The subtle art of conveying authority and competence through clothing and accessories, also known as power dressing, was amongst the casualties of Covid-19, with tailored jackets and dresses getting jettisoned for tracksuits and athleisure, at least waist down. But with workplaces reopening, women are now ready to ditch the loungewear and dress the part again.
Of course, power dressing was under assault even before the pandemic, with Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck and jeans, and Mark Zuckerberg’s T-shirt and jeans leading the charge. As millennials and Gen-Z populated new economy, companies saw no need for them to dress up. The big surprise, however, was JPMorgan Chase permitting a more casual dress code and Goldman Sachs making suit and tie optional in 2019.
In India, women traditionally wore only saris to work, but over the decades, it evolved to Indo-western and western wear. In sectors such as banking, saris still seem to be the norm, but that’s not the case in most other industries.
A look back
French fashion designer Coco Chanel is credited with having designed the first power suit for women in 1921 in Paris—a simple and chic button-up wool jacket, with fitted sleeves and no collar, worn with a woollen skirt. However, it was Margaret Thatcher who epitomised the female power dresser in the 1980s. While initially, women’s power dressing was a feminised replication of men’s suits—to enable them to fit in male-dominated workplaces essentially—the concept took a different trajectory with the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As women started taking up leadership roles as executives, bankers, politicians, lawyers, etc., the development of signature feminine styles, which made a visual impact, started to take shape. Over the years, women such as Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama made many statements with their sartorial sense, while Madeline Albright used brooches and pins to express her moods and opinions.
Back to the present
The pandemic and the resultant lockdowns in countries across the globe ensured work from home became the norm rather than the exception. Suddenly, it was casual Friday dressing every day of the week. There were jokes galore about people being dressed impeccably waist-up for Zoom meetings while wearing shorts or trackpants below. But with workplaces opening up, all that is changing. So what does power dressing mean for today’s women? “Power dressing is whatever gives you the confidence to be yourself,” says Ipsita Das, Managing Director of Moët Hennessy India, part of the French luxury conglomerate LVMH. Das’s go-to outfit is the sari, which she wears nearly four times a week to work. “When I was younger, I wore more western wear as I tried to emulate the senior leadership, who were dressed in western wear,” says the 35-year-old, who started work as a management trainee in Denmark and has worked in male-dominated fields such as shipping and logistics.
Das started wearing saris a few years ago when she was working with Uber and had to attend meetings at government departments. She felt she was not being given an audience when she dressed in trousers and a shirt. “I spent hours, but no one was willing to listen to me. For the next meeting, I tried wearing a sari and it changed the whole outlook. I realised that to manage these meetings right, I needed to dress right,” recalls Das. “Being dressed well and presenting yourself in the right manner is part of the culture at LVMH. It holds true even in the virtual world,” adds Das, who did not wear saris when working from home, but was always dressed formally in western wear for Zoom calls.
“Power dressing is usually perceived as bold business suits and high heels for women. However, I feel it needs to be a piece of clothing that is elegant and makes you feel confident, as well as comfortable,” says Simi Dewan, Deputy General Manager and Country Head, L’Occitane India. She prefers wearing smart trousers paired with a crisp white shirt or elegant ethnic wear with a statement accessory. For important meetings or interactions with senior management, she prefers to wear elegant silhouettes in neutral colours. For Dewan, dressing up for work is essential for a good start to the day, so whether she had Zoom calls or it was a regular work-from-home day, she made sure to dress up.
For 42-year-old Meghna Jacob, who works for a global investment bank in Bengaluru, power dressing is ‘putting your best foot forward sartorially’. “I think of it as my style—which makes me feel confident walking into a room and creating that first impression,” says Jacob, who prefers formal dresses, shirts and blouses with skirts over suits. She even set up an Instagram page during her work-from-home days where she posted pictures of herself dressed for work. “As with work itself, Zoom changed nothing for me—I continued to pay as much attention to my look as when we were working from office.”
Jacob says that while she doesn’t dress differently based on the seniority of the people she is meeting, she does keep the calendar of the day in mind while choosing her outfit. “I decide depending on my meetings and the related cultural contexts. For example, the length of the dress, whether something with sleeves would work better, whether I should wear something fitted… so if I am outdoors or have to plant a tree, I don’t have to worry about the outfit staying in place and so on.”
Another aspect of dressing up for work is travelling abroad for meetings and events. Dinaz Madhukar, Chief Commercial Service Officer at Adani Airports, loves showcasing Indian culture when abroad, so always dresses up in Indian wear. “Right now, due to Covid-19 restrictions, there isn’t any travel, but in my previous role, I used to travel a lot and always took my Indo-western wear and saris. You stand out,” says Madhukar, who has previously worked at DLF Luxury Retail and likes to wear either a sari or blazer with trousers for board meetings or interactions with senior management. Power dressing, she says, is anything that makes her feel confident. “Only if I am confident will I reflect it externally,” she says, adding that it is important to dress right as per the weather rather than blindly copying the idea of power dressing from the West.
As women head back to the workplace, dressing the part is important, but being comfortable and confident comes first.
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