On the Runway: The Many Meanings of the Pantsuit
Question: When is a pantsuit not just a pantsuit?
Answer: When it is a piece of political performance art.
At least that was the message at “Cut Piece for Pant Suits,” an event staged by the theater directors JoAnne Akalaitis and Ashley Tata and held in Madison Square Park on Monday afternoon, around the same time that members of the Electoral College cast their votes for president.
The performers — 10 women of various ages and ethnicities who are professional actors and friends of the organizers — wore pantsuits (cream, red, gray, navy), and each held a pair of scissors.
The audience — male and female, old and young — were bundled in layers (it was 29 degrees outside, despite the sunshine) and were invited to cut pieces of the suits off the women’s bodies. The set up was inspired by Yoko Ono’s 1964 “Cut Piece” performance, in which Ms. Ono had viewers cut off pieces of her dress as she sat motionless and expressionless as more and more of her skin was revealed.
“It was an incredibly symbolic piece about women’s bodies and about the male animus towards women’s bodies,” said Ms. Akalaitis, a director of the pantsuit performance. She and her co-director, Ms. Tata, created a contemporary version that made use of the pantsuit as a symbol for the failed presidential bid by Hillary Clinton, for progress on women’s issues, and for women at work and in the public eye.
Ms. Akalaitis noted that the pantsuit, like other items of clothing, has been examined so meticulously and regarded in such a variety of ways that it has morphed into something much different from the power suit of the 1980s. The fact that the woman who brought it into popular consciousness suffered an unexpected and crushing election defeat hasn’t helped its image.
“The pantsuit has been ridiculed, abused,” she said. “There is no armor for a woman any longer. If professional women felt that somehow a pantsuit was going to cover us in a way that’s protective and powerful, that symbology is out the door.”
Ms. Akalaitis compared the pantsuit to the miniskirt or the chador, items of clothing that have been called both empowering and oppressive for women. “I’m wondering if everything a woman puts on has the potential to be used as a weapon, including some sort of Eskimo outfit,” she said.
For Winter Miller, one of the participants and a playwright, the pantsuit’s demise was a long time coming. “This wide-shouldered look came along in the ’80s, and so did this idea that a pantsuit is power,” she said. “I reject that.”
From Ms. Miller’s perspective, wearing pantsuits to signify professionalism or stature has always been a misguided move, one rooted in the belief that power has to be masculine in nature.
Kristin Marting, a director and producer, looked at the ruined pantsuits as more strictly symbolic of Mrs. Clinton’s White House run. “I certainly think Hillary was very known for her pantsuits,” she said, “so to have this idea of it being cut away as the College is voting feels very connected to what is happening in this moment.” Monday’s vote was, after all, the indisputable end to Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
And the atmosphere certainly had a funereal quality to it, with spectators watching and cutting in silence or speaking in murmured tones. (A brief moment of levity came when a little girl, who had arrived with her father, exclaimed, “That was fun!” after chopping off a corner of a woman’s suit.)
“It made me so sad,” said Elizabeth Marvel, an actress who had her loose cream suit cut. “This group of strong women standing and having our clothes removed, piece by piece. I became overwhelmed.”
But just as the pantsuit has many connotations, so, too, did the performance.
“It was a moment of sadness,” Ms. Marvel said, “but it was also a great moment of strength and resilience that we stood there together, in solidarity, in this very cold weather. It was almost spiritual.”
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