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A cast of new faces meets at the Museum of Contemporary Art wearing spring’s most dynamic jackets – and Nathalie Atkinson explains how the conservative blazer became a symbol of disruption

Carlyle Routh

Fifty years ago, dark leather blazers gave the Black Panther movement a commanding visual presence. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to serve in Congress in the history of the United States, wore a white blazer for her swearing-in ceremony earlier this year in tribute to the uniform of suffragette activists who championed female agency a century ago.

The blazer might be fashion’s must-have for spring 2019, but it is a shape-shifting garment with a long and provocative past. The twisting of its conservative origins is often used by designers and wearers to signal disruption in politics, gender, race and class.

Many moments in the blazer’s history correspond to major points of political agitation and cultural upheaval, especially when it comes to changing gender roles. By the outbreak of the First World War, women’s clothing had shed some of the rigidity of corseted Edwardian style and female recruits, called in as relief farm and factory labourers, cinched bulky, shapeless wool tweed jackets with wide belts – and developed a taste for a relative ease of movement that would change fashion forever.

Read the full Style Advisor: April 2019 edition

It was Jean Patou and Gabrielle Chanel who were credited with bringing the blazer into the world of high fashion. Their slouchy knit blazers cut with more androgynous straight lines epitomized the Jazz Age style captured in Victor Margueritte’s sensational 1922 novel, La Garçonne. Margueritte’s plot about a young woman who abandons convention on the eve of her marriage, cuts her hair, dresses in men’s clothes and leads a bohemian life of sexual freedom, became a blatantly politicized fashion moment.

More disruption was caused by the Second World War, when women’s uniform blazers were indistinguishable from their male counterparts – the same square shoulders and no concessions for the bust, waist or hips of the female form. As a result of wartime fabric rationing and women entering the workforce in droves to fill the factory and office jobs of husbands who enlisted, women who didn’t serve also found themselves in men’s jackets. The oversized shape was richly symbolic, especially when you consider what happened to the blazer next.

After the war, French couturiers gambled that the men returning from combat would prefer to find their feminine ideal waiting for them, with Christian Dior launching its famous New Look. “It was a return to an almost Victorian silhouette that emphasized femininity,” says fashion historian Amber Butchart. The attempt to restore traditional gender roles is exemplified in the close-cut tailoring and nipped waist of Dior’s Bar jacket. Out went the square shoulder padding in favour of a softly rounded shape and an oppressive corseted waist that accentuated curves when worn with vast, cumbersome, crinoline skirts.

But the New Look didn’t last. “The masculine blazer comes back for women again in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” says historian Jonathan Walford, the curator of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ont. “Second wave feminism happens and more women had careers and demanded equal rights and equal pay in the workplace.” The Fashion History Museum’s new Made in Paris exhibition includes a key Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche pantsuit from this period. Saint Laurent’s cross-gender style philosophy for female empowerment was Le Smoking, his men’s tuxedo jacket for women.

Blazers in the 1980s reflected how aggressive corporate greed became as Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal emerged as the cultural manifesto. Working Girl, a 1988 fairy tale film about female ambition, became the iconic reference for women and power-dressing, as oversized blazers and shoulder pads grew to epic proportions. But it was a pretty lightweight fashion statement in the blazer’s history, as if subversion were as simple as taking up more space.

It’s worth remembering that in men’s wear, the contemporary blazer evolved from the lounge jacket worn by aristocrats in the 19th century and the sports jacket emerged from collegiate rowing clubs. Its elite provenance means the blazer in all its preppy incarnations is inherently steeped in tradition and tangled in class privilege. Those associations would later play into the style politics of the Civil Rights movement.

According to Tanisha C. Ford, author of Liberated Threads, the older generation made dress an important element of their 1960s activism in the American South by wearing slacks, dress shirts, jackets and ties at rallies and marches. This purposeful “display of status,” Ford says, is where “respectability was performed through wearing one’s Sunday best to project a safe, middle-class image that played well before the news cameras.” (The jacket’s pockets were also crucial, since marching with hands in one’s pockets was a sign of non-violence.)

What makes this season’s boom in blazers notable is that designers are, knowingly or not, playing with all of these historical associations and meanings. The maximal silhouette that was so prominent in collections including Louis Vuitton, Christopher Kane and Max Mara recalls an infamous moment in history when tailoring and politics intersected.

In the early 1940s, a subculture of African-American, Filipino and Latino youth wore brightly coloured suits with enormous peaked lapels and tunic-length jackets (called the “zoot” look in North America and zazous in France). The look was a sign of defiance, both of wartime fabric rationing and of non-confidence in what they perceived as racist governments. In what became known as the Zoot Suit Riots, in June 1943, thousands of white military servicemen in Los Angeles attacked youths who wore the look.

In a press conference following the incident, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt linked the attack to the longstanding discrimination against Mexicans that needed to be faced, a sentiment that’s echoed by many Americans today. “The question,” she said at the time, “goes deeper than just suits.”

Group of five

Carlyle Routh

Madelaine, Haely, Jayden, Aissa and Stephen gather in artist Apolonija Sustersic’s Light Therapy installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto.

On Madelaine: Moon Choi top, price on request through On Haely: Proenza Schouler vest, $1,875, shirt, $815 through On Jayden: Calvin Klein 205W39NYC jacket, US$1,200, vest US$790 through On Aissa: Miu Miu jacket, shirt, price on request through On Stephen: Paul Smith jacket, US$1,240, sweater US$495 through

The shape of things

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A Christopher Kane piece masters the season’s mix by combining lace, tuxedo lapels, oversized shoulders and an extreme waist.

Christopher Kane jacket, £1,895 through

Soft power

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By removing sleeves, adopting slinky fabrics or choosing a pastel shade, designers reinvent the blazer as a delicate garment still worthy of a boss.

On Madelaine: Tibi vest, $1,091, dress, $860 through On Aissa: Acne Studios jacket, US$570, top, $US240, trousers, US$350 through On Hayley: Cyclas jacket, $2,870, trousers, $1,630, Dries Van Noten shirt, $680 at Holt Renfrew.

Large and in charge

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Creative multihyphenate Virgil Abloh’s debut as the designer for Louis Vuitton men’s wear reset the proportions of suiting to embrace outsized ease.

On Stephen: Jacket, $3,800, shirt, $1,680, trousers, $1,300 at Louis Vuitton. Dior Homme shoes, $870 through On Jayden: Jacket, $3,800, shirt, $1,680, trousers, $1,300 at Louis Vuitton. Hugo Boss shoes, $350 at Boss.

The long and short of it

Carlyle Routh

Worn with a tunic or the shortest of shorts, a spring blazer benefits from being layered over unexpected elements.

On Aissa: Sies Marjan jacket, $1,295, trousers, $895 through Shoes, $1,375 at Hermès. On Jayden: Andrew Coimbra jacket, $475, shorts, $280 through Hugo Boss shirt, $168, shoes, $350 at Boss.

One for all

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Reimagined as a jumpsuit in a classic Prince of Wales check (with heels to match), a Max Mara look puts a contemporary spin on uniform dressing.

Jumpsuit, $1,790, top, $725, belt, $325, shoes, $955 at Max Mara. Kelly bag, price on request at Hermès.

A new new look

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The midcentury hourglass silhouette is updated with cargo pockets creating below-the-belt volume on a sheer Fendi jacket.

Jacket, $3,590, skirt, $4,100 at Fendi.

Neutral territory

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Shades of camel, tan and taupe highlight the cut of a blazer, from double-breasted boxiness to a tailored two-button style.

On Stephen: Dior Homme jacket, $3,200, trousers, $990, shoes, $870 through On Aissa: 3.1 Phillip Lim jacket, $920 at La Maison Simons. Vince dress, $515 at Nordstrom. Shoes, $1,500 at Hermès. On Jayden: Jacket, $2,690, turtleneck, $970, polo shirt, $1,200, trousers, $1,630 at Prada. Hugo Boss shoes, $650 at Boss.

Photography by Carlyle Routh. Styling by Nadia Pizzimenti. Makeup by Sheri Stroh for Illumalift/Plutino Group. Hair by Kristjan Hayden for Aveda Canada/Plutino Group. Manicures by Wendy Rorong for Plutino Group. Models: Haely at Plutino Models, Madelaine and Aissa at Want Management, Jayden at Elmer Olsen Model Management, Stephen at Ciotti Models Toronto. Studio manager: Stephanie Mill. Photo assistant: Michael Kazimierczuk. Styling assistant: Samantha Best. Photographed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada.