Written by Katharine K. Zarrella, The Wall Street Journal
OVER THE COURSE of her career, Martha Stewart, the self-made mogul and pop-culture phenomenon, has seldom considered the concept of power dressing. “It has never fit into my lifestyle,” said Stewart, 82, who worked on Wall Street before founding her Martha Stewart Living empire. “I’m probably more casually dressed than most women executives. I never felt I had to dress to show off for men. I just want to look good. So I’ve never thought of it as ‘power dressing.’” Even so, she knows what she likes—and what boosts her bravado, namely natural fibers, leather pants (like the gold ones above), anything from Hermès and, recently, a slouchy, monochrome Brunello Cucinelli suit that she wore over an Eres swimsuit—yes, swimsuit—to an event in New York. “It looked good, I felt great. There was nothing wrong with it.”
The fall 2023 runways looked like a scene plucked from 1980s television series “Dynasty” or the 1988 film “Working Girl.” Brands such as Giorgio Armani, Prada and, notably, Saint Laurent proposed pencil skirts, pinstripe trousers and jackets with shoulders so broad, one might assume they’d been injected with steroids. Many a fashion pundit proclaimed the return of 1980s power dressing, the broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted look propelled by such designers as Claude Montana and the late Thierry Mugler.
As with so many styles in women’s fashion, the “power dressing” look of ’80s catwalks and pop culture didn’t necessarily track with what women really wore. “Women’s suiting was much more conservative than what was seen on the runway,” said Nishi Bassi, a curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, where an exhibition focusing on ’80s consumerism will open on Nov. 1. As women entered white-collar workplaces, she added, they were “cautioned against looking too fashionable.” The received wisdom: to blend in with the boys while maintaining their femininity. “The Woman’s Dress for Success Book,” a deeply researched but spectacularly lame 1977 tome by John T. Molloy asserted that a “good skirted suit” with low heels was the ideal office option, neither too masculine nor too stylish.
So the cliché ’80s designer power suit was never a big part of the workplace status quo. And some observers, like Sara Idacavage, a fashion historian in Athens, Ga., suggest that designers weren’t beefing up shoulders to “make a powerful statement, but to accentuate a small waistline.” The suit signaling authority “is something that may have only become accepted through retrospect.”
Nadège Vanhée, Hermès’s creative director of women’s ready-to-wear, thinks we should discard those dated notions of power dressing. Today, “power dressing is a mindset,” she said. “It’s the intersection of assertiveness, confidence and what fits your mood. The definition is much more introspective than a simple equation of a pencil skirt and a suit. It’s about clothes that embolden you.” Vanhée generally avoids showing traditional tailoring on her runways, reasoning that women don’t need to “pantomime” power.
Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at e-retailer MyTheresa, says her clients have a similar perspective. “Power dressing is not so much how people see you, but how you feel,” she said. Postpandemic, “people feel like they have more freedom in the workplace,” said Hsu, and they’re not obliged to buy (nor are they buying) strict suiting. Among her approved professional outfits are oversize jeans, styled with pointy heels and an investment blazer; and full skirts, with a roomy button-down shirt and ballet flats.
“At my age, in this stage of my career, power dressing means being comfortable,” said Boston’s Kerry Healey, 63, the former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, who is now an independent director at Apollo Global Management.
When starting out in politics in the ’80s and ’90s, Healey said, “I wanted absolutely to conform to the sense of what a politician looked like. I cut my hair off. I wore plain suits. It was very prescribed. You didn’t want to distract from your message.” Today, she relies on easy-to-pack dresses and smart jackets and enjoys more fashion freedom than ever. “That’s one of the joys of aging. You have more latitude to be who you are and to express that in your dress.”
Jacky Levy, the costume designer on Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso,” considered that while styling the show’s female leads: Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), who takes charge of her wealthy ex-husband’s football team after a divorce, and Keeley Jones (Juno Temple), who transforms from model and footballer’s girlfriend to PR executive. Through the course of the series, “Rebecca gets more confident,” said Levy, who telegraphed this by trading Rebecca’s corporate, season-one suit jackets for fitted dresses, skirts and tops with hits of color. Keeley, meanwhile, runs her business in increasingly fashion-forward styles including fluffy coats, platform heels and a pink Versace mini dress. “We wanted to show that she was driven and serious…but always had a little uniqueness,” said Levy.
Though Sharon Yang, 40, works in policy partnerships at Meta in Washington, D.C., and not at a fictional PR firm, she still believes projecting personality through clothing is key. Yang has no desire to blend in with her colleagues, which was the goal of real-life power-dressing in the ’80s and ’90s. “I always wear one piece that’s memorable, so when I see someone again, they’ll associate me with that visual.” She also derives confidence from structured silhouettes. “I’m a petite Asian woman who looks young, and I drown in suits,” said Yang, “so my power move is wearing something that elongates me and amplifies my shape,” such as architectural skirts or outfits cinched with belts.
The belt move is a favorite of Kelly Wearstler, the Los Angeles lifestyle and interiors designer known for decking out top-notch hotels. Wearstler, 55, appreciates that belts lend a tailored look to her blazers and dresses. And she loves a shoulder-padded jacket—if it’s paired with a T-shirt and denim. “I dress how I design,” said Wearstler. “There’s always something vintage and something contemporary. I want to be myself…but also to be comfortable. As soon as you’re uncomfortable, it goes downhill.”
Marina Larroudé, a former New York fashion editor who launched a namesake footwear brand in 2020, agrees. “I remember going to an interview in a beige suit. I was like, ‘This is not me. I’m not beige and I’m not a suit,’” recalled Larroudé, 43, who now favors feminine Alaïa dresses for important meetings. “I’m a petite woman. If I go too masculine…it feels like I’m wearing a costume,” she said. “I like that [people] underestimate me by my clothes. It’s my game. My presence and experience prove that I know what I’m talking about.”
“Power dressing is whatever makes you feel like your best self,” said Karla Welch, a Los Angeles stylist and the co-founder of styling platform Wishi. “I love the runway power-dressing look, but that’s fashion’s fantasy,” she said. Her theory: The woman who buys Saint Laurent’s extreme fall styles might work in the C-suite, but she’s probably wearing those clothes to a party. “Ultimately there are rules,” she said, noting that workplace power-dressers must consider who they’re meeting with—and what their superiors are wearing. “But it’s OK to shine.” When she wants to command a room, Welch gravitates toward a Prada skirt and button-up, or an untraditional suit.
Vanhée of Hermès views the brand’s pleated fall dresses and skirts as looks with unexpected gravitas. When designing, she doesn’t think of power—she thinks of strength, because it’s something that “emanates from the self” and makes one feel free. “Let people see your personality,” said Vanhée. “Don’t erase yourself.”