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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.