Power dressing for women

Martha Muzychka
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I had to pinch myself on the weekend to make sure I was awake. I had come across an article and I was sure I was like Rip Van Winkle in reverse, having gone back not 20 years but at least 40 in time.

The reason for my disbelief was an article that examined critiques of the wardrobe belonging to the prospective nominee to head the U.S. Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen.

Goodness me, it seems in favouring black suits, Yellen has committed the unpardonable sin of dressing in a boring and dowdy manner.

Never mind that lots of men have a uniform approach to dressing and are praised for it. Lucia Graves of the National Journal cites U.S. President Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs as powerful and famous men who are (or were) noted for, respectively, their blue-grey suits, Facebook T-shirt and black turtleneck/jeans combo.

Their lack of variety in fashion is a signal of how smart, busy and important they are. They don’t waste time on picayune details like what to wear, or wondering if the flowered tie seem too forward for a business lunch with a new investor.

Such inanities don’t concern them, oh no, and isn’t it amazing how much they get done when they routinize the small decisions so they can focus on the big ones? And yet, Yellen follows a long line of women, including Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in recent years, who have been praised or vilified for their fashion sense.

The fact that they may be the biggest financial, political, scientific or socially advanced brains in the world matters not a whit.

As Graves notes, Yellen is about to become the keeper of the keys to the world’s most influential piggy bank. The fact that she wore the same dress or something quite similar on several occasions is not likely to reflect on the U.S. economy any more than Obama wearing the same colour suit every day is going to change the path of U.S. foreign policy.

The fact is you can’t win for trying if you are a women of power working in what was long assumed to be exclusively male spheres: politics, economics, justice and diplomacy.  

I still remember the comments made after a federal Status of Women minister was participating in a local event. “Goodness,” said one observer, “you’d think she’d choose something nicer.” Not five minutes later, I overheard another tutting: “Look at her all dressed up like a stick of gum! She thinks she’s some fancy.”

The fact is if you dress appropriately (and I use that term advisedly as the goalposts on that adverb move every day), you care too much. Wear clothes that aren’t the latest fashion, or don’t seem to have a spark, then you clearly don’t care enough.

As it is, after much pondering, given that we can always deflect attention from the meaningful aspects of a woman’s work by commenting on what she is wearing, what’s really happening is a challenge to Yellen’s place not only in a man’s space, but to her seeming appropriation of what has been a male tradition: the uniform suit.

Taking apart the resistance to Yellen’s approach offers another look at the interpersonal dynamic we see between men and women in the workplace. Years ago John T. Molloy, the fashion consultant who recommended women wear business suits, including ties, led the way to the concept of power dressing.

While Jobs and Zuckerberg may have been mocked on occasion for their casual and consistent mode of dress, it wasn’t ever done in a way that called into question their decision-making ability.

For Yellen, I think the critiques of her style and that of other women do challenge their authority and their ability to wield power. In the 21st century, it’s well past time we did away with such ridiculous notions. How women, or men, lead should not be dependent on their fashion sense.

Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant.

Her power suit is lime green.

Email: socialnotes@gmail.com.

Organizations: U.S. Federal Reserve, National Journal

Geographic location: U.S.

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