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Power Dressing: Is the Question of Feminism Still in Play?

Written by: Shubhangi Dua

Design by: Amelia Field

From unnatural pinched waists carved by corset gowns to statement shoulder padded blazers, women’s fashion has evolved immensely over the centuries, alongside the progression of society towards more gender-equal lifestyles.

Power and fashion are interlinked. Studies have proven the impact of clothing, such as carefully chosen power suits and colours (i.e. yellow equates to happiness and brightness).

Colour has really interesting meanings throughout different cultures and religions, and has impacts on both the wearer and the viewer; red, for example, is an auspicious colour in Indian culture and is even considered to bring prosperity and wealth in Chinese culture.

Personally, I am not a superstitious person, but I do coordinate my outfits according to my Hindu zodiac sign on significant days, such as for an exam or interview, and it makes me feel confident and powerful.

Power dressing, though, requires one to feel self-assured on the inside out; confidence is only generated if you’re comfortable and enjoying the clothes you wear. Princess Diana in her ‘revenge dress’ attire has certainly taught us to not only be rebellious, revolutionary or comfortable in our ensembles, but also to embrace the strength and power attached to every piece in your wardrobe.

Joseph DeAcetis writes for Forbes online on power dressing: “That authority can be a double-breasted blazer with an elongated silhouette and pair of heels that command authority. Or, simply challenging the traditional norms of femininity— with menswear suiting cuts with a softer shape, structural details and played against fluid silhouettes.”

His words on challenging male authority led me to wonder, couldn’t we challenge male dominance by changing the norms of wearing a suit altogether at a workplace, for example? Rather than focusing on what we wear, why not just be comfortable and do our job to the best of our ability?

Although there have long been societal expectations and associations with clothes and prosperity, the social world is evolving and, ultimately, clothes don’t define one’s worth. Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones was one such example that has inspired every women out there to dress strongly and represent your persona through the art of power dressing. I think we can all agree that Samantha’s pink pant suit really helped to elucidate an amalgamation of power, personality, as well as an element of comfort.

Have you ever wondered, though, how women were inspired to change their attire from corsets in the west or Saris, kimonos, Hanbok, Shúkà, kilts and so on, to globally adding westernised, ‘masculine’ suits to their closets as a ‘must have’ item?

A French actress who starred in several popular plays in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sarah Bernhardt, was the first woman to break the gender norms of society by audaciously stepping out in suits. “At the time, a woman sporting a man’s suit was scandalous, but this controversy didn’t keep her from further challenging gender roles,” writes Michael Andrews Bespoke, a luxury brand specialising in tailor-made suits.

The notion of the ‘power suit’ only progressed through time, from the Suffragette Suit, to the inspired Coco Chanel. The style icon and legendary fashion designer, Gabrielle Chanel refined the suits with tweeds and replaced pants with a skirt, adding femininity, force, and fascination notably in an era of male dominance.

Actual ‘power suits’ were embraced widely in the 1970s-80s when women entered the corporate industry in large numbers. Women unitedly broke gender boundaries in the workplace and adopted the style of broad shoulder padded blazers and pant suits.

As we progress through the 20th to the 21st century, prominent names, often in political scenarios, have continued to motivate society with bold and previously considered ‘masculine’ fashion choices, including: Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Meghan Markle, Amal Klooney, Cynthia Nixon, and so on.

Hillary Clinton’s official First Lady portrait, for example, showcases her in a pantsuit at a time when they were controversial and women were still establishing themselves in corporate and political settings. Clinton was said to perceive herself as a politician rather than ‘just a female’. She continued to make several big moves for women, making headlines during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, including her famous words: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”

Needless to say, fashion has revolutionised society and allowed women (and even made a move for most genders to feel more fluid in their clothing choices) to feel more liberated in the way they dress, but do females still need to wear suits in the 21st century to assert power or feel any kind of dominance? If suits make somebody feel confident, strong, authoritative, powerful, rebellious, modern and so on, then you should wear it in any style that aligns with your interests at any given time.

We have evolved enough to become comfortable in our skins and accept others who do so, with females now having the luxury to choose a career path we desire. Pant suits and power dressing, perhaps, continue to make one feel powerful, and so the trend of women in dressing in such a way will never end as long as we all continue to fight for our rightful place in society.

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