The shifts and changes in power dressing are ever-evolving and continue to the present day. Ai Lim examines the shifts and significance of power dressing through the years, the designers who have impacted this change and its importance to society.
Dressing well and first impressions are important” — an advice that has been incessantly ingrained and hammered into my very fibre and bones (or my head at least anyway) by my well-dressed parents. Admittedly, as a child and teenager, dressing well did not matter to me. Those frou-frou dresses with ribbons aplenty? I guess it looked presentable on my five-year-old self. Those navy ruched gathered leggings when I was seven? Adored by my mum and other aunts who thought I looked cute, but loathed with venom and vile by the very person who wore them. Eventually, I came round to them for reasons I can’t quite seem to remember, but no matter. As I grow older, the importance of dressing well and looking the part has never been more poignant and I find myself increasingly partial to the very advice my parents have given me for a very simple reason: it is a way and means of discipline and “power”; having ownership over another’s perception of yourself. You choose how you want to be perceived by others by the way you dress. I thought this was clever and integral in any social scene and setting. After all, humans are visual creatures and rely heavily on visual cues for basic adaptive behaviours (Kaas and Balaram, 2014).
The significance of power dressing and its importance are not alien to society and one should not be deceived by the weight of value it carries. Over the years, the idea of power dressing has changed tremendously. A quick look back in history will reveal subtle hints and notes of variations in the way women chose to “power dress”. Back then it might have been more simple: dressing well presented a way and means of communicating one’s standing and positioning in society that was understood in an instant without verbal affirmation — a reflection of one’s status. While this behaviour is still commonplace today, it is encouraging that power dressing has taken on a new armour, not beholden to the superficial ties power dressing might have been associated with in the past. Women in particular have taken this attribute to new heights, breathing new life and meaning to the term “power dressing”. Today, she wears many different capes associated to her cause be it political or personal, subsequently breaking social stigma and misogynistic expectations over her choice of clothing.
To aid her cause, fashion assists with a watchful eye, dressing the Heroine to her full glory and might, ready for battle. After all, power dressing requires finesse and flair and who better to assist us on our mission than the creative experts specialised in this field. Designers and fashion have long contributed to this enriching and personal art form. We needn’t look too far for reference points — Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was one of the pioneers that changed the course of dressing for the women of her time; introducing a new form of luxury that was comfortable and fashionable for the everyday and working women. Coco Chanel’s now-famous style and silhouette has without a doubt revolutionised the way women dressed: jersey fabrics that were usually reserved for undergarments made their way into ready-to-wear collections; trousers were elevated from a functional apparel used for manual labour, to a fashionable piece of clothing that has now become a seasoned much-needed staple in every woman’s wardrobe; and let’s not forget the all-time classic Little Black Dress that speaks to the wearer and the audience with a silent knowing smile. While Coco Chanel’s choices back then might have been controversial — God forbid you wear an all-black attire unless you were in mourning — it gave women a new sense of freedom which was in itself, all-powerful.
The shifts and changes in power dressing are ever-evolving and continue to the present day. Power dressing is most commonly associated with a two-piece suit. However, over the recent years in fashion, designers have continuously challenged the ideals and stereotype linked to power dressing. Some have opted for a revamp of the classics, by taking on the basic silhouette and moulding it into their interpretation of the modern woman. At Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton armed her two-piece suit with a plunging V neck secured only by a single horn fastening. It was a purposeful design that did not shy away in the face of prying onlookers. The suit also featured a peekaboo slashed back on the waist that added character and accentuated the delicate female form in all its glory. Finally, a metal harness added a touch of strength to the look. The traditional two-piece power suit is no more. The final outcome was a look that represented the women of today: feminine, unique, individual and bold.
While the legacy of the two-piece suit lives on in various reincarnations, other designers have chosen to reinterpret the means and norms of power dressing away from the former. Power dressing could still be expressed without a two-piece suit, they stressed with unending finesse. And they have done so in many different ways, which include the use of slogans (Vivienne Westwood, Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri) and emphasis of the female anatomy (Comme des Garçons) to name a few. Regardless of how a designer may want to influence and inject their own take on power dressing, perhaps the most impactful way designers have chosen to power dress the women of today is by listening to the rapturous roars of the female voice and responding with creations that resonated with the modern women. Past and present, they are united by a similar vision of how power dressing should be interpreted, focused on a theme that reverberates deep within the hearts of many: freedom and choice — the liberty for women to choose how they want to express and dress themselves as they wished.
Marc Jacob’s Spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis makes a good case for this cause and cements the need to break social stigma and rules over the way we power dress. Previously designed for Perry Ellis, his collection was heavily criticized by fashion critics who dubbed the collection “ghastly” and “garbage”. Eventually, he was fired from Perry Ellis. Despite his troubles then, Marc Jacobs managed to break away from the stereotype of what it meant to be fashionable and powerful. It was naked and soul-baring. Women could damn well walk down the streets with minimal to no makeup, in their Dr Marten’s boots or converse shoes no less, with a jacket over their floral dresses and still look good. The ideals he had envisioned for women were liberating: it presented an alternative, unnerving beauty that had no room for luxury and judgemental expectations. Fast-forward to today, the collection sees new life with the re-release of Marc Jacob’s Redux Grunge Collection and a welcoming statement by fashion critic Cathy Horyn, who retracked her condemning review.
Other notable designers who have changed the way women power dress include renowned designer Phoebe Philo, whose interpretation of Celine hit all the right notes when it came to this unique form of power dressing. When she took a bow at the end of the SS11 show in a simple turtleneck, black trousers and Adidas Stan Smith trainers, her outfit and aloof demeanour left a lasting impression. Her pared-down personal style was a reflection of the times, perfectly suited to the busy women of today. It was relevant, looked stylish and had that touch of feminine flair and sophistication that wasn’t jarring or loud. This outlook was subsequently reflected in the clothes she designed during her tenure at the house of Celine and was met with rave reviews. It represented a quiet sense of freedom and confidence that was pleasing to the eye of onlookers and more importantly, to the women who wore her clothes.
In this modern day and age, the finesse of power dressing has evolved into a fine-tuned art that has many meaningful attributes suited to the modern woman – calling on different looks to suit the profession and occasion. One can’t deny the fact that dressing well can create the right impact and a lasting impression on others. It is a means to communicate and a great ice-breaker in social settings. While these facts highlight the importance of power dressing, ultimately, the main goal of power dressing is about self-respect. Tom Ford summarizes the need to power dress immaculately: “Dressing well is a form of good manners” — I couldn’t agree more. It is easy to simplify the quote. However, at the end of the day, dressing well is a reflection of one’s effort and we should embrace this powerful form of self-respect wholeheartedly
POWER PLAY: Designers On A Mission To Dress
#1 ALESSANDRO MICHELE presents a different from power at GUCCI: the power to embrace every individual’s unique charm and the freedom to dress with no boundaries.
#2 “Luxury with a conscience” is the centre of GABRIELA HEARTS‘s brand ethos. With a strong focus on sustainability, her eponymous label is built on a powerful statement that empowers women from within.
#3 PIERPAOLO PICCIOLI of Valentino has taken power dressing one step further by way of blooming, larger-than-life dresses that accentuate and hugs the body in a billowy gust of beauty and feminine hair.