is there an aesthetic of female power?

Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Hillary Clinton — some of today's most powerful politicians are women, but is sexist reporting of their fashion choices clouding discussion of their politics?

by Jake Hall
21 July 2016, 2:04pm

"Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman." These words, first spoken by Coco Chanel, later came to life in 1988's Working Girl when recited by Katherine, a formidable businesswoman played by Sigourney Weaver. They are directed at Tess, an ambitious small-town girl vying for respect in the cut-throat, male-dominated offices of New York. The message is simple and direct - if you want success, your clothes must project your desire. "Power dressing," as it became known, is a catch-all term for the 80s uniform of nipped-in suit jackets, skyscraper heels, and super-wide shoulder pads - all teamed, of course, with blow-dried hair astronomical in its proportions. It was a balance of glamour and androgyny which quickly lost momentum as fashion moved towards minimalism in the 90s. 25 years later, however, the classic look is re-emerging, reimagined in the architectural silhouettes of Balenciaga. But is power dressing still a political statement, or just a relic of a past era?

The question was raised off the catwalk in the press depictions of Theresa May, who recently became the second female Prime Minister in British history. The Sun subsequently celebrated her victory with a frankly awful front page, upon which the words "Heel, Boys" were emblazoned over a photograph of her leopard-print kitten heels "trampling" her male colleagues. It isn't the first time her heels have been used to illustrate articles surrounding her political career - but why?

There's an undeniable note of fetishism in The Sun's headline, which transforms May into a kinky mistress dominating her male opponents, and it's not the only coverage that's placed disproportionate emphasis on her clothing. Entire articles were penned about her colorblock coat, a figure-hugging Roland Mouret dress quickly garnered column inches, and The Sun managed a listicle of her "snazzy style" moments.

It's an obvious double standard in the world of politics. Sure, Jeremy Corbyn was slammed for that tracksuit picture and the tie debate became infamous, but media outlets largely focus on the style choices of female politicians and male politicians' wives. The parameters of male formal dressing are narrow - there isn't too much to say about a suit and tie. Women's wardrobes, however, allow greater scope for self-expression and are analyzed due to the implication that their outfits are coded, that we can learn whether or not a woman is suitable for the job based on her attire. Hillary Clinton has faced similar scrutiny throughout the duration of her political career, often seeing discussion of her policies dwarfed by focus on her colorful clothing. The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman pointed out this year that Clinton finally managed to shift focus away from her aesthetic by "boring everyone into silence" with a series of nondescript outfits, which begs the question - why is it always implied that fashion and politics are mutually exclusive?

Perhaps it stems from the assumption that fashion is superficial, a cosmetic concern which detracts from serious matters at hand. This, ultimately, is untrue. It should never be seen as taboo to examine the ways in which wardrobe can skew public perception; in fact, it's worth noting that very little of the coverage on Theresa May has been overtly negative and it has largely, in fact, been fashion editors praising her ability to dress smartly yet look chic. Robb Young highlighted the intersection between the two fields in his 2011 book Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion, a concise exploration of the ways in which women such as Winnie Mandela, Michelle Obama and, of course, Margaret Thatcher communicated through clothing.

So how does this tie in to power dressing? Put simply, sartorial explorations of female power have diversified since the 80s because there are now more women in power. Gareth Pugh's take on the trend was accompanied by Hannibal Lecter masks and a soundtrack of Grace Jones' "Corporate Cannibal" - it was a stunning yet sinister exploration of so-called "power bitches" which, incidentally, was largely inspired by Hillary Clinton.

Demna Gvasalia's two-piece "power look" at Balenciaga, on the other hand, seemed to be a natural extension of the sculptural silhouettes for which he became renowned. This was proven by the fact that the suit was one mere component in a collection which also included blown-up puffer jackets - there was a continuity in aesthetic, but not necessarily in concept. Although obviously filtered through an exaggerated lens, these are prime examples of fashion as cultural commentary - it's no coincidence that discussions surrounding female power have once again emerged on the runway as women such as Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton are cementing their status as the world's most powerful politicians.

These collections, however, don't necessarily reflect modern "power dressing" - if anything, their architectural silhouettes and extreme presentation highlight that shoulder pads and skirt suits are rooted firmly in the past, not the present. The real women in power nowadays are as likely to conform with the traditional skirt suits as they are to embrace their femininity, like Theresa May, who refuses to hang up her kitten heels and abandon her glamorous designer wardrobe.

Then there's Michelle Obama, a woman who instantly used her platform to spotlight her favorite designers and racked up a significant style following in the process. Ultimately, women are damned if they do and damned if they don't; an interest in fashion is often used by press to downplay political credentials, yet women favoring the silhouettes synonymous with the original aesthetic are deemed matriarchal and out of touch. Ultimately, clothing - when used correctly - is one of the most powerful tools in a woman's arsenal. It seems that today's power players are recognizing this potential, following their sartorial instincts to be seen as both stylish and professional. There may be the occasional sexist headline, but it seems unlikely that this culture of shaming is likely to push us back to original "power dressing" any time soon.


Text Jake Hall
Still from Working Girl

theresa may
Angela Merkel
Gareth Pugh
Power dressing