What Does New ’80s-Inspired Workwear Say About Women — and Power?



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CreditPhotograph by Chris Rhodes. Styled by Alex Harrington


When women charged the corporate world in the late 1970s and early ’80s, they did as any creature of prey would: they camouflaged themselves. Though André Courrèges introduced body-conscious pantsuits in ’64, and Yves Saint Laurent his Le Smoking two years later, skirts remained standard until women began to discover, in the words of Margaret Thatcher’s stylist, that ‘‘she was in a man’s world, and she had to look the part.’’ And so was born the female power suit. Wide-cut, concealing and double-breasted, the suits, by designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, had oversize shoulder pads, which served as both a bulking agent and an armor, and were styled with minimal concessions to femininity. Makeup looked more like war paint than ornament, and hair was teased out — hopeful intimidation-tactic chic.

Within a decade, designers like Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani took it upon themselves to cut a corrective pattern: Suiting slimmed down and softened up, and the female form was allowed to announce itself once more. The proportions of just a few years prior began to look like forced posturing. A silhouette that was once empowering now had the opposite effect, appearing more like a miscalculation of the means necessary to get ahead.

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Céline shirt, $1,450, and pants, $850, (212) 535-3703. Dries Van Noten shoes, $735, barneys.com.

Credit
Photograph by Chris Rhodes. Styled by Alex Harrington

Throughout the ’90s and into the very recent past, women wore to work what they might wear to dinner: silk blouses; tailored pants or jeans. No longer was the office a site of self-erasure and obligatory disguise, but a place where one could reveal not only gender but personality, too.

This fall’s runways looked back to those costumes worn by women during the age of excess, but remade them as studies of masculine minimalism. At Balenciaga, barefaced models stalked down the catwalk as robotic office drones. At Dries Van Noten, wool trousers ballooned with pleats and white shirts billowed with a crisp surplus of cotton. The blazers at Calvin Klein were Goodwill-remnant-boxy; at Céline, the indigo suiting was so oversize that the jacket sleeves obscured the hands of models, making them resemble little girls dressed in their father’s clothing. Overcoats at Jil Sander and Stella McCartney were voluminous enough to hide a banker’s box full of discovery documents. Seldom were the looks modified at all for a woman’s body. Busts and hips were obscured, and the palette was a spectrum most often seen under fluorescent lights — corporate blues, pallor grays and acid whites. These clothes are a reminder of a time when women understood they had to fight for a seat at the table — an era we hope, with each decade, is at last behind us. ‘‘It’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are,’’ Andy Warhol once said — a sentiment that resonates with many women as they get dressed for work in the morning.

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Dries Van Noten sweater, $425. Charvet shirt, $545, mrporter.com. Salvatore Ferragamo pants, $570, (866) 337-7242.

Credit
Photograph by Chris Rhodes. Styled by Alex Harrington

Of course, what appears on the runways doesn’t always translate, at least not right away, to real (office) life. But single pieces do — a monk strap here, an expanded blazer there. Such items have taken on new significance in the year since Hillary Clinton campaigned in pantsuits and then all but disappeared from our lives: What once looked like power dressing now seems more like mourning garb.

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