Power-Dressing in Plague-time

chelsea g. summers on 2020-04-03

Knights, whores, witches and Zoom

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images


As I write this lede, it’s the second week of New York’s social distancing mandate. I’m wearing a t-shirt I slept in, woke up in, slept in again, and woke up in once more; a pair of besmirched jeans; some questionable socks; a battered cotton bra; and no panties. Rumpled, mussed, probably more than a little fragrant, I am wearing the clothes of the classic scribe.

Writers, curled like commas around our laptops or notebooks, tend not to think about what we’re wearing when we’re working (there are the oddballs, Susan Sontag in her bear suit; Maria Dahvana Headley, who sometimes writes in sequined ballgowns; Rachel Syme who believes in the life-changing power of outfits). But don’t misunderstand me — writers’ slovenly, negligent sartorial choices are a de facto power move. We don’t have to get dressed, we whisper our stretched-out yoga pants and vintage Pavement t-shirt, and then we laugh at you in your Ann Taylor Loft shift dress.

In this Plague Year of Our Capitalist Overlords 2020, however, everyone’s a writer, at least as far as our clothing and our hunched posture go. The scribe look is very now, very in, very today; everyone who’s anyone — from the investment bankers who plagiarized all their college essays to the duped college professors themselves — is rolling out of their beds and into their lives with the scented, wrinkled seamlessness usually reserved for those of us who make our money by the word.

In this context, my choice to move my nightclothes to daywear and back again is no power move. It doesn’t differentiate me from my 9-to-7 neighbors. It doesn’t mark me as intellectual, or cool, or special. It marks me as quarantined, terrified, mourning, bored, and dreaming of a life where I am looked at, and thus have a reason to care about what I look like. In a world where everyone is dressing like a writer there’s no power in looking like one.


Like time, glass, or water, power is always shifting, and the prismatic nature of power means that you can’t easily define what power-dressing is. “The power of fashion is symbolic,” writes Emma McClendon in Power Mode: The Force of Fashion, her companion book to her FIT exhibit of the same name. Power, McClendon observes, “is social….It is related to political position and economic status, but also to military strength, sexual authority, rebellion, and protest.” Poured into people’s individual vessels, power assumes the shape it needs.

Tailor, tinkerer, soldier, spy: the ever-morphing nature of power creates a fractal landscape for fashion choices that convey control, dominance, and dominion. Let us envision the power-suit, the garment you mind immediately conjures when you hear the term “power-dressing.” Wearing a suit to an office might be a power move, depending on the sharpness of the suit, but in an environment where most people wear suits, your suit would have to cut some fine freaking lines to elevate you above the madding, shoulder-padded horde. Wearing a suit to a parent-teacher conference, on the other hand, might get you some juice. Wearing a suit to a silent disco, however, would make you look like a tool.

To be clear, I specifically write about female-identifying humans and the ways that we dress to experience, seize, or otherwise project power. Male power structures and male power-dressing possess their own sets of interactions, and while some women’s power-clothing are predicated upon these masculine lay-lines, female power holds greater nuance because women are economically, culturally, and politically disempowered and because our fashion gives us more options. Despite this, I can’t deny that women’s power-dressing is rooted in masculinized culture.

Along with Regan Republicans, corporate deregulation, MTV, and the cellphone, the 1980s gave us the term power-dressing. “American women dress for failure [italics original],” John T. Malloy writes in his 1977 The Woman’s Dress for Success Book. Malloy proposes that the “only reasonable alternative is for women to let science help them choose their clothes.” What follows is 187 pages of mansplaining fashion in an effort to dress corporate women in ways that will be neither intimidating nor entice men. The resulting wardrobe (a parade of skirt suits in charcoal grays and navy blues with white or beige blouses) should, Malloy suggest, act like business cocktail of saltpeter, Xanax, and Red Bull.

These ’80s suits — Joan Crawford shoulder pads, nipped waists, pussy bows, and nonthreatening colors — reach their Hollywood apotheosis in Working Girl, the 1988 Cinderella story where a lowly Melanie Griffith secretary transforms into corporate shark by plundering Sigourney Weaver’s Giorgio Armani wardrobe. As much as Top Gun low-key functioned as a Navy recruitment ad, so too did Working Girl work to convert idiosyncratic clothes-wearers into greige corporate masses. All you need is a good blazer, sensible pumps, and access to a notched collar blouse, and you too can slide from the steno pool to a corner office.


While the term “power-dressing” is only as old as Gen X, the concept of dressing for power is ancient. Beginning in 601 BCE with Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, until around the mid-fifteenth century, the color purple was reserved solely for royalty; likewise, ermine fur was the go-to lining for European coronation gowns. The reasons for these exclusive uses are simple and symbolic: Tyrian purple dye was expensive, as were ermine furs, and conspicuous consumption of luxury goods has almost always been a power move. But while the historicity of power-dressing is long and diffuse, American women have internalized the idea that classic power-dressing is something very specific: a trim, tailored two-piece skirted suit.

Dr. Kate Strasdin, a senior lecturer in Cultural Studies at Falmouth University, dates the contemporary tailored suit concept of female power-dressing to one specific inspiration: fashionable horse girls. “You have women in kind of masculinized sportswear in the eighteenth century,” Strasdin notes, “and those who can afford it start to wear riding jackets that are tailored by men.” In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Strasdin says, Queen Alexandra, wife of England’s King Edward VII, “took the tailored costume from a sporting context, where you would wear it to watch your team, or you would go riding, and she began to wear it as daywear.” Alexandra didn’t do much for fashion, Strasdin suggests, but her pared-down, streamlined day suit is a powerful, lasting contribution.

The gentleman rider is a short leap from the medieval knight. Both rider and knight require sleek, body-fitting outfits that offer some protection while allowing for movement, and both rider and knight present a visual image that conveys elegance and physical power. Ancient though it is, armor proves to be a long-lived metaphor for women’s dressing (case in point, Phillipp Plein’s mirror-ball suit of armor from his fall 2016 collection). Recent New York Times and Washington Post articles refer to suits as “armor,” like it’s shorthand. “Sometimes the right outfit can work like a suit of armor to give you that extra boost you need to not just look the part, but to feel it too,” said The Zoe Report a year ago. “Your clothing is your armor, but it’s also your source of joy,” offers Glamour.

Like ye olde knights of yore, today’s women too gird their loins. But we do it in washable fabrics. “I feel powerful in very simple looks,” says Samantha Powell, a West Coast fashion writer whose go-to power outfit is skinny black pants, a black linen tank, and a blazer. “The clothes aren’t the focus. They’re almost like a blank canvas. Because then I become the focus. When I’m feeling really powerful, I don’t feel the need to hide myself.”

Armor doesn’t just project power, however. It also works as a shield. Writing in her memoir, Hunger, Roxane Gay says of her customary dark t-shirts and jean, “This is the armor I wear to face the world, and I assure you, armor is needed. I tell myself this armor is all I need.”

Who gets to wear armor as a power move — and who wears it as protection — holds a racial subtext. Numi Prasarn, who works as a creative producer in a media production company, observes, “There’s a certain amount of privilege white people have to move in a multitude of spaces without having to think about how they’re portraying certain things. As someone who is a person of color, you have to be more calculated.”

Powell agrees, noting that “to take up space, to draw attention to yourself as a Black person, does in certain areas, in certain places, around certain people, come with a side of risk of how people will react.” Power dressing is as much a choice to seize for yourself the available signs and signifiers of the privileged as it is the decision to take up space in a culture that demeans you; the former is relatively low risk, while the latter takes guts.


Dressing to elicit a reaction rests at the center of dressing for power. I think of moments when I consciously dressed for power — the time I wore a black wool two-piece sleeveless dress and snap cardigan with a fuchsia scarf for my first grownup job interview in 1983. The time I sewed a slinky black dress cut to the navel and to the butt crack with a bandeau bra with the intention of shocking my club bartender ex-boyfriend. How I chose a pair of black leather leggings, a white Philip Lim silk top, and a silver body harness as my wedding outfit. Or the Christmas party when I wore a sexy Mrs. Claus costume from my stripping days. Selecting these clothes, I calculated my ability to evoke a specific reaction: professional respect, regret, worship, and amusement, respectively.

One of women’s great dress failings, our old friend John T. Molloy claimed in 1977, is that “they often still view themselves as sex objects.” But one man’s sartorial poison is another woman’s pleasure, and I speak from personal experience, both private and professional, that there is a lot of power in dressing like a slut.

“I was slut shamed really young,” says Jo Weldon, author of Fierce: The History of Leopard Print. Weldon, who is also headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, names the “dominatrix silhouette” as her “favorite.” Weldon finds a subversive power in clothes she calls “slutwear” because these clothes let her claim the “slut” label on her own term. “The slut-shaming thing, I was like, well, so what if that’s true? So what if that’s true? And not just on my own behalf, but on the behalf of other people. I was like, I just won’t take it.’” Now 57, Weldon hasn’t changed her style. “As I age, I’m gaining power by wearing these things, because I’m learning that all the hate that I’ve been promised isn’t always there.”

Whether it’s called slutwear, fetishwear, boudoir wear, or simply dressing like a whore, sexualized clothing grips its power in an explicitly feminized wrapper. Time and feminism may have exploded the virgin/whore dichotomy, but the sexual double standard persists. Women are still castigated for owning, exploring, and embodying their sexual selves. Few women would march in the modest counterpart to Slut Walk because these high neck, calf-skimming garments aren’t protest, they’re capitulation — unless, of course, you shift the landscape from the streets to the business world.


One thing about female power-dressing: it’s spreading its feminine wings. Balenciaga paraded a slew of dresses with jutting, angular shoulders; nipped waists; accordion pleats; and tiny floral patterns. Thrown on models irrespective of gender, this silhouette resembles nothing so much as avenging angels — angry feminized forms poised to swoop down and exact righteous wrath. There’s an aggressive feminine power vibe shimmering in the air of late. Killing Eve’s assassin, Villanelle, resplendent in a Powerpuff-Girl-pink Mary Goddard tulle dress. Harley Quinn’s shocking pink Marilyn Monroe sheath-pants and E-Girl heart stamp. Rihanna in her embroidered duster, tight pink graphic tea, and thigh-high oxblood boots in “Bitch Better Have My Money.” High femme is here, and it’s out for blood.

Powell sees fashion details like “humongous bows” as a power move. “It’s almost a reclaiming of those things that were seen as soft or weak,” Powell says. “It’s part of taking those things that were described with lesser adjectives and making them powerful…flipping them and making them into powerful statements.”

Perhaps the most powerful feminine archetype is the witch (and the witch is having a serious moment). Prasarn says, “I have this joke that my ideal aesthetic is I want people to look at me and wonder, ‘Is she an art director or is she a witch?’ That’s what I go for in power dressing.” Prasarn opts for “flowy robes, and black, just black on black” in her pursuit of “mystical strength.” “I think that there’s this rebellious pushback to be aggressively feminine,” Prasarn suggests. However, Prasarn admits, “I’m wearing armor, but my options for what armor looks like have changed.” Stronger than steel, silky clothes tap into an imagined atavistic witchy power that feels inextricably linked to femininity.

Rebellious power also finds strength in dressing against the sizeist grain. “Getting dressed while plus sized is really hard,” Amanda Mull, a staff writer for the Atlantic, acknowledges. “I think part of power dressing while fat is sort of steering into that skid. I tend toward maximalism in power dressing. I like big coats, and big earrings, and big boots, and sort of a purposeful oversizedness that doesn’t try to play down the space that my body takes up, but in fact sort of enhances it. I don’t know if I would be as prone to those impulses in power dressing if I weren’t fat.”

To Mull’s thinking, the essence of power-dressing is bound up in interrogating the essence of gender roles. “Dressing for power is a way to challenge sort of stereotypical notions of femininity, and stereotypical notions of masculinity. Power dressing sort of asks us to reimagine what we mean when we say something is feminine or something is masculine — and asks us to reimagine what femininity means.” If power dressing in the modern age means erasing gender’s demarcation lines, it’ll be doing something that the ’80s and its shoulder pads could never have envisioned. Dress for the gender you want, not the gender you have, this line of thinking suggests, and I gotta say, the freedom feels intoxicating.


As I write this conclusion, millions of Americans hunker in their homes, glued to Netflix. Those of us who still have jobs are working from home, while the remainder work out in the world, exposed and terrified. Friends have reported getting marketing emails about power-dressing for Zoom meetings (Statement jewelry! Scarves! Wraps! Big earrings!). When I sign into my company’s Zoom, the puffy, whiskered men look like they’ve rolled out from a Phish concert; the women, like me, keep our icons blank and black. We refuse to show our bedraggled selves, and we reject applying makeup just to Zoom.

Black humor abounds in this Coronavirus time, and memes proliferate. The spring 2020 look, one image suggests, is a black turtleneck dress, a wide-brimmed black hat, leather boots and gloves, a cape, a cane, and a distinctive bird-beaked plague doctor mask. A seventeenth-century precursor to the modern hazmat suit, the plague doctor’s long coat, high boots, and covered face was shockingly effective at keeping the bubonic plague at bay. Beyond its bare-bones utility, however, the plague doctor garb granted a lugubrious power in its embracing of the eldritch — and its harrowing visuals would have acted like a social distancing mechanism.

These terrifying days, access to PPEs grants the ultimate power. It’s a strange thing, writing about fripperies and suits in a time when thousands are imperiled in my home city of New York. It’s sobering to think that people will die because healers can’t get the proper clothes. I write this conclusion hoping for the best, and praying for a time when we will once again dress for others, dress for the outside world, dress for the outside life, when we will feel the powerful joy of trifles and the ecstasy of frivolity.