The relation between women, power, and fashion is a complex and troublesome one. It is a painful irony that Kathleen Hall Jamieson described as a double bind: “Women who are considered feminine will be judged incompetent, and women who are competent, unfeminine…who succeed in politics and public life will be scrutinised under a different lens from that applied to successful men.”
Whether they are the leaders of a country, an international non-governmental organisation, a multinational corporation, or simply trying to make their way through a male-dominated professional world, women have to undertake a precarious balancing act between looking too feminine or too masculine, too sexual or too chaste, too fashionable or too démodé. Is there any way to overcome this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude towards female appearance in positions of authority? And, if so, is it possible to articulate, through the visual language of fashion, the relationship between womanhood and power?
Take, for example, the trend of female power dressing, which was typical of the business and politics environment of the 1970s and 1980s in America and the UK. The iconic silhouette was formed of exaggerated shoulders with a conical taper down to a tight skirt hem that fell at the knee. It was a style that is now identified with the struggle of women to establish their authority in a patriarchal hierarchy. The adoption of the masculine style was intended to integrate women into the “boy’s club” of the corporate and political elite. The power suit was designed to take the emphasis away from the softness and curvature of the female form, previously associated with the fashion of the “ornamental woman.”
The structured jacket shifted the focus of the upper body from the breasts upwards to the dramatic, almost military, shoulders. The characteristic shoulder length hair then drew the gaze from the shoulders to the face, thus promoting equal interaction with professional women. The idea was that through fashion, women were able to embody the path of success in a male-dominated world, by appropriating masculine style and, in so doing, projecting masculine power upon themselves.
And yet, this acute attention to aesthetics itself symbolises the female struggle to gain an equal footing in the professional world. If fashion has been used to introduce new ways of expressing womanhood, it has also been a shackle that keeps women’s social, economic, and political opportunities permanently tethered to their appearances. Power dressing exaggerated parody of masculinity undermines, rather than lubricates, the woman’s attempt to ingratiate herself within the patriarchy.
This aesthetic scrutiny of women echoes the idea that women’s role in society – even if that role holds huge professional or political power – is defined by the way she looks, eroding the efficacy of her message or purpose. The sociologist John Berger distilled this uncomfortable reality by noting that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
Words: Flora Walsh
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu