Dressing up to feel powerful may have been a fashion fad of the 1980s, but do we still think differently if we wear formal clothes?
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Well hello there BrainStuff. I’m Cristen Conger and I’ve got a question for you. Do I look powerful? 'Cause I feel powerful!
Some people even think that what you wear (especially feminist sweatshirts) can produce this kind of confidence. So what is this so-called “power dressing?” And does it actually work?
To answer that question we have to take a trip to the smooth 1970s, when a guy named John Molloy came out with a series of books about “dressing for success.”
For men, Molloy recommended conservative business attire that was high-quality and fit well. Essentially, a business suit in a dark hue, with a modest white shirt and tie. Think Don Draper.
For women, he adapted this uniform to include a skirted suit, and a soft blouse with floppy or bowed neck piece. Think Margaret Thatcher. In order to achieve the kind of authority of The Iron Lady, Molloy recommended women do two things. Don’t look like a secretary, and don’t look too sexy. Because of course women should protect themselves from their own sexual objectification!
You couldn’t wear waistcoats or contoured jackets, according to Molloy, because they drew attention to the bust. Scarves were popular because they drew attention to the face and away from the breasts. It's all about distraction, you see!
And floral prints and feminine colors like salmon pink were out. But you didn’t want to look too masculine either, hence the skirts instead of trousers.
This was the birth of “power dressing.” And by the 1980s, it became the way “enterprising” women learned to manage or limit the potential sexuality of their bodies and leave all that gross girl stuff like cooties at home.
But as they entered the corporate workforce in ever-greater numbers, some women wanted to modify this uniform while maintaining their professional appearance.
One alternative model for breaking out of these fashion limitations was Princess Diana, with her more glamorous outfits. Others were on TV, in shows like “Dynasty,” “Designing Women” and “Moonlighting.”
Enter broad shoulder pads, wide lapels and a wider range of textures, colors and accessories.
Cut to present day! Most of these fashion fads have come and gone, but you can still see their influence on politicians, for example. Take Hillary Clinton. Or Donald Trump. Many of the tenets of power dressing are still in play today, we just don’t call it that anymore.
But a 2015 study re-examined the principles behind power dressing. It found that putting on formal clothing does indeed make us feel powerful and even makes us think differently.
The authors of this study tested student participants in a series of experiments by rating their outfits and taking cognitive tests. When the students switched out of sweatpants and into the kind of clothing they thought they should wear to a job interview, the tests showed their cognitive processing became more abstract, broader and holistic.
The authors also say that how often you actually wear formal clothes doesn’t matter. Regardless of when you wear it, these uniforms have become a symbol of power.
Schaefer, J. O. (2015). Power dressing. Salem Press Encyclopedia
Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body. 2015