The power suit is back — but it’s no longer about imitating the authoritative look of men
Any time someone uses the word “appropriate,” I consider it a feminist red flag. It’s often used to hold women to standards of conduct or dress that simply don’t apply to men. This is especially true of workplace presentation. A quick Google search brings up pages upon pages of advice for ambitious women: cover up, look less feminine, speak with a lower voice. The bottom line? Don’t threaten the men and, if at all possible, try to disguise yourself as one of them.
For decades, the look of success has been steadfastly masculine. If a woman had any hope of elbowing her way past the glass ceiling, she was expected to imitate the male esthetic with boxy pantsuits and shoulder pads better suited to NFL linebackers.
Unsurprisingly, men often scoffed at female attempts to access the corridors of power and gain membership to the old boys’ club through their fashion choices. Women had to fight for their right to emulate men.
Until 1993, women weren’t allowed to wear pantsuits – or any pants, period – on the U.S. Senate floor. Self-proclaimed “pantsuit aficionado” Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe, even in this age of feminist enlightenment, is still the butt of jokes. Just last year Jimmy Fallon took heat for a particularly weak and sexist quip during Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy: “If it’s a girl, it’ll get some of Chelsea’s old hand-me-downs, and if it’s a boy, it’ll get some of Hillary’s.”
While revolutionary at first, the power suits of the 1980s could only take us so far. They brought women into the workplace, but downplayed our presence and unique qualities.
There have been more discussions about women in the workplace in the past year than any period since the second-wave feminist era. Sexual harassment, the wage gap and maternity leave are all hot-button issues, helped into the spotlight by a new class of prominent female CEOs and #girlbosses.
Love them or hate them (women in power tend to elicit especially strong emotions), leaders such as Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal and teen prodigy/Rookie editor Tavi Gevinson are redefining what it means to achieve professional success… and what that looks like.
The power suit is back, but it’s no longer about imitating the authoritative look of powerful men. Women’s suiting is coming into its own with a distinct feminine edge.
“Women are making their own rules in business and are more entrepreneurial than ever, which has a direct relation to current suiting trends,” explains Charlotte Jenkins, Gotstyle womenswear buyer. “They’re not trying as hard to be one of the guys and don’t feel the need to wear a boxy suit in traditional menswear colours like gray and navy. Women are confident in their powerful roles and are embracing their femininity.”
Ray Kelvin, founder and CEO of Ted Baker, agrees: “I don’t think women feel as much need to fit a certain stereotype or imitate men to be perceived as successful anymore. They want to be perceived as ambitious, but also fashionable– therefore suiting choices are reflective of a more feminine cut.”
For Ted Baker, this means making fashion-forward suits in soft textures, floral prints and even bright tropical colours — all finely tailored to the female form, of course. Wallflowers need not apply.
“The biggest colour trends for spring are neutrals like white, tan, cream and a range of pastels with blush, pale pink and lilac leading the way,” Jenkins says. Also look for an onslaught of botanical prints featuring exotic flowers and art-inspired graphics.
“We’re seeing women like Sheryl Sandberg, Christine Lagarde and Michelle Obama inject novelty and color into their suiting. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel illustrates through her bold choice of colour, women are able to experiment without losing any semblance of authority,” say Andrea Lenczner and Christie Smythe in an email, designers of the popular Toronto-based suiting label Smythe.
The duo collaborates with fellow Canadian brand Beaufille — which fittingly translates to “handsome girl” — on a new blazer for spring 2015. The design combines Smythe’s signature masculine smoking jacket with a feminine jacquard material and hand-painted imagery inspired by vintage Chinese brocade. The jackets will be a pretty blush pink and feature dragon-emblazoned brass metal buttons. It’s hard to imagine a better sartorial representation of the new girl boss.
Lenczner and Smythe contend that although some new-age power suits retain masculine influences, it’s for different reasons than decades past: “Instead of trying to imitate a man to garner workplace equality, we are consciously choosing to embrace the appeal of a masculine aesthetic. Now, when we put on a suit we are making a decidedly feminine statement #claireunderwood.”
The trend carried over to the red carpet with both Emma Stone and Julia Roberts donning unique feminine spins on the traditional tux at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. Stone’s Dior Couture looked like a traditional men’s blazer on top, but transformed into an elegant sheer skit on the bottom, while Roberts drew rave reviews with a tuxedo-cum-onesie getup.
Michelle Obama wore a sharply-tailored Michael Kors skirt-suit to the State of the Union address that was also seen on The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick. The hit show is known for strong women characters that still look like– well, women.
“I always get frustrated, unless it’s the character, when a strong woman is dressed up as a man,” Good Wife costume designer Daniel Lawson once told the Huffington Post.
With women still earning less than men for the same work and being much less likely to occupy top positions, something needs to change. A big part of that is the idea that women need to embody traditionally male traits to succeed. Girl bosses are rewriting the rules and language of business, including its fashion.
With its new embrace of femininity, maybe this time the power suit will live up to its name.
This article originally appeared in the National Post.