Professional women today don’t have to wear suits with straight sharp lines and shoulder pads as did women in the 80s. It’s a triumphant departure from those days. Or so articles on modern power dressing declare.
The flaunted triumph feels incomplete however. These articles do not describe a freedom in which women make free choices. Rather, they define new rules that while not enforcing the shoulder pad, enforce a different set of rules nevertheless. Blazer up, they urge. Heel up, do cashmeres and silks. Tailored is better.
Choices, yet constrained choices
The range of choices may be wide, but it still is constrained given the fewer numbers of women in the highest societal echelons, and the pervasiveness of what scholars would call a male gaze. Media outlets are obsessed with powerful women’s wardrobes at the expense of a lot else. You’ve probably come across articles deriding or praising Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits or those attacking the dullness of Angela Markel’s. You’ve probably grappled with questions about how short, how tight, how bold, how revealing, and found no solace in a convincing answer.
Is power dressing a concrete concept? Is it only specific to women?
Fashion is a taboo subject where “more serious” affairs such as those of the state are concerned. Thus, Robb Young encountered problems getting women in government to talk of clothes when he was conducting research for his book Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion. Yet as Pamela Goblin writes in this book’s foreword, fashion is a language. Insofar as men and women occupy and present themselves in positions of power, they will and do speak the language of fashion. And the better their power dressing accent gets, the better their powerful self representation becomes. Power dressing is thus not specific to women, but given the socio-historical scrutiny that has long characterized women’s lives, self-representation and power dressing could well be more relevant to women.
The possibility of freedom
What should characterize powerful/aspiring women’s fashion? Should they adopt a different set of rules that vouches for cashmeres and heeled pumps or is complete freedom possible? What would such freedom entail?
I argue that freedom is possible, but at a price. Just as words and symbols have meanings, so do fashion items and pieces. Women that seek to find individualized applications for fashion items and clothing rather than follow another new set of rules must experiment before striking the perfect fit, and they must be willing to confront the meanings that underlie their choices.
If you do not mind making personal statements with dress you might as well look for befitting ensembles. Apparently, La Cicciliona, Italian porn star and parliamentarian, mocked male power uniform by wearing low cut lacy camisoles with it. If you’d rather feel and communicate the creativity with which you conduct your workdays, you might borrow from Elise Hoffman, a principle at a money management firm, whose belief that financial investors are idiosyncratic and creative has seen her spot black leather skirts and lacy hosiery, and sheaths and swirl dresses from Marni.
In search for simultaneous cultural grounding and global sophistication you might borrow from Sonia Ghandhi’s, president of the National Indian Congress, whose burgundy and amaranth saris are culturally appropriate yet chic, or from Joyce Banda, Malawi’s president, whose elaborate outfits, headscarfs, and one side shawls feature beautiful afrocentric fabrics.
Working power dressing solutions
Power dressing for the modern women does not have to be steeped in generalized rules about which lengths, cuts and color palettes work. Since conventions exist, however, the secret lies in manipulating the so called conventions to fit ones individual style: wear that in which you’re most confident in; wear that which projects the casual, fun, elegant, professional or sexy field that you work in. This might help:
1.Fulfill the basic standard
Meet the basic requirements for dress in your field. For instance, too tight pants or tight short skirts might not meet a corporate standard, loose hair might not work in scientific research labs
2.Individualize the said standard
Add a unique twist to the industry standard. For instance, add a twirl, a bold pattern, or color blocks to an appropriate length corporate skirt; add extra width to your work pants to gain a fashion forward wide-legged-pants look; add a pearly hair clip to your “required” updo . . .
3.Project your core personality/image
Use statement jewelry, hair dos and cuts, shoe/bag choices, fabrics, and accessories that further accentuate the image you seek to project. Ornate hair scarfs might project heritage, as do fabrics. It’s said that Anna Wintour’s haircut affords her consistency and authority in an industry where she must wear a wide range of styles, and that Margaret Thatcher’s feraggamo handbag was a tool to be slammed onto tables when an important point needed to be made. Look for and find a style that completes the image you seek to project.
Best of luck building your powerful image!
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