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Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Powerdressing power shoulders
Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche campaign, 1980s

Is power-dressing a thing of the past?

This International Women’s Day, we explore what it means to be empowered by clothing in today’s world – and why that doesn’t mean dressing like a man

February sees the convergence of two stratospherically important events – fashion week and the Oscars. It’s like the planets aligned, the angle of Jupiter to Saturn making everyone lose their minds over hem lengths, hair-dos and hot accessories. While both are about looking at women in dresses, the language that surrounds each is markedly different. Fashion designers love to talk about ‘empowering’ women – it’s their mantra for justifying that their designs don’t in fact make a mockery of women (just because you announce that something is empowering obviously doesn’t mean that it is). The red carpet, meanwhile, embraces the language of prettiness, and actresses are scolded for anything that isn’t strapless and nude or monochrome. In the midst of all this, one wonders whatever happened to power-dressing – the theory that the way you dress can empower you in reality and not just in mindset.

Why wonder about this? It was Gareth Pugh who brought the subject to mind, with his treatise on female authority at fashion week, and at the Oscars, costume designer Jenny Beavan’s non-gowned march to the podium, the Vine of which has been watched 47 million times. In London, Pugh’s models, in their star-studded, azure suits, were not just allegedly ‘empowered’ – they looked in charge, literally wearing the pants. It wasn’t about the interior world of a woman, but unabashedly about power-dressing, of the Hillary Clinton / Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl kind, pioneered by designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana in the 80s. This performative kind of dress has fallen out of favour – women don’t have to dress like men to work to be taken seriously. Pugh took the dated signatures of the working woman – rigid shoulders, camel coats, briefcases, polo necks – and made them altogether more sinister. The models had surgical string or Hannibal Lecter masks on their faces, while said briefcases were handcuffed to their wrists. It was power as a prison. The famous Jenny Holzer piece declares ‘Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise’, and perhaps this collection could be entitled ‘Abuse of the empowered comes as no surprise either.’

“Pugh took the dated signatures of the working woman – rigid shoulders, camel coats, briefcases, polo necks – and made them altogether more sinister. The models had Hannibal Lecter masks on their faces, while said briefcases were handcuffed to their wrists. It was power as a prison

The roots of power-dressing were in fact the Chanel suit of the 1920s. Coco Chanel saw the ease and authority men were afforded by their suits and saw no reason women shouldn’t benefit from it too, and voila, the skirt and bouclé wool jacket, perfect for manoeuvring the power vacuums left by WWI. Chanel intoned, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” Chanel herself is remembered, fairly or not, as hard and calculating, a charge often levelled at self-made women. She also added weight to the theory that women had to dress ‘as’ – or at least similarly to – men to be respected by them, in masculine tailoring.

The next great update to the woman’s working wardrobe was Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, his iconic suit jacket. With this innovation, Saint Laurent’s women – androgynes like Betty Catroux – were freed from the restraints of cocktail dresses. After all, if they kept pace with Saint Laurent’s louche lifestyle, why shouldn’t they dress like him, too? Le Smoking is perhaps the perfect marriage of sex appeal and professionalism – subversive (then) in its masculine origin, but slimly tailored for the female form.

By the 80s, linebacker shoulders and towering heels were the order of business – Saint Laurent’s lean silhouette forgotten by the excess of the age. Broad shoulders imply presence and authority; heels, however, are a different matter. On the one hand, they make one taller – 58 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are over 6ft tall, compared to only 14.5 per cent of American males. They’re also men, however, and while heels might be empowering for oneself mentally, they’re not exactly empowering for the acts of, you know, walking down the street or getting the tube. They also do that awkward thing of shouting ‘sex’ at people (not literally – although that might be an amazing way of averting the male gaze). 

Heels were originally from western Asia, and were the province of men, being very useful for anchoring your foot in the stirrup while riding a horse. Soon, however, they migrated into the female realm and were seen as tools of power and seduction, with shoe historian Elizabeth Semmelhack noting that Marie Antoinette caused hysteria among men worrying that women would usurp power with their female tools, namely high heels. The shoes were also the province or pornography, with 19th-century photographers making the baffling decision that women looked great naked as long as they were in heels. An enduring belief.

“It’s easy to assume the garb of male authority, but the goalposts have shifted and the man in his suit is no longer the sole archetype of power”

That the language of female power dressing has evolved was confirmed by Jenny Beavan’s already-legendary appearance at the Oscars. Beavan, who won for her costumes for Mad Max: Fury Road, wore a leather jacket and black trousers for the event, plus or minus a few bracelets – which, on paper, sounds eminently sensible. Let’s not forget, however, that the Oscars, and all award ceremonies, aren’t about women feeling good about themselves at all, but being shoehorned into gowns and ridiculed by the world at large. Whether people clapped or not (still under discussion), Beavan’s outfit quickly rippled throughout the press, so rare is it to see a woman in popular culture dressing for herself. And in Beavan’s own words, as spoken to the The Hollywood Reporter: “You don’t actually have to look like a supermodel to be successful. If that could be a takeaway, I think that would be a good thing. It is really good to have a positive feeling about yourself, because then you can do anything. People don’t have to clap for you; they don’t have to like the work.”

So what does power-dressing mean now? At the risk of sounding trite, dressing for oneself. It’s easy to assume the garb of male authority, but the goalposts have shifted and the man in his suit is no longer the sole archetype of power. Pugh’s femme fatales and power bitches drew on the language of those in charge – men – and were maybe weaker for it. In 2016, there’s no need to mimic masculinity – when it comes to power-dressing, women need only find inspiration within themselves.