In the eighties, power dressing for women was a kind of imitation of the male uniform, composed of large padded sleeves to mimic broad shoulders and conservative skirts. As women gain increasing amounts of power in business and politics all over the world, the power suit has, thankfully, shed the linebacker shoulder pads and evolved. The work uniform continues to change as new generations of women explore self-expression in what some think of as a restricting and boring vein of fashion. However, work-wear does not have to be boring or dull, as women throughout history have proven. Powerful women have often been seen by girls as fountains of inspiration for their confidence and drive; however, women at the heads of boardroom tables and at the heart of policy debates make waves with their fashion as well. They prove workwear can be used as a tool to gain attention and respect.
Female politicians throughout the years have been icons of fashion, true artists of power dressing. Most people might think that the words “politics” and “fashion” should never appear next to each other. This is likely due to the popular image of politicians as men with comb-overs in ill-tailored suits. However, few would recommend women take style cues from the Ted Cruz’s and Bill Clinton’s of the world. It is the women in politics who demonstrate that girls can craft policy and look confidently stylish all at the same time. One of the first icons of political dressing was Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, a woman of the 18th century, who used her outlandish and grandiose fashion to draw attention to her cause. Georgiana was one of the first women to publicly canvas the streets as she campaigned for the Whig cause, and she did it all in towering feathered hats, while swanning about in the Whig colors—blue and bluff. Zooming forward in history, women like Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, provide a far different example of how to dress for power. She adopted the motto of dressing: “never flashy, just appropriate,” and championed the idea that women can create a kind of brand through workwear. Her sartorial signature included flouncy pussybow blouses and boxy handbags. She was one of the first pioneers of the philosophy that fashion can create a potent, and easily recognizable personal brand. This concept, forwarded by the brilliantly monikered “Iron Lady,” has many women trying to emulate it today.
Still, today’s political women are the most pertinent to examine the modern interpretations of power dressing. In a recent TED talk with Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State, an interviewer first asked about Albright’s large, shiny broach on her jacket breast: “What is the story of this?” Albright’s brilliant response: “This is Breaking the Glass Ceiling.” Secretary Albright named the eye-grabbing piece to bring attention to her policies, to her large goals and ideas. She traces her personal trend of wearing message-laden broaches to her dealings with Saddam Hussein as Secretary of State. The media in Baghdad compared Albright to an “unparalleled serpent,” so, naturally, when she met with Hussein, she wore a winding, emerald serpent pin. She made a major power move without the threat of violence, and without saying one word–just by sticking a a few gems to her lapels. Albright went on to buy many more broaches to reflect what it was she thought she would discuss on any given day, and she later called her pins “part of my personal diplomatic arsenal.” Albright’s collection serves as both an example of power-dressing and of bringing joy and creativity to workwear.
Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, is another example of a modern political woman who has challenged standards, wearing a long black coat and black high patent leather boots to an Army Airfield. The ensembles exudes the vibe of a Matrix-esque Keanu Reeves or a stake-wielding, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with a dash of professionalism. These mix to give Rice an aura of superhuman confidence.
Another large force in the power dressing game is First Lady Michelle Obama, an inspiration of sartorial risk taking. Like no other first lady before her, Mrs. Obama has introduced color and audaciousness into the White House. She has a pension for eye-grabbing clothing and prints, and her dresses and shirts often are cut to show off her exemplary arms. The inspiration of many fashion designers, including Jason Wu and Naeem Kahn, Mrs. Obama possesses the enviable quality of being able to pull almost anything off.
Still, the most topical woman of fashion, and one who has been most highly criticized is Hillary Clinton. There have been a multitude of opinions about her classic pantsuit look. But it is worth noting that although Clinton’s pantsuits are uniform the colors she chooses are never dull and are usually symbolically resonant. For instance, Clinton wore white to accept her party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention, a color of peace and purity. On the other hand, she wore red to the first presidential debate with Donald Trump, a color that is symbolic of passion, conflict, and is undeniably attention-grabbing. It is also worth noting Clinton is fully on trend. Pantsuits are having a moment, as menswear trends dominate runways. Women like Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie, and Selena Gomez impose and impress in suits with heels. Women like these prove that women can look sexy and feminine while appealing to the classic sartorial associations of a good suit–a projection of confidence and power.
Of course, there are also powerful muses to draw from in the business world, who manage to highlight their strong business acumen with calculated clothing choices. Amal Clooney meets all the goals she sets as a human rights lawyer in looks that are classic. For example, Clooney fought a human trafficking case in a white Gucci frock with quarter-length sleeves. She even guest-lectured at Columbia in an all white ensembles punctuated with gorgeous splashes of cherry-red on her lips and bag. She keeps her looks clean enough that her clothes don’t distract from her causes in the courtroom, but her use of judicious pops of color and the overall subtlety of her style ensures no one will miss a word she says. Christine Lagard, head of the International Monetary Fund, also plays with color, wearing bright scarves, which image consultant Patsy Cisneros says function to, “bring the eyes upward.” Thus, women who are shooting for that CEO position or who want to command the courtroom can try clean silhouettes with eye-grabbing accessories and lip colors to keep attention on the face, giving extra impact to words.
Some women may protest that men are held to minimal scrutiny about their work attire. Whether we are talking about congressmen in session or briefcase wielding suits in boardrooms, any one of these men could wear the same black shirt for a year and not receive any notice. Why, then, should women be burdened with more scrutiny? Certainly it is unjust. There are debates beyond equal pay that need to be had, debates about the pervasive, high standards women’s physical appearances are held to. Still, women in this article prove that there is an upside to the increased attention on clothing. Women like Georgiana and Albright took the increased attention as an opportunity to promote their policies or revolutionary ideas. Women throughout the workforce tailor their style to project confidence and pull focus from male comrades with a perfectly tailored suit or with punches of bright color in a gray office. Additionally, perhaps most importantly, women are permitted to have more fun with dressing than men. Most men will never be able to feel the power that comes with a sleek black heel, or enjoy applying a statement lip. Over a wide range of industries, women are gaining more power in work rooms and championing their own causes, all the while maintaining a mani-pedi and balancing in heels. If that doesn’t scream power, I don’t know what does.