At the autumn fashion weeks held across fashion capitals in the last month, soft and pretty gave way to something more tough. Prada’s sharply tailored collection of reimagined workers’ uniforms is a political statement from the designers at a time when so many who would wear these uniforms across Europe are striking.
Dior looked to the 1950s – but instead of its housewives, the house focused on the late designer Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, once a resistance fighter. Black leather gloves, black high heels, black eyeliner. Miu Miu showed tech-mogul black polo necks with sequinned knickers and stilettos, plus pencil skirts, chunky loafers, and pointed toe courts.
Saint Laurent riffed on 1980s silhouettes, pinstriped skirt suits with shoulders so padded that there’d be no room for anyone else in the lift up to your office. Which is sort of the point: power dressing is supposed to take up space, to command respect. It’s a type of armour.
Possibly why it fell out of fashion: it was too strong. Not because we’d already won the battles: the gender pay gap is still intact, although now more public. But being seen as a ball-buster – too strong, too hard – started to be leveraged against women. Instead, we had soft power dressing, less threatening, more subtle – like the bright red shift dresses and coats that political news readers wear, Nancy Pelosi’s pink trouser suits in American Congress, the leopard print blouse that Angela Rayner wore to support union strikers on a march. Even those floral midi dresses, once an easy, pretty, off-duty option, were adopted by the Duchess of Cornwall – and many of us – as workwear, to send a message of stability and a safe pair of hands, but with the approachability that only a repeat print of Easter pastel posies can offer.
But there’s to be no more softly-softly – we’re back on the hard stuff. Sharp and spiky and unapologetic.
So why now? Partly it’s just a rejection of slouch, the athleisure that brought us comfort at first during lockdown, but then left many of us feeling a bit disoriented as it took hold long term. Power dressing is the antithesis to those elasticated waists, soft bralettes and slippers, and while there’s no one ‘sexy’ fashion, many women have found that they don’t feel sexy, powerful, or empowered in grey trackies. Certainly, I don’t.
And after finding myself constantly twinning with colleagues and friends’ floral midi dresses, I’ve been happy to pack those away for a few years too. We’ve drifted away from rigid dress codes in our day-to-day lives, from jeans in the office to trainers on a night out, so occasions for dressing smartly are few and far between, which is what makes this pendulum swing so appealing.
I won’t be wearing anything as extreme as Saint Laurent’s Y-shaped blazers, but I will be mixing more rigid tailored pieces into my everyday wardrobe. Think a double-breasted navy blazer over a knitted dress, a pointed toe boot rather than a stompy hiking one, and pinstriped wide-leg trousers for a slicker take on slouchy trousers. And rather than chucking an oversized knit on with my jeans for every day, I’ll be tucking in a crisp white Oxford shirt (not a frilled Peter Pan collar in sight).
For some, the reaction to years of modest dressing was last year’s “naked dress”, a barely-there construction of stretch mesh. Or the invisible dress, worn by celebrities on the red carpet, with pants and nipples visible. A powerful celebration of a woman’s body, certainly; a welcome departure from athleisure too. But not one that felt particularly inclusive for all body types, and not one that would suit an every woman’s lifestyle.
The lipstick index tracks women’s purchases of smaller, more affordable luxuries in times of recession – the phrase dates back to the early 2000s, and was coined by Leonard Lauder, son of Estée. Buying a new lipstick is a mood boost, a little treat to make bleak days feel brighter. But the lipstick itself is important too, and how it makes us feel: it’s warpaint, like the patriotic Victory Red lipstick, and eyebrow-pencil seams drawn down the backs of legs to fake the look of stockings during wartime.
Considering so many of us are still working from home, at least part of the time, perhaps we need clothes that help us change gears and make us feel powerful, even when we have swapped glossy offices for a spot next to the endlessly churning washing machine. Or especially then, especially when we’re trying to hold it together at work while managing our homes and perhaps a family around us.
If you are one of the many women pushed to take on an even bigger share of the hidden labour at home during the pandemic, then doing so in a tiered prairie dress might just make you feel like you’re living in an Atwoodian dystopia, just missing the white wimple. But add a pair of razor-sharp stilettos and you might still be fraught, but at least you’re Diane Keaton in Baby Boom fraught, struggling to keep all of her plates spinning in a pinstriped suit. Those stilettos are a tether to a different part of ourselves, a less frazzled one. And considering the cost of living crisis (not to mention the accessible childcare and affordable housing crises), holding onto a sense of control where we can is crucial. Armour, remember?