The 1980s were a particularly formative time for the development of American womenswear. Women had emerged after decades of working beneath their male colleagues into positions of power and authority. Female business executives entered the world as a discreet and recognizable cultural entity and a new mode of dressing was necessary to suit this lifestyle. From this cultural moment designer Donna Karan was born. A working woman herself, she designed clothes which she wanted to wear and which suited her modern professional lifestyle. A simple enough formula, but the timing and perception of this emerging cultural need was rather brilliant.
In the video above, Donna Karan sits down with New York Times Magazine editor Carrie Donovan in 1986 (two years after the brand’s founding) to discuss the nature of dressing the modern woman. Critical to Karan’s design process is the confluence of masculine and feminine gendered dressing. Donna Karan’s designs embody the visual cues of white collar power (that being masculine authority) and revolutionize it with the gentleness of femininity. Karan employs the framework of a well-tailored suit and supplants its overt masculinity with exaggerated draping that is so quintessentially 80s. There is also a distinctly American quality to Donna Karan’s work which accounts for the ceaseless work ethic that has informed American society since the Puritans. Karan’s clothes are only relaxed and easy insofar as they let the wearer go about the endless tasks in her day without the annoyance of uncomfortable and unattractive clothes. The adaptability of these designs accommodates the various roles and responsibilities the modern women may take on, from business and travel to motherhood and social engagements. This design ethos centered around creating aesthetically attractive clothing that is functional and practical seems so obvious today, but Donna Karan was quite the revolutionary for her work at this time. In reflecting on this some thirty years later, it is fascinating to consider how recent modern womenswear really is.