Has "Power Dressing" lost its wattage?

I'm hooked on the French political drama "Baron Noir", whose female lead character, "Amélie Dorendeu" (played by Anna Mouglalis) moves from aide to President of France over the course of two seasons.

Just as I was musing about the character's supremely sharp suits, Vanessa Friedman wrote about "The Mess of Modern Power Dressing "; she says, "There are no rules today, so you have to think and choose... We are in a convulsive moment of change, one in which the old order and the new coexist in uneasy alliance; one in which received notions of presentation are increasingly being rejected in favor of individual identity. A person’s experience and history are worn as badges of pride, not disguised so as to better blend in."

Like Robin Wright, who plays Claire Underwood, the US President in "House of Cards", the French actor adopts knife-edged tailoring as she rises—specifically, the ledge shoulder on jackets, a level line that traverses a ruler-straight path, then drops off at a precise right angle. She is literally carrying the responsibility on her shoulders. ("Power" in the "power dressing" sense refers to that conferred by occupational position.)

The ledge is a thin construction, meant to create bearing, not exaggeration. In "Baron Noir", it is always paired with a discreet silk blouse, whose liquid drape mitigates the suit's severity. (The costumer is Elsa Capus, who designed the wardrobe for the film "Coco avant Chanel".)

Despite Friedman's claim, suits still signal the command seat. Teal is more modern than the traditional navy or grey; do you recall the teal Gabriela Hearst worn for an Interview magazine cover by real-life politician, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez? It generated intense criticism for its price tag (it was loaned to her), but if a woman wants to project authority, this is the look. 

Friedman claims that "received notions of presentation are increasingly being rejected in favor of individual identity." 

A high-powered American acquaintance who read Friedman's article e-mailed me, "Men don't feel compelled to display an 'individual identity'' at work, and I don't either." She added, "What's with your Prime Minister and his socks? Is he for real?"

(Yes; and Justin Trudeau is an example of that "insertion of personal identity".)

 Friedman says, "The codes (because what is power dressing but a dress code by another name?) of old are going out the window. Both those that are explicit and dictated, and those that are unspoken but widely accepted... (This) places the burden on the dresser as opposed to the majority. It requires active thinking about clothes and identity as opposed to passive shopping."

Women have been thinking about work attire for many decades, unless issued a uniform. Those Dress for Success rules were sometimes ignored, but no business executive (except in Silicon Valley) entered the boardroom in a t-shirt.

I find Friedman's claim of disruption premature. A woman academic, coming to Montréal for a meeting, wrote to ask me what to wear; my reply of "Whatever you want!" would not have been helpful.

And yet, times have changed for the better. My colleague Catherine, a vice-president at a multinational investment company, started in management wearing a wig styled in a straight bob and moved to her natural hair worn in braids.

Women know how to select a work wardrobe, and criticize designers for their inability to give them clothes that travel without wrinkling, skirts long enough to sit in without tugging, and wouldn't it be nice if this year's plum was consistent with the label's plum from last year? And it's worse if you have to dress up. A corporate executive told me she is annoyed that men can buy one tuxedo and wear it to every formal function for years, but she has to spend on a selection of gowns, whether she buys or rents.

It's the designers who are out of step, not the women.

Thom Browne suggests a trompe l'oeil dress (shown below). Christine Lagarde might pull it off for a Davos reception, but she's probably not going to stand in front of the European Central Bank in it. Women want to connect with their audience rather than to distance.

Though there is a place for every level of clothing in her closet, a prominent, high-profile woman will still dress in business attire most days. When more women join the ranks of Presidents and Prime Ministers, I predict we will see them in tailoring as lofty as their offices.


LauraH said…
Agree with you. Women in or aiming for high office/power have enough to struggle with, the 'usual' suit look removes the burden of spending more time and energy on appearance. I see it as a plus rather than a negative. Freeing rather than confining. I wonder how Hilary feels about the author's claims??
Unknown said…
I like today's post! I'v missed the fashion part of this blog -- for me too much about jewelry. I've tried to post before using an old gmail (IWantanOlderAfghan). do, by the way. I live in Oregon. Briana
Duchesse said…
Briana, thank you for persevering to comment. It's true I write only occasionally on fashion these days. First, I have useful information to impart about jewelry, and hope to precent mistakes made simply due to lack of knowledge. Second, there are a zillion fashion blogs out there, of all sorts.

I do see some astonishing clothes— but for me, there is more artistry on display in jewellery. Not that there isn't room for both!

Duchesse said…
Briana: Autocorrect gremlins strike again. That is "I hope to prevent mistakes..."
Mardel said…
"It's the designers who are out of step, not the women." Oh how I love that statement and this article. I think "individuality" is over-touted as it relates to work settings, and I think most women know what they need to do to both blend in where they need to and stand out. It seems like the entire subject of women's corporate and/or power dressing still ticks the same boxes and is caught up in the same struggle that has been present throughout my working career and continues now in my retirement. I like that you point out that a great many men understand the game and don't feel conflicted over individuality. Why should women? Well women are faced with a far more complex, and often competing, set of expectations and norms. I like both of the shows and the evolution of the women's wardrobes as a cultural study in the use and expression of power and focus.
I love the jewellery posts, simply because they show expertise (and precise vocabulary) and rarely comment on them as I know relatively little about the subject.

Many people in different work or social milieus wear some kind of uniform. The only thing that annoys me about the extreme wide shoulders (1980s?) is that they contrive to make women look like men. And obviously there are health and safety objections to extreme heels. Did you have any advice for the academic? A softer style than in the corporate world, but avoid very bright colours, and seek good fabrics?

Trudeau's socks are a deliberate trademark; otherwise he is very well-tailored and obviously fit.

As for AOC, a supposed "progressive" bro on a political board calls her a traitor for dressing well, by embracing glamour. She is supposed to wear an old t-shirt and sweatpants? Working-class young people in large cities have always sought to dress "sharp".
Laura J said…
Good post; agree with Mardel. In retirement I mostly dress”like a man” in the sense that there are only a few pieces worn over and over. No one notices! Mostly outfits are different for seasonal changes. Do men simply avoid the lures of fashion advertising??
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Women in high-profile positions know the norms and expectations and decide whether or when to break (or subtly bend) them. The article lands on the side of "iThe new day has come; it's OK to express your individuality" but I don't see Nancy Peolosi at work in a jumspsuit. I have long suspected that criticism levelled against the physical presentation of some women in the public eye was misogyny masquerading as fashion criticism.

lagatta: Nelly Bly interviews Emma Goldman: "Do you care for dress at all?"
Goldman: "Oh, of course," she answered, laughing. "I like to look well, but I don't like very fussy dresses." (Interview in the New York World, September 17, 1893)
There's similarity b/t the academic and corporate world when both are business casual environments. A jacket (which need not be a man's style blazer) still bestows authority. I have not seen those exaggerated padded shoulders for decades , on real women. Once in awhile they pop up on the runway but don't make it onto racks.

LauraJ: Men at the level of the roles discussed in Friedman's pieces have a salesperson and tailor who keep them outfitted. Of course there are the t-shirt tech billiionaires but when Zuckerberg testified in Congress he wore a conservative dark suit, white shirt and tie. On the message this sent: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/10/fashion/mark-zuckerberg-suit-congress.html
Rosa Luxemburg also liked pretty clothes. When she was released from prison (for opposing the 1st World War) the women of the SPD (Socialist Party of Germany) presented her with a very attractive dress; and those cost a pretty Pfennig then, due to the amount of handwork still required even after the invention of the sewing machine.

Yes, jackets convey authority even in business casual settings; I always wear one when interpreting at anything but the most casual meetings. They also have pockets! I'm not interpreting much anymore (it is extremely exhausting) but I don't ever work at home in pyjamas; always jeans or a casual skirt, and a top and other layers.
sensitive poet said…
Joseph Ribkoff makes excellent business and leisure attire. His fluid, silk-like fabrics all wash like a dream, and travel well without wrinkling. You can choose from severe black or navy suits or mix and match with colourful leisure attire. The only thing he does not make is accessories - scarves and the like.
My personal view is that women in the professions and in business would do well to draw attention to their ideas and their presentation rather than to making fashion statements - they are perceived as a little bit less professional if they do. Not saying that it's right, just saying what is, in my observation.
Duchesse said…
sensitive poet: Joseph Ribicoff has devoted fans and I have admired women in the pieces, but I have never worn it. I like brands that make a size range from 2 to 22, in the same fabrics. I know women who wear pretty much only JR, like other women waer Eileen Fisher (and you could hardly come up with two more opposite effects,)

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