Putting the Power Back into Dressing
Why its OK to talk about what powerful women wear...
Last week, I went to see the Savage Beauty exhibit at the V&A and jotted down the following quote by Alexander McQueen, ‘I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’ I was intrigued by the statement because I like the idea of clothing as armour or as aspiration, but also a bit uncomfortable with the concept of dressing to instil fear. Anyone who knows me is aware that my preferred sartorial presentation is much softer -- I love an A-line skirt or a shift dress and would have been perfectly happy dressing in the 1950s or 60s. My dream wardrobe basically consists of the costumes from Mad Men – despite the fact that Pucci and pastels aren’t typically considered ‘power dressing’.
For that reason, I took notice when I came across an article in The NY Times article about Michelle Obama's wardrobe on her recent Asian tour to promote her ‘Let Girls Learn’ educational initiative. The premise of the article was that the 1950s-style bright colors, full skirts and florals were intentionally 'girly' (and un-characteristic for FLOTUS) because she was looking for young women to relate to her - demonstrating that it is possible to be feminine but still accomplished. I don't question that this was a calculated sartorial decision, as Michelle Obama is the most intentional dresser around; let's be honest - she didn't 'forget' her headscarf on her last visit to Saudi Arabia...
In the same article, Vanessa Friedman looks at clothing as statement - such as Sheryl Sandberg in her red power shifts - and clothing as non-statement - such as Hilary Rodham 'I'm obviously wearing a pantsuit so let's take the clothing discussion off the table' Clinton. Friedman also refers to the 'Merkelization' of female politicians - meaning wearing what men wear in softer/brighter colors - which is such a brilliant and entertaining statement, I feel compelled to repeat it here. It appears that many of today's British female political leaders were copied on the 'Merkelization' memo, but I can't help but feeling they are missing a trick by not developing a more distinct sartorial statement. Of course Theresa May has been known to go ‘off piste’ and is unapologetic about her love for flamboyant footwear and colorful coats. One of her former colleagues commented, ‘it’s not an attention-seeking thing, its defiant: I know I have a brain and I'm serious so I can wear pretty shoes'.
So, as I contemplate McQueen, Michelle, Merkel and May, what are the questions I'm really grappling with:
Is how women in power dress a 'women's issue'? Well, yes. Frankly because no one really cares what men wear. If you don't believe me, refer to Karl Stefanovic, a male newscaster from Australia who wore the same outfit for a year to make the point that no one noticed – which was in sharp contrast to the frequent abuse that his female co-presenter took for her choice of outfit.
Do female leaders have an obligation to make a statement through what they wear? Or alternately, a responsibility to take the issue of clothing off the table altogether?
My view is that as women increasingly take leadership positions - whether in politics or PR - this creates an opportunity to redefine, and perhaps elevate, the role of clothing in a professional context. I am not advocating that we should be judged by what we wear, nor am I proposing we ignore the parameters of what's appropriate - no one ever became CEO wearing a tube top to work - instead I am suggesting that it’s acceptable for clothing to be part of the conversation. If we acknowledge that, then women can be more intentional in choosing clothing as an expression of their leadership.
I am advocating that by dressing with intent, leaders can take back the conversation around clothing and reset the tone and topic – we can move past the cattiness and towards a more thoughtful discussion on the content. Instead of being distracting or even demeaning, I see no reason why we can’t view clothing as empowering – a statement of a refusal to confirm to prescribed norms of what a leader should look like and wear. Dressing for success seems like a bland and generic mantra, today, clothing can be viewed an enabler for a woman to establish her leadership style and to articulate her vision. My advice? Don’t just dress for success, Dress with Intent.