Claire Underwood, House of Cards, via New York News
Working in fashion means that, when Monday rolls in every week, I have the pleasure and the curse of being able to say, wear a shin-length white cotton shirt that looks as if it had been smeared with crayola, pair it with a pair of flares and a silk mustard vest, plus accessorise the whole damn thing like a grannie on magic mushrooms without causing any of my co-workers to gasp, notice, or even give the entire outfit a second glance. Being a writer means that I can even forgo pants (or bottoms entirely) for the sake of journalistic research, and working regularly from home also means that I can (not that I should) spend the whole day in my stripy pyjamas and pretend that the look I’m going for is Venice gondola operator that hit the snooze button for one snooze too long.
I am very aware that not everyone is allowed this kind of sartorial freedom in the workplace. It may be the new season of House of Cards talking, Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement to run for the White House in the 2016 U.S. election, or the fact that it’s Monday again, but recent events had us thinking about power dressing here at The Urban List.
From Marlene Dietrich to Katherine Hepburn, Patti Smith and Grace Jones, the image of the powerful woman has almost always been associated with the suit, or with garments borrowed from men altogether, more often than not in dark, neutral tones.
To date, one of the most iconic symbols of power dressing remains the image of YSL’s Le Smoking, a controversial statement of potent sexuality against the ubiquitous femininity of the little black dress, shot for French Vogue by Helmut Newton in 1975. Gearing into the ‘80s, towering heels, strong shoulder pads and crisp tailoring in eye-punching brights gave way to an exuberant amazonian standard where women stood tall and imposing against the men of their time. The ‘90s brought anonymity to fashion in the office—think the perfectly fitted suits by Armani and Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang’s sharply deconstructed blazers. Today, sombre tones and quiet shapes that speak seriousness above all are the norm for both sexes in the workplace, but that doesn’t necessarily mean gender equality in the sartorial sense. Is this challenging or perpetuating the patriarchy?
Bear with me for a moment. After decades in the public eye, Hillary Clinton’s predilection for wearing scrunchies has been one of the most scrutinised aspects of her image, along with her trouser suits—which, by the way, she wears in every colour imaginable, so much so one could promptly produce a Hillary Clinton rainbow, should he or she feel so inclined and possess the necessary Photoshop proficiency. Thankfully the good folks at TheManRepeller have, and that brings me much joy.
Image via The Man Repeller
Back to the scrunchies though. Following the whole hair brouhaha, in 2001 Clinton gave a speech at Yale during which she gave the students some life advice: “The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.” The hair accessory-related shenanigans have been so many (including one, pretty hilarious “Hillary in UN Hair Fail” headline) that Clinton joked about almost titling her 2014 memoirs The Scrunchie Chronicles, 112 Countries And It’s Still All About The Hair instead of the more publisher- friendly Hard Choices, and I really wish she had gone with the former option.
Of course it is ridiculous and absurd to talk about a power woman’s wardrobe choices rather than focus on all the hard work that she is doing—and Clinton is not the only one to be continuously scrutinised. But it is also unrealistic to think that what we decide to put on in the morning isn’t a part of who we are and, especially on the age of visual bombardment through Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Snapchat where we all are, to some degree, public people, that the way we present ourselves doesn’t have a life of its own. Never one to conform to first lady dressing, Clinton herself is funny about this—her Twitter bio reads “hair icon, pantsuit aficionado”, sandwiched right in between “Wife, mom, grandma, SecSate” and “2016 presidential candidate”.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s about time we—and by we I mean employees and employers—advocate less sartorial boredom in the boardroom, and dare to take fashion, as an expression of individuality, into our working lives. Let’s make it a part of the discussion, but not in a way that it detracts from one’s accomplishments, but as a way to celebrate a person’s own sense of self. To have that discussion doesn’t mean you have to be frivolous or less professional about your work and about what you are doing. And if, when it comes to sartorial preferences and the politics of sex, men can have the cake and eat it - after all, Mr. Obama spoke about his suit predilections on Vanity Fair, and when Bill Clinton was asked “Is it boxers or briefs?” on MTV, he didn’t even flinch (the answer was “Usually briefs”, in case you were wondering)—without being ridiculed, why can’t we have it too?
I once had the pleasure of interviewing a major auction house art expert and auctioneer, and I remember being struck not only by her sheer brilliance, but also by the fact that she had the balls to wear outlandish prints, red dresses and lime green skirt suits as her workwear of choice. So what if Hillary Clinton wants to wear a metallic scrunchie to work? I’d rather she uses the time for the blowout for something more politically productive. What if she is indeed taking cues from Anna Wintour and wearing her sunnies indoors? What if, in fact, she wants to wear a canary yellow suit to a UN event? Here’s a woman unafraid to wear whatever the hell she likes—in that sense, and since her slightly hippie-looking days in her colour-coordinated forest three piece, or Beetlejuice—striped pants and mandals, she has always had it right all along.
If purely from a fashion point of view, I would love to see one such woman take the reigns as the White House’s resident style icon. If she continues on Michelle Obama’s tradition of supporting American designers, I would be interested in seeing how she dresses down, in her own no-nonsense way, say an Oscar de La Renta two-piece look—and I would love to see you do it too. For powerful power dressing, and if your pockets are lined with gold, I would recommend Raf Simons’ tuxedo dresses or tomato-red suits for Dior paired with architectural heels and a maybe a single tribal earring (hey, why not?), or perhaps one of The Row’s luxuriously languid shapes in wool, cotton and leather. If you’re more of a Claire Underwood type (minus the evil strain), I would love to see you in that voluminous, full- skirted McQueen number with the ankle strap Prada pumps (send me a picture, will you? I know you know what I’m talking about!), or maybe something silky by Ralph Laurent. There are also new offerings from Altuzarra or Christophe Lemaire - they can do no wrong in my eyes, and both deliver creative and refined pieces that adhere to dress-code constraints without ever veering on boring. Down under, Tome has just shown beautiful offerings at MBFWA and, if you’re looking for more purse-friendly options, I would recommend Catchlove Collective’s breezy take on the classic three piece suit, re-imaged in linens in black, forest or pink.
I for one, would love a president that can rock one of those Ellery ceramic button vests, or maybe something chic, cool and wooly straight out of Rosie Assoulin’s lastest collection. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first one to praise a classic, all-black suit, but I believe taking yourself and what you do seriously doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be allowed to have fun with what you wear, especially at work. That, my friends, would make my Mondays a lot less boring.