My previous post reviewed the styles, colours and power dynamics of women’s fashion during the 1990s using The Dress Detective (note 1). This third and final blog post uses the contextual information gathered about the aqua blue Thierry Mugler skirt suit to consider clothing as a method of communication. More specifically, I ask: who would wear such a bold outfit and what were they trying to portray through style and colour?
Aqua blue Thierry Mugler skirt suit, ca. 1990s. Ryerson FRC2019.03.002ABC.
Gift of Anonymous donor. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2019.
Fashions are constantly evolving and the trends are generally representative of what is happening in society. John T. Molloy’s 1975 book The Women’s Dress for Success Book advised women to wear unstructured skirt suits inspired by menswear in order to be seen as men’s equals in the office (note 2). Molloy suggested that women wear dark colours such as navy, charcoal gray and black, colours popular in menswear (note 3). However, in the 1990s women no longer felt they had to hide their femininity and this change in society and gender perspective was reflected the clothing they wore. Nineteen years and multiple studies later, Molloy shifted his opinion in the New Women’s Dress for Success, to say that “both men and women respond positively to women wearing jackets with feminine styles and colours” (note 4). These styles include jackets: “in various lengths, with and without lapels, puffed sleeves, nipped-in waists, felt collars, contrasting pockets, and so on” (note 5).
Molloy identifies five different categories of suits: the traditional dress for success suit, aggressive feminine, stylish professional, soft feminine and the conservative feminine suit (note 6). The Thierry Mugler outfit mostly resembles Molloy’s aggressive feminine style. This category of suits are made in strong colours or bold patterns (note 7). Molloy illustrates this type of suit with the example of Hillary Clinton who wore a patterned burgundy skirt suit with a bold royal blue hat and jacket in 1993 at her husband’s presidential inauguration (note 8). Molloy suggested that an outfit like this sends a strong message that she is powerful and feminine, but also claims most people do not respond well to aggressive feminine suits even though many businesswomen do wear them (note 9). Molloy recommends this style of suit for three groups of women: those running for office; those who are thin and average height; and those who work in female-dominated environments (note 10). While the donor was thin and of average height based on the measurements of the garments she donated, it is also possible that when she wore this suit, she may have worked in a female-dominated workplace or been in public office.
Scan of different styles of suits from New Woman’s Dress for Success by Molloy, J. T. (1996). Page 53.
Colour is just as important as style when it comes to clothing as a method of communication, since colour influences how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Finding the right colour is as crucial as ensuring the shoulder seams sit properly or the skirt is the right length. “The colors and shades of color that help convince people that you are attractive also announce your status, effectiveness, attitude, loyalty, honesty and credibility,” according to Molloy (note 11). Since aqua is a combination of blue and green, the meaning of this colour is influenced by both colours. Colour psychology expert, Angel Wright, says green is a restful colour to look at because it is “the essential balance between the mind, the body and the emotions” (note 12). Green is the colour of nature and implies an abundance of water and healthy plant life and therefore reassures us that we will not starve; and Wright reckons the reassurance of the colour is why money in green (note 13). On the other hand, blue is a thoughtful and authoritative colour that promotes active thinking. Blue signals to others that you are confident in what you are doing and saying because you have thought it through (note 14). Additionally, bright colours tend to draw attention according to Molloy (note 15). The owner of this outfit must have wanted to be noticed and draw the attention and respect of others, perhaps she was in a position that required her to do so. Since bright colours get noticed, the wearer would also have to be confident enough to have all eyes on her.
The quality of the colour and how it is made also sends a message. Molloy points out that dyeing fabrics in bright colours requires the use of high-quality, expensive dyes which the consumer absorbs the cost of (note 16). This is important because not only do the garments cost more, but brightly coloured pieces are very limiting and less versatile than neutral colours. The wearer of this outfit spent more money than she would have that if she had purchased a gray skirt suit since she would been able to wear the gray suit more frequently than she would a bright aqua blue one. Molloy advised: “if you wear a navy suit once every two weeks, no one will remember when you wore it last. However, if you wear a bright red suit every other week, after a month or two your co-workers will think it is one of your favourite suits” (note 17). When purchasing the outfit, the wearer must have expected to only be able to wear it infrequently. This tells me she had the disposable income to buy expensive garments with limited usage. According to Molloy, “if you have a limited budget, you have to limit your colours. Once you reach that point in your career where you can afford to buy expensive suits, you can choose subtle and vibrant colours” (note 18). This suggests that the wearer was established in her career and held a well-paying position that allowed her to spend a lot of money on clothing.
In addition to the Thierry Mugler skirt suit, the donor also gifted a Claude Montana skirt suit, a Gucci pencil skirt, a pair of Yves Saint Laurent trousers and an Yves Saint Laurent top. All of these designer pieces tell me that the donor frequently wore expensive clothing and the Thierry Mugler skirt suit was not a splurge item, but one of many designer garments in her wardrobe.
Claude Montana skirt suit, Gucci pencil skirt and Yves Saint Laurent trousers. Ryerson FRC2019.03.001AB, FRC2019.03.003, FRC2019.03.004. Gift of Anonymous donor. Photographs of garments in Ryerson Fashion Research Collection by Victoria Hopgood, 2019.
With its cinched in waist and balloon-like hips, the Thierry Mugler skirt suit is feminine yet powerful. The plastic accents, although an unusual element, add another degree of boldness and uniqueness. They represent Mugler’s out of the box thinking and show how the wearer was brave enough to wear something quite different. The accents on the wrist that jut out resemble metal spikes, as if they are saying ‘do not get too close to me’. In combination with the lapel, pocket decoration and belt, the plastic elements make the outfit really stand out amongst the crowd. Overall, the alluring outfit would make the wearer feel confident and maybe even fearless.
Aqua blue Thierry Mugler skirt suit, ca. 1990s. Ryerson FRC2019.03.002ABC. Gift of Anonymous donor. Belt, sleeve detail and skirt gathers. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2019.
Although the anonymity of the donation precludes me from knowing more about the donor, from the research I have gathered, it seems likely that she was a chic woman who held a high-paying position at a professional workplace. She must have had the disposable income to purchase designer garments and properly care for them as they are all in good condition. She would have had to be confident in herself to wear such an eye-catching outfit and not be afraid of attention. In the workplace, the suit is a signal of power and Molloy says “the right suit says that the wearer is educated, successful, professional, powerful and competent” (note 19). It is likely the donor possessed these characteristics. According to Thierry Mugler, “a Mugler woman is a conqueror who holds the reigns of her own life” and based on my close analysis of this avant-garde aqua blue skirt suit, I believe the wearer was a Mugler woman (note 20).
Note 1: Mida, I., & Kim, A. (2015). The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic.
Note 2: Molloy, J. T. (1977). The Woman’s Dress for Success Book. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 50.
Note 3: Molloy, J. T. (1977). The Woman’s Dress for Success Book. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 52.
Note 4: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 24.
Note 5: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 25.
Note 6: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 50-52.
Note 7: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 50.
Note 8: Hillary Clinton’s outfit for Bill Clinton’s Inauguration: https://americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/hillary-clinton
Note 9: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 54.
Note 10: Ibid.
Note 11: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 147.
Note 12: Whittaker, A. (2018, April 27). What the Color of Your Outfit Right Now Says About You. Retrieved from https://www.instyle.com/news/what-color-outfit-says-about-you
Note 13: Ibid.
Note 14: Ibid.
Note 15: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 155.
Note 16: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 56.
Note 17: Molloy, J. T. (1996). New Woman’s Dress for Success. New York, NY: Warner. pp. 57.
Note 18: Ibid.
Note 19: Ibid.
Note 20: Bott, D. (2010). Thierry Mugler: Galaxy Glamour. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson. pp. 169.
This post was edited by Dr. Ingrid E. Mida.