Collection Stories

Striding Out

Trouser suits became acceptable office wear for women in the 1970s, as long as they were formal and neat.

This smart 1970s woman’s trouser suit is made of a warm-toned yellow kodel crimplene polyester.

Kodel is a polyester fibre formed from dihydroxymethylcyclohexane and terephthalic acid. It is used in blended cotton and polyester fabrics. Fabrics made from kodel are stiff and crease-resistant. Eastman Chemical created this polyester fibre in 1958. The polyester fabric market rapidly expanded to include, by the late 1970s, double knit polyester trouser suits, leisure suits and golfing trousers.

Joan Worthington, formerly of Whanganui, bought the trouser suit in the USA, probably in Kansas City in about 1974 where she was living with John, her American husband. The label is Dixie Deb, a company based in Dallas, Texas.

The jacket has a tan velour collar and two tan buttons on a centre front opening, a two-piece front construction and long sleeves. The trousers have a partial elastic waist band, a centre front with button closure and a zip fly opening and flared legs.

Joan came back to her hometown of Whanganui in 1982 with her husband after the birth of their first daughter. John was a history teacher at Sacred Heart College and later, Nga Tawa Diocesan School. Joan studied for a Bachelor of Business Studies and then worked as an accountant.

Trouser suits became acceptable office wear for women in the 1970s, as long as they were formal and neat. Joan certainly wore her trouser suit to work.

Trouser suits, however, have been around for over a century. In the 1920s Coco Channel paired trousers with a formal jacket, but the look was never really accepted until much later on. Some women clad in trouser suits were turned away from restaurants and cinemas for being ‘inappropriately’ dressed. When Yves St Laurent introduced the trouser suit to the catwalk in 1966 as practical but attractive wear, women began to take notice and they became all the rage in some circles.

The woman in a public position who really embraced the trouser suit was Hilary Clinton, attorney, First Lady of the USA, senator and presidential candidate. Like Joan Worthington, she wore trouser suits for her work. As an iconic statement for empowerment in the workplace, Hilary continues to wear them to this day.

When Prime Minister Helen Clark wore a rather glamorous trouser suit to a state banquet with Queen Elizabeth II at the UK Parliament in March 2002, many called her out for wearing trousers in front of the Queen, despite general acceptance of women wearing them. It didn’t stop Clark from winning a landslide victory in the New Zealand elections in July of the same year.

By Libby Sharpe, Pou Tiaki/Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Image: Joan Worthington’s trouser suit, about 1974

About 1974. Made by Dixie Deb, Dallas, Texas
Photographed by Kathy Greensides
WRM 1805.53 

View the full-length image.

Karen Hughes

1 July 2023

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