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Would you wear this to work? Power dressing beyond shoulder pads

updated 10:25 AM EST, Tue February 25, 2014
These American models from 1940 know how to dress to impress. But how has women's work wear evolved over the last century? And who were some of the pioneering power dressers who helped shape it? These American models from 1940 know how to dress to impress. But how has women's work wear evolved over the last century? And who were some of the pioneering power dressers who helped shape it?
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Coco Chanel
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Anne Fogarty
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • How do women dress to impress in the workplace?
  • Look back at a century of (sometimes outrageous) office fashion
  • From WW2 uniforms, to 1950s princess dresses, and modern day suits
  • Female fashion designers created signature pieces -- but still have a way to go

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more.

(CNN) -- Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.

Or it could be mint green. Maybe electric blue. It doesn't really matter which part of the rainbow the German Chancellor chooses to swathe herself in, her multi-colored power suits have become as much a part of political fashion mythology as Margaret Thatcher's shoulder pads or Jacqueline Onassis' pearls.

Ok, so while Merkel isn't going to be invited to the front row of the world's biggest fashion weeks -- kicking off in New York, Paris, and London this month -- anytime soon, there's no denying the powerful politician's equally imposing wardrobe.

But then, how do women dress to impress in the workplace? And how has it changed over time?

Spot the Merkel. Hint: She's not wearing a navy suit.
Getty Images

From the severe khaki uniforms of World War Two, to romantic princess frocks of the 1950s, and fierce power suits of the 1980s, CNN takes a look at women's work wear in the 20th century -- and the pioneering female designers behind them.

Function vs fashion

"Women have worn tight pencil skirts and high heels at various times, which isn't necessarily functional, but they might feel they have to wear them in their workplaces to be taken seriously, " said Rebecca Arnold, professor of fashion history at London's Courtauld Institute of Art.

"I think women's work wear is more to do with being mentally comfortable, fitting in, and being seen as respectable."

Of course each workplace is different. As Arnold says: "Someone who's a lawyer is going to dress in a very different way from someone working in a shop."

Was Ally McBeal the most fashionable lawyer on TV? Judge for yourself.
20th Century Fox

Working it

Gaze across some of the most popular workplace fashions of the last 100 years, and they often act as a mirror to much bigger social trends.

Women's work wear is more to do with being mentally comfortable, fitting in, and being seen as respectable
Rebecca Arnold

"What you see from the 1920s onwards, is this negotiating of public space -- using dress to visualize the way women are seen at work, and how they want to be seen," said Arnold.

"In the 1970s you had lots of debates around what women should wear to be feminist and still be taken seriously. Some really felt you should wear trousers and others thought that was wrong because it was being seen as a man."

And just because it's workplace fashion, doesn't mean it has to be fashionable.

"We've still got shirts that look like men's shirts, we've still got suits based on men's fitting," said Arnold. "Workplace fashion doesn't move quite as fast as fashion itself."

Fashion forward: British United Airways shows off its 1967 uniform.
Getty Images

By women, for women

Then there's the female designers who helped redefine women's wear in the modern age. From Coco Chanel's suit dress in the 1920s, to Diane von Furstenberg's casual wrap dress in the 1970s, some of the most pioneering pieces were created by women.

Still, many of the top fashion houses are still dominated by male names -- think Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace.

"Perhaps in the wider culture, men have traditionally been more successful at marketing themselves and having authority over their customers," said Arnold.

"I think that's gradually changing -- but I don't think you're going to see more women in fashion until you see more women in all kinds of roles across the board."

Read: Meet the new generation of 'modelpreneurs'

See: Lyndsey Scott -- she's a beauty and a geek

Watch: What next for Russia's billionaire 'Tsarina?'

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