Born in the second half of the 1970s and developed in the 1980s, power dressing is a fashion style that enables women to establish their authority in a professional and political environment traditionally dominated by men.
The term power dressing relates to a fashion style typical of the business and politics environment of the 1970s and 1980s. Today the expression power dressing is no more commonly used, but the style is still very popular. Power dressing arose in the United States in the second half of the 1970s. Power dressing could be analyzed through visual sociology which studies how fashion operates in the relationship between social system and the negotiation of power. The concept of power dressing was brought to popularity by John T. Molloy’s manuals Dress for success(1975) and Women: dress for success (1980), which suggest a gender specific professional dress code. Molloy’s manuals addressed a new kind of female workers entering in a typical masculine environment recommending them a “uniform” that would have helped them to acquire authority, respect and power at work.
Initially power dressing consisted in a conservative style recalling directly the male wardrobe including tailored suits, jackets with padded shoulders, roll-neck sweaters and knee length skirts. With the power dressing uniform, the female body was divided in two parts: The upper part covered by a jacket to de-emphasize breasts, the bottom covered with a skirt that was a reminder of femininity. These outfits were usually matched with feminine accessories, discreet pieces of jewelry like pearls, diamonds, gold necklaces, earrings, scarves and ruffs. Elaborate patterns such as floral prints were usually substituted by polka, pinstripes and houndstooth ones. As far as colors were concerned, more sober ones such as blue, black, navy and grey were commonly preferred to feminine ones like salmon pink and red.
Roots of Power Dressing
The roots of power dressing can be found in the Chanel suit of the 1920s. The Chanel suit was composed by a tight skirt and by a wool, collarless button-up jacket, usually with braid trim, metallic buttons and fitted sleeves. This suit represented a turning point in the way women dressed. In fact, it was the very first professional suit specifically thought for women, which enabled them to look modern and feminine while feeling comfortable. It included traditionally masculine elements which gave women a very authoritative appearance, but at the same time it left space for a refined and sophisticated look. The most important innovation of the Chanel suit was that it was deliberately designed to adapt to the changing lifestyle of women that, during and after the World War I, were slowly entering previously all-men environments. This suit encouraged women to try to reach their professional goals giving them comfort and mobility to fit with their independent and active lifestyles. According to the costume historian Harold Koda,the Chanel suit allowed women of the time to de-sex their feminine look and to have a more masculine appearance in order to be accepted as equals in the professional sphere.
It was only when enough women were clearly established as authoritative in the work environment, that it was possible to renovate the women suit: no more feminized imitations of men’s professional garments but suit different in fabric, cut, color and ornament, helping women to show both their authority and their femininity. Wearing a suit did not represent an effort to camouflage with men but an effort to stand out and define a clear visual presence.In fact, it was only in the second half of 1980s that more feminine garments were introduced in the “power uniform”. For instance blouse, usually seen as romantic, were now worn with intricate stock or cravat effect neck wrappings, made up in silk or polyester satin foulard. Jersey knit bodies, buttoned under the crotch, were used to have an elegant silhouette.
Power dressing discourse was significant in building a new type of working woman appearing in the society at the time. The notion of career woman stepped into contemporary society as women reached high powered job positions, which previously were intended to men. With the help of an empowering self-presentation such as power suits, women were trying to break through the so-called glass ceiling. The development of power dressing was pivotal in bringing to public visibility women in executive or business position. It served as a way to construct their image and to make them recognizable at public society’s eyes. Women saw this new clothing style as way to detach from the classical feminine meaning of fashion, mainly associated with aesthetics and frivolity. Power dressing locates power at body level giving a message about women and their profession, enclosing at the same time something about self-esteem and confidence.
Power Dressing and Sexuality
One of the main purposes of power dressing was reducing female body’s sexuality in order to gain authority in the workplace. According to Entwistle in western culture female dress is considered more sexual than male dress. The feminine body has always been associated with nature, reproduction and sexuality, something that can be problematic in some working context where manifesting sexuality is considered out of place. In addition, according to some sociologists and psychologists, women choose clothes and accessories to look sexy in order to attract a partner as well as men take pleasure in looking at women. Feminists and even Freud have spoken against this theory since both the pleasure to be looked and to look is present in both sexes, but the female body is the only one that remain sexualized. We can say that power dressing try to balance the woman’s feminine nature, narrowing sexuality, in order to avoid sending sexual messages by her clothes and the misinterpretation of men.
Power dressing, as a new fashion phenomenon, has its symbols in public figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and many more Margaret Thatcher above all was one of the first to incorporate the spirit of power suits. Her personal style was, according to Vogue, reinvented following Molloy’s suggestions in order to make her appearance appropriate for the role of Prime Minister. She was Britain’s first female icon to pioneer at the same time politics and fashion, setting an example for women who would have come next. She claimed her style to be “never flashy, just appropriate“. Margaret Thatcher’s style set the rules on how female politicians should dress, which is a conservative, powerful but simultaneously feminine way. Her typical power suits consisted in a skirt suit with wide shoulder, a pussy-blow blouse and the Asprey handbag, which, thanks to her, became famous. Her signature style was to be expressed in the very famous pearl necklace. She was able to pave the way for all those career-motivated women who were trying to succeed in a male dominated world and like her, they could find support in clothes and accessories to communicate authority and power. Hillary Clinton is a contemporary icon of power dressing: with her pantsuits she is a follower of the Thatcher style.
References in Popular Culture
Main references to power dressing in popular culture are to be found in 1980’s soap operas such as Dallas (1978–91) and Dynasty (1981–89). In these TV series typical elements of power dressing, such as padded shoulders and costume jewelry, are easily recognizable. In the Dallas soap opera, together with the typical features of power dressing more bright colors were to be seen. This TV show contributed to the return of strong colors, like fuchsia pinks, sea greens, purples, royal blue and red in women’s wardrobe. Also women’s fashion and business shoes were revisited during that period, changing the pointed toes and spiked heels, popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, with some fashion shoes covered with white satin or canvas and dyed to the customer’s favorite color.
Working Girl: In this movie power dressing is embodied in the figures of Katherine, the superboss, and Tess, the secretary. Katherine symbolizes a model of business elegance in mid-grey collarless silk jacket with padded shoulders. Her style shows important features of power dressing, but she also wears vivid red dresses, symbol of power and respect. Tess is stylistically the opposite. She adapts power dressing to her personal style making it more feminine. For instance during a business cocktail meeting, Tess wears a long black sparkly dress and a dark brown fur coat, attracting people’s attention. Tess is “the first woman […] that dresses like a woman, not like a woman would think a man would dress if he was a woman”.On the contrary, the other secretaries in the movie have a different style. They appear as young and energetic girls and their clothes are the example of some quite bad taste outfits, including leopard skin print jackets, black stripe tights and copious baggy leather outerwear, often worn with gaudy hoop earrings or all gold accessories.
The Iron Lady: The movie tells the story of the British politician and icon of power dressing Margaret Thatcher. Starting from her youth and going through all her life, it shows her transformation to become the first British female prime minister. She gave up feminine bright colors and hats, substituting them with dark colors and a new important haircut. An important focus was put on her voice that sounded too high and lacked of authority, so she had to take some classes to learn how to use it in order to sound like a leader.
Updated on 19 October 2015, at 13:25.
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