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Power dressing

Power dressing

How women through the ages have dressed for success

How women through the ages have dressed for success

Matthew Sweet | April/May 2019

Power structures everything: relations between the sexes, between social groups, between capital and labour. How do we assert it – or defy it? Weapons hang in the wardrobe. Stacked shoes. Pantsuits. Jackets with sharp edges and high escarpments. “Power dressing” entered the language in the 1970s, in an advice book for struggling male professionals. John Molloy sold 3m copies of “Dress for Success” (1975) by counselling men to abandon their “failure cloth” and win the key to the executive washroom. A sequel in 1980 urged women to swear an oath to corporate success: “I pledge to wear highly tailored, dark-coloured, traditionally designed skirted suits whenever possible to the office.” But no ceremony was necessary – because women had been power-dressing for centuries. They’re still doing it now. In Britain, the boardroom gender balance has been stuck for a decade. In America, Fortune’s top 500 companies boast only 24 female CEOs. Equal pay is yet to have its day. Until then, hardline tailoring matters.

Elizabeth I “The Armada Portrait” c1588
During Elizabeth I’s reign, ruff size and shoe length connoted social rank. Those who outdressed their place in the hierarchy were fined or imprisoned. This was the image to which everyone deferred: pearls symbolic of steadfast virginity, a ruff wide enough for the “Golden Hind” to circumnavigate and a gaze to sink any Armada.

Puffed up
Wraparound blouse with voluminous sleeves, £363/$475. Pant skirt, £515/$670. Both by A.W.A.K.E. Wedged slingback shoes, Stella McCartney, £475/$765

Marlene Dietrich
1930. Marlene has arrived in Hollywood with her director, Josef von Sternberg, bringing the night-perils of Weimar Germany in her luggage. Are you a bourgeois who drinks champagne when your wife is out of town? Beware. Marlene will steal your clothes and seduce you – and the coat-check girl, too. Von Sternberg’s “Morocco” was Dietrich’s first chance to cause sexual havoc in an English-language movie. The pleasure was fleeting: the Hays Code brought censorship to Hollywood and curbed her excesses. But the glory of the moment smoulders in that cigarette, that smile.

Grace Jones 1981
I’ve heard it said that Grace Jones is a human being. I’ve yet to see the evidence. Human beings don’t have vanishing points. The planes and angles of that jacket seem less a product of couture than of her own internal architecture – as if we weren’t looking at fabric, but at lustrous slate cladding on the embassy of some rising nation.

Large-check wool blazer, £725/$1,125. Monochrome-check zip cardigan, £240/$350. Both by Paul Smith

Joan Collins
The Carringtons, the founding family of “Dynasty”, a 1980s soap, owed their wealth to oil. Joan Collins’s Alexis was the explosion it produced. Along with fire, and the ability to hold her arms more akimbo than any living human, Collins imported the threat of British equestrian violence into the soap-opera boardroom. It’s possible to dress like this while voting to extend a pipeline through Colorado, but really, this jacket is fashioned for blood sports – whether that’s foxhunting, or shoving your rival into a rack of her own chiffon frocks.

Anna Wintour 2007
The Wintour look – big shades, big coats, even when indoors – suggests defence, not belligerence. The Vogue grande dame is snapped here beside a New York runway, viewing Carolina Herrera’s Fall 2007 collection. There is no sun to dazzle her. Those great discs of black plastic perform the same role as the thin crease of her mouth. They allow her to be illegible. If she betrayed her opinion, someone else might profit from it.

Cracker jacket
Linen jacket and trousers, Roksanda, POA

Madonna 1990
The Rational Dress Society was formed in 1881 to liberate women from the harness of tight-fitting corsetry. Ever the provocateur, Madonna transformed the corset from a restraining device to a combat suit in her Blonde Ambition tour of 1990. Jean Paul Gaultier played M to her 007, supplying her with suspender straps like rip cords and a bra that might have been illegal under a Reagan-Gorbachev arms treaty. It’s underwear built for victory.

Imelda Marcos
He ordered the death squads; she ordered kitten heels. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were a his ‘n’ hers study in the vulgarity of evil. We remember her for the shoes – 1,220 pairs tallied after the storming of the Malacañang Palace in 1986. But the stuff above ankle-level also counted. This column of starch and shimmer isn’t just 1970s extravagance. It evokes Maria Clara, heroine of “Noli Me Tángere” (1887), national epic of the Philippines. Maria’s defining quality was patriotic self-sacrifice – a commodity impossible to steal from your own people.

Wool jacket, £2,720/$3,550. Long-sleeve silk blouse, £1,710/$2,230. Linen shorts with side panels, £1,100/$1,440. All by Louis Vuitton

Margaret Thatcher
The Iron Lady was not the Virgin Queen, though she underwent a similar transformation. Her voice was lowered under tutelage, but the familiar ensemble – Aquascutum skirt suit, pearls, pussy-bow blouse, Asprey handbag – was the model’s own. Satirists put her in pinstripes, but they misunderstood her relationship with male power. Thatcher was no drag king. She diminished the power of the suit, the tie and the men inside them, creating a template used by women in power ever since – even the ones who hate her guts.

Melanie Griffith
In Working Girl, a 1980s rom-com about a Staten Island secretary who ascends the north face of Wall Street, Melanie Griffith was ready to wake the nation. With her expansive lapels and footballer shoulders, her heroine, Tess McGill, offered a new model to the women of corporate America. In one scene, an office sex pest lures her into a limo, sinks his faces into her breasts and opens the champagne. She sprays it back in his face and exits the car. The guy is played by Kevin Spacey. Tess, you were right about everything.

Bold shoulders
Mixed-media coat, £1,041/$1,613. Linen sleeveless blouson, £867/$1,344. Linen tailored trousers, £483/$749. All by Yang Li

PHOTOGRAPHs Theresa Marx
STYLIST Katy Lassen