The Problem With Power
Power takes several distinct, but closely linked, forms. It’s possible to quantify power through control over others, importance and influence, or, alternatively, in a more fundamental sense, as strength, not defined by hierarchies or seeking a position at the top of them. Do you feel most powerful doing deadlifts in the gym at 6AM? Or having an entire boardroom hang on to your every word? How about during one of those unexplainable, blissed-out moments on a random Tuesday afternoon? Those moments when you suddenly feel entirely authentic, aligned with yourself and fate; that immense and immeasurable kind of power that begins in your chest, trickling out of your heart and down your limbs (hopeful and inspiring music recommended for maximum effect). Although we all share obvious similarities in the way we view ‘power’, it’s the subtle ambiguities and differences in how we understand it that provide a fascinating vantage point from which we can deeply analyse and understand our intentions. Our own personal interpretation of it gives us an insight into how we outwardly display our inner power. Given the spectrum of meanings embodied by ‘power’, what is really meant when we talk about power dressing?
Feel Strong, Be Strong
Archetypes are flexible and, in many ways, subjective. This is particularly apparent in the case of the ‘warrior’. Strength, in the workplace and beyond, is something we can show and see, but primarily, it’s something we feel. The way we experience and perceive our own power is deeply personal and unique to every person, meaning it should be no surprise that the clothing we choose varies. Regardless of how we decide to dress our warrior, what’s important is that her clothing functions the way any warrior’s should: as armour. Armour needs to make us feel safe and protected but should signal to others that we’re strong and confident. Sometimes we wear armour when we feel vulnerable, sometimes we wear it when we want to signal to others that we are ready for battle; both are true for our power-dressed warrior.
When we embody this archetype, a number of dynamics come into play, the most notable being our position as a defensive or aggressive warrior; which side of this duality do we believe we’re on, and is this consistent with the experience of others around us? As a professional woman, this is especially relevant. Being assertive can be hard for anyone, regardless of gender, but as long as the gender pay gap still exists in the UK (though it has been decreasing over the last twenty years), it’s a sad reality that many women are professionally undervalued, and may need to shout a little louder to make sure that they’re heard. Thankfully, the negatively stereotyped, ruthless and demanding portrayal of career-driven women in film, TV, and literature for the last fifty years seems to have lately fallen out of favour, replaced by more nuanced portrayals of ambitious femininity. The future is hopeful, but the past undoubtedly still impacts many professional women today.
Power’s Changing Face
There’s no denying that power dressing, at its inception, was a way for women to feel more powerful by dressing like men. There’s still a masculine flavour to many of the styles we frequently choose to place under its umbrella, but even if these items, such as the blazer or shirt, are traditionally masculine, women have appropriated them to suit their preferences and needs, reclaiming and altering them to such an extent that ‘dressing like men’ is no longer a sufficient – or accurate – definition. What was originally perceived as the strength of masculinity has now evolved into a broad concept that says just as much about how the wearer feels as how they look. We still want to feel strong, but it’s our perception of who and what is strong that’s changed. The spectrum of clothing associated with power dressing has now expanded to combine both highly feminine and undeniably bold and powerful styles, textures, and cuts, such as ruffles, frills, and lace, to name a few. Armour throughout history has rarely been bland and non-decorative; many of the most iconic empires on Earth dressed their warriors to be not only fierce and intimidating, but ornamental and chic. Bringing artistic flair and creativity into our expression of the warrior may seem like a beautification of something that is traditionally functional and plain, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. By feminising our perception of the ‘warrior’, we in fact return it to something closer to its original, historical state: a character that’s not only strong and resilient, but ornate and beautiful.
Making Ourselves Seen
At the core of power dressing, beneath our individual intention, is… well… exactly that: intention, and what a powerful thing that can be. When we invest our time, money, and energy into our look, we are indirectly expressing that we believe ourselves to be worthy of change, are willing to take risks, prepared to be assertive when required, and ready to extend the parameters of our comfort zones. This requires boldness and bravery: the characteristics of any successful warrior. So, we have the bravery required to face battle, but just who is it we’re fighting again…? Well, in the simplest of terms, we are often fighting our own self-doubt. This goes against the general belief that the only relevant form of power we would want to gain at work is the kind of power that exists as a measure of our value against and above others, but why should this be the case? There’s far more to being a warrior than simply defeating our enemies. Cultivating support and camaraderie among those that fight alongside us is equally, if not more, important than our individual skills. Great warriors need not be merciless and selfish: they’re committed to a goal and have the skills and resilience required to do what needs to be done to achieve it. Nurturing this as a focus within our own warrior gives us greater strength, not only as individuals, but as a collective. After all, what do we have when lots of warriors fight together? That’s right: an army.