Power Clothes

Fashion, clothing, and style are often portrayed as frivolous interests. Wasteful of time, energy, and money. Vain and self-absorbed. Unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Which is downright hilarious when you consider how important clothing has been to human culture over time. Clothing has served as a medium for self-expression, a way to quietly rebel, and a means of delineating power structures. Now, I’m no historian and I’m sure some of you ARE historians, so I encourage you to peek at the contributions in the comments. But from a non-historian’s brain come the following examples: Throughout many cultures, royalty and nobility will show rank and wealth by wearing certain colors, materials, and garments. Judges and clergy wear robes to indicate authority and set the tone in courtrooms and places of worship. Athletes associate with their chosen sports through accessory, shoe, and clothing choices.

Some of these examples show how clothing can support or subtly enforce classism, and clothing’s links to power aren’t all positive or admirable. But there are many ways that modern people – especially women – can utilize clothing to summon and broadcast personal power. Here are a few examples of clothing and dressing techniques that I’ve seen used to evoke various forms of personal power.

SUITS

Although many women have celebrated the decline of the suit as required business-wear, others continue to celebrate it as a source of reliable, instantly palpable personal power. Suits have long been the uniform of powerful men, and it could certainly be argued that the power women derive from wearing suits is borrowed from a system that encourages us to look and behave in masculine ways. But it could also be argued that women’s suits are their own class of garment, and that cashing in on a style that has commanded respect and attention for decades – and making it our own – is a marvelous subversion. Most women I know avoid suits for daily wear, but rely on them for occasions that require a show of confidence, maturity, and power. A suit that fits and looks smart makes its wearer appear undeniably in command.

BOOTS

There’s a reason the song is titled, “These BOOTS Are Made for Walkin’.” Certain styles are treacherously high and difficult to wear, but even heeled boots tend to be more stable and walkable than their pump and sandal counterparts. Shoes that look cool and sexy yet root their wearer to the stable ground allow for the subtle power of stylish confidence and the pragmatic power of physical stability. There’s something undeniably mythic about boots, something rough and raw that seeps up into the wearer.

LEATHER

Those of you who abstain for ethical/personal reasons may disagree, but I think it’s possible that many people view wearers of leather garments as “tough” because in the distant past, you had to kill something yourself before you could wear it. Gross but true. Leather is primal. It calls forth ancient power that we can harness for our own uses. Even leather look-alikes can make their wearers appear mysterious, edgy, and not-to-be-trifled-with.

JEWELRY

So, crowns. They’re pretty much the ultimate wearable symbol of power. Diamonds and precious gems are still used to subtly convey the power of wealth in many cultures. But other more common types of jewelry can convey personal power, too. Pendants come in every imaginable shape, and adorning your neck with a skull, a religious icon, or a fierce animal can imbue you with power. Cuff bracelets can call up images of ancient Goddesses. (And Wonder Woman.) And, perhaps more importantly, jewelry can hold personal and emotional significance, which means that merely wearing it can buoy and empower you.

COLOR

If you’re headed to a meeting or party or event in which you’ll be confronting an enemy or bully or competitor, you’re unlikely to wear seafoam or peach. Red evokes passion and fire, black evokes ferocity, gray evokes detachment and coolness, blue evokes calm levelheadedness. Simply selecting a garment in a shade that resonates with your personal power can amp up the power that you broadcast.

Clothes that make you feel present in your body, strong, even invincible are incredibly valuable tools to have in your possession. They can be your armor or your scepter, your shield or your sword. Power clothes can help you locate and direct your own power, then radiate that power outward from within. Those who declare the world of fashion, clothing, and style to be silly, wasteful, and pointless are dismissing a potential source of strength, a resource for crafting a perceived self, a means of expressing confidence. Our clothes can be imbued with power, and they can imbue us with power, too.

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  • Great post Sally, and artfully tackled too.

    The most interesting uses of ‘power clothing’ for me are those established clothing items that are used by subcultural movements to question the status quo. Whether that’s androgynous dressing, army uniforms, fetishwear or other garments, the concept of Group A using a wardrobe defined as belonging to Group B for aesthetic and political ends is one of the most powerful types of ‘power’ dressing! It’s also one of the most complex – especially when race and sex enter into the aesthetic debate. It’s very similar to your example of wearing a suit, but the object could be as simple as the humble safety pin…

    The clothes I feel powerful in personally are those that shout out. Claire from My Illustrative Life recently described how I dress as ‘a smack in the face (in a good way)’ – I think those are the clothes that make me feel powerful, the ones that reach out and tell people to look at fashion, converse with me, and react. Also Dr Martens 🙂

  • Emma Hill

    I’m a technical lead and manager in a very male dominated environment, so yes I use clothes to signal power.

    For major meetings it’s a tailored black suit (from Jaeger). For everyday wear it’s a jersey dress, cut on or just above the knee, with a very well-cut black jacket. The dress is very feminine, which has it’s own power in this situation – ‘I can hold my own as a woman among all these men’, and the black jacket toughens it up and makes a nod to the men’s suits.

    And as for shoes. Big meetings it’s a pair of 4 inch heels; black patent Mary-Janes. I can stride in these and since I’m 5ft 7 they put me at eye height with most men.
    For regular wear red patent low-heel Mary-Janes – the colour is deliberately slightly provocative.
    And in the winter low-heeled black knee-high boots with buckles on. Slightly butch but works well with the softer dress.

  • CW

    Great thoughts! People and clothing go back a long way. Some other examples I thought of are:
    1. Uniforms. Military and law enforcement uniforms are enough alike to visually unify a group, but still allow for subtle signifiers of rank. Uniforms in a workplace, such as a store, restaurant, or hospital, let customers know at a glance who they can speak with for help, and often employ color combinations that evoke brand recognition.
    2. There is a great article on Thread for Thought about the history of women wearing (or being denied the ability to wear) pants. Wearing pants or bloomers in the early 1900s was seen as rebellious (or even immoral) by some, liberating and health/safety conscious by others. In societies where women were expected to wear full, floor-length skirts, they were impeded from traveling (sometimes even walking!) without assistance or accomplishing tasks usually reserved for men. Bicycle costumes were the beginning of a new era for women.
    http://www.threadforthought.net/2010/04/13/crossdressing-history-women-politics/
    3. The hippies of the 1960s very literally wore their distain for everything their parents’ generation held dear.
    4. Cultural, tribal, and religious affiliations are often expressed by choices in clothing style and color, accessories, hairstyle, etc. Shorn hair and robes project the values of a Tibetan monk; the family tartans worn by Scots broadcast their heritage; a cross or Star of David worn as jewelry subtly advertises the wearer’s beliefs; citizens of many countries dress in the colors of their flag on occasions when they wish to convey their patriotism.

    • Anna

      Further to uniforms in the workplace: I think it is unfortunate that nurses have abandoned whites and caps for generic scrubs. Now that everyone in a hospital wears scrubs, it’s hard for a patient to know who can give specialized assistance and who is just there to dust the furniture.

      • Miss T

        I totally agree, Anna! Also, there was a certain professional look to a nurse’s uniform. I’m not sure why anyone would think that sloppy, baggy pajama-like scrubs in ugly colors would indicate a higher professional status.

        • Cat

          Miss T,
          I found your comment dismissive, hurtful and flippant.
          Would you rather have a nurse who knows what he/she is doing – who perhaps spent the night reading up on your/your family member’s diagnoses, medications, and psychosocial needs – and does so in a caring way in comfortable, worry-free “sloppy baggy pajama-like scrubs in ugly colors” or an uncomfortable nurse in an impeccably ironed white dress/pants-outfit (who possibly doesn’t want to get it dirty) – who spent the evening doing laundry instead?

          Sincerely, Cat, an RN who works 12 hour shifts giving you and your family the best care possible in ugly scrubs.

          • Well said, Cat.

          • CW

            Although I’m sure the comment was not meant in a derisive way, it’s important to note that sanitation is vital to the operation of a hospital, and the people employed to “dust the furniture” provide specialized assistance by preventing the spread of germs; they may just as well save a patient’s life as a doctor or nurse. But as this thread seems to have wandered off on a tangent unrelated to the history of clothing, that’s neither here nor there.

  • LinB

    Many cultures had — or still have — “sumptuary laws” that dictate what sorts of clothing may be worn by various classes of society. Note that nobility always demands that the underclass be forbidden to wear any style, color, or fabrication that imitates the very, very expensive clothing and jewelry that nobility can afford. Those issued during the reign of Elizabeth I are the obvious example. Roman laws gave the right to wear purple to the ruling class. Chinese and Japanese and Indian caste distinctions were quite rigid. I dress to appear as powerless as possible, so that I might subvert The Man in sneaky, womanly ways, mwa ha ha ha ha.

  • Westmoon

    I work, and have always worked, in very male dominated environments — previously I was the only female manager at my level, with only two women in the whole 8000 person company more senior than me and no other women in my 20 person department. These days I am in academia, and if a conference attracts more than 30 women in a room of 300+ it’s a minor miracle. My undergrad students are 85%+ male. Master and PhD level, it rises to 90-95%, My current department has no female faculty (out of 11) and no other current female PhDs. The new job I am starting in the New Year when I get my doctorate has never had a female member of faculty before.

    In my early, corporate career, I dressed extremely conservatively and had a masculine wardrobe — dark trousers, loosely tailored shirts, and a boxy blazer. Add a tie and it was the same outfit most of the men wore. My figure made it very difficult to dress in that androgynous style though! I have a very large bust (H cup). I dressed to minimize it at all costs — no cleavage, minimizer bra, baggy shirts — but was still known on the factory floor as “that girl with the big ….”). At the time it felt hard enough to be taken seriously in an environment where people had no compunction in saying things to my face like: “I want to talk to someone who knows what he’s talking about.” and “I’m not having a schoolgirl tell me what to do” or just bluntly, “I don’t want to talk to you, is there a man I can speak to?” without having people distracted by my cleavage (and this is in 2000, not 1970!). My battle armour for big meetings was always a black trouser suit, crisp white blouse, and big heels so that I could tower over most of them (I’m 5’8″ in socks, and my industry seemed to draw short men!). I went for formality, masculinity and high contrast for a powerful look.

    These days, I’m trying to ease my way to a more feminine and colourful look. Academia is looser on dress code anyway, I’m older and my perspective is different. After a few years as a student again, I feel ever more reluctant to get back into that black and white, please-don’t-disregard-me-because-I’m-female uniform. I was getting tired of it before I ever left the corporate world, but it was REALLY hard to break out of my comfort zone — I felt like any break from my norm led to people commenting, often negatively.

    I am still struggling for a revised look. I’m older and my perspective on who I am and how I want to be perceived has changed. I need a look that is still powerful, but also comfortable, not distracting, but also not apologetic about the fact that I AM female, this IS my body shape, get over it. I also feel a little bit like I need to set an example for young women in my classes who are just setting out on careers in our very male-dominated discipline, who likely won’t be taught by too many women or have the opportunity to meet many female mentors. I’ve been working on my wardrobe, but I do fear I’ll end up dressing the way I used to, just because it’s the path of least resistance.

  • Great post, Sal. Clothing is such a powerful communicator – multiple studies have demonstrated the effects of dress and grooming on how we’re perceived and, yes, discriminated against.

    By women adopting boots and trousers, e.g., we have found some of the “grounding” in our clothing that men have enjoyed – the ease of movement and freedom to explore. Lots to think about here, thanks!

  • Anna

    My “power color” is cranberry red: darker than bright red, lighter than maroon. When wearing it I always feel upbeat and usually get compliments.

  • D

    Boots, jewelry and color often come into play for me when I want to project a certain image. And my derby uniform. I never feel more powerful than when I’m donning tights, booty shorts, a worn tee, and my derby pads and skates. But for those situations where I can’t walk around in derby clothing, nothing beats a solid pair of boots and a well fitting dress.

  • Jean

    For me, black and red are ‘power’ colors.
    Boots and heels that I can stride in are power shoes.
    A little bit of makeup (including lipstick) makes me feel more polished and confident. So does wearing a bit of jewelry that suits the outfit and has some personal meaning.
    A good handbag (large, striking color, leather, nice design) also helps.
    It is much easier for me to dress ‘powerfully’ in the fall and winter than in the wilting mugginess of summer.
    I have yet to find a ‘perfect’ suit (i.e., one that looks good, fits well, is neither constricting nor frumpy), but will wear a nice cashmere cardigan or occasionally an unstructured jacket.
    As a pastor, I almost always wear my robes for leading worship. It is part of my tradition, but I also like wearing robes because of the sense of formality, grace, and dignity they bring to the occasion, and also because they help put the focus more on my role in the liturgy and less on my individual person.
    I don’t wear “the uniform” of black clerical garb every day, but do so when I am preaching and leading worship, for weddings and funerals, for important meetings, and for some hospital and other visitation. Usually (though not always!) the clergy uniform helps communicate my role and the nature of my authority in a given situation.

  • Andrea

    Shoes. Shoes make all the difference for me. The more fragile I feel or the more power I want to project, the more substantial I need my footwear to be. I had a very emotionally rough time last week and even though it’s still insanely hot where I live, I wore boots almost every day. At home, I wore engineer boots with cutoffs and t-shirts. I ran errands in a sundress and western boots. When I couldn’t wear boots, I switched to tall and chunky wedges so that I still felt somewhat armored. And it worked! As you say, Sally, just slipping on a rugged pair of boots with a sturdy sole made me feel more rugged and sturdy myself. This week I’ve been able to go back to sandals, so my feet are cooler, but I have boots ready if I need them…

  • J Beresford

    I’m not sure if any research has been done into it but I am often struck by the use of colour in politician’s ties. Red and gold seem to be favourites for giving a serious address or appearing on television. And women politicians often seem to favour the red skirt suit. It’s amazing how many of them I have seen! Much more than in the real business world. Perhaps they have been told that red is a powerful colour? I just find it makes them stick out like a sore thumb, especially when they obligatory “end of the conference” photo is taken and they in a lineup with a bunch of drabbly dressed men….

  • Interesting about the leather. I have NO trouble with leather at all, and I can say definitely that it’s not the fact something’s been killed that I feel power from it. After all, it’s essentially the same as fur in that respect, but the feeling or power of fur is not the same as for leather to me, if not to most people.

    I think it’s more basic. Leather is simply tougher and harder than any textile. It’s as close as we can get to armor, without literally wearing plates of metal. It also has strong connotations of independence and individuality, tracing from ethnic wear, historical explorers, and biker culture. It’s simultaneously protective and empowering.

  • Kirsten

    With my sandy brown hair and pale skin, black just washes me out. Brown pants with wingtips, a honey-colored silk cable turtleneck (not too tight), or a cranberry red shirt are my go-to clothes for business meetings. What works for me is to accessorize with bold, expensive looking yet tasteful jewelry and scarves. The overall effect should recall the iron fist in the velvet glove, and it’s worked well for me.

  • Boots and leather. Nuranar is dead on with saying that leather is as close as we can get to modern armor. It feels tough. I love weighty textiles. Silks and chiffons may be gorgeous, but I prefer something with a little more heft like wool or leather to make me feel secure.

    I used to love the power of black, but I’ve since learned how the alternative neutrals like bitter brown, charcoal grey, army green, and all those shades in between can look so much more dimensional. When I feel like I look ‘cool’ I get an extra pep in my step.

    I also love a well fitting pair of trousers, probably for the same reasons as your suit clause. Nothing feels more chic to me than a pair of cut trousers – however the quest to find them is infinitely harder than it is to find jeans or a dress.

  • shebolt

    Personally, I feel most powerful in a tank, jean or cargo pants, and boots. Think Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2. I have crazy shoulders for a woman, and that outfit best emphasizes my strong, athletic frame. I’ll throw on a leather jacket when it’s cold, but I prefer bare shoulders.

    This does not work in a professional setting. In those cases, when I have a meeting with men who may see me as nothing more than an underling that can be pushed around, I prefer my version of a “power suit”: a neutral jacket and pencil skirt, and a pop of color in my shirt. I always go with a skirt and heels to show off my strong calves and put me at their height (I’m already tall). The jacket shows that I mean business, and the pop of color shows that I’m not just a powerless drone.

  • ANGH

    I wonder if men devote any thought to this question, or is it only a feminine issue…

  • Mary

    My power clothes:

    – Tall cone heels that I can stride in.
    – Yes, leather. Especially leather with zippers.
    – Low or wide (not revealing) necklines — they make me square my shoulders, and oddly, the vulnerability of having an exposed clavicle makes me want to take the world head-on.
    – NOT wearing a bag. Having the essentials tucked into pockets, and not into something that I have to hold and make room for, makes me feel more ready-for-anything.

  • FRANCESCA

    like the post of MARY of not wearing a bag, really cool!
    F.

  • FOR ME is a hat, I fell diferrent, and it keeps me warm from the cold days or hot days if it a hat for summer.

  • Natalie

    Great topic, Sal. I agree, and definitely use boots to make myself feel more powerful, especially on days I know will be trying – I wore heeled boots to my grad school interviews, thesis defense, and PhD qualification exam simply because they make me feel strong and confident. It’s amazing how certain clothes can make you feel better about your academic, athletic, or career abilities.

    Jewelry is another important booster for me, and it’s almost always because of some emotional significance of the piece. When I wear my grandmother’s jewelry, I am reminded of what a strong, wonderful woman she was, and that makes me feel more capable and confident in myself. When I wear a piece given to me by a good friend, I feel loved and cherished.

  • Absolutely loved this post and the way you approached clothing in historical points of view. And the boots part definitely hit home for me. Ever since I got my real leather cowboy boots over the summer, I just feel so damn awesome whenever I wear them (which is often). And the song plays in my head sometimes too.

  • LaChina

    I don’t have a specific clothing item or footwear that makes me feel powerful, but I wear a ring that reminds me of my grandmother when I need an extra boost. In general I feel confident when I have a cute, but comfortable ensemble that fits my mood and the occasion, I guess that would be considered powerful.

  • Every day at work the way one dresses has some relationship or other to power. Inevitable.

  • Ooh! I like this post. I went back to school after having three kids as an older, wiser, well, older anyway, student. I had a class that was male dominated, and I remember feeling more and more invisible as the class progressed, in fact, one day I felt mocked, scorned, and generally treated like a subspecies due to my gender. Once I got home, I cried. Yep. And the next day I had on a full face of makeup, blood red lipstick, my black extra tall doc martens, leather moto jacket, and let me tell you. I did war. And I won. And no one, I mean, no one discounted me, or any other female in that class while I was there. Maybe I was a little bit bitchy, but you know, I looked good.

    • Elizabeth

      I’m getting chills picturing this! Awesome!! As someone whose natural tendency is to curl up in surrender, I’m going to have to keep this image in mind. (And maybe buy some Doc Martens…)