Starting a new job in the lockdown capital of the world is odd. Like thousands of others who have changed employers during the pandemic, I’m yet to meet my new co-workers face-to-face. I've been wearing leggings and Birkenstocks during video meetings and haven’t touched a single one of my “professional” clothes since the summer of 2019.
So much has happened in the last (nearly) two years of the pandemic, but one of the most obvious changes has been our approach to the hybrid world of work.
Where we once rushed from Pilates to the office, tolerated blistered feet from high heels and made sure to iron our button-up shirts, we now accept that our appearance at work (and how much we care about it) is in some sort of limbo.
The main style being called into question? Power dressing.
Coming of age in the 1980s, power dressing was the cultural response to women entering white-collar jobs in droves. With the quintessential shoulder pads, pencil skirts and heels, professional women sought to reduce the stereotypical feminine perception of the nurturing homemaker and assist them in finding a place in traditionally male-dominated corporate power structures.
Think of films like 1988’s Working Girl where Melanie Griffith’s character Tess climbs the ladder from secretary to boss wearing tuxedo-inspired outfits and pinstriped blazers. Or the airport scene in When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan’s character is a hot-shot journalist, all understated colours and bow ties.
The trend was also seen across the board as more women entered politics. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher swore off any form of femininity in order to be taken seriously in her male-dominated party, while Monica Lewinsky donned blazers and pearls during the 1998 Presidential scandal.
As we entered the 21st century (and even more women entered the workforce), shoulder pads and pencil skirts were replaced by colourful pantsuits.
Proving that power dressing doesn’t need to compromise on your femininity, career women like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones opted for bright colours like this hot pink tailored set while Hilary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign saw her wear a kaleidoscope of “rainbow” pantsuits, with the power dressing meme almost taking on a life of its own.
Then came the pandemic.
After decades of corporate outfits and gendered sartorial expectations, we were working from our home offices, kitchen tables and beds. And as we all adjusted to our limbs being permanently glued to activewear, another cultural moment was coming to an end.
During the 2020 iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of Black man George Floyd, a number of ‘girlboss’ brands came to a close after more than a decade of “breaking the glass ceiling”.
Named after the founder of Nasty Gal Sophia Amoruso’s book and digital platform, the end of the girlboss movement seemed to be the final, pandemic-ridden nail in the coffin of the old guard of power dressing.
People discovered that aspirational brands like The Wing, Away and even Glossier were selling a brand of feminine power that only a certain percentage of (usually wealthy white women) could achieve.
Putting on a tailored blazer and crisp white collared shirt felt redundant in the face of global racial reckoning and the impact that the pandemic was having on lower socioeconomic groups.
So what does this new era of power dressing look like in a brand new world?
The New Power Dressing
Style influencer and founder of fashion label Djerf Avenue Matilda Djerf is lauded for her baggy oversized blazer looks paired with comfy sweatpants. Model Hailey Bieber has been spotted in the high-low combination of colour coordinated pantsuits and Nike high tops, while the chic pyjamas as outerwear trend is stronger than ever before, spotted on Instagram It girls across the board. There's no denying that this form of power dressing is taking off, even among the millennial women who previously wore collared shirts and tailored trousers every day.
One noticeable difference between the Working Girl suits of the eighties and today is the social capital connected to them. While our mothers and grandmothers needed to hide their femininity and any hint of a waist or breasts to be taken seriously, today’s generation of working women knows that they don’t need to look like a man (or wear a man’s suit in hot pink), to make it in business.
The bare-all corset trend under oversized blazers and strappy going-out heels paired with tailored work pants is proof. Power dressing post-pandemic isn’t your mum’s tailored, 1980s work outfit. In a world that’s increasingly unstable, perhaps putting on some form of modern "power" uniform by adding a few more traditional 'professional' pieces is a way to give us a sense of control.
In the same way that most workplaces are embracing the hybrid work-from-home-versus-office-model, it seems that the modern power dressing is a blend of our trusty, less-polished lockdown outfits of sneakers and t-shirts mixed with the aspiration and structure that pieces like blazers and collared shirts can bring.