Power Dressing a Masculinized Feminine Ideal

Power Dressing a Masculinized Feminine Ideal: A Study of the Self-Enterprising Career Woman of the 1980s through Power Dressing

By: Caroline McCauley

Section One: Introduction: How Powerful was Power Dressing?

It may seem inane asking if power dressing brings one power. After all, is not acquiring power the point of power dressing? Why would power be at the core of power dressing, if it didn’t accrue power?

The phrase power dressing started with the phenomenon of dress for success manuals in the 1980s. The trend of power dressing was initially given the title of “dress for success” due to its close association with dress for success books. In her “Dressing for Success: The Re-Suiting of Corporate America in the 1970s,” Patricia A. Cunningham explains this evolution of “dressing for success” and power dressing’s derivation from it: “Books that came out in the 1980s continued to stress the importance of dress in the workplace, especially for those on the executive track. New terms evolved. Some preferred the term ‘power-dressing’ rather than ‘dress for success’” (206). This burgeoning career woman was in need of a source and a type of garment to provide her with such equality; dress for success books and power dressing were seen as the answer to a fair playing field. Cunningham writes, “Serious clothing, women believed, would lead to an atmosphere of equality in the workplace.” (204). Businesswomen were eager to break the glass ceiling or what Entwistle defines in her “Fashioning the Career Woman: Power Dressing as Strategy of Consumption” as “the invisible barrier that is said to lie between women and the upper echelons of work” (226) and were devoted to finding a successful way to do so.

Within this request for a uniform that would ensure her equality is the career woman’s fear of inequality along with the ingrained binary of the weak businesswoman / the powerful businessman. Power dressing involves a woman paying meticulous attention to her body and the manner in which she presents herself. Through power dressing, a woman comes to inspect her body then shapes it to obtain this powerful image. Ironically, for being seen as a force that instills so much strength in the corporate woman, power dressing causes her to devote an undue amount of attention to her appearance and body rather than her career. When contemplating power dressing’s anxiety arousing emphasis on the female body it may not seem absurd to question if it engenders the power it claims to possess.

In this paper, I address the question of is power dressing during the phenomenon of the self-engineering 1980s career woman truly a means of empowerment? I investigate this question through a case study of self-help dress manuals that explore the topic of how to dress for success in the workplace. I examine both John T. Molloy’s The Woman’s Dress for Success Book (1977) and a 1967 dress manual that served as a precursor to the more assertive trend of power dressing: Edith Head’s How To Dress for Success. In her short tome, Head, a costume designer who dressed stars from Grace Kelly to Elizabeth Taylor, backs up her rather lighthearted advice by alluding to costuming Hollywood stars. I reference Head’s chapters on “How to dress for Success in the Workplace” and “Dressing for Success.” In The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, John T. Molloy takes a more scientific approach to how a self-made career woman should fashion herself. Molloy was considered the reputed source when undergoing the issue of what to wear to work. When discussing how to achieve success via dress Molloy begins with three reasons why women fail to do so. He claims that he uses “the science of wardrobe engineering” as he explains to women the “right” way to dress for success in the corporate world. To further investigate this process of becoming the career woman, I will turn to two advertisement in “Go For the Top!” from Vogue August 1, 1984 (FIGURE 1 and 2).

This paper first looks at the phenomenon of power dressing in terms of how it was perceived in the context of the glass-ceiling era of the 1980s. After grounding power dressing in its historical moment, the paper examines the self-engineering career woman that emerged from power dressing through the lens of gender studies. I refer to gender studies theorist such as Simone de Beauvoir and Lydia Need to show the anxiety, disciplining, and surveilling of the female body that power dressing encouraged. Though this paper does take into account the context in which power dressing rose to power and acknowledges its role in integrating the domestic woman into the public, male-dominated corporate sphere, I argue that power dressing heighten ambivalence around the appearance of the female body, did not create equality, and reaffirms a gender hierarchy. I show in this paper that while power dressing may have permitted women entry into the male-dominated corporate sphere, it did not allow them to break the glass ceiling. Paradoxically, power dressing can be seen as provoking uncertainty in women and pushing them, like most other feminine ideals of past, to inspect, shape, and police their bodies. Power dressing can be read as another reassertion of a feminine ideal that is still inferior to the businessman, and one that largely operates within the patriarchal, capitalistic system.

Section Two: A Brief History of Power Dressing: The Origins of Power Dressing

While the amount of “power” power dressing gave women during the 1980s is questionable, it came at a time of significant social change and a reevaluation of gendered spheres. In “Fashioning the Career Woman: Power Dressing as Strategy of Consumption,” Entwistle gives a brief overview of the era of female empowerment that power dressing emerged from: “It is no coincidence that this form of dress appeared at a time when women were beginning to reap some of the benefits of feminism and sex-discrimination legislation and enter into positions at work which has hitherto been the preserve of men” (226). In “Dressing for Success: The Re-Suiting of Corporate America in the 1970s,” Patricia A. Cunningham similarly contextualizes power-dressing in the 1980s: “The women’s movement had been instrumental in improving the position of women in society and in raising their sights. Women now wanted to ‘do their own thing’ and began to reject the dictates of fashion” (203). Rejecting the dictates of fashion for most women meant wearing a uniform that exuded “seriousness” and “power.” Power dressing seemed like the means to this uniform that epitomized the successful career woman who was not fashionable, feminine or frivolous.

Section Three: Power-Dressing as a Means of Becoming: The Anxiety Surrounding the Self-Enterprising Career Woman

What most of the aspiring career woman of the 1980s may have overlooked when seeing power dressing as a means to equality is that this type of dressing was in itself a fashionable trend and ideal. With power dressing, women were ironically not able “to do their own thing” and were under “the dictates of fashion” (203). Power dressing, as a fashionable ideal and subject to the ephemerality of fashion trends, engenders certain standards that a woman must meet to achieve an intelligent look. Other fashion theorists have recognized the paradoxical nature of power dressing and acknowledged the anxiety-inducing ideal it encourages. It is of significance to note that power dressing sprang out of a moment of disquietude and inequality: “While issues of equal pay remained problematic, young women continued to enter the marketplace, and knowing how to dress for their new jobs or professions was critical, for now they were competing for jobs formerly held by men” (203). Entwistle explains how power dressing was a “self-conscious ‘uniform’ for business and professional women” (225). Since power dressing was “a discourse on self-presentation” it was a practice intimately connected with the body and engendered a sort of discipline over the body (Entwistle 225). In other words, aspiring career women in the 1980s increasingly tailored their appearances to this new ideal of the competent businesswoman. Though power dressing may have provided what seemed like an easy go-to uniform that elicited the authority of armor with its padded shoulders, it awakened more uncertainty than fearlessness.

Since power dressing “set out a strategy for self-presentation which laid down particular ‘rules’ as to what clothes, hair and make-up to buy in order to increase one’s chances of ‘success,’” it compelled women to mold their appearance to fit these particular rules that ensured success (Entwistle 226). Edith Head in How to Dress for Success (1967) urges her reader to inspect and even dissect her body before entering the workplace:

“Look at yourself in the mirror from every angle, including sitting down which is the way you will look most of the time to the person who will make the decision” (10). Ask yourself these questions: (a) Do I look well groomed? (b) Do I look neat? (c) Do I feel comfortable and at ease? (d) Does my skirt ride up too much? (e) Have I worn too much (or too little) make-up or jewelry? (f) Does this outfit really fit the image of the position I hope to fill?” (10).

Implicit in Head’s demand for her reader to check herself “from every angle” is the notion that a woman going into the business world must cover the problematic female body “properly” and present a “clean,” put-together look that is not too feminine or sexual. This classic style of the confident corporate woman was mistaken, as it still is in today’s business world, as an easily achievable and a simple, efficient process of dressing. Entwistle writes that power dressing “laid out a strategy of consumption for career women which aimed to get around the problems of what dress to consume for work” (225). However, this “liberating” look of the business and professional woman is just another time-consuming feminine ideal in disguise.

In “Theorizing the Female Nude,” Lynda Need explains how the female body is viewed as imperfect and even grotesque in a patriarchal, capitalistic society that sees the male body as heroic and strong. Need argues that the monstrous, formless female body is a presence that must be contained. She writes, “Woman looks at herself in the mirror, her identity is framed by the abundance of images that define femininity. She is framed-experiences herself as image or representation-by the edges of the mirror and then judges the boundaries of her own form and carries out any necessary self-regulation” (11). The ideal of the businesswoman that power dressing promotes is another one of these “abundance of images that define femininity.” A woman who enters the workforce is not freed by this new femininity, but rather is constrained by it, as she frames her body within this ideal.

In The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, Featherstone focuses on the emergence of the self-absorbed individual in the modern era. Featherstone argues that during the modern era, with the expansion of consumer culture and the advertisement industry, people became increasingly attentive to their appearance. Moreover, he puts forth that a “new conception of self” is created. He defines this new self as “the ‘performing self’ [that] places greater emphasis upon appearance, display and the management of impressions” (187). Since more advertisement and products are geared towards women, they, as Featherstone writes, “are of course most clearly trapped in the narcissistic, self-surveillance world of images” (179). The phenomenon of power dressing falls within this category of the modern self that is consumed with her self-image. This idea of the, as Entwistle in “Dress as an Embodied Practice” terms, the “enterprising self,” or the construction of oneself through modes of dress to meet an ideal, such as the corporate woman through power dressing, is present in Molloy’s dress manual. Molloy writes that a woman can achieve success through “wardrobe engineering” (16). He also exposes the stress it induces since a woman can only achieve this success by wearing the “right” look: “if she doesn’t have the right clothing, she won’t get ahead” (28). An August 1984 Vogue Advertisement titled “Go For the Top!” similarly refers to this idea of enterprising the successful woman you wish to become through dress; the advertisement addresses the reader, “Today, you’re more and more able to write your own ticket-choose your job, pace, life style, the kind of image you want to project. Part of that image-it’s a given now-is how you dress’” (FIGURE 1). Power dressing can be seen as an anxiety inducing, modern performance of self that encouraged a woman to inspect her body and then mold it to fit this impossible, fashionable image of the successful corporate woman.

FIGURE 1, 9.) “GO For the Top!” VOGUE August 1984, 304-322.

FIGURE 1, 9.) “GO For the Top!” VOGUE August 1984, 304-322.

Section 4: An all Boys’ Club: How Femininity is Feared and Devalued in the Male-Dominated Workplace

The phenomenon of power dressing coerced the rising career woman to embody a minimal, masculine, and modern look that rejected all form of femininity, frivolousness, and ostentation. With this in mind, it is important to point out the resemblance of the power suit, with its exaggerated shoulder pads, to armor. These shoulder pads could be seen as mimicking masculine armor or a very fitted, structured, and proportional male body. The armor-like structure of the power suit can be seen as a means to cover and remove all form of femininity from the male-dominated workplace. Lynda Nead in “Framing the Female Body” analyzes the role that chauvinism of a solid masculine form has played in the creation of armor: “The armor-like male body signifies the construction of masculine identity in terms of self-denial, destruction and fear. For the male soldier, warfare enables a repudiation of femininity” (17). Similar to actual armor of the solider during warfare, the power suit on the female with its enormous padded shoulder conceals femininity from the male-dominated workplace. Moreover, power dressing and the power suit that seek to perpetuate a masculine presence can be seen in terms of Nead’s analysis of the armored male warrior and warfare: “It begins to speak of a deep-seated fear and disgust of the female body and of femininity within patriarchal culture” (18). Nead adds to her argument that femininity must be removed from the male-dominated military due to the prevailing fear of “contamination and dissolution of the male ego” (18). Similar to the military, fear of dissolution of the male ego permeated the patriarchal workforce of the 1980s.

Another way to view this would be that a hyper feminine presence threatened the male-dominated corporate world. In The Woman’s Dress for Success Book (1967), Molloy sees woman or femininity as problematic in the corporate world. For instance when meeting a petite, feminine client, he writes: “When I met her, the problem was obvious. She was four feet eleven inches, ninety-two pounds, blonde, and ‘cute.’” (17). Molloy then givers her a makeover, trading “problematic” feminine clothes and accessories for “authorative” masculine ones. He writes, “I decked her out in every authority symbol her tiny frame could hold-dark suits with contrasting white blouses, silk scarves, brimmed hats. Severity carried the day. Clients listened so well that she now is one of the few women partners in the firm” (17). Though a hyper feminine presence or any type of over exposure of the female body was unaccepted in the patriarchal corporate world, a woman was supposed to maintain a certain degree of femininity.

Section 5: A Look at the Word Power in Power Dressing: How Power Dressing Fails to Challenge the Male-Dominated Workplace and Reaffirms the Woman as the “Other 

Power dressing may have encouraged women to dress in a masculine manner, but it was more of a parody of masculinity with a touch of femininity than a standard masculine look. Women did not establish themselves as men’s equals through power dressing, but rather confirmed their difference as the “other.” Moreover, power dressing was a pursuit that was largely addressed towards women. Men did not have to power dress or wear clothing that spoke of their power, as they were “naturally” acknowledged as powerful. Of course, men do not innately have a more powerful presence than woman, but rather society has constructed this notion of men having more power. Simone de Beauvoir writes: “A man never begins by positing himself as an individual of a certain sex: that he is a man is obvious” (5). When power dressing women have to look to men, but cannot become men, (in the sense of wearing the male suit and possessing the significant amount of power that comes with a man’s suit). Women have to be defined by masculine-inspired clothing. They cannot, as stated before, wear the same business attire as a man due to the unlimited power that it connotes. Beauvoir writes about woman’s subordinate position: “‘She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. She is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (6). A woman must not dress in too masculine of a manner since it would destabilize the gendered hierarchy in the corporate sphere, in which the businesswoman is the subject and other.

Section 6: The Feminine Mark of Power Dressing: Another Feminine Ideal

Many fashion theorists have proposed, as I have several times throughout this paper, that clothing plays a large role in creating gender hierarchies. Steele writes, “Clothes are thus associated not only with sexual matters and with questions of status, but can also ‘symbolize’ an entire ‘social order,’ with all this entails concerning behavior and belief’ (45). The suit, though of course worn by many women throughout history, has long been associated with man, and thus a symbol of power. Kaiser looks at how the suit has come to be equated with masculinity, and thus superiority: “The business suit, in one form or subtle another, has endured more than 200 years as a dominant symbol of hegemonic (bourgeois) masculinity” (127). Like the male, the suit represents the neuter or superior; while the dress like the woman is defined by the suit as feminine, sexual, and inferior. Entwistle notes that with the dress there is “the baggage of sexual meanings that are entrenched within the culturally established definitions of femininity.” This feminine sexuality that the dress is associated with is a submissive sexuality (343). Though women were seen as subverting this more traditional feminine dress of passivity for the more masculine look of the suit, women did not entirely erase their subordinate status. Power dressing encompassed notions of women donning either an exaggerated masculine form or a masculine style mixed with feminine elements that would mark them as distinct from and inferior to men.

Power dressing ironically played a large role in perpetuating femininity as marked and “other.” Kaiser’s writes of men “their power comes from being ‘unmarked’ as contrasted with women, who assume the “masque” of femininity and hence become more “marked” as the “other,” according to the binary opposition” (2). This ‘“masque of femininity” that solidifies women as “other” is present in power dressing. For instance, Molloy writes, “Not every businesswoman need transform herself from fawn to barracuda” (17). Molloy then proceeds to give an example of a statuesque lady who already had a “powerful” and slightly masculine look. He describes his approach to transforming this “five foot eight inch, big-boned” women into the ideal corporate woman: “I put her in light-colored suits and dresses and traded in her bulky attaché case for a more feminine version” (17). This make over of a tall, androgynous woman shows that power dressing for women who already embodied an imposing figure meant incorporating elements of femininity into their wardrobes. In fact, all businesswomen were to incorporate a hint of femininity when power dressing. This femininity was required of women in the workplace to mark them as, in Simone de Beauvoir’s words, “the second sex.”

FIGURE 2, 9.) “GO For the Top!” VOGUE August 1984, 304-322.

FIGURE 2, 9.) “GO For the Top!” VOGUE August 1984, 304-322.

Several times in his dress for success manual, Molloy warns against women imitating a man calling it an “imitation man look”: “My research indicates that a three-piece pinstriped suit not only does not add to a woman’s authority, it destroys it. It makes her look like an ‘imitation man’” (28). Molloy argues that it is obvious and “unnatural” when a woman attempts to imitate the tough demeanor of a man because she can never successfully possess the power of a man as woman. He writes that woman’s feigned masculine look is risible and compares it to a child trying to dress in adult clothes; “The effect is more like that of a small boy who dresses up in his father’s clothing. He is cute, not authorative” (28). Molloy’s reasoning behind a businesswoman not mirroring the style of a businessman is that she can never be his equal, so it is pointless and even pitiful for her to try. In his style manual, Molloy unconsciously exposes that power dressing in no way enhances a woman’s status; rather, she is still the second sex and living in a male-dominated corporate world. He even acknowledges that a woman has to curtail her image and power dress in order to fit into this male-dominant world, in which she remains the inferior: “If women control a substantial hunk of the power structure in ten or fifteen years, I will write a book advising men how to dress in a female-dominated environment (32). Cunningham notes how women are the second sex when power dressing and adopting a men-inspired business uniform; she writes refers to Grant McCraken and writes “business dress can be viewed as an example of the trickle-down theory at work in modern times. In this instance the men are the elite, and women are the aspirants” (205). As stated before in this essay, women as the “other” or, in this case the “aspirants,” cannot wear the same uniform as men or hold the same power, but must wear a uniform defined and inspired by masculine aspects that have been most likely discarded by men for a new look. The “Go for the Top” advertisement reveals that power dressing did not make woman man’s equal, but rather reinforced their subordinate position. A caption in this advertisement reads, “Nobody says it makes sense to carbon-copy a man. What does make sense: to take advantage of a season strong on menswear looks and tailoring-to choose a terrific, perfectly made suit, scaled to your body…then accessorize it with a soft muffler, a jeweled pin, outrageously feminine shoes” (FIGURE 2). This caption shows that women were prohibited trying to emulate a man’s look, but rather had to take elements from menswear and soften them with a feminine essence. The trickle down theory, as McCarken argues, can be applied here because women, as the second sex, are forced to take up men’s styles that have long gone out of style; while men adopt to a new modern, intelligent look that defines them as the superior.





Despite its specious name, power dressing did not grant women equality or stability. Power dressing leaves a woman in a precarious position, as she tries to stray from a sexual, problematic feminine look and attempts to forgo too powerful of a masculine image. Power dressing for women was a rather ambiguous type of dressing; it was a tight rope-balancing act between trying to escape too feminine of a style and to avoid too severe of a masculine look. Cunningham writes, “Women needed to strike a balance between appearing too masculine in a suit and seeming too feminine and lady-like which could lead to condescension” (204). When considering if a woman has equal status in the corporate or political world today, one just has to look at how a woman is suppose to dress and appear in these settings. A woman is not yet equal in either the corporate or political sphere since she is left wobbling on this balancing scale of trying to adhere to the a masculinized feminine ideal. This ambiguous ideal is near impossible; it seems that a woman can never achieve the “right” amount of a powerful, yet subtle masculine touch and the correct dose of femininity to successfully meet the corporate woman ideal. Power dressing, with its menswear inspired feminine look, is another feminine ideal that results in anxiety around the female body and crystalizes a woman’s status as the “other” in a male-dominated corporate world.

Giorgio Armani – Vogue Italia March 1980



“An Image-Making Maven: A Review of ‘Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power’”


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“Beauty is Power” is a somewhat controversial statement. Feminist of the past and even in modern day often dismiss cultivating “feminine” beauty as oppressive. Rarely, is beauty, femininity or makeup seen as powerful. The makeup industry itself tends to shy away from linking their products to a powerful image, and instead, imbues them with a dainty, graceful, and gentle persona. It took an unconventional and eccentric woman to see the great profitability in melding these two seemingly disparate terms into a slogan that sold not only beauty products, but created a much coveted lifestyle.

The Jewish Museum’s Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power unpacks this profitable and quite brilliant phrase that was vital to Helena Rubinstein’s success. Rubinstein’s famous mantra “beauty is power” was emphasized explicitly and implicitly throughout the exhibition. However, the exhibition focused more on not how beauty is power, but rather, on how Rubinstein and her company became powerful.


The opening of the exhibition began with curator Mason Klein’s perspective on the poignancy of Rubinstein’s “beauty is power:” ‘“Beauty is Power’-The phrase emphasizes empowerment and is an early indication of Rubenstein’s distinctive blend of commercial savvy and inherent feminism.” A large portrait of a 62 year-old Rubinstein in front of a green theatrical curtain spoke to the glamorous, artistic identity that she cultivated throughout her lifetime. The portrait by Laurencin with Rubinstein as a “youthful maharani, a heavily bejeweled Indian princess” showed how the image that Rubinstein construed for herself was much like makeup: artificial, beautiful, and fantastical. A largely printed short biography on Helena placed next to this painting read as a biased encyclopedia account. This overview of Rubinstein’s life was as worshipping as the painting that depicted her as an Indian princess. Two elderly women next to me cooed, “ahh…a self-made woman,” “a modern-day woman” after reading the three-minute story of Rubinstein’s life.


The first out of eight rooms in the exhibit quickly drew the connection between Rubinstein’s love of art and its centrality to her work and life; Baris Lovet-Lorski’s God Unknown (1926) had an information card presented next to it that read Rubinstein’s “universe both aesthetically and in business was the theater of the face.” Mason Klein points out from the beginning of the exhibition how Rubinstein developed a strong sense of self at a young age by noting, in a caption below a rare family portrait taken in Poland circa 1888, that Rubenstein “shows the flair, sense of self and image in the early stages of her life that would become essential to her when branding her products and developing her company.” An article called “Tiny Tireless Tycoon of Beauty” from a 1964 Life magazine, also in the well lit glass case along with the family portrait, portrayed Rubinstein as a lager-than-life personality who loved publicity: “She was 4ft 10 inches tall. She continued to run her vast company, taking morning meetings, in bed and regularly appearing in publicity photographs.” Also, in the first room was a 1957 House of Balenciaga Silk evening ensemble, with a caption beside it lauding Helena as a woman who “wore clothes by the most stylish couturiers.” This dress was out of context in the first room and would have been more appropriately showcased in the “glittering armor” room with designs by Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret. The ensemble was successfully put on a headless mannequin that allowed the exhibition goer to imagine Helena’s face that was re-envisioned by various artists. In reference to multiple enormous portraits displayed on a plain white center wall in a linear manner, the curator acknowledges that many of the portraits of Rubinstein may not have conveyed her “real” self, but an idealized version of her self: “most of Rubinstein’s portraits made her look far younger than she was.” The William Spratling Helena Rubinstein Necklace circa 1900 that depicts Helena as the “Virgin of Guadalupe who is surrounded by Sunrays” again shows how Rubenstein used art to engender a goddess-like image. The exhibition suggested throughout its duration that Rubinstein knew that image, rather than beauty, is power. Rubinstein was well aware of the concept that lies at the core of Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO: “whoever produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products wins the race.”


The second room of the exhibit title “democratizing art” would have been more adequately titled “appropriating art for personal gain.” Rubenstein’s sponsorship of art can be seen as allowing women, who were her primary consumers, to be more aware and educated of what was then seen as “unusual” African art, but also can be viewed as her exploitation of this art for an exotic image of herself and her brand. Beside a row of Elie Nadelman’s heads of statues evenly displayed on crisp white iconic columns was a largely printed passage that read: “Rubenstein met Elie Nadelman in 1911 in London, and immediately realized that he would be the perfect artist to show in salons.” This again reminded me of Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO: “The effect, if not always the original intent, of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make it the star. It is not to sponsor culture but to be the culture.” Although, Mason Klein does not really view Rubinstein’s appropriation of art as exploitive, but rather as “genius.” For instance, the curator writes in a passage placed on the side-wall in the third room, “Makeup thus becomes a metaphor for modern art’s patina of enigma and symbolism. It was Rubinstein’s genius to sense instinctively that there was a connection between these two modernist phenomena.”


Though he overlooked Rubinstein’s somewhat exploitive incorporation of art into her image and company, Mason Klein effectively showed how Rubinstein was extremely attentive to the carefully crafted image that she constructed. In the room “glittering armor,” the curator selected a quote from one of Rubinstein’s memoir to reveal Rubinstein’s awareness of this self-constructed identity and placed it beside an exquisite case of sparkling jewels: “I feel that these accessories, combined with my clothes, give a definite identity.” In the section “collector’s fantasy,” the curator builds on Rubinstein’s beyond-her-times ability to cultivate a public image. Precluding a sizable yet not oversaturated display of magazine articles and clippings of Rubinstein’s apartments, Mason Klein reinforced Rubinstein’s keen ability to develop a public image in a passage displayed on the wall that read: “As fashion and home-décor magazines proliferated Rubenstein began to use her apartments in Paris and New York for publicity. She knew that her home as well as her salon were essential to the prosperity of her company.” Likewise, in the last room titled “putting on a face,” which displayed various Rubinstein self-help beauty manuals such as My Life for Beauty, The Art of Female Beauty, and This Way to Beauty” along with a promotional video, the curator noted: “Beyond providing virtually every conceivable beauty treatment, Rubenstein’s publicity instructional books and innumerable brochures with advertisements on dangers of sun-tanning, the necessariness of good nutrition and other topics were personal and offered insight into her thinking.” While the exhibition hinted at how beauty was power by seeking to show how, in the curator’s words, Rubinstein’s “dual enterprise of modern art and personal beauty” gave women a “sense of individuality and independence” by emphasizing “self-invention,” it mostly exposed how Rubinstein became the image of a reputable, yet albeit uncommon beauty expert and master of marketing in the 20th century. The exhibition left me questioning if its title should be changed to Image is Power.



Klein, Naomi. New Branded World & The Brand Expands. In: No Logo. London: Flamingo, 2001. Pp. 270-310.

The Smothering Shroud of Mourning Dress: A Review of the Exhibition Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning



In the age of social media, rarely does anything have a single name. A hashtag becomes attached to most events, places, and people and functions as a secondary form of identification as it enters the whirlpool of cyberspace. This is true of the Anna Wintour Costume Center’s exhibition Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning with its hashtag #DeathBecomesHer.

As I looked at #DeathBecomesHer printed underneath the title of the exhibition, I questioned how it altered the viewer’s experience. The hashtag allowed the viewer to have a voice and sense of authority in a discussion, albeit in an endless, massive one. On the other hand, #DeathBecomesHer also satisfies curator Harold Koda’s desire to promote his exhibition by expanding the exhibition beyond the confines of the Costume Center’s physical walls.


#DeathBecomesHer was not the only attempt to make the exhibition more interactive and not just a handful of haunting mannequins embalmed in clothes of the dead. Quotes from works of 19th century etiquette books, magazines, literature, and diaries were projected on the walls. These quotes vanished with the projected shadow of a Victorian woman, but then reappeared after her passing. The metaphorical projection of the widow veiling and unveiling these quotes was clever but may have caused viewers to linger longer than they would have if the quotes were not shrouded by the mourning widow. One viewer pushed me aside as he tried to read the disappearing Edith Wharton quote.

The quotes that Koda selected conveyed that mourning dress was influenced by class, gender roles, and social mores. Quotes such as “mourning garments…are often a certain respectability to the person who should be a mourner but is not” supported the subjective statement that mourning dress was more a form of propriety. Some quotes suggested that mourning dress confirmed women’s roles, like the passage from Edith Wharton’s New Year’s Day: “She seemed to see people and life through the confusing blur of the long crape veil in which it was a widow’s duty to shroud her affliction.” While other quotes revealed that mourning attire solidified class stratification and become a financial concern to many: “There is probably another reason for not donning mourning, it is very expensive now.” The projected quotes gave the exhibition a more critical edge as it attempted to look at mourning attire through the lens of gender, economics, and culture.

17. Death Becomes Her Gallery View

The design of the exhibition complemented the melancholic, dreary title of Death Becomes Her. A diaphanous, veil-like gray curtain sectioned off the mannequins into tiny clusters of two, three, four or five. Unlike Dance & Fashion, Death Becomes Her seemed very sparse with the small amount of costumes on display. Since there were not many mannequins on display it was easy to piece together which information card belonged to which mannequin. The dim lights along with Gabriel Faure’s Requiem Op. 48 augmented the ominous atmosphere. Though the exhibition was dark, the mannequins were not swallowed by the dimness of the room since they were placed on a white stage with strategically placed lighting. The mannequins themselves engendered an element of death with their icy, statuesque faces of white plastic. There was an artificial liveliness to the mannequins with their white curly hair wigs of various coiffures, their titled heads, and delicate hand gestures that epitomized Victorian propriety, positioned as if posing for a portrait.


However, not all of the costumes fell into the category of somber mourning garments. Two glittering, sequined mannequins reigned in a private section apart from the main stage. There was a crowd gathered around these two evening dresses expressive of “the opulence of the court’s tones of half mourning.” One of these evening dresses was worn by Queen Alexandra the year following Queen Victoria’s death. The exhibition was somewhat attentive to mourning dress and aristocracy as it also showed mourning attire worn by Queen Victoria. Unlike FIT’S exhibition Exposed: The History of Lingerie, Death Becomes Her did stray from using the ideal, modelesque mannequin by incorporating a mannequin that was true to Queen Victoria’s plump, stocky figure. However, Death Becomes Her only deviated from the miniature Victorian silhouette for the Queen.

The information labels regarding the garments were presented at foot of stage and provided extensive information on the type of garment, the year it was made and worn along with a detailed description of the make and the designer, listing names such as The House of Worth and retailers of mourning goodas James McCreery & Co. The labels included passages from magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. A clipping from Vogue underpinned the idea that mourning attire had a part in the volatile forces of fashion: “Black is more than ever the favorite color of fashion.”


The information cards gave significant insight into the double-standard of mourning dress. Many of the descriptions seemed to imply that the mourning dress sought to control the autonomous widow whose unclaimed, alluring sexuality and body was a threat to the stability of a patriarchal society, Koda himself writes of the widow, “As a woman without material constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.” The exhibition depicted how female modesty and chastity were imposed through mourning dress that emulated “the humble habits of nuns.” Death Becomes Her did more than just skim the surface of mourning dress history by successfully examining the ways this type of dress affected the lives of women.


“A Widow and Her Friends” by Charles Dana Gibson, placed in an adjacent room full of mourning dress accessories, photographs and fashion plates, seemed to suggest the policing and containment of the threatening widow. “A Widow and Her Friends” follows the life a young widow or “a sexually alluring and knowing figure who is potentially disruptive to the prevailing social order.” The illustration ends with the widow “unable to find a clear place for herself in society” and in a convent. This collection of prints, along with other quotes, photographs, style manuals, and illustrations, and even the title Death Becomes Her explored the problematic ideals of female modesty and chastity that mourning dress embodied and enforced. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning left me questioning if death really does become her when she veils herself in mourning attire? Does a woman figuratively die when donning this dress of death?


Can Fashion Design Challenge Women’s Violence in Public Spaces?


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Fashion designers are increasingly imbuing meaning within their designs and using them as potent messages. A recent Parsons’ graduate designed an entire collection based on her frustration with violence towards women in public spaces. Can fashion be used to stop women’s degradation to sexual objects and treatment as such in the public sphere?


Check out this Parsons’ graduate thesis collection “Masked for Battle” 

How Fashion, Power, and Women is still a Problematic Combination


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“Women, Fashion, and Power” at the Design Museum

Sadly, fashion is not seen as source of empowerment for women in a society that considers femininity as inferior and views it as “other” than or next to “masculinity.” It is as Simone de Beauvior would claim, “the second sex.”

This article makes the great point of how femininity and fashion are devalued and suppressed in today’s workforce. It’s still problematic to think of fashion as empowering for women. Fashion is far from frivolous, but today’s powerful women largely see it as degrading.

Is Makeup a form of Resilience?

Makeup is often viewed as a means to please the male gaze. However, Arabelle Sicardi   compares movies with resilient heroines to modern day runway looks. Sicardi points out how makeup in these movies and couture collections can defy a “pretty” look and exude fierceness, power, and determination. In this brilliant article, Sicardi shows how makeup isn’t about covering up insecurities, but is “about power and taking it back, about resistance and glamour.”

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The Liberating Effect of Fashion

In honor of International Women’s Day, AnOther Magazine dug into to their archives and selected past quotes from inspiring women. One of my favorites was a quote from Rei Kawakubo that touches upon the liberating effect of fashion.

“Dress is a way to express one’s personality and I thought it could be liberating to be able to express various sides of one’s character at the same time through clothes. It’s up to each person to be free ­– how they feel each day, how they feel in general, what kind of person they are, whether they want to dress up or be themselves or experiment with something new.” -Rei Kawakubo A/W 2006





My Life in Vogue

The “My Life in Vogue” personal mini-films showcases how fashion shapes the lives of six brilliant, successful young women. These vignettes show that whether she is a curator, design guru, financial planner, actress, or composer, style plays a significant role in a woman’s life. While these women have very different stories, they all view dress as a creative outlet and expression of one’s personality. Check out these intimate portraits of the fashionable lives of these six unique women http://www.vogue.com/mylifeinvogue/.

My Life in Vogue Contest. (www.vogue.com)

My Life in Vogue Contest. (www.vogue.com)

The Row’s Pre-Fall Collection 2014


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The Row’s Pre-Fall 2014 collection is a mix of sophistication, restraint, complexity, and simplicity. Describing the pieces calls for many paradoxes because the collection is paradoxical, yet entirely practical.  While the collection has its fair share of luxury leather, cashmere, faux fur, and mohair, there is a heavy utilitarian theme.  The Olsens penchant for exquisite fabrics is juxtaposed by the pieces’ functionality. Take for example, the waterproof extra long and generously A-line trench with a fanny pack. The collection includes the fundamentals of a working wardrobe such as trim blazers in sturdy wool and slid-on leather loafers. Gender-blending designs like the faux wrap midi-length skirt in men shirting strips and simple bias cut shift may even seem a bit anti-fashion, though pieces like the aforementioned have been bombarding the catwalks as of late. These gender-blurring pieces in women’s clothing can help with leveling the playing field between men and women. The functionality of the collection with the fanny pack, trench coat, shoulder bag, and loafers also encourages women’s mobility and presence in the corporate world. The Olsens said they were inspired by “classic American pieces” and by images of elderly men and women in their gardens. Their timeless, ageless collection successfully showcased their inspiration. Tonal floral motifs on silk blouses gave the collection a feminine touch and preserved remnants of summer and spring. However, the collection didn’t carry a note of verdant richness with most of the pieces in black, gray, crème, maroon, and navy. This traditional collection catered to the sophisticated, yet hardworking shopper with the 60-something entrepreneur Linda Rodin starring in its lookbook. With their new store opening in Los Angeles this summer, this pre-fall collection will be particularly important. The store looks as if it is on the path to success since the functionality of the collection carefully complements a California lifestyle.



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