In “A Mugler Mystery Part I,” my close observation of the Thierry Mugler aqua blue skirt suit ended with several questions, namely:
- If clothing is a language and can silently send messages, what is this outfit trying to portray?
- What does the colour of it say about the wearer?
- Who would wear such a bold outfit?
- What idea was Thierry Mugler trying to embody with this design?
- How did it fit in with the styles of the 1990s and how did it stand out?
In this post, the next step in my object-based research project using the reflection checklist from The Dress Detective (note 1) seeks to answer those questions by considering related contextual information styles, colours and power dynamics of women’s fashion during the 1990s.
The look of the 1990s included everything from grunge to slip dresses to the flashy costumes of the Spice Girls, but one defining look in terms of the office was the feminine skirt suit (note 2). However, the 1990s skirt suit did not come into style until the more traditional style of power suit of the 1980s had waned in popularity.
In the 1980s, women in the workplace were told that in order to be as successful as their male counterparts, they would have to dress like them (note 3). In the widely read 1977 book, The Women’s Dress for Success Book, author John T. Molloy advised women to wear dark suits inspired by menswear with a man-tailored blazer that would not accentuate the bust and paired with a matching below-knee length (note 4). Molloy conducted a study whose results stated the best colours for a skirt suit were navy, charcoal gray, dark brown and black, sober colours that are all associated with men’s suits. (note 5). These colours were symbolic of power because this is what men were wearing (note 6).
A Vogue article from 1991 described the look of the 1980s as every woman wearing “the gray flannel suit, looking every bit as boring as the man” and “dressing for work became an exercise in de-sexing yourself” (note 7). An example of just such a suit can be found in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. This Thierry Mugler skirt suit dated to the 1980s fits this description (FRC1989.05.002AB) . Made of a dark gray wool with a subtle pink and golden yellow checked pattern, this skirt suit is not nearly as feminine as the aqua blue suit. The sober gray suit jacket covers the chest, does not accentuate the bust, waist or hips and the skirt sits below the knee. This outfit would not draw attention to the wearer. This skirt suit is important to my research because it is visual evidence of styles changing based on how women were perceived and the message they wanted to send. It reinforces the idea of women suppressing their femininity in order to be treated fairly in the workplace.
Thierry Mugler skirt suit, ca. 1980s. Ryerson FRC1989.05.002AB. Gift of Karen Mulhallen. Front view, collar detail and label. Photographs by Victoria Hopgood, 2019.
Once the 1980s were over, a new style of skirt suit took over as women began to embrace their femininity in the workplace (note 8). The new decade brought a whole wave of colour according to Vogue (New York). The October 1990 issue of Vogue declared “now that bright color is accepted – for the office, for weekends, for evening – it’s changing the look of the entire wardrobe” (note 9). The editorial features skirt suits in every colour of the rainbow and even a dress the same aqua blue as the Thierry Mugler suit. Colour became a symbolic expression of power for women.
The Costume Institute collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art includes a Thierry Mugler skirt suit (2003.398.1a, b) that bares a striking resemblance to the one being studied. Made of the same aqua blue cotton fabric with an asymmetrical design, the only difference is the absence of plastic accents. With its curved center seam and wave-like design elements, it is highly likely that these two outfits are from the same collection and demonstrates what Thierry Mugler was doing at the time in terms of ready-to-wear. It tells me that Mugler was still designing skirt suits, but putting his own twist on them.
Thierry Mugler skirt suit, ca. 1990. Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2003.398.1A,B. Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler.
This style of skirt suit was at its height of popularity in the early 1990s and the anonymous donor evidently embraced this trend as she graciously donated another such suit by Claude Montana (FRC2019.03.001AB). This peony pink double-breasted jacket and miniskirt from Montana’s Spring/Summer 1992 collection also embodies the idea of power and femininity. Montana’s skirt suit features broad shoulders, pink pyramidal metal buttons and a decorative double belt accented by metal tubular shapes. The donor also saved the Bloomingdales advertisement for this Claude Montana skirt suit from Spring 1992. This example provides further evidence that the skirt suit had undergone a radical makeover in the 1990s in which the lacklustre styles of the 1980s were left behind. This comparison highlights that Thierry Mugler was not alone in revamping the skirt suit, Claude Montana, Chanel, Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan also did so (note 10).
Claude Montana skirt suit, spring/summer 1992. Ryerson FRC2019.03.001AB. Gift of Anonymous donor. Front view, belt detail and Bloomingdales advertisement. Photographs of Montana garment in Ryerson Fashion Research Collection by Victoria Hopgood, 2019.
In considering the contextual information related to the Thierry Mugler aqua blue suit, namely the styles and colours of the decade, I have learned how the outfit conformed to the trends of the time and how Thierry Mugler put his own touch on the classic style. This information will be beneficial for the interpretation portion of the research. Part III of this research project will consider how clothing can be used as a symbol of authority and what message the wearer was trying to send when sporting this chic outfit.
Note 1: Mida, I., & Kim, A. (2015). The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic.
Note 2: “Fashion: The best & worst looks of the ’90s.” (1996, January). Vogue (New York), 186(1), 118-131.
Note 3: Ibid.
Note 4: Molloy, J. T. (1977) The Woman’s Dress for Success Book. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 50.
Note 5: Molloy, J. T. (1977) The Woman’s Dress for Success Book. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 52.
Note 6: Ibid.
Note 7: “Vogue Beauty: Appearance at Work.” (1991, October). Vogue (New York), 181(10), 224-236.
Note 8: ibid.
Note 9: “Dress for less: The color scheme.” (1990, October). Vogue, 180(10), 410-417.
Note 10: “Fashion: The scoop on suits.” (1994, August). Vogue, 184(8), 220-227.
This post was edited by Dr. Ingrid E. Mida.