Strong Suit

Power dress­ing is how women used to wage bat­tle in the work­place. De­sign­ers are start­ing to tear that no­tion apart.

Fashion (Canada) - - The Market | Products - By Olivia Stren

When I think about dress­ing for an im­por­tant meet­ing, a scene in Nancy Mey­ers’s 1987 rom­com mas­ter­piece Baby Boom comes to mind. Diane Keaton’s J.C. Wi­att (a.k.a. “The Tiger Lady”), a turbo cor­po­rate con­sul­tant, marches into the board­room of a mid­town Man­hat­tan firm to sell Coun­try Baby, her puréed-baby-food busi­ness. She is wear­ing a sharp-shoul­dered skirt suit in shades of black and sky­scraper grey, and her ner­vous sys­tem is as tightly wound as her giant buck­led belt. She lands the deal, only to de­cline it. In­stead, she re­solves to trade her pumps and speaker phone for a but­ter yel­low clap­board farm­house in Ver­mont and con­tinue mak­ing baby ap­ple­sauce, sit in rock­ing chairs with her cherry-cheeked child and hand­some vet­eri­nar­ian boyfriend and wear soft-hued fem­i­nine cloth­ing amid ten­der light­ing and lacy drap­ery. I would turn down the deal, too, if do­mes­tic bliss with a young Sam Shep­ard was the al­ter­na­tive. But that, of course, is not the point. This is: In the ’80s, power and soft­ness were (for­give me) ill-suited. The C-suite was no place for pret­ti­ness. Power was only a pair of over­achiev­ing shoul­der pads and a few pin­stripes away. This point was never more mem­o­rably made than in the open­ing scene of Mike Ni­chols’s 1988 Work­ing Girl, ar­guably the finest man­i­festo of ’80s cap­i­tal­ism. Melanie Grif­fith’s char­ac­ter, Tess McGill, an outer-bor­oughs sec­re­tary, treks to her of­fice in a pave­men­thued skirt suit, her coif as ver­ti­cally in­clined as her am­bi­tions and her shoul­der pads broader than the Brook­lyn Bridge. Like J.C. Wi­att, Tess is suited for bat­tle. The bot­tom line, how­ever: Power and fem­i­nin­ity did not a merger make.

Thirty years later, power dress­ing has evolved in ways that sex­ual pol­i­tics have not (at least, not enough). In these #TimesUp times, de­sign­ers are un­do­ing the seams that have long di­vided power and soft­ness. “I think that the suit, for a long time, was try­ing to em­u­late a menswear sta­ple when women were wear­ing it to work. It was about hid­ing your fem­i­nin­ity,” says Joseph Al­tuzarra, the (un­of­fi­cial) work­ing wo­man’s de­signer lau­re­ate. “With so many strong women to­day em­brac­ing a more tai­lored, fem­i­nine pantsuit sil­hou­ette, I think it has emerged as a sym­bol of fe­male em­pow­er­ment and strength. In our case, the tai­lor­ing is al­ways about cel­e­brat­ing fem­i­nin­ity and a wo­man’s strength.” Al­tuzarra can claim tai­lored work­wear is at the heart of his brand and cred­its his mother, who clocked in at a bank ev­ery morn­ing, as the in­spi­ra­tion for his Fall 2018 col­lec­tion. While his mother may have reached for Ar­mani, Al­tuzarra’s pin­striped pieces, with their hour­glass sil­hou­ettes, are pat­terned with the kinds of del­i­cate flow­ers that doff the com­pen­satory mas­culin­ity and con­ser­vatism of her work­wear. “A very tai­lored and sen­sual suit that is nipped at the waist can be just as pow­er­ful as a suit that has a strong shoul­der and slouch­ier sil­hou­ette,” says the de­signer. “I think much of it is how the suit makes a wo­man feel—if it can make her look sexy and feel con­fi­dent and com­fort­able.”

Al­tuzarra is hardly the only de­signer who has reimag­ined work­wear and re­fash­ioned the no­tion of power dress­ing. Gior­gio Ar­mani, the god of the power suit, closed his Fall 2018 show with »

a twin­kling crys­tal-stud­ded black pantsuit. And Gabriela Hearst cited “women who have to dress like men to go to work” (ref­er­enc­ing Vic­to­rian-era coal min­ers) as the in­spi­ra­tion for her Fall 2018 col­lec­tion. (Al­though her pieces—a dou­ble-faced cash­mere robe coat lined with Prince of Wales plaid, a knit hound­stooth coat, a camel cash­mere wrap skirt—are more likely to ac­com­pany women labour­ing at char­ity salad lun­cheons than in the mines.) She has cited power women Robin Wright, Lau­ren Hut­ton (whom she met at an African Rain­for­est Con­ser­vancy event) and Ce­cile Richards (the former pres­i­dent and CEO of Planned Par­ent­hood) as her muses. The de­signer’s ex­trav­a­gantly lux­u­ri­ous clothes are sen­su­ous in the fin­ery of their fab­rics but also sen­si­ble and em­pow­er­ing in­so­far as they are tai­lored for mak­ing (lit­eral) strides. “There’s a mas­culin­ity in my ap­proach,” Hearst has said. If the power suit of yes­ter­year was quite lit­er­ally dis­em­pow­er­ing—con­fin­ing and en­cas­ing women as it did in its tight skirt—Hearst’s cloth­ing is, rather, di­vined to wel­come mo­men­tum. Stella McCart­ney has part­nered power with leisure, of­fer­ing a play­ful, ease­ful and de­con­struc­tion­ist take on the three­piece suit, some­times turn­ing menswear clas­sics quite lit­er­ally inside out: Lin­ings have been worn as sleeves, while pin­striped waist­coats have rubbed shoul­ders with long coats worn ro­belike over trousers. Ital­ian fash­ion house Max Mara, which has long traf­ficked in the busi­ness of swathing the power wo­man in camel cash­mere, sum­ma­rized its Fall 2018 col­lec­tion with the at­tached show note: “Women de­mand suc­cess on their own terms and dress ac­cord­ingly.” And even New York de­signer Ulla John­son, beloved for her flow­ing OOO-ready frocks (not power suits), fash­ioned a Pre-Fall 2018 col­lec­tion that was more tai­lored and graphic, more Man­hat­tan than meadow, view­ing this out­ing as a meditation on women and em­pow­er­ment. “Pretty didn’t equal pow­er­ful,” she said, re­flect­ing on the back­ward no­tion of fem­i­nin­ity and power as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, “and I think that has been my life’s work: ex­plod­ing the bi­nary be­tween fem­i­nism and fem­i­nin­ity.” In what is ar­guably the ul­ti­mate self-em­pow­er­ing move, John­son has cast her­self as her own muse, build­ing a brand based on her own aes­thetic. She has done her best lad­der climb­ing in prairie dresses. If this wasn’t a con­scious mar­ket­ing strat­egy, it’s been a canny one, re­in­forc­ing the de­sign memo du jour: There is more power in free­dom—more power in dis­miss­ing rules than con­form­ing to them.

Power, I’ll ad­mit, has not his­tor­i­cally been, well, my strong suit. I’m sorry to ad­mit that my bed fre­quently moon­lights as my board­room, that I am most of­ten in con­fer­ence with my cats and my tod­dler and that my uni­form re­clines more to­ward sleep suits than power suits. The clos­est thing I’ve had to a power suit is a pair of Ox­ford-striped man jams. But while on a re­cent trip to New York, I stayed on (glo­ri­ous) as­sign­ment at The Pierre ho­tel—the kind of grand old-world prop­erty that em­ploys a white-gloved el­e­va­tor at­ten­dant to han­dle the rigours of but­ton press­ing. I had, for once, what felt like an im­por­tant meet­ing—a break­fast date with a mag­a­zine edi­tor in Mid­town. With nary a lapel to my name, I wore a flowy, breezewel­com­ing Ulla John­son dress. As I left the ho­tel that morn­ing, sum­mer sun­shine driz­zling se­quins over the ho­tel’s cop­per mansard roof, a liv­er­ied door­man strode into the mid­dle of Fifth Av­enue, stopped traf­fic and whis­tled down a cab for me. Fleet­ingly, thrillingly, I felt hope­ful, em­pow­ered and ready for busi­ness. I felt like a Diane Keaton char­ac­ter in a Nancy Mey­ers movie. Which is to say that it may have been the best 15 sec­onds of my life.

There is more power in free­dom—more power in dis­miss­ing rules than con­form­ing to them.

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