A power suit for the mod­ern woman.

What does mod­ern power dress­ing mean? Be your­self. Clara Young ex­plains.

Elle (Canada) - - News - By Clara Young

the tenets of power dress­ing used to be sim­ple: a trench coat, a pair of very good shoes and a well- tai­lored suit— the lat­ter of­ten might­ily but­tressed by shoul­der pads. How­ever, a re­cent study con­ducted by Har­vard Busi­ness School found that not only do a suit, tie and Rolex not al­ways read as pow­er­ful; they can ac­tu­ally be trumped by a lousy pair of sweat­pants and a cheap watch. The study asked sales as­so­ciates in Mi­lan lux­ury bou­tiques whether a woman wear­ing gym clothes or a woman in a fur coat en­ter­ing a high-end store was more likely to buy some­thing. The lady in the Fendi top­per, right? Nope. The sales as­so­ciates pre­dicted that Ms. Gym Rat was more likely to shell out for a Birkin. In an­other sce­nario, the study asked univer­sity stu­dents to choose who was more pow­er­ful and com­pe­tent: a clean-shaven pro­fes­sor wear­ing a tie or a bearded pro­fes­sor wear­ing a T-shirt. The stu­dents picked the lec­turer with three-day-old stub­ble in the Cham­pion tee.

What man­ner of su­pe­ri­or­ity em­anates from yoga pants and a con­cert h

T-shirt? The French call it je ne sais quoi and leave it at that, but the Har­vard re­searchers con­cluded that “in­ten­tional non­con­for­mity” sets apart the rich and pow­er­ful. Trans­lated into fash­ionese, this in­cludes Lon­don mayor Boris John­son’s haystack of a hair­style, ar­chi­tect Zaha Ha­did’s black opera-house-pro­por­tioned coats, Mark Zucker­berg’s hoodie and In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund’s pres­i­dent Chris­tine La­garde’s banner scarves. In­ten­tional non­con­formists know the dress code but don’t give a damn. As one in­sight­ful shop as­sis­tant in the study put it, “Wealthy peo­ple some­times dress very badly to demon­strate su­pe­ri­or­ity.”

A form of this strategy has worked for Pope Francis, who turned down the tra­di­tional er­mine-trimmed crim­son pa­pal shrug in favour of a min­i­mal­ist white cas­sock. The rich vel­vets and gold Vat­i­can bling have re­mained in the pa­pal closet, and the Pope’s pop­u­lar­ity has risen heaven-high.

Still, im­pov­er­ish­ment, even of the Je­suit­i­cal va­ri­ety, is at the ex­treme end of the power-aura spec­trum. Per­haps a more use­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tion of those Har­vard find­ings is that pow­er­ful peo­ple are not afraid to be them­selves or, even, to be a lit­tle bit more than them­selves. “True power is the lib­erty to be an in­di­vid­ual with a point of view, fash­ion and oth­er­wise,” sug­gests Gay Gass­mann, a Paris-based art cu­ra­tor who reg­u­larly wears Marni, An­drew Gn and Chanel. “It’s about hav­ing the op­tion to not con­form and have a per­sonal style. It fol­lows that the higher up the lad­der one is, the more the fash­ion rules break.”

For fans of The Good Wife, the rise of Ali­cia Flor­rick ( Julianna Mar­gulies) from hard-done-by po­lit­i­cal wife to top-flight Chicago lawyer of­fers a les­son in adopt­ing sub­tle hall­marks of sar­to­rial power. “In the be­gin­ning, her look was very ‘I’m re­ally try­ing. I have on my blazer. I’m ready for work,’” says Daniel Law­son, the show’s cos­tume de­signer. “It was boxy and mix-and-match, but now [she wears] more fit­ted, flat­ter­ing head-to-toe en­sem­bles with an­gu­lar, ar­chi­tec­tural neck­lines.” Law­son dresses Mar­gulies in la­bels like Es­cada, Ar­mani and Max Mara and also of­fers wardrobe work­shops to pro­fes­sion­als who want the Ali­cia Flor­rick look. “It al­ways sur­prises women when I tell them that they h

don’t have to wear col­lared blouses, [a ver­sion of] the men’s dress shirt. It’s okay to have a pretty, el­e­gant un­der layer—a tank, a shell or some­thing with a scarf that ties into a bow—as an al­ter­na­tive to just a shirt.”

Car­rie Gold­berg, a Brook­lyn­based lawyer, re­mem­bers that neck­ties were the pièces de ré­sis­tance in her out­fits dur­ing her early days in court. “I had just in­her­ited both my grand­fa­thers’ col­lec­tions of beau­ti­ful silk neck­ties, and as a be­fore­work rit­ual my then hus­band would knot my tie,” ex­plains Gold­berg. “I rec­og­nized the value in be­ing mem­o­rable, which started with be­ing vis­ually mem­o­rable.” Gold­berg’s ap­proach? “I branded my­self, adopt­ing a spe­cific uni­form: a skirt­suit, ridicu­lously high heels, over­sized glasses and hair in a loopy bun.” While Gold­berg no longer rigidly ad­heres to this at­tire, in court­room bat­tles she al­ways bran­dishes what she calls her “ex­ten­ders”: long nails, long eye­lashes and high heels. “My ex­ten­ders all feel like lit­tle weapons to me,” she says. “The heels are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant be­cause, al­though I’m not par­tic­u­larly short [five feet five inches], I like to be as close to eye level as pos­si­ble with my ad­ver­sary. And I al­ways wear a pair of over­sized glasses.”

Men’s neck­ties and XL glasses, how­ever, re­quire a de­gree of style lit­er­acy rare in most ex­ec­u­tive spheres. Mary Barra did not be­come the first woman to run Gen­eral Mo­tors by ex­per­i­ment­ing with out­landish Louboutins and Lan­vin neck­laces. In fact, most pho­tos show Barra wear­ing dark pantsuits and white col­lared shirts. Forbes’ most pow­er­ful

Women who hold the top jobs must still look as if clothes are but a dis­tant af­ter­thought.

woman in the world, Ger­man chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel, wears noth­ing but the most risk-averse suits. Her high-pow­ered peers—Hil­lary Clin­ton, Fed­eral Re­serve chair­woman Janet Yellen and U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Elena Ka­gan—re­port­edly rely on a lit­tle-known Amer­i­can de­signer named Nina McLemore for their con­ser­va­tive wardrobes. (Think jack­ets, jack­ets and more jack­ets with nary a high heel or ob­streper­ous piece of jew­ellery in sight.) Ac­cord­ing to Robb Young, au­thor of Power Dress­ing: First Ladies, Women Politi­cians & Fash­ion (2011), these women are likely em­brac­ing a spe­cific sar­to­rial strategy. As Young writes: “In the po­lit­i­cal and cor­po­rate worlds, in­di­vid­u­al­ity can be an ef­fec­tive de­vice for power dress­ing only so long as it’s noth­ing more than a play­ful brush stroke on an oth­er­wise con­ven­tional can­vas. But if you cross that in­vis­i­ble line of con­form­ity, there can still un­for­tu­nately be hell to pay from the army of arm­chair crit­ics.”

Clothes may make the man, but clothes can­not make too much of the woman lest she be ac­cused of be­ing fash­ion­able and, by ex­ten­sion, fee­ble-minded. Women who hold the top jobs must still look as if clothes are but a dis­tant af­ter­thought. “She didn’t seem to care about her out­ward ap­pear­ance at all,” Lothar de Maiziere, the last East Ger­man prime min­is­ter, re­cently re­called about Merkel as a po­lit­i­cal new­comer in 1989. “She looked like a typ­i­cal GDR [Ger­man Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic] sci­en­tist, wear­ing a baggy skirt and Je­sus san­dals and a cropped hair­cut.” If pow­er­ful women are sim­ply un­in­ter­ested in fash­ion, that’s fine. But if they re­press their nat­u­ral sense of good style by dress­ing con­ven­tion­ally or even badly, then fem­i­nism has ad­vanced lit­tle in mat­ters of power dress­ing. The only progress is that we are no longer obliged to dress like men. ■

The fall/winter 2014 suit sil­hou­ette—seen here at Stella McCart­ney—is as re­laxed as a 5à7 cock­tail.

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