Theory at TEDWomen: Clothes Are Instruments of Power

When you put on a suit, you may stand up straighter, stride a little wider, push your shoulders back. Dare we say you even feel a little more powerful?

On Thursday morning at a breakfast at TEDWomen in San Francisco, Theory's Chief Marketing Officer Siddhartha Shukla and Melissa Leventon, founding partner of Curatrix Group and former Curator-in-Charge of Textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, spoke about clothes as instruments of power.

"Fashion is so much more than a suit. It's so much more than a dress... It's about change. It's about invention," Shulka said.

Leventon spoke about the idea that when women borrow aspects of men's dress, women, in turn, are borrowing aspects of the power that men have held for centuries. The perfect example: the suit. After all, when you see a woman in a suit, you think she's a lady with a job — and who's more empowered than a working woman?

Leventon explained that it wasn't until the late 19th century that women started stealing men's fashion; up until then, suiting had been reserved strictly for the boys. But as women began agitating for the right to vote, so, too, did they begin reaching for the power that came along with fashion.

Take a look at this John Singer Sargent painting from 1897, which shows Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes in nearly identical suiting up top:

Once you've honed in on their similar dress, you can't help but think about the overtones of control they're subtly passing back and forth between them.

But women were still wearing skirts — until, starting in the 1930s, they'd reached out for a unisex look. "When women put on pants it was a power grab," Leventon said. "It was like saying, 'Okay, I am putting on your clothes, I want access to some of the good things you have hoarded to yourself.'"

Paging women like Coco Chanel and Katharine Hepburn, often seen in pants — whom we look to as powerful. Coincidence? (Spoiler alert: No.)

Next, Leventon explained that Yves Saint Laurent "wrote the book" on pants for women, designing suits with a distinctly feminine flair that allowed women a permanent place in the once male-only world. They were marked with something that always let you know they were for women — a bow, a see-through blouse, or a color a man would never wear. Today, that's still the case; a label like Theory, for instance, designs suits with distinctly menswear-influenced lines allowing women that power, but does so in fabrics with patterns or textures that are exclusively feminine.

So, where does that bring us present-day with clothes as instruments of power? It's no secret that menswear is a trend now, and has been for a few years. It makes you think, doesn't it: in a time during which women are working so hard to catch up with men in the boardroom and leaning in so hard we're almost falling over, maybe it's no accident we're reaching into our closets for a straight-cut blazer to don for that big meeting. It's a power-grab.

Images: Sargent, Hepburn: Wikimedia Commons;