What do women at the top of both power and money wear to work? They don’t wear tight sheath dresses; they don’t wear pencil skirts; they don’t wear tight blouses or top. They do wear pants, fuller skirts, blazers and more blazers, they wear heels and flats and mid-heel loafers. They wear up-to-date patterns, off-beat color combinations.
Ikram is a boutique in Chicago and is what Michelle Obama depended on for the eight years she served as first lady. The boutique specializes in fashion-forward “professional” clothing — everything hovers between $400 to $1500, it all has a twist of pattern and color, or line, or detailing. Unsurprisingly, given what you know about Michelle Obama’s choices, there are many fit-and-flare dresses, interesting cardigans, and many super-cool skirts, pants, and jackets.
Another source I’ve been following is Betsy Fisher in D.C. The owner, B.F., shows up in random news stories about political women’s fashion, such as this story about The Good Wife from last May. Betsy Fisher’s Boutique has a terrific gallery of current looks for sale — more than any other source, it gives excellent insight into what a particular market of upscale, professional women dress like. Ain’t nothing like the weirdly feminized world envisioned in Ivanka Trump’s line (Read “Wonderful line” and What’s missing in Ivanka’s closet for my critiques of that product line). What fascinates me about the Betsy Fisher gallery of looks is the sharp, modern edge to staples that have dominated for decades. And the refreshingly practical approach. An outfit with accompanied with a moderately-high heel choice has this narrative attached for an outfit aimed at “Speaking Engagement”:
“Your number one tool for presenting to the bored? Your appearance. Polished and perky in your Marie Saint Pierre jacket and riveting Italian necklace, all eyes turn from screens to you. Pacing comfortably in elegant AGL pumps, you hold their attention. As you slip out of the jacket to emphasize the nitty gritty, they’re convinced that everything’s coming up (Max Mara) roses.”
So Fisher gets it. Women “dress up” for work when they have a presentation. And they worry about keeping the eyes up at their face, they are concerned about walking easily about; and they are really worried about taking off their blazer in front of people.
Here’s what Shonda Rhimes wears: a top with piping to draw the eyes towards her face, and a stretch cardigan in place of a blazer. She wears a stretch knit shirtwaist dress with a belt, and for “dress up” occasions a fit-and-flare dress and bolero cardigan.
Jenna Lyons wears fuller skirts, knit tops, and heels or loafers (and giant earrings); another favorite outfit are roomy trousers, loose blouse or top, and a open cardigan or jacket and very high heels.
Dress A, B, C, D, and E, moving from left to right.
Anna Wintour — come on, surely she wears the uniform of a tight sheath dress and heels. No, she does not. She does wear heels, an ungodly amount. She also has a limo, couriers, and rarely walks (I have watched The September Issue, have you?). But her clothing choices may surprise you. From the right side, what? Dresses — the woman loves dresses. But these are forgiving in silhouette (although the designers rarely range above a size 8). Fuller skirts or very savvy detailing punching up the traditional sheath dress. Take those three striped dresses. Each has very carefully placed lines that hit just below her natural waist (as in the dolman sleeve dress D, that pink stripe). On zigzag dress C, center, the placement of the trim on the edges of the elbow-length sleeves, the panels edging slightly downward at the waist (visually bringing attention inwards and narrowing the space), and the just-below-knee hem. All the sheath dresses are the column dress silhouette shaken up: given more room on top, given striping to accentuate rather than expose. The fuller dresses on the far sides are both quite kind to the body underneath, skimming the edges of the body rather than mercilessly exposing it.
Oprah Winfrey has been in American life for so long it’s sometimes hard to see her clearly. In two photographs from the past four years, we can see the ways she’s finessed a look for herself. She favors woven fabrics, such as the orange top and skirt in the right picture. If you look carefully, the white blouse and orange blouse are near matches for one another (and the orange blouse shows up in other outfits as well). Rounded neckline, gathered fabric tamed with some seam lines, bracelet-length sleeves, rarely a blazer or cardigan. Her rounded necklines are almost always “sliced” so that the curved lines end in a straight vertical. Bold clear colors (Oprah rarely wears muted or pastel tones).
Indira Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, heads an enormous international corporation. Her fashion choices mirror that of major older female politicians such as Hillary Clinton. Most female congresswomen have a uniform of a Nina McLemore jacket (read Robin Givhan’s fascinating profile of the creator of the woman-political-power jacket), dark skirt or pants, low heels. But the major players, such as a presidential candidate, goes with a striking tunic jacket, pants, low heels. Here, Indira Nooyi shows why. For public discussions like these two images, she wears a striking, bold long jacket in a textured fabric that reads as a neutral over a basic black straight skirt and moderately high heels. Simple earrings, simple hair, simple subdued makeup. Bracelet-length sleeves again.
Most of us don’t have these sort of occupations. Teachers, professors, nurses, office workers, community center directors, retail workers — most women are in workplaces where the basic uniform is either a literal uniform or they wear a standard rotation of knit pants or skirt, bright or patterns top, long cardigan or knit jacket, black tights, flats with thick rubber soles or mary janes. Rarely does the average American woman don hose (like Indira above) or high heels (like Wintour). If they wear a tailored blazer to work, it’s because, like Rhimes, they are presenting in front of an audience.
What has bothered me is that I deal with young women in their twenties heading out into the workplace. On “career days” I see them dressed in the strangest, most odd way:
This image, from “InvincibleImage.com”, is some weird t.v. fantasy of working women: tight, narrow, short skirt, very high heels (not only 3.5″ high but extremely narrow heel), a languid and gaping blouse that is almost sheer, demanding a camisole layered over a non-lacy bra, tightly tailored blazer with sleeves covering the wrists (a popular “help me, I’m helpless” look common in junior-sized sweaters) and a “statement” necklace probably engraved with her name. Nothing about this outfit reads as capable or powerful in the real world. This outfit reflects an early to mid-1990s “conservative work place” standard, the kind of weirdly sexualized (shorter skirt, higher heels, sheerer blouse, longer sleeves) that was recommended if you were trying to enter a field strongly dominated by men, and you were yourself a younger woman. But when I google “interview outfit” on image serach some interesting results emerge, especially from Pinterest. The shoes are always ridiculous, but the strategies of clothing styles are consistent and reveal changes in how women are approaching the workplace:
This montage from a Pinterest user reveals latitude and confidence. Lower heels to flats, simple solid-color tops, simple skirts (not so sure about that short flared one — just try sitting in that), plain “dressy” pants (because they have an articulated waistline and are woven fabric), cardigan or blazer — both off-white. Briefcase. I’d say yes on these: I realize many young women would feel a bit dowdy in this, but they wouldn’t look that way.
These two outfits interest me to no end. The one on the left is a pinterest montage created by a user. Low heels, simple solid-color top, and a flared skirt (knit) and a tailored blazer. The proportions in the longer image are off — that jacket is too short for the flared skirt, but more power (literally, economic power) to her: opaque tights, lower-heeled shoes with some flair. The second image is an overwrought blogger “WhoWhatWear” feed but the outfit could work as interview material with two changes. One, those stick heels need be a wider so that she doesn’t look so hesitant about stepping, and that bag is twee and silly: briefcase or tote, you need. But the dress is cool and sensible, the scarf at the neck looks confident, substitute an oversized Timex watch for the ugly bracelet… good to go.