I was 21 years old when my mother bought me my first suit. The matching skirt and blazer were houndstooth print, terribly ill-fitting on my plus-size body and seemed, at least to me, like a relic from the past. I would soon be starting an internship at a fairly renowned women’s magazine and to my mother (who entered the workforce in the mid ‘70s and wore a suit to her teaching job every single day until retirement), it seemed obvious that I’d need such an outfit. She didn’t realise that I’d been to the office already, where I was met with a flurry of fashionistas wearing on-trend ripped jeans, band T-shirts with high-waisted trousers, and lots of other styles leaning far more 'casual' than 'business'. Suffice to say, I was pretty horrified by the ensemble and never actually wore it (sorry, Mum).
Considering headlines like "Have Millennials Killed The Dress Code?" it’s possible that my distaste for the old houndstooth number was partly rooted in my generation’s general departure from traditional office wear. As Vogue declared in 2018: "The idea of workwear, or specifically, of a woman’s power suit, is becoming less and less relevant in many cases, including the tech and startup sectors, as office culture becomes more progressive and more community-oriented."
These shifts are happening across industries and affecting all genders. In 2019, The Guardian reported: "According to market analysts Kantar, sales of suits are down 7% year-on-year, ties are down 6%, and blazers down 10%. Marks & Spencer is cutting back on its formalwear; Moss Bros, the suit specialist, has issued three recent profit warnings. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs – whose bankers were once renowned for their Armani suits and Gucci loafers – announced a move to a 'flexible dress code'."
I’ve worked in five offices since my university days (all of them for publishing and digital media jobs) and rarely have I seen a suit. To be 'put together' has always seemed to mean having a clear sense of personal style, a willingness to experiment with clothing or a knack for creating the kinds of looks you want to post to Instagram. If I’m honest with myself, however, there’s another reason I spent most of my 20s avoiding the power suit. Mainly it’s that as a visibly fat woman, I didn’t feel powerful enough to wear one – and it didn’t matter anyway, because no one was making plus-size power suits that were actually cute or comfortable.
The thing is, people try to disempower fat folks all the time. It happens when jokes are cracked at our expense or when supposedly well-meaning friends and relatives warn us that we’ll never get the dream job or dream partner unless we lose some weight, or when nationwide adverts basically tell us our bodies are akin to a cancer. When I got that first internship at a women’s magazine, and was later offered a full-time role in fashion and beauty at a different publication, I could see the shock on some of my peers’ faces. How could someone like me get a job like that? A job in fashion and beauty, of all things? After all, these are industries that have, historically, celebrated certain types of beauty and body above others (a beauty and a body I simply do not have).
As a result, 'power' wasn’t something I felt within myself until I was closer to 30 than 20. It wasn’t until I had spent years immersed in feminist and fat-positive communities that I acknowledged any of my personal strengths – like my empathy, or my ability to connect with others through writing, or my perseverance in the face of bullying, loss or life’s many lemons, or, simply, my sturdy figure which carries me through it all. Regardless of the problematic origins of women’s power suits – women shouldn’t need to 'dress like men' in order to feel or be considered competent, and no clothing style should be expressly determined 'male' or 'female' in the first place – the crucial characteristic attributed to this look is 'power'. Although people might define that word differently, I wasn’t really ready to dress 'powerfully' until I believed myself to be precisely that.
The changes I began to perceive in myself and my sense of value coincided with some significant changes in the plus-size fashion world – something I certainly don’t believe to be a coincidence. On the contrary, I think the work of fat-positive advocates has made many retailers and designers realise that fat people are not a niche market interested only in A-line skirts and trapeze dresses. As of right now, there are more plus-size clothing options than there have ever been. It’s not to say that the work is done (people who wear larger plus sizes still don’t have as many choices and most plus-size people are limited to online shopping only) but we do have more variety than we once did.
In the new era of fatshion there has been an advent of plus-size power suits; suits in bright colours, bold prints, sparkly fabrics and tailored classics, all crafted specifically with plus-size proportions in mind. I have been unable to resist them. These looks help alleviate my imposter syndrome when it still creeps up. They remind me that, despite occasional anxiety that tells me otherwise, I am doing enough. I am a mum and a writer and a friend and a person who feels secure in her body despite so much daily messaging that tells me I shouldn’t.
On days when I struggle to own my expertise or any of my positive attributes, I can slip on a pink trouser suit with golden buttons which somehow captures my appreciation for womanhood, ambition and sensitivity all at once. On days when I feel confident, I can use a bold purple two-piece to personify the idea that I deserve to take up space. As my mother always suspected, perhaps, I can slip into a funky yellow check combo and know that I am worthy of success (any type of success). I can remember that my bigness – my unruliness – is, in fact, powerful.