The Power Suit

Women Leaders Dress the Part

"Women watch themselves being looked at," writes the art critic John Berger. A woman "is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself." Berger was writing primarily about the male gaze, yet his observations highlight the way a woman's appearance is always scrutinized. What a woman wears, her clothing and hairstyle, is not a trivial matter. But knowing that her appearance is rarely seen as neutral, a woman can also use the language of clothes to construct an image. Or reveal a self. Or demonstrate power. The women you see here have been or are currently in the public eye. How do you dress when you are a powerful, public woman?
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Condoleezza Rice View Larger >
The answer is in a Power Suit. The phrase was first coined in the 1980s and refers to the exaggerated shoulder pads and skirt suits worn by American businesswomen to make them more "visible" in the workplace. But such "wardrobe engineering" is centuries old.

The Power Suit connotes authority, strength, and leadership. Yet the term also implies that power -- especially for women -- is not a birthright as it is for men. It is something that can be acquired and put on. And something that can be stripped away. The power suit is akin to armor, outfitting a woman to do battle in a predominantly male world.

What does the Power Suit look like as it shifts through different times and cultures? For some, such as the ancient Egyptian ruler, Hatshepsut, the power suit was conceived in male terms. Hatshepsut appeared not as queen but as king, dressed in a royal male headdress, kilt, and false beard. She even crowned herself with the title of Pharaoh, something unheard of for a woman in her time; she was known as His Majesty.

Other women, notably Trieu Au, known as the Vietnamese Joan of Arc, and Radiyya Iltutmish, the first female Moslem ruler of Northern India, also eschewed female garb, opting instead to dress as male warriors as they led their respective troops in battle -- Au in golden armor and Iltutmish in a turban and trousers.

For others, like Marie Antoinette, the Power Suit meant spectacle, flamboyance, and opulence. From her furs and lavish ball gowns to her pouf hairstyles replete with battleships, Marie Antoinette's sartorial statements made her larger than life. At first she was emulated, then despised for her spectacular dress, which became linked with all that was decadent in French aristocracy.

Is it possible for a woman in politics today to be feminine in her dress and still be taken seriously? Can she reveal her sexuality and not lose authority? The answer seems to be a qualified yes. Though Condoleezza Rice's sexy black boots and Hillary Clinton's hemlines still make front-page news, it appears we are at an evolutionary turning point. Have we landed at a new moment in history? One in which women can redefine power and politics as they are expressed through dress? The script continues to be written, and the Power Suit reflects these changes.


Masum Momaya, Curator
Masum Momaya, Curator
United States

What is YOUR power suit?

And now we have the problem with NOT a dress but a pants suit and the jokes made about Hillary's power pants suit! Can we ever win?
Lyn Reese

Mary DeLorenzo
United States

This comment is in regard to the "Power Suit" article. I found it fascinating how fashion plays into the political sphere. In various countries, over various time periods, it seems that women who dressed in more male-gendered attire, were seen as more powerful and successful. Women, such as Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy, who dressed more "lady-like," seemed to be well respected and loved, but not very militantly powerful. I can draw a parallel between this and how people (in general) perceive feminists and woman-activists to look like. When many people think of feminists, the appearance that comes to mind often includes "butch," boyish, short hair, un-shaven, etc. Society often pairs strong female/feminist activists to not dressing "womanly." This is a stereotype that pushes people away from the movement, and society needs to realize that fashion should not be a focal point of political change and revolution.

Soleil Ilagan
United States

POWER SUIT: I feel a woman should be taken seriously regardless of what her appearance may be. It's a bit disappointing to know that a woman's appearance is what society focuses on. From lavish gowns, shoulder pads, black boots, and a high hem-line ... women should be acknowledged for what they know and not what they put on their body. If there is to be a suit, what should it look like for people to take women seriously?

Im replying to the power suit article. The piece mentions women revealing their sexuality and how it will cause them to lose their authority. The article agrees with this statement, but I think otherwise. I feel in order to be professional one must dress accordingly while at the same time being able to spice it up. It's the 21st century and it's a time for change.

Ashley Fischer
United States

The Power Suit - I find the idea that the "power suit" can function as a metaphor for power itself that it is not preternaturally "male", but something that can be put on, and stripped away. However, it is also problematic in that it implies that women must must put on a "suit" in order to imbue themselves with power in a predominately male society.

Cara Cameron
United States

Power suit: I think that our mothers generation, including Hillary Clintons' generation, were used to having to dress like men (shoulder pads, boxy suits) in order to be taken seriously, but in our generation we are able to be sexy and powerful at the same time. Being stylish is a sign of power.

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