designed for women, and truly brought the look into mainstream wear.

"We'd been tempted by it in the '30s and '40s with people like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were wearing these fantastic pantsuits, but it didn't really become a major statement in women's dressing until the late '60s when YSL introduced that tuxedo," Dechambre said. "So these things were all kind of brewing at the same time."

"It definitely was an indication of a movement at the time – and it wasn't even 20 years later, in the '80s, when pantsuits, the power pantsuit for women, became popular. When you think of '80s fashion, that's what you think of."

Now if only the current County Board could make some sort of official stance outlawing Crocs.


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