I remember the first time I slipped on a blazer that fit right. I found it nestled in the crowded racks of an op shop; it was an unassuming thing, just a simple black jacket. I remember slipping the silky interior over my arms and feeling like I had discovered another part of my identity. “This is me,” I thought, as I gawked at my reflection in the change room.
I believe in the sartorial power of self-expression. I know that fashion has the ability to sway moods and supercharge first impressions. I’m not alone in this; fashion’s ability to affirm identity is essential in many communities — from embracing queerness, to stepping closer towards gender euphoria.
While my fashion style see-saws between feminine and masculine energy, my idea of power dressing is simple: blazers and tailored trousers, because strong, straight silhouettes make me feel powerful. I always thought it was a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to the male gaze too; that I was subverting what was expected of me as a woman (granted, I also love wearing dresses and skirts). But my world turned upside down after a head-spinning conversation with a friend that went along the lines of, “Wait, what if power dressing is just the patriarchy incarnated?”
“Power dressing reflects the lionization of all things stereotypically masculine which are infused with meanings of authority, power, and control,” Dr. Lauren Gurrieri, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at RMIT University tells Refinery29 Australia.
This sets up a binary in which masculinity comes to be revered and femininity is devalued. To challenge this, disrupting the equation of masculinity with men is critical.
Dr. Lauren Gurrieri
“Masculinity has been traditionally equated with men, so this implies that women need to 'dress like men' in order to be taken seriously, get ahead, and neutralize the male gaze. In turn, this sets up a binary in which masculinity comes to be revered and femininity is devalued. To challenge this, disrupting the equation of masculinity with men is critical.”
While masculinity is widely accepted to be a social construct, the values we associate with men like vigour, aggression and toughness still reign in societal structures, conversations, and incidentally, in fashion.
“We are witnessing this in the rise of unisex clothing where garments are devoid of gendered meanings and associations,” says Gurrieri. From independent labels to high-end names like Versace and Balenciaga, there’s a growing number of brands merging their womenswear and menswear into one collection. There are definite strides we’re seeing in the degendered fashion space, but why then does it feel like patriarchal standards still have such a chokehold on our style choices — even when we’re consciously trying to invert them?
“The industry is at its core structured by gendered inequalities‚ the garment industry is female-dominated but this is work that is precarious and exploitative,” Gurrieri says, explaining the inextricable links between the patriarchy and the fashion industry. “The most visible roles for women in the industry are in modelling, which is a form of aesthetic labour where 'looking good' is what counts and women's value is relegated to meeting a narrow and unrealistic beauty ideal often at the expense of one's health."
Conversely, she also points to how women are also rendered invisible as fashion designers or executives, though there are more female-run fashion houses on the rise.
It runs parallel to how the male gaze functions in fashion — the power dynamic where men are the gazers and women are gazed upon. “The male gaze reflects expectations of how women's bodies are supposed to look and what is aesthetically required of women — which in turn positions women as sexualized, idealized and objects of heteronormative desire and pleasure,” Gurrieri says.
Yet in turn, we are seeing TikTok users trying to suppress the male gaze and instead, dress for the female gaze. The term isn’t a direct opposite of the male gaze and isn’t about asserting female dominance, but more so about making viewers feel what women see and experience. However some argue that a female gaze doesn’t exist. TikTok users are co-opting the term to express that they are dressing for themselves (though it does just seem like a poor repackage of the trend cycle).
For many women, embracing feminine silhouettes and garments is a form of power dressing, though I can’t help but wonder if this is a submission to gendered standards of dressing.
“Dressing in more stereotypically feminine ways then operates as the other side of this dynamic — with femininity traditionally associated with marginalized meanings of submissiveness, decorativeness and frivolity,” Gurrieri explains.
“Importantly, men have been policed from embracing femininity — and this still continues to be a problem,” she continues. “For example, think of the outcry surrounding Harry Styles wearing a Gucci gown on his Vogue cover. However, the historical devaluing of femininity is slowly being challenged as the gender stereotypes that have long dominated the fashion industry come to be disrupted.”
It feels almost trivial that I've come to the conclusion that of course, feminine styles shouldn’t be equated with meekness, superficiality or passivity — even if we have reclaimed them. On one hand, I’m almost embarrassed that this was the extent of my thought process, but maybe it’s an indictment of how deep these sexist ideals run and how pervasive male control remains over our lives and fashion choices.
When I look at my blazer, it still reminds me of fast-walking businessmen carrying important briefcases. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I equate blazers with power and control, but it’s about unlearning the gender bias that's become tangled in these thoughts. Dressing for myself — really for myself — means grappling with the structures that fashion exists in and not shying away from them. And besides, I really love that blazer.