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The New Age of Dominance:  The Evolution of Women's Empowerment through the Power Suit

There’s something significantly and universally sexy about a suit.

 

I’m not quite sure if it’s the James Bond influence that plays to one’s fantasies...Maybe there's something about how Bond's suits, clean-cut and tailored to perfection, never manage to stay that way throughout the films: especially not once he gets his hands on a feisty villain or seduces a lonely widow. Whether it's covered in blood or ripped apart, the suit still manages to look incredibly powerful… But enough of such trivial fantasies.


Photographer by MCC Current (Mhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/thecurrent/495072786)

Time and time again we have seen the suit used throughout history to showcase authority in politics and the workplace, as well as among iconic TV and film characters, whose suits convey their personality or the historical context of the show. We might think of Patrick Jane in The Mentalist, Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, John Luther in Luther, or Anthony Bridgerton in Bridgerton.

 

The suit seems almost unbeatable in terms of its appeal and effect on the masses, but a woman in a suit? Now that’s some seriously fun power play.

 


For historical context, tailored menswear can be traced back to the 19th century, when it emerged as a status and social stratification symbol. During this period, the suit grew to represent the standards of authority, professionalism, and masculinity, mirroring the social norms of the day. By the beginning of the Victorian era, men of money and prominence would typically dress in a three-piece suit, consisting of a fitted jacket, waistcoat, and pants. This ceremonial attire served as a way to demonstrate one's rank and authority in the social and professional domains, in addition to generally looking elegant.


(https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chanel_on_mannequins.jpg)

The interwar period saw the emergence of the "power suit" as we recognize it today. For men, because of the rise of corporate culture and the expansion of white-collar professions, the suit became the uniform of choice for businessmen and executives. These were characterised by tailored jackets with padded shoulders, straight-legged trousers, and conservative colours such as navy blue and charcoal grey. The power suit conveyed an image of authority, competence, and control. This is where we girls start to get involved, all thanks to the work of none other than Coco Chanel. Her Chanel Suit, according to costume historian Harold Koda, allowed women of the time to “de-sex” their feminine look and have a more masculine appearance, encouraging them to be accepted as equals in the professional sphere.


The power suit remained the mainstay of men's fashion throughout the middle of the 20th century, only quietly changing in terms of detailing and silhouette. At the same time, it began to acquire increasing popularity among women in politics, business, and entertainment, despite early opposition from the mainstream.



All of this was largely thanks to trailblazing individuals like Diana Kelton and Katharine Hepburn, who embraced the power suit as a declaration of confidence and independence. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that women started to question the conventional wisdom around power attire and make an effort to openly contradict this in environments where men predominated. The goal for women now wasn’t to fit in with men, but to stand out.

 

Women's fashion thus saw a radical change during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when ladies eschewed constricting clothing in favour of more useful and empowering options. The pantsuit, the female equivalent of the men's suit, was adopted and quickly became a symbol of equality and emancipation, upending conventional gender norms and questioning deeply ingrained ideas of femininity. It was also in the 1980s that the term “power dressing” was coined as a style that enabled women to establish their authority in a professional or political environment dominated by men. It is also when designers like Claude Montana were praised for contributing shoulder pad designs onto many of the blazers of power suits. (That said, as someone who was forced to wear padded blazers for school, I can safely say they are not something I would indulge in by choice…BUT nonetheless, they remain influential and iconic.)

 

Photo by Gage Skidmore (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/30648697602)

In more contemporary history, the power suit is now a staple for the average woman’s wardrobe. We’ve seen female political figures donning the attire: Hillary Clinton’s Pantsuit, Margaret Thatcher's Iron Lady Suit, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's White Suit are among the few. Most of these feature statement characteristics, including the aforementioned padded shoulders to signify a sense of dominance, or significant colours such as white or bright, feminine tones, as both a nod to the feminist movement of the suffragettes and to a future that was much more female.


As time continues, the power suit continues to serve as a symbol of resistance, as designers and activists push the boundaries of gender and authority in fashion. Modern interpretations of the power suit feature diverse silhouettes, colours, and fabrics, reflecting the evolving attitudes toward gender and identity. Designers such as Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, and Virgil Abloh have championed gender-neutral fashion, blurring the lines between masculine and feminine aesthetics and challenging traditional notions of power dressing.


Ultimately, the power suit serves as a powerful symbol of resistance against patriarchal norms, allowing women to assert their presence and demand recognition in political and social arenas (as they should). Given how throughout history our society was, and still is, often constructed and dominated by the opinions and decisions of men, I get it. The power play hits hard in a power suit, and I think all women should feel that level of dominance at some point in their life…and if the suit gets ripped apart on the way, that's just part of the fun.


 

Edited by Editor-In-Chief, Talia Andrea

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