“Fashions fade, style is eternal.” —Yves Saint Laurent
With the trend toward dressing down at work continuing, it is important for women to remember that the power suit is still a thing.
The Suit – The Great Equalizer
The struggle for equality in the workplace is ongoing; but to make progress in all fields women need to appear as authoritative and competent as men. Simply being competent is not enough; women must also look the part, and that means what a woman wears is essential. In some industries, such as medicine, the military and manufacturing, for example, men and women dress the same or similarly. But in the corporate workplace where there are more choices in how to dress, looking professional means making wise clothing decisions. And nothing makes a woman look more professional than the power suit — the great equalizer between women and men.
In corporate life, people compete with each other for business, key positions, memberships, perks and so on. When women compete against men who are typically dressed in suits and ties with spit-polished shoes or in coordinated casual attire, their look must be just as put-together and impressive. Even competing against other women, those who dress well give the impression that they are more credible and competent.
When a woman wears a well-cut and elegant suit, she conveys that she is a serious contender and someone with whom to be reckoned. She approaches every situation with polish, professionalism and prowess. She feels more self-assured, sophisticated, buoyant and in control. That glow emanating from her commands the attention of and respect from colleagues, managers, clients, vendors and the like.
A Symbol of Female Independence
As the Victorian Era (1837-1901) drew to a close, women emerged with a new outlook on life. Across class distinctions, women discovered new interests and motivations that took them outside the home to perform volunteer work or find employment in factories, shops and offices. Many also earned money by staying at home and sewing, for example. That broadening of women’s heretofore narrow world that was separate from a man’s world gave them the confidence, and for some the money, to make significant changes in their lives. They also made changes in the clothes they wore. Enter the woman’s power suit.
Many of us became familiar with the Edwardian Age’s (technically 1901-1914, but actually longer) style of women’s suits from watching the PBS-Masterpiece production of Downton Abbey. The gently fitted jackets extended to the hips or below, or sometimes had a peplum, and featured a defined waist; the skirts were long and flowing. This cut allowed women more freedom of movement while maintaining a feminine flair. Later, the Suffragettes adopted the suit and made changes to the skirt; they shortened and split it. This gave women more leg movement and the freedom and independence to make greater strides, both physically and politically.
The Pantsuit and the Little Black Dress
The 1920s brought Coco Chanel’s pantsuit and the little black dress. Both were revolutionary styles for the working woman. And as an occasional alternate to the power suit, the right little black dress for the office can — as it has for nearly a century — also make a forceful statement for the woman on the rise. In fact, a beautifully tailored dress in the right fabric, style and color is another strong and appropriate wardrobe choice.
The pantsuit clearly was life-altering, however, as women trooped to work looking shockingly stylish and feeling deliciously comfortable. Of course, in some industries pantsuits were banned, in others they were frowned upon and still in others enthusiastically welcomed. By the 1970s, the pantsuit had become a staple in a woman’s work wardrobe. The 1980s brought to the suit a return of the padded shoulders of the 1940s WWII era, and that iconic look was captured in one of my favorite films, Working Girl. That look was popular with women because it did two things: It made a woman’s shoulders appear broader so she looked more powerful, and at the same time it made her waist look smaller by comparison.
While the suit has undergone changes over the past century plus, its ability to make an impact has not changed. A woman wearing a suit, more than any other apparel, radiates a commanding presence. And it bears repeating: women need to look just as commanding as men if we are to compete with them in the workplace. I understand that some might think that paying attention to their dress and appearance is unnecessary if they are smart and competent, or that dressing well could be a detraction. To quell those concerns, I refer to the words that Coco Chanel famously uttered: “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
Even some who embrace the concept of dressing professionally have derided the power suit, claiming that women are simply copying the man suit instead of coming up with their own style. But I disagree; I think women have taken a good idea and made it better, made it their own. While the classic women’s suit remains black/navy/charcoal gray, over the decades it has become more feminine and interesting. To choose from are a number of styles and cuts; various colors such as red, maroon and royal blue, and pastels for the spring and summer; and patterns such as window pane and houndstooth. Moreover, accessorizing with a good piece of jewelry or a fun statement piece. a gorgeous handbag and beautiful — but comfortable! — shoes will ensure that no one will mistake the woman’s suit for a man’s! The woman’s power suit has been marked with feminine authority. Check out the suits and separates worn by the highly authoritative women on one of my favorite TV shows, The Good Wife.
Beware of Fashion Trends
From time to time a fashion trend has distracted from the power suit. Such a trend is the current one of wearing sleeveless dresses and blouses to work. Everyone has the right to bare arms, but is it a smart choice professionally? I think not. I say that because, to paraphrase a popular commercial, I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two. During the 1960s and ’70s, when I was in my 20s and 30s, some of the fashion trends I latched onto included wearing at various times to work:
What was I thinking?! Well, everyone was doing it, as they say. Back then too many of us obviously forgot the counseling of Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel, the latter of whom also stated that “Fashion Fades, Only Style Remains the Same.” But women weren’t the only slaves to questionable fashion trends; men were wearing the leisure suit in all its polyester glory.
With age comes wisdom. So while we can laugh at the footwear, hem length and fabric fads of yesterday, we need to beware of current fashion trend pitfalls. Getting back to the sleeveless trend, ever since First Lady Michelle Obama bared her beautifully toned arms women have been ripping off their sleeves. But it’s important to note that Mrs. Obama was at the time in a unique position, and not one that involved climbing the corporate ladder. She was and is in a class by herself, and already at lofty heights by virtue of her position. Moreover, Joyce Purnick points out an important distinction in her 2012 New York Times article about Mrs. Obama’s fashion trend:
“First ladies often set fashion trends, since no matter what their other accomplishments, the country obsesses about their appearance. Nothing new there. Women tried Mamie Eisenhower’s bangs, Nancy Reagan’s favorite color (red), Hillary Rodham Clinton’s headband (and senatorial pantsuits) and, of course, Jackie Kennedy’s everything. Every woman wanted to be Jackie, to wear her pillbox hats, trim A-line dresses and chic suits. However, hats can be modified to fit the head, dresses and suits are routinely altered to fit the body, bangs can be styled. Even red is not rigid; it comes in many shades. But bare arms? Bare arms are bare arms.”
Mrs. Obama did a good thing in prompting many women to work out to tone their arms — nothing wrong with that. And wearing a sleeveless shell under a suit jacket, and removing the suit jacket when in one’s workspace is fine. But there should always be a jacket to wear to a meeting or other engagement while on the job. A woman sitting with bare arms next to a man who is sporting full business formal regalia — suit, crisp shirt and tie — looks less professional and polished than the man. And even Mrs. Obama wore clothing with sleeves on many occasions.
Going sleeveless on dress-down days should still include a (casual) jacket, or a cardigan sweater. Even in summer or in states or countries where it tends to get hot, wearing a lightweight suit and taking off the jacket, when appropriate, should still be the norm. Baring arms as well as legs and toes in the corporate workplace should be done only in the most casual of offices and on dress-down days in more formal offices. But really, I’d save those looks for the weekend — the garden party, beach or backyard barbecue. And while we’re on the subject of legs and toes, do consider wearing sheer nude pantyhose with that power suit, with closed-toe shoes. Black tights are okay in cool weather when wearing business casual.
And, by the way, observing decorum in casual dress circumstances applies to men as well. It seems that once some men are told they can shed their suits for the day, they tend to go too far into their comfort zone. But it’s the wise man who avoids shorts, flip-flops, muscle shirts and other no-no’s on dress-down days.
It Doesn’t Have To Cost A Fortune
Owning an impressive work wardrobe needn’t cost a fortune. Women and men just starting careers or who are currently on tight budgets can begin by investing in one good quality suit. Women can purchase tailored separates — dark-colored jacket, pants and skirt — that can be mixed and matched. It’s far better to own fewer pieces of high quality than many pieces of lower quality. That first good suit (or separates) can be followed up by adding to one’s collection whenever possible. Watch for sales, haunt places like Nordstrom Rack, and check out local resale shops and designer outlets. (Note that I am not endorsing, just suggesting, because everyone’s experience is different.)
Until next time,