POWER HAS NO UNIFORM
12 · 9 · 2018
By Caroline Roche
My mom happens to be the badass CEO of her own Fortune 1,000 company, an accomplishment I’ve been lucky enough to witness firsthand as an inspired daughter. As of 2017, she’s one of the only 54 female CEOs in that pool. My mom’s a business woman, a leader, a trailblazer. And she wears the pants — literally. Throughout high school, like many mother-daughter duos, I dragged her from store to store as we searched for my perfect homecoming or prom dress. But while I was trying on fitted gowns, my mom could be found in the pantsuit section, picking out a blazer that had perfectly squared shoulders, slacks with the right sized pinstripes, heels that would add height but in which she could get shit done.
As a young kid, I never understood why she wore suits so often. Why don’t you like bright colors or fun dresses? I would ask imploringly. On one occasion, I remember her explaining to me that if she dressed like the other women I knew, she would feel out of place in a board room full of men in suits. Wearing pantsuits made her feel powerful. For her, a suit wasn’t just a simple two-piece uniform. It was a costume that granted her a seat at the table and announced that her voice was one worth hearing.
But why? Why couldn’t she feel just as confident donning a skirt or dress?
Since the early 1900s, when suffragettes marched the streets in their trademark navy blue suits, women have adopted the style in the hopes of commanding respect. Since then, pantsuits have become the uniform of the powerful modern woman. Trailblazing public figures across the country have embraced the suit, calling gendered fashion expectations into question. Blake Lively made waves with her array of bold pantsuits throughout the media circuit of A Simple Favor; the women of Dua Lipa’s “IDGAF” music video were costumed in the style; Megan Markel is the first royal wife to discard skirts and dresses in favor of more masculine business attire. And outside of the popular culture realm, pantsuits have infiltrated board rooms and politics.
So, the “power suit” is most often construed as a feminist fashion movement. After all, what could be wrong with women dressing in a way that resists traditional gender norms? And when I asked my fellow college classmates their thoughts on the matter, they seemed to agree. “When I wear something sexy, I feel powerful as an individual — like I command attention from people around me,” said my friend Alison. “But when I’m wearing a suit, I feel powerful in a different way, like I command respect.” My friend Emma felt the same: “I feel super confident in my blazer. It’s like ‘Here I am. Don’t focus on my clothes. I’m here to make a statement.’”
And Lady Gaga certainly made a statement with her own stripped down Marc Jacob’s suit when accepting her award at Elle’s Women in Hollywood event this past October. The oversized gray set drowned her small stature and her no-fuss bun and minimal makeup served as minimal distractions compared to her trademark outrageous costumes. But despite the clothing we’re used to seeing Gaga wear, a suit was what made the pop star feel most like herself.
“I tried on dress after dress today getting ready for this event, one tight corset after another, one heel after another, a diamond, a feather, thousands of beaded fabrics and the most beautiful silks in the world,” she said during her acceptance speech. “To be honest, I felt sick to my stomach. And I asked myself: What does it really mean to be a woman in Hollywood? We are not just objects to entertain the world. We are not simply images to bring smiles or grimaces to people’s faces. We are not members of a giant beauty pageant meant to be pit against one another for the pleasure of the public. We women in Hollywood, we are voices. We have deep thoughts and ideas and beliefs and values about the world and we have the power to speak and be heard and fight back when we are silenced.
So, after trying 10 or so dresses, with a sad feeling in my heart, that all that would matter was what I wore to this red carpet, I saw an oversized Marc Jacobs suit buried quietly in the corner. I put it on to a resounding view of eyes glaring at me in confusion. But the Rodarte was so beautiful! one said. But the Raf Simons for Calvin Klein was so stunning on you!said another. But what about the Brandon Maxwell? What about the Dior? Lots of questions. They were all dresses. This was an oversized men’s suit made for a woman. Not a gown. And then I began to cry. In this suit, I felt like me today. In this suit, I felt the truth of who I am well up in my gut. And then wondering what I wanted to say tonight become very clear to me.
As a sexual assault survivor by someone in the entertainment industry, as a woman who is still not brave enough to say his name, as a woman who lives with chronic pain, as a woman who was conditioned at a very young age to listen to what men told me to do, I decided today I wanted to take the power back. Today I wear the pants.”
So, here’s to the women taking back the power. And hopefully that power can someday be recognized without paring down a sophisticated gown to a simple two-piece suit. Hopefully power can be respected no matter the clothes it wears or what body is wearing them. But for now, let’s wear the pants — they were never men’s in the first place.