I went to a lecture a couple of days ago, held by three doctors, all female, all professionals with their own practices and/or research laboratories. It certainly wasn’t a frivolous occasion and I noticed that all of them, women in their early to late 40s, wore either a skirt or a dress and high heels. One of them, in particular, sported a lovely periwinkle sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist, with a wide skirt and golden sandals. Not your typical work attire.
But what is the typical work attire these days? Remember the late 80s and early 90s when it seemed that to compete in a male corporate world women had to wear an armor in the form of a pantsuit? Especially in the United States, the pantsuit ruled.
Even in Europe, where women were more reluctant to sacrifice their femininity on the altar of their career, from Giorgio Armani down to the high street, it was not uncommon to see women clad in trousers and matching jackets. The addition of shoulder pads in the 80s gave ensembles a menacing look of the take me seriously or else variety.
Mercifully, things have changed. Women in corporate or academic careers everywhere are free to express their individuality and/or femininity (or not) as they please through their clothes, ranging from trousers, shirts and flats to pencil skirts and heels. And I have noticed such changes are reflected in both fictional characters and real women.
Take Claire Underwood, the character Robin Wright plays in “House of Cards” who goes from being the executive at a non-profit to wife of the Vice-President to first lady to UN Ambassador. Whoever is in charge of her wardrobe carefully mapped her evolution through her clothes: skinny pants and crispy shirts; simple and feminine dresses; more structured outfits, including a stunning evening gown for a state dinner, to the final outfit, when she leaves her husband wearing a Miu Miu jacket buttoned up to her neck that proclaims her independence. What all her clothes have in common is an age-appropriate femininity that does not reveal skin and complements the character’s personality.
The same can probably be said for Mrs. Obama’s sartorial choices – while a first lady traditionally needs to come across as feminine, i.e. demure and subservient to the office of her husband, it is clear that Mrs. Obama dresses as befits her position but also to please her sense of style and never sacrificing her point of view, that of a smart, educated and opinionated woman who is not President herself but is in no way overshadowed by his office.
And then we come to Hillary Clinton who has just declared her candidacy to the highest office in our land, the queen in chief of (dreadful) pantsuits. Mrs. Clinton stepped into the limelight, as first lady, following a string of much more demure and less engaged first ladies, at a time when she felt that to assert her brain and her power she had to obliterate the obvious fact she was female – and there she was, in an endless series of color block and forgettable pantsuits or skirts with long, matching jackets.
As her team of advisers is busy styling a makeover, trying to make Mrs. Clinton more appealing to as many voters as possible, it will be interesting to see which sartorial way she (they) will choose. Not that it matters but, ultimately, whether we like it or not, the message a woman can convey through her clothes can be powerful.
Clothes can be a mirror of our personality: they can become a protective layer and, in an office environment, also a way to inhabit and own the persona we want to project. I think, at least in most of the Western world, the clothes battle has been won – we can assert who we are, be taken seriously on the basis of merit, regardless of what we wear. Or has your experienced been different?