When you think of the phrase ‘power dressing,’ an archetypal image of a woman from the 1980s in a sharply-cut suit with shoulder pads might come to mind. But the trend has arguably been going on much longer than this. Some suggestions indicate that the concept had its genesis in the renaissance, although it’s possible to assume it began even earlier. Power dressing could have been around since humans started wearing, and defining themselves by their attire.
Still a household name, Cleopatra’s full title was Cleopatra VII Philoraptor; known for her fierce diplomacy and naval command. She also had a historically famous fashion sense – and we know a surprising amount about ancient Egyptian clothing. Often donning a white linen sheath dress, adapted to the hot climate, she had a penchant for imposing headpieces. These displayed a serpent representing the (now unfortunately named) deity Isis. The clothing was chosen for presentation, almost in the business sense, rather than the glamour later attributed to her. Cleopatra had black hair, with bangs, but sometimes utilised high-quality wigs; sporting golden adornments.
Nefertiti may be less well known; but she was also an Egyptian queen. Her most famous garment is a large, conical blue crown. Not the dainty European style you might see in Game of Thrones, this headgear was much more impressive (Google it). Like other Egyptians, men and women, she would have worn eyeshadow and mascara. This was not only for cosmetic purposes but also to shade from the sun. The predominant look wouldn’t have seemed out of place on an Insta feed today.
Joan of Arc
Previously a peasant, Joan believed that a certain Catholic deity had chosen her to take France to victory against England in the early 1400s. Whatever your views on religion, Joan certainly power-dressed. Not only was she an indomitable military leader but she also frequently wore a full suit of plate armour. Joan bore a banner and a sword and rode on horseback with both. Her image was recently reinterpreted in an exceptional look worn by Zendaya at the 2018 Met Gala; which had the theme of ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’. If a French warrior heroine can inspire a killer look some 600 years later, that’s certainly saying something.
The Renaissance Look
Commonly touted in Western theology as a birth of modern thought and reason, the Renaissance might also be considered as the birth of modern power dressing. It was an era when people started to recognise ‘style’ as a concept academically and that it had the ability to change and evolve over time, fashion started to be talked about. Initially the concept was considered a source of instability; it went against the order of dressing for custom, developed over time. It signalled an uncertainty.
However, a cross-pollination not only of ideas but objects was starting to occur, in apparel, textiles, bags, hats and gloves. Ideas of what was in good taste, and aspirational lifestyles, began to exude from strictly courtly settings to the wider public. This could be considered the start of modern consumer fashion, allowing all to aspire to elegance and confidence in dressing.
Anne Bonny was an Irish redhead, born ‘illegitimately’ (as it was known at the time) who also happened to turn to a life of swashbuckling. She’s usually depicted taking to the seas with a long seafarer’s jacket, a hat with a curl on one edge, and wide pants. Not only this, but the outfit was accompanied by a bandolier to hold her weapons – and she’s sometimes shown with a red scarf worn like a cummerbund around the waist, or in the more standard position at the neck; matching her hair. Bonny was adept with both a pistol and a cutlass.
She befriended another female pirate – Mary Read – and the two executed a series of raids as a team. Mary allegedly cross-dressed as a man for much of her life, taking on the moniker ‘Mark,’ Anne being one of the few who knew of her true identity. Anne’s pirating partner Calico Jack was supposedly jealous of her flirting with Mark/Mary. Both women adopted and adapted styles borrowed from masculine clothing – to varying degrees – a theme that has continually recurred throughout the genre of power dressing over its history.
Chanel is the designer widely credited with creating the first women’s suit in 1914. The suiting designs of the fashion house were worn with skirts. It was a look that was both progressive; but not overly radical. Of course, Chanel is a name that’s not disappearing from the fashion world any time soon. In 1932, Marcel Rochas takes the cake as the designer to first pair pants with women’s suits. For women to do this in the thirties was viewed as controversial and even denounced by some critics. A Vogue editor of the time, Elizabeth Primrose, actively spoke out against them, saying slack-wearers were ‘letting themselves go’. These thirties pant suits were a precursor to the pizazz of the next era – power suiting. Not only that, but they opened the door to a plethora of options today – jackets, suits, blazers, slacks, pantsuits, playsuits and jumpsuits.
The Power Suit
Now we get to the most famous – or infamous – era of power dressing and its sharply-cut suits. The idea behind the power dress of the eighties was to take garments typically reserved for men and adapt them into a female equivalent that could stand alone from the original. It was about directing the gaze away from women’s expected femininity so that they could kick arse in the workplace. This meant a wave goodbye to the dresses and skirts of the sixties and seventies, and a hello to varying pants, blazers and jackets.
Looks from Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan added to the ensemble. Shoulder pads were brought in too, androgenising what had typically been expected as a more rounded silhouette in women’s fashion. There were pointy edges and many a burst of colour. What with the massive 80s-90s revival going on currently, some of these looks and geometric patterns have returned; albeit a little more subdued and paired with completely different options to their originators.
These days there appears to be no quintessential power dressing ‘look’. Instead, the current fashion generation seems to be somewhat of a ‘magpie generation’, borrowing and combining looks from all other eras to make a nest of their own. There are sneakers being paired with jackets; still a strong suiting selection utilising both pants and skirts. All sorts of patterns and colours are in – from the aforementioned neon brights referencing the 80s and 90s, to softer pastels. There’s a recent resurgence of the pantsuit and jumpsuit as well as denim increasingly being accepted in workplaces – no longer a purely casual option.
Less is it about adopting – sometimes clumsily – a male mould to get ahead in the corporate world. Look to Elizabeth Moss’, star of ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ classicism; Meghan Markle and Emma Watson’s clean modernism, or even the street style of musicians like Lady Leshurr, M.I.A. or Rihanna. Basically, it’s whatever makes the wearer feel both comfortable and confident, up to them to define their own mode of ‘power dress,’ asserting their individuality. It’s already gone on for a couple of millennia, may power dressing go on for many more!
Sam Worley | @driftnumbat
‘Being a design student; Sam’s favourite coffee is a long macchiato’.