The New Power Suit: 9 People Show Off The Clothes That Make Them Feel Unstoppable
In the most famous image of Elizabeth I, the Armada Portrait, painted in 1588, the formidable monarch sits surrounded by symbols of her success, including paintings of the defeated Spanish ships, and a badass-looking crown. But, before that, what catches your eye is her outfit. With a billowing cloak, jewels all over the place, and more bows than you can shake a sceptre at, there’s only one word to describe what’s going on here: extra. Elizabeth’s arms are held near akimbo as a result of the excessive amount of fabric around them, and her ruffle is roughly twice the size of her head. In this portrait, size matters. The outfit — and, by extension, the Queen herself — takes up half of what we’re looking at, illustrating Elizabeth’s majesty, and, most importantly, her power.
Throughout British history, women have asserted power through size. Queen Victoria’s robes went on for days, Emmeline Pankhurst’s feathery hats added at least three inches to her height, and Margaret Thatcher’s bouffant made it clear that the lady was not for turning.
And then there’s the power suit; undoubtedly the most important image of power dressing in modern sartorial history. While boxy shoulders and traditionally “masculine” tailoring are most often associated with 1980s New York (thanks in no small part to Working Girl, of course), Dr. Rebecca Arnold, a senior lecturer in the history of dress & textiles at London’s Courtauld Institute, explains that it was actually an “international style” for “a particular kind of woman.” The power suit, she explains, was worn by women the world over “who [were] newly entering the executive layer of business and, at that time, it meant negotiating a male-dominated workplace.” My own mother is quick to vouch for this when I ask her about the office attire she saw as a PR exec in ‘80s London. Boxy tailoring was the thing, she tells me. And, for further proof of the power suit’s international influence, we need only peep inside Princess Di’s closet.
"I’ve often associated ‘power dressing’ with ‘dressing like a man’ — but this outfit makes me feel powerful outside of that. I like to think that there’s power in dressing effeminately too." — Florence Given
For so many years, super sizing was the mode of choice for women looking to be taken seriously. Beyond the desire to mimic the masculine physique, it seems to me that women were determined to take up space in any way they could. If their voices were talked over, their shoulder pads made their presence known. Micro-aggressions were met with larger-than-life hair dos. When male colleagues looked down on them, their heels got higher.
But now the game is changing. Where clothes once spoke for us, we now speak for ourselves. No longer a symbol of the power we’re striving for, our clothes are now an extension of the power we inherently feel. When Meghan Markle guest edited the September 2019 British issue of Vogue — the most important fashion publication on the planet — clothes were not her focus. Instead, we heard from those featured about the work they are doing and the changes they were making through the voices, through the power they have cultivated over years of hard graft.
Below, nine women and non-binary people describe what power dressing means to them in 2019. No longer boxed in by boxy tailoring, these people have found styles that explore the length and breadth of fashion and what it can say about you. Proving that, today, power dressing can mean anything, as long as it reflects the person beneath.
"Looking at this picture I find myself becoming very emotional. It's not often that I get the chance to wear something so traditionally beautiful, so the times that I do, I wholeheartedly cherish. Wearing the Salwaar Kameez, I feel extremely connected to my family back in Panjab. To know that my grandmother, and her mother, and her mother (and so on) wore something super similar fills me with so much joy.
"I found it powerful to be connected to the women in my lineage through clothing. Most of my Salwaar Kameez' are created and sewn by my aunts. I adore the outfit that my aunt made for me (God keep her soul), [and] somehow I feel connected to her even after her passing through knowing that she made that certain outfit for me.
"Looking at my suits fills me with happiness, then reality hits me, and my mind circles back to the fact that I am no longer able to enter India due to the death threats I receive from people there. Sadly, I may not be able to visit my family and elders, but I am connected to them through the Salwaar Kameez's that I wear. Now that is Powerful."
Harnaam Kaur is a social activist and motivational speaker from London / @harnaamkaur
"I think fashion is powerful — or to be specific, my fashion is powerful — because just by putting on this outfit I saw what it meant to have power (or lack of). A van stopped to shout at me. A group of kids paused their conversation to stare. A group of people crossed the street to laugh. All just because of some clothes? This outfit to me is powerful because it withstands that, it remains bold, it is breaking rules, it brings joy."
Travis Alabanza is an artist, theatre maker, poet, and writer from Bristol / @TravisAlabanza
"The meaning behind this image is what makes it so powerful to me. It was taken outside of the Houses of Parliament recently, where I was invited along with other incredible women to meet with the Government Equalities Office to educate the government on the challenges around body confidence, as well as ways in which they can better support, champion, and progress services to help women with these challenges — and I was dressed to do so!
"The outfit was a combination of some of my favourite pieces of clothing, with my favourite bag and high heels. It was all about how the outfit made me feel — not a single thought was given to how others might feel. It made me feel confident, empowered, and authentic to myself."
"This look makes me feel powerful because I feel like I can do literally anything in it. It’s one of my favourite outfits that I’ve styled to date because it's so chaotic. I can imagine any person of any gender wearing this outfit and feeling powerful in it.
"I’ve often associated ‘power dressing’ with ‘dressing like a man’ — but this outfit makes me feel powerful outside of that. I like to think that there’s power in dressing effeminately too."
"When I was in my early 20s, I used to look at my friends that were in their early 30s and think... mmm... ‘she’s a bit old for that dress.’ I used to think, ‘I’ll not do that, I will have had my time by then.’ Now in my early 30s, I often think, are 21-year-olds thinking the same about me? The truth is I feel more comfortable in my own skin than ever before and wearing these clothes is not something I'm going to give up.
"Eighties fashion always makes me feel powerful. Just give me a shoulder pad and I look in control. I also find when I give my outfits a little bit of a ‘theme’ — like '70s or '80s — I can get away with being a bit sexier without looking like a 21-year-old wannabe. At 31, it’s not about slapping on a short skirt — it’s about giving it style."
"Clothing has always been a form of self-expression, and for me, power dressing is about feeling confident in my own skin. It’s a state of mind. It’s more than just fashion — it’s a reassertion of control over my body and what I choose to show or to conceal from the world. Power dressing is about recognising that I can choose which combination of clothes make me feel confident and I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s standards. The more we embrace others' rights to find their power, the more we will find our own.
"In this outfit, the high waist trousers cinching in the waist give a feminine touch. The high neck top gives me the coverage I desire and complements my hijab style, which, again, flows on one side and adds to the soft, feminine feel. Accessories are SO fun for me, and having fun is key to feeling confident! So the gold touches in the necklace and earrings pull together the warm tones of my hijab, top, and makeup."
"I love wearing this dress in particular for two reasons. The colour is incredibly striking and, as someone who has a visual impairment, vibrant colours are an integral part of my fashion choices. But I also love wearing this outfit because whenever I do I always get endless compliments about the colour and the bee-themed accessories I wear with it.
"Having a visual impairment, it can be hard to see how you look in garments and so whenever I find an item that I get compliments about, that outfit always makes me feel so incredibly empowered and confident."
Emily Davison is a writer, blogger, and YouTuber who shares her experiences of living with Septo Optic Dysplasia / @fashioneyesta2012
"This white tailored Max Mara jumpsuit is such a key element of my personal Power Dressing style. Rather than opting for the traditional suit I like to play with tailoring in different forms and the minimalist design of this piece means it’s a power piece that can be worn and re-styled again and again.
"As someone who built a career from sharing their day-to-day outfits, I have seen the evolution of power dressing for the modern woman to its multi-faceted meaning now. And through my work with Smart Works, which I documented on my YouTube channel, I know all too well the power that a good outfit can have on a woman during her career and interview process."
"Drag is about taking what people have jeered about and making them cheer for it. I was jeered at for being masculine as a kid so wearing a suit for me has always been the ultimate rebellion against those bullies and a celebration of my own maleness. I subvert the normative ideas of masculine dress by wearing suits in unusual colours and, for me, I feel really powerful in pink because pink is for all and masculinity can be gentle. Power doesn't have to be in perfection, power is about embracing who you are and letting it shine through."