Why I Adore Power Suits

Date: 05/20/2022

Quick question: what’s your 2022 version of a ‘power suit’? For me, it’s whatever outfit makes me feel on top of the world—take for instance this black lace power suit. Whenever I wear it I feel unique and completely individual—actually, I think it really captures my personality too: a little punk rock edge with sleek classy lines and feminine lace, all rolled into one incredible power suit I’m happy to wear again and again!  

Inspired by that feeling of personal empowerment, I wanted to write a little bit about power dressing in the way I see it—as a one-of-a-kind way to build up confidence with style.

What is power dressing?

With origins in both men’s and women’s fashion dating back…well, forever, power dressing has always been in vogue. It is a mode of fashion motivated by a desire for success in political, social, and employment contexts, where power suits in particular have been a benchmark in the fashion world of formal dress. 

By 1977, however, a man by the name of John T. Molloy coined the term power clothing—a form of ‘wardrobe engineering’ where the wearer dresses in a way that moves them up the corporate ladder in order to be taken more seriously. 

My own interpretation of course, is that power dressing is any sort of dress that gives its wearer the sensation of empowerment. Yet, even I can’t ignore the subtle boost I get when I throw on what is traditionally considered a brand of power suit; say, a gorgeous tweed suit, or a colorful skirt suit like this vibrant tweed number from none other than Chanel!

That’s what the power suit was designed to do after all!

What is the history behind power dressing?

When you dig into it a bit further, power dressing finds its roots in some of the most popular social movements throughout the ages, for instance the ‘battle of the sexes’ where men’s and women’s fashion were (and sometimes still are) constantly in flux. 

In fact, the more I look, the more I begin to think the power suit in particular is almost a reflection of that ‘battle’. Indeed, as women’s clothes took on a more ‘masculine’ design, critics of both genders derided, scorned, and even banned some of the liberties women took at the time with their ‘power’ clothing. 

I am aware now too that the true ‘date’ for when power dressing started is most likely earlier than 1920. I’ve read a few articles now that talk about power dress dating back into the 15th and 16th centuries in male fashion, whereas this article says the popularization of the bicycle in the late 1800s may be the spark that caused the original ‘power suit’ fire for women.  

All that being true, my own knowledge of the history of the power suit really starts with none other than Coco Chanel. 

I’ve already spoken in another article about her little black dress, her use of tweed in unique suit designs, and her focus on freedom in women’s clothing; this time I’ll simply start with her initial influence on power dressing before I move into what power dressing and power ‘suits’ have become today. 

What is a power suit?

Chanel is said to have totally changed the face of women’s fashion with the unforgettable debut of her jacket and skirt design in 1920. It embodied masculine fashion yet allowed for the use of comfortable, breathable materials not usually seen on women, and only newly seen in men’s fashion (particularly tweed and wool). 

Remember, women’s fashion of the era revolved around lengthier hemlines, corsets, and other under-dressings. Chanel’s design is therefore seen by some as having heralded what became known as ‘the new woman’s uniform’. 

Indeed, her designs were seen as being reflective of the new freedoms women were experiencing in social and employment contexts at the time.

More than 70 years later, the evolution of that uniform into what fashion researchers in 1997 called the ‘dress for success uniform’ includes many of the biggest fashion names we still carry with us today. 

Design updates have for example included the introduction of pant-suits for women, originally in 1932 by Marcel Rochas (who was later responsible for shoulder pads!), and then emboldened with Yves Saint Laurent’s 1966 design, ‘Le Smoking’—a pantsuit that totally scandalized the fashion world. 

“Wearing a pantsuit was the expectation at the time if you were to be taken seriously as a businesswoman, but women were still criticised for trying to emulate men, because it was a derivative of menswear.”

–Shira Tarrant, author of Fashion Talks: Undressing The Power Of Style.

Another hit power suit came soon after in the 1940s: the zoot suit, which was culturally associated with Mexican American women, and had a more outwardly rebellious effect than other power suits—likely because it was the exact same suit their male counterparts wore. 

By the 1980s, Giorgio Armani was also noted to have influenced power suits for women with his tailored trouser or skirt suits that ‘took the gender out of fashion’. It wasn’t until Donna Karan came onto the scene in 1992, however, that the boxiness disappeared altogether from women’s power suits, allowing for more femininity with power suits.  

Moving back to where men’s fashion is concerned, new power suit designs rarely saw as drastic a change (as in women’s fashion) prior to the 80s, nor have they been met with much resistance outside of your basic classism or generational differences. Even now the original ‘box cut’ type power suit prevails, with either an American, Italian, or English collar style.  

“[the suit] remains the primary staple of a political wardrobe because of its psychological invisibility. A Brooks Brothers [box] suit symbolizes absolutely nothing, particularly when worn with no ornamentation save a wedding band and a cloisonné flag lapel pin.” [source]

What kinds of power suits are popular today?

As time has gone on however, the idea of power dressing has become a lot less ‘uniform’, and much more attuned to the person wearing any given type of ‘power suit’. 

For instance, while I live and breathe by Chanel’s original jacket and skirt design, some are ready to say that power dressing in 2022 has a more ‘anything goes’ mentality.

Some basics remain true of power dressing though. For example, a study completed in 2015 proved that we are ‘positively influenced’ toward productivity when we wear ‘work clothing’, and can even feel more relaxed in items we consider comfortable.  

This finding supports this new idea about power dressing: that it’s all about the wearer, and not about what is being worn. 

So: what does modern-day power dressing look like, and what does it look like to me?

“…it is becoming increasingly important to establish credibility and competence without relying on purely external symbols such as worsted wool suits, expensive ties, well-coiffed hair, and imported leather shoes.” [source]

As I mentioned, and as others agree, a power suit in the workplace, at an event, or anywhere else is no longer all that mandatory; yet, these suits still hold in our mind’s eye the same type of power or empowerment influences brought about by their very evolution. 

I’ve thus come to understand that a power suit in 2022 is ‘a suit that makes you feel like an elevated version of yourself’. 

Given this broad definition, and knowing that we can (but don’t have to) define all power suits by their similarity to designs created in 1920 or earlier, I think in 2022 you can define what a power suit is any way you see fit. Think of Bianca Jagger’s gorgeous wedding suit, for instance!

And while there are still scenarios and circles where specific types of ‘power dressing etiquette’ take place, these are becoming ever more few and far between. Like I said, individuality and empowerment seem to be what marks a true power suit in 2022!

In fact, a new term has cropped up on the ‘power dressing’ scene this year which I think you’ll love: it’s called ‘soft power dressing’ and it’s all about relaxed looks that can go easily from home to office. Skirts and jackets no longer need to match: instead this style embodies flowy feminine forms with long pleated skirts, vibrant but comfortable jackets, and silky pussy-bow blouses.

With that in mind, and with a ton of excitement for this years’ shopping trips, I’ll leave you with two more power suits from my wardrobe that always make me feel top of the world. Just remember, keep your style true to who you are whenever you dress to impress: for myself its always about feminine bright suits more than plain old back…just take a look:

Until then, with love,