What is Power Dressing?

Photo by Giulia Gravia on Unsplash

There is a way in which clothes, costumes, and dress are able to give power to the wearer or beholder and that there is more to dress than meets the eye. This concept, identified as ‘power-dressing’, holds the power to speak in high volumes without the need for words. It is a form of expression to the viewer that the subject has marked their position and owned their power as an individual. Power dressing was a term coined somewhere in between the 1970’s and 1980’s and is defined as a style of fashion that is usually used to establish power and control. This is mostly used to challenge the male presence in settings of politics, labour, or, more generally, male dominated environments. Power dressing is still seen to this day- even after women have somewhat acquired more authority and power in society. This was even witnessed in the 2016 elections, when Melania Trump wore the blue Ralph Lauren dress to mark their victory in the election (Hopkins 99). To put it simply, the specific selection of that dress allowed her to say ‘We Won’ without having to say it verbally. In other words, moments like these are when dress is witnessed as an expression of power and victory.

This article will take a look into women in popular film culture and how their choice of dress or costume has contributed to character development and expression of identity. In other words, it will analyze how women use dress & fashion in pop-culture to re-establish their place in society. Over the years, pop culture in Hollywood has created memorable characters on screen who wore iconic costumes, like Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), The Bride in Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003), and Annie in Annie (2014). In movies like these, it is clear that the characters go through several phases, and a different costume accompanies each different phase to emphasize the transition that these characters undergo throughout the plot of the film. Whether it is a character going from poor to rich or from weak to strong, nothing expresses that change louder than the use of dress. In fact, even the simplest of details like color and texture of costume symbolizes certain characteristics of these women to tell their story without even the need for an explanation. The aim of this article is to explore these characters and the value, and impact of their costumes through a feminist lens in regards to the concept of power dressing.

Andrea Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

The Devil Wears Prada is an iconic movie renowned for its lead characters Miranda Priestly played by Meryl Streep and Andrea (Andy) Sachs played by Anne Hathaway. On the surface this movie may seem like a feminist film as the actresses play women in powerful working roles but really many of the scenes reaffirm the gender binary. For the purpose of this article we will not critique this aspect of the movie but it is important to address these issues in the scope of its context to feminism. This section will look at the connections between Andy’s dress and character evolution. Specifically, it will look at how Andy uses power dressing to establish her place at work and in society.

Andy is a recent university graduate who moved to New York with dreams of becoming a journalist. She did not care much for fashion and put very little effort into her looks, as seen in figure 1, but she got the job at Runway Magazine as Miranda’s assistant because she was smart and had an impressive resume. At the beginning of the movie Andy lacked confidence and looked to her boyfriend for approval. Figure 1 shows her insecure and anxious manner. As the movie goes on and Andy is struggling in her job, she realizes that something needs to change in order for her to succeed. She gets a makeover and upgrades her wardrobe.

Figure 1. Andy put little effort into her looks and lacked confidence when she first got hired at Runway Magazine.

The following day, Andy walks into work as a new, powerful and confident woman (figure 2). The change in her wardrobe gave her the confidence she needed in the workplace. One may even say that Andy was power dressing through her tailored blazer, leather boots, and layered jewelry (figure 2). Power dressing became popular in the 80s and is recognized by the power suit, lavish fabrics and ornate accessories (Schiavone 411). Andy utilized these characteristics of power dressing in her new wardrobe. Power dressing is still popular today because it gives women the strength to stand up to inequality (Schiavone 415). Andy starts to stand up for herself to her boyfriend and friends when they disapprove of her job. She starts to excel at work and is given more opportunities from Miranda. Groeneveld states that feminist perspectives on fashion are ambivalent, with many feminists being anti-fashion and see things like high heels as restrictive (181). Power dressing on the contrary is a feminist perspective that supports fashion and encourages women to be both masculine, through strong silhouettes, and feminine, through adornment, in their dress. Andy in the movie is learning to navigate life and career and this becomes more effortless as she begins power dressing to establish her place at work and in her personal life.

Figure 2. Andy walked into work after her makeover with confidence and power.

Beatrix ‘The Bride’ Kiddo from Kill Bill (2004)

Kill Bill (2003) directed by Quentin Tarantino was considered a feminist movie by critics upon release, featuring a strong woman lead who “triumphs over her patriarchal abuser and actively fights back against the male gaze” (The Take 3). While this movie may be empowering on screen, it continues to be controversial in its qualification for the label as a true feminist film considering its context off-screen. Unfortunately this is due to the interviews that later surfaced surrounding the controversy of Tarantino for his methods of directing lead actress Uma Thurman that put her at risk, and abusive producer Harvey Weinstein (Helmore 3). We acknowledge this, and for the purpose of this analysis we will only be addressing the character of Beatrix on screen.

The main protagonist Beatrix ‘The Bride’ Kiddo, a former assassin- wakes up from being in a four-year coma after her ex-lover Bill attempts to murder her on her wedding day. She makes it her personal vendetta to go after Bill and her other assailants. Throughout the duration of the film, a correlation between Beatrix’s physical strength and her wardrobe manifests in composition and colour. At her most traumatic moments where she is vulnerable, weak and not in control of her own body, her wardrobe is uniform- she wears a hospital gown and wedding dress that are both lifeless, void of color (at times filmed in black and white), and passive.

As the plot escalates, Beatrix goes from survivor to heroine- managing to escape the hospital where she remained bed-ridden and sexually assaulted by staff for four years. We gradually see a change through her wardrobe as she assimilates into the “real world” and continues on her mission of revenge. Her wardrobe slowly turns into what one might consider a stereotypical costume for an assassin- a skin tight leather suit, pulling inspiration and motifs from biker gang culture, the world of superheroes and martial arts. As seen in Figure 3, Beatrix’s first outfit allows her to keep a low profile, blending into the backdrop of what was considered a typical fashion for women in the early 2000s. She wears a tan leather jacket, red top and low cut jeans.

Figure 3. Beatrix’s first outfit after escaping the hospital.

As shown in the Kill Bill promotional movie poster (Figure 4) Beatrix’s new look is easily recognizable for its vibrant yellow hue with black striped accents. Director Tarantino wanted to dress the character this way because he was inspired by Bruce Lee, the famous Chinese martial artist and his unfinished film titled Game of Death (Figure 5). For women on screen, asserting one’s presence can be achieved not only by the way she walks or talks, but in the way she dresses. As seen with Beatrix in her final face off with antagonist O-Ren Ishii, her yellow leather suit is a representation of the underdog, representing assertiveness and vitality (Lusso Leather 5), stepping into her power among the backdrop of her misfortunes.

Figure 4. 2003 Promotional movie poster with Beatrix’s iconic leather yellow motorcycle suit.
Figure 5. Bruce Lee sporting the original yellow suit.

Annie from “Annie” 2014

The 2014 recreation of Annie hit movie theatres with a bang and a whole lot of controversy. Starring Quvanzhane Wallis- a young orphan with loads of potential uses her quick wit and sunny outlook on life to achieve her dreams and cement her place in society. This film is a remake of the 1982 musical classic with the same name, both following the same plot and themes that center the experiences of a young woman navigating new experiences as a smart orphan while growing into her adolescence. The themes in this film are inherently feminist, as they show the resilience and power of young women with ambition and drive. These attributes are best reflected in the clothing the main character Annie wears throughout the film, and the juxtaposition from the initial outfits to the garments she wears by the end of the film.

The movie begins with Annie in class, amongst her peers wearing baggy hand-me-downs she received from her foster home (Figure 6). While her clothing is not damaged or dirty she often notes that she wishes for a better life that includes nicer clothing, almost to say that if her appearance matched her mindset she would reach her desired outcomes. Her clothing however is colourful and vibrant sporting fun patterns but the youthful style denotes her immaturity and helplessness as a character. The durable nature of her denim jackets and old leggings is what allows her to get into crazy situations. One of which is her chasing a stray dog, then tripping in front of a speeding van to then be saved by Olvier Warbucks, resulting in a life changing introduction.

Figure 6. Annie sporting her baggy foster-care hand me downs from the movies opening scenes

After meeting this powerful businessman who merely sees her as an opportunity to better his public image, Annie takes full advantage of the resources she now has to find out who she truly is and grow into the strong woman she wants to be. As she grows closer to Warbucks and is injected further into his lavish lifestyle we see Annie draped in a gorgeous red satin dress, for the climax of the movie where she is seen singing alongside her unlikely friend (Figure 7). At this time he realizes that her being around was never to promote his image but in actuality she makes him a better person. The stunning red dress is a testament to Annie’s infectious happiness and goodwill that rubs off on every other character she comes into contact with.

Figure 7. Annie wearing her satin dress (a nod to the original dress from the 1982 film)

The essence of power dressing is for the purpose of women cementing themselves in spaces where they belong. Previously this definition had only been allocated to white women of the 80’s. However this movie aims to apply that same idea to the experience of a young black girl trying to stake her claim in this world, a world that had rejected and outcasted her too many times before. In the same way that women dressed in power suits to assert themselves in male dominated businesses, Annie the lead character of the movie dressed in clothing and styles that were loud and colourful and reflected the place she was in her life through the course of her journey.

Another important aspect of this movie is the fact that Annie as a young black girl wears her hair in its natural form, throughout the entirety of the film (Figure 7). Much of the time when black actors are given platforms as large as this blockbuster live action (especially one with such cultural significance) they are often made to alter their looks, straighten their hair, bleach their skin, wear coloured contacts etc., all in the name of appealing to a predominantly white audience and in some ways to not alienate them (Hooks, p.340). One key aspect of Annie’s identifying characteristics is her curly hair but it can be said that the fact that Annie wears her hair naturally is a testament to her own means of power dressing. Through her hair she is challenging society by not assimilating, and staying true to her own authenticity in the film. This is one of the main themes of the movie — being true to yourself. By doing this she embodies the essence of power dressing by not only dressing in powerful clothing but having the audacity to stand in her truth throughout the film. This representation of authenticity is one of the reasons why Quvanzhane Wallis is the youngest actress to ever be nominated for an Oscar. The movie went on to inspire a young girls clothing collection that flew off the shelves of Target to inspire young women to live with the same drive and courage as Annie did.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is evident that power-dressing plays a key- if not primary role in filmmaking and popular culture. To emphasize Andrea Sachs’ regaining control of her life and proving to her boss that she is capable, her choice in dress shifts from preppy, overwhelmed school girl, to a confident, chic young woman, thus redefining her value as a character from an intern to a boss woman. In Kill Bill, we can see that the yellow costume of Uma Thurman, or, The Bride, deems her invincible and limitlessly powerful. And in Annie, the shift in costume from casual, affordable children’s clothing, to a vibrant satin dress, expresses her transition from a helpless orphan to a lucky young girl who has been adopted by a rich man. In situations like these, we do not even need to assess the plot of the film to understand the character’s journey throughout the film. The use of clothing is so powerful that without any explanation, we are able to clearly see how characters transition to different phases or situations in their lives.

A special thanks and credit to contributing authors on this project: Julia Rodriguez, Cameron Pinto, Nadeen Badran from Ryerson University — Fashion Culture Suffragettes to CEOs

References

Groeneveld, Elizabeth. “‘Be a Feminist Or just Dress Like One’: BUST, Fashion and Feminism as Lifestyle.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 2009, pp. 179–190. doi: 10.1080/09589230902812471

Helmore, Edward. “Uma Thurman Breaks Silence over Harvey Weinstein.” The Guardian, 24 Feb. 2020, www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/03/uma-thurman-harvey-weinstein-new-york-times- quentin-tarantino.

Hooks, Bell. Representing whiteness in the black imagination. New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 338–346.

Hopkins, Susan. “Girl Power-Dressing: Fashion, Feminism and Neoliberalism with Beckham, Beyoncé and Trump.” Celebrity Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2017, pp. 99–104., doi:10.1080/19392397.2017.1346052.

Schiavone, Scott W. “Re-Defining a Decade: Marc Jacobs, Tony Viramontes and the Vocabulary of 1980s Fashion.” Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, vol. 7, no. 4, 2020, pp. 407–420.

“Story in Leather: The Yellow of Bruce Lee and Beatrix Kiddo.” Lusso Leather, 11 Sept. 2017, www.lussoleather.com/blogs/news/story-in-leather-the-yellow-of-bruce-lee-and-beatrix-k iddo.

The Take. “Kill Bill’s The Bride: A Feminist Hero?” The Take, 2020, the-take.com/watch/kill-bills-the-bride-a-feminist-hero.

 

Resource: https://medium.com/the-grey-space/what-is-power-dressing-10f4bce97d90

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