As soon as we here the phrase power dressing we immediately refer to the 80s and to shoulder pads. But power dressing has returned.
Power dressing; the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the practice of dressing in a style intended to show that one holds an important position in business or politics” and the Cambridge Dictionary defines power dressing as “a style of dressing in which business people wear formal clothes to make them seem powerful”. Despite the acute variation between the definitions, power dressing has in fact been redefined by designers. It has been regenerated, to rid the notion that to practice the art of power dressing is to forfeit fashion.
The old clichés of a triangle silhouette, of sharp broad shoulders and a pencil skirt, was and has been the template of power dressing since the 80s. However designers are looking beyond these outdated ideas and creating pieces that can be used display the character of a woman. Surely power emanates from individuality and not from conformity to an all-black uniform that is intended to resemble that of a male suit. In an article 13 women who redefined power dressing Jane Seaman, head of the Association of Image Consultants International, explores how women in society with prominent positions dress. Seaman remarks that “red is power” when referring to Nicola Sturgeon; the leader of the SNP caught the attention of the public in a signature red pencil dress. Seaman also points to Christine Lagarde; the head of The International Monetary Fund has been referred to as the most fashionable woman in finance. Her signature bright scarves draw the eyes upwards and compels individuals she is conversing with focus on her eyes. This evidences the fact that a simple black pantsuit, although can be worn, doesn’t scream authority like it is intended to do. Women such as Amal Clooney, Queen Rania, Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are models in the work place, the flying flags of power dressing. The stand out point between all of these women is that they have not resigned their own individual style, but use it to convey who they are. This doesn’t mean for women to be successful they have to look like they have stepped off a runway, but simply means that by dressing for your own comfort and not aiming to fit into the monochrome workplace archetype, you can tap into your own inner power because authority by clothes can only go so far. In fact Sheryl Sandberg stated in an interview that she doesn’t like to get too “fashiony”, instead she advocates for women to be upfront with who they are and what they want.
Designers have recognised the varying incarnations of powerful women and have channelled this through their designs. The Dolce and Gabbana Spring 2015 collection consisted of models dressed in matadors, whereas Donatella Versace decided to cut her skirts short in her interpretation of power dressing. Tom Ford also adopted a similar approach with high hemlines as well as skinny flares sticking out over extremely high heels, some of the models also had their chests bared with strategically placed jewellery, resembling modern day Boudiccas ready to enter battle. However through physical manifestation of power, the interpretation is unique to the individual. Critics of Tom Ford’s collection argue that rather than a powerful women the collection actually conveys surrendered women.
Perception of fashion is a key issue, for example Alexander McQueen, his early collections consisted of intentionally tattered pieces of clothes which were frequently accused of misogyny. Back in 1996 McQueen defended his collections by stating “I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naive, because I know what can happen to them…I want women to look stronger”. Katy England, stylist of those early McQueen shows said she was “shocked when people said, ‘Oh, it’s misogynous, it’s misogynous… I thought, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ I didn’t really get that at all”. Further evidencing how in the past the concept of power dressing was based on the opinion of others on a particular outfit, rather than the individual’s own opinion. But is this notion really changing? I say yes, in fact the women who donated clothes to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Savage Beauty exhibition, which has two spaces devoted to McQueen’s earlier shows, said that they felt empowered by McQueen’s provocative clothing rather than demeaned.
With the power of perception, who can say how power should be articulated through clothing. But the one thing that remains is that fashion is empowering. As said by the fashion queen-Vivienne Westwood- “you have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes”. The idea of dressing for success is just as 80s as power dressing, but both still stand true today. Hillary Clinton is also quoted in the Design Museum exhibition stating “now it’s sorted. Women can express who they are more. You have to be aware of conventions, but you don’t have to be a slave to them.” The power in power dressing come from choice, from matadors to high hemline skirts, that choice remains with the individual. Freedom to choose what to wear is the new power dressing.
Article by Aminah Khan