Opinion: the capitalist concept of power dressing is dead
The days of power shoulders and razor-sharp tailoring are over (along with #girlboss). Now, it’s all about speaking your truth through clothes, says author and political commentator Shon Faye
Monday 7 March 2022 By Shon Faye
Virginia Woolf was notoriously both obsessed by clothes and tortured by them. In her 1928 novel, Orlando, in which the protagonist changes sex from male to female, Woolf writes: “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.” Yet her own diary entries are riven by anxiety about her own dress sense: in one she lists her anxieties :”society; buying clothes…terror at night of things generally wrong in the universe; buying clothes, how I hate Bond Street & spending money on clothes”. She called it “frock consciousness”: the idea that clothes are the anxious meeting place between our own perception of ourselves and our knowledge that other people will perceive us, uncontrollably.
To me, it seems a relief that Woolf, one of the greatest women writers of the 20th century, recognised this link between clothing and the psyche. Last year, during the publicity campaign for my own book release, I frequently felt flashes of shame for how little I cared about the content of interviews I gave, and how much I cared about how I was styled and photographed in clothes and makeup. ‘Intelligent women shouldn’t care about this stuff too much’, I thought to myself constantly. This was despite many intelligent women I know caring deeply about style.
Last spring, I was struck by an Instagram post by the writer and academic, Emma Dabiri, whose political writing – and personal style – I admire greatly: ‘Can you be glam and taken seriously at the same time?’ the caption read. ‘You betcha. No more dimming our shine to fit into others’ limited perception of what “intelligence” looks like!’ Dabiri’s post reminded me of when I worked at a law firm and you could tell the difference between the younger female solicitors and the younger secretaries by their clothes: both were typically dressed in expensive clothing, but the lawyers were expected to cultivate a wardrobe that simultaneously conveyed authority as well as femininity.
‘I think we have to look a little bit frumpy’, a female lawyer-colleague told me once. Avoiding the charge of frumpiness required a high budget: Chanel blazer here, a COS high-necked blouse there. This conception of ‘power dressing’ handed down from the unbridled, grasping capitalism of the 1980s was, uncomfortably, about sex: the last thing a woman who aims to be taken seriously must do is be glamorous in a way that suggests a drive to be perceived as a sexual being. Yet neither must she be seen to mimic men. Clothes and feminism have an uncomfortable dialogue with one another; they’re two very different tools for women to move through the world without being reduced to their bodies.
All of this is also complicated for me: a woman who is trans. I also have to contend with the risk of being reduced to my clothes. When I transitioned, I was saturated in a culture of transmisogyny that insists trans women are mistaking clothing for embodied reality, that we confuse femininity with female. I often felt simultaneously compelled to refuse feminine shapes and colours so as to defy this stereotyping. I went several years without wearing a dress, for example. At a friend’s wedding a few years ago, I wore a magenta fitted suit that was inspired by the pale blue Marc Jacobs two piece worn by Cate Blanchett’s queer-coded character Lou in Ocean’s 8, which was showing that summer. At editorial shoots, I would only pick tailored trousers and sharp lines: ‘I’m not a fool for gender’ seemed to be the subliminal message I wanted to convey.
Something shifted after lockdown. Perhaps it was the satisfaction that came with completing a book that I knew would be taken seriously by the world. Perhaps it was simply that I existed for months throughout winter in the same black roll neck and jeans with no cause for glamour or femininity in lockdown. But I started being drawn to softer, feminine cuts and shapes. On my book tour, dresses by Molly Goddard with pink tulle and tiered taffeta have become a staple. I wear towering heels and puff sleeves at bookshop signings, my clavicle exposed in a Ganni square neckline or my cleavage elevated by a corseted midi. My intellectual work was devoted to challenging systems of dominance, still so often coded masculine. I needed my clothes to speak a different truth to the power of which I spoke: a softness, a vulnerability; an abundance of voluminous fabric, a cornucopia of my life’s frivolous pleasures. In the feminine revelation of my clothes, I try to show the world a different kind of power: my tenderness, undestroyed by the violence of which I so often speak.