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