Power Dressing Through History

Dressing like you mean business is one of AW17’s biggest trends – we take a look at the history of power dressing.

The roots of office wear can be found in the Chanel suit of the 1920s. Coco Chanel observed the ease and authority of men in suits and decided women could benefit from this powerful, professional look.  She added masculine elements to her feminine designs and in 1916, created the iconic Chanel suit, a tweed, well-fitted skirt and boxy, collarless, button-up jacket.

The suit enabled women to look modern, sophisticated, authoritative and feminine while feeling comfortable. The perfect outfit for post WWI women as they entered previously all-male environments. 

Up until the late 1970s, the majority of working women had been confined to traditional female occupations such as secretaries, bookkeepers, and typists. By the 1980s, however, businesses were thriving and jobs were plentiful; great strides had been made in the crusade for women’s rights. Business-minded women were becoming lawyers, politicians, and corporate executives; and they began dressing to establish, and complement, their new authority. Power dressing communicated an image of success, and enabled women to be taken more seriously.

The recommended “uniform” was conservative – a slightly below-the-knee skirt suit, in sober dark blue, black or grey, with a white blouse, a scarf tie, sensible pumps, skin-toned tights and discreet jewellery. “Anything else at work is unthinkable,” said John T. Molloy in his best-selling “The Woman’s Dress for Success” manual, published in 1977

Power-dressing dominated the fashion landscape in following years and was worn by public figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Margaret Thatcher was particularly influential and one of the first to adopt the signature power-suit as our first female Prime Minister. Power dressing elements were all over our TV screens – from the padded shoulders in 1980’s soap operas Dallas and Dynasty; to the transformation of Melanie Griffith’s character in Working Girl. 

Come the 1990s, as women made strides in the corporate world, so they demanded matching wardrobes. Designer Donna Karan recalls noticing the female “office drones” around her, and decided that 80s designs lacked femininity, “My whole thing was having a woman feel like a woman” she said. She launched her own collection in 1985; functional and comfort-driven with soft-shouldered jackets, cashmere, wrap around skirts, and stretchy bodysuits.  Women loved these softer, more luxurious fabrics that could take you from day to night. 

The mid-’90s were characterised by grunge and a more androgynous look; an age of effortless dressing. Many workplaces became casual with dot-com CEOs wearing jeans, T-shirts and trainers to work. Designers reacted to this, mixing masculine and feminine, smart and casual, up- and down-town, creating a minimalist “cool” spin on power dressing with androgynous tailoring and tech-y tops. The suit once again was cool.

Fast forward to 2017 and power dressing is making another comeback, but this time it is wide-ranging and refreshingly individualistic, worn by women in all types of industries. And it’s anything but boring. High powered matching trouser suits, savvy leather pencil skirts, reinvented excitingly structured shirts, leopard- floral- and geometric- print dresses, 80's big shoulders, wool blazers and deconstructed trenches – you just need the right attitude and some deft styling.

Does your jewellery match your power suit? We think Just Trade's Alexandra Bangle, Sara Chyan's Level Ring and World Find's Brushed Hoop Earrings complement the look perfectly.