NPR

The Look Of Power: How Women Have Dressed For Success

A publicity still from the movie Working Girl, which prominently featured the beloved power suit. (20th Century Fox)

Correction:

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly awarded Melanie Griffith an Oscar for her role in Working Girl. Griffith was only nominated.

Remember power suits? At the same time women were entering the corporate workplace in large numbers, the power suit began to pop up. It was usually a long jacket with the kind of big, padded shoulders Joan Crawford made famous, a straight skirt and, often, a floppy silk bow tie that Little Lord Fauntleroy would have been at home in. The 1980s power suit was designed to ignore a woman's shape so it didn't hinder her mobility as she worked her way up the corporate ladder.

You saw it on Diane Keaton in the 1987 movie Baby Boom. Keaton's corporate executive barked orders and wore pinstripes. A year later, Sigourney Weaver would adopt the look in the hit Working Girl, where she played one of the few women in a huge brokerage. (Melanie Griffith was nominated for an Oscar as her secretary, Tess, who morphed from big-haired Staten Island secretary to conservatively dressed broker when she assumed her boss's wardrobe.)

Fashion journalist Teri Agins writes the popular Ask Teri column for the Wall Street Journal, and she remembers the power suit well. She says that was "the look" when she started at the paper in 1984.

You don't have to be rich to look powerful and authoritative. NPR talked to two experts about how women who are short on funds can project authority:

The most important thing to remember when putting together a power look:

Daniel Lawson, costume designer for the Emmy Award-winning CBS drama The Good Wife and co-owner of the clothing line DL-35: Put aside some of your shopping budget for alterations. If you have an expensive suit and it doesn't fit well, it's going to look terrible on you, and it's not going to look like an expensive suit. But conversely, if you have an inexpensive suit and you have it tailored, that adds great value — or perceived value — to an inexpensive suit.

Aren't accessories part of the power look? What about the power handbag, like the Hermes Birkin?

Teri Agins, author of the Ask Teri column for the Wall Street Journal: The Birkin handbag starts at about $7,400, there's always a wait list and it has incredible snob appeal among some women. But clean lines, good materials and no or very little metal work on a bag (I think metal makes a bag look cheap) will work just fine. And it doesn't always have to be black: hunter green, burgundy, navy are all good alternatives.

Lawson: I don't know anybody who can afford a Birkin. You can invest in a bag that's beautiful and elegant and will last from season to season. And you can do that for a couple hundred dollars. Then you can fill in with the trendy stuff from time to time.

What about casual offices?

Agins: If your workplace is casual, you can still stand out. Cashmere used to be only for the wealthy, but there is new cashmere out there now that's combined with angora or vicuna or even spandex that takes color beautifully and looks really expensive. You jeans can be jeans but they should still fit. And don't forget undergarments! The right bra makes a huge difference.

"That was during the whole reign of the floppy bow tie and the suit," she recalls. "And that was the look most women wore in their 20s and 30s when they started in the workplace."

The elegant pantsuits of Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein made the power suit and its knockoffs rabidly popular for several years. But as women gained a more secure foothold in executive suites, things began to change. Agins says by the '90s, women began to hang up their broad-shouldered jackets to favor the softer, more luxurious fabrics used by designers like Donna Karan.

Karan's upscale clothes used lots of cashmere and suede, accessorized with buttery leathers and reptile skins. This, Agins says, was a different kind of power look, and it got attention: "It reeked of money, it suggested exclusivity," she says. It was sexy, but not vulgar: "It was something women could wear in a boardroom and still be respected."

The big challenge to power dressing came in the new millennium, when the dot-com world began to roar back and the very casual workplace became standard. How do you telegraph power in an office where everyone, even the CEO, wears jeans and T-shirts?

What sets the power players apart, says Agins: good tailoring.

"Alterations are a great way to make you look great. Because even if you're wearing something very casual, if it fits well, your posture is going to be better, you're going to stand taller, and you're just going to look more authoritative."

Dan Lawson agrees — and he should know. He's the much-lauded costume designer for the principal women of The Good Wife, the hit CBS series that's now in its sixth season.

Want to project power? "Your clothes have to fit you," Lawson says. Period. To be a power dresser, he continues, "it has to look like you command the clothes, not that the clothes are commanding or wearing you."

In The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies plays Alicia Florrick, a woman who gave up her law career to be a wife and stay-at-home mom. But when Alicia's husband, Peter (Chris Noth), gets caught in an excruciatingly public sex scandal and ends up jailed, Alicia dusts off her law degree and returns to work to support her two children.

In the beginning, her clothes are presentable and forgettable. Lawson says this was purposeful: After the public shame of being the wronged wife, "she didn't want to be noticed. She wanted to fade into the background." As a very junior associate in Season 1, Alicia was dressed by Lawton in bland colors, no jewelry, and scarves you can buy at any airport kiosk.

Jump ahead a few seasons, and Alicia's clothes reflect her rise at her law firm.

"Her clothes definitely started to get more expensive looking," Lawson says, "and as we were heading into Seasons 5 and 6 [where she becomes a full partner at her firm, then leaves it to begin her own firm], she makes much more money than she was making. Definitely head-to-toe ensembles is the way she looks now."

The indifferent separates have been replaced by richly colored designer pieces. She looks much more like colleague and eventual partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, whose cutting-edge designer clothes are often described as "badass" and "fierce" on social media). Both women wear jewel-toned knits and sleek little suits that don't attempt to disguise their curves. Their accessories discreetly telegraph "money."

The third power player, Kalinda Sharma (Archie Penjabi), wears lots of black leather, short skirts and high boots. But as Lawson points out, as a private investigator, "Kalinda is part of the law firm, but she's not a lawyer." She can get away with a little more edge.

Lawson says the fact that these women's clothes fit perfectly has a lot do to with their ability to stride confidently through the world, whether it's their well-appointed offices or the courtroom.

"It's important to feel confident from inside and let that wardrobe support that. It's good to put on clothes that you feel good in," he says.

This may be why Alicia is comfortable in clothes that show her figure and wears heels that are higher than when she was lower on the law firm's totem pole — and why, when Diane left the firm she founded to join Alicia's new law firm, she exited, head high, in a leopard-print Escada jacket and black St. John dress.

Fierce. Badass. Powerful.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's step back in time for a moment, back to the 1980s. It was a decade notable for many things, including the women's power suit. Tom Wolfe satirized the suit in his novel "Bonfire Of The Vanities" - a royal-blue jacket with shoulders out to here. In 2014 the power suit is still around, but it has evolved. And it matters since your clothing, like your face, inevitably says something about you. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the latest in our series on the changing lives of women.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Early power suits were worn by businesswomen who didn't want their gender to be a distraction in their move to the top. Here's Diane Keaton as a corporate bigwig in the 1987 comedy "Baby Boom."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY BOOM")

DIANE KEATON: (As J.C. Wiatt) I need the PNLs on Atlantic Overseas. I also need the latest ZBDs and PBDs, and, Robin, I want you to get me the CEO of IBC ASAP.

BATES: The suit's long, boxy jackets had aggressively large shoulder pads. There was even a stand-in for men's ties, says Teri Agins, a fashion journalist who writes the Ask Teri column for The Wall Street Journal.

TERI AGINS: I started working at The Wall Street Journal in 1984. And that was during the whole reign of the floppy bow tie and the suit. And that was the look that most women in their 20s and 30s wore when they first started working in the workplace.

BATES: Think Sigourney Weaver's character in the 1988 movie "Working Girl" as she gives guidance to her secretary, Tess.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WORKING GIRL")

SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Katharine Parker) I consider us a team, Tess, and as such, we have a uniform - simple, elegant, impeccable. Dress shabbily, they notice the dress; dress impeccably, they notice the woman - Coco Chanel.

MELANIE GRIFFITH: (As Tess McGill) How do I look?

WEAVER: (As Katharine Parker) You look terrific. You might want to rethink the jewelry.

BATES: Tess, played by Melanie Griffith, simplifies her wardrobe and is taken more seriously because of it. By movie's end, she's a power player. The power suit had its advocates, most famously Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein.

But Teri Agins says by the '90s women had hung up their broad-shouldered jackets to favor the softer, luxurious fabrics used by designers like Donna Karan. Her upscale designs used lots of cashmere and suede accessorized with buttery leather and reptile skins. Agins says this was a different kind of power look, and it got attention.

AGINS: It reeked of money. It suggested exclusivity. I mean, this was something that women could wear in a board room and still be respected.

BATES: But, says Agins, is doesn't matter how luxurious your ensemble is if it hits you in all the wrong places, even if your office-wear is jeans.

AGINS: Alterations are a great way to make you look great because even if you're wearing something just very casual, if it fits well, you are going to stand taller. And you're just going to look more authoritative.

DANIEL LAWSON: Your clothes have to fit you in order to come across as powerful, and, you know, that's what we're talking about - power dressing. It has to look like you command the clothes, not that the clothes are commanding or wearing you.

BATES: He should know. Daniel Lawson is responsible for the power looks you see each week on the hit TV series "The Good Wife," now in its sixth season. Here's a primer - when her politician husband resigns after sex scandal Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, dusts off her law degree, stops being a stay-at-home mom and returns to work at a prestigious law firm to support her children. In the beginning her clothes are presentable and unexceptional. But, Lawson says, as the series progresses, Alicia's look evolves.

LAWSON: I think Alicia definitely has one foot rooted in the classic sort of traditional perhaps somewhat conservative world and the other foot in the modern. And as we've seen over the season, she has grown, and her wardrobe has greatly changed.

BATES: As a very junior associate in season one, Alicia wore bland colors, no jewelry and scarves you can buy at most airport gift shops. Dan Lawson chose her wardrobe to reflect Alicia's rise at her law firm.

LAWSON: Her clothes definitely started to get more expensive, and I will say expensive-looking. She started to have more of an ensemble feel, and as we've headed into seasons five and season six, she makes much more money than she was making; she has her own firm, definitely head-to-toe ensembles is the way that she looks now.

BATES: By this season, Alicia looks much more like senior partner Diane Lockhart, played by Christine Baranski. Both wear jewel-tone knits and sleek, little suits that don't attempt to disguise their curves. Their gold jewelry discreetly telegraphs money. Dan Lawson says the fact that these women's clothes fit perfectly has a lot to do with their ability to stride confidently through the world, whether it's their office or the courtroom.

LAWSON: It's important to feel confident from inside and then let that wardrobe support that. It's good to put on clothes that you feel good in.

BATES: In fact, these days, feeling empowered by what you wear, whether it comes from a discount store or a pricey boutique, is the ultimate form of power dressing. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular