Pondering the Power(less) Look

I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn’t itch. – Gilda Radner

Why have tight sleeveless dresses and 4-inch heels become the modern professional woman’s uniform de rigueur? Rigorous indeed, requiring girdles (sorry, Spanx!) to squeeze into sausage casings with no room to breathe or move. Shoes needing morphine and lots of balance training just to maneuver across a room. I don’t care how much they cost or if they have signature red soles, they still hurt like hell.

Who has decided that this is the “power” look? If women in these outfits can’t feel free and have to deny they are in pain, why is it powerful? Where did this latest fashion come from? Possibly the popular TV show, Mad Men. It beautifully captured our nostalgia for smoking and drinking and eating bacon with carefree abandon as well as for mid-century modern design and dress.Old Girdle Ad

Ironically, the women in Mad Men lacked inherent power and if they had any career aspirations, they had to fight for them and survive being treated as objects. Like Ginger Rogers, they did everything men did, but backwards and in heels. The show’s fallout has exaggerated women’s fashion of that time. Having worked during part of the 60s, I remember that our sheath dresses were loose and comfortable and the heels, while not comfortable, were more like two inches.

So is today’s sex-object dressing a weird sort of retaliation? Women have made considerable progress in the work world. Do they feel guilty? Do they feel they have to placate men’s egos, prove they are still feminine even though they are bosses? Defer to a twisted idea of what looks powerful?

Personally, I preferred the fashions of the late 60s and 70s, simple flowing lines, dresses and pantsuits that were flattering and comfortable. The styles accommodated work and play. In the 80s, power suits made their appearance. I had a grey flannel pinstripe skirt and jacket I wore for important meetings at Xerox. In those days, we also pulled on pantyhose and clunked around on solid heels. Our jackets and blouses came with shoulder pads and we looked like linemen for the Green Bay Packers.

The next two decades brought softer styles and in some industries, such as hi-tech where I was a technical writer, it was anything goes. Grunge, punk, lumberjack, surfer dude, super jock. Jeans on casual Fridays became torn jeans or even shorts and flip flops every day. The men and women engineers at Qualcomm don’t trust suits and sexpots.

In the small but upscale beach town where I live, we see every type of fashion, from bathing suits to long dresses. If a woman walks by in a tight dress and high heels, most likely she is a banker, realtor, business coach or fundraiser. Or, according to a local joke, she could be the mistress of a rich man up in L.A., especially if she’s young.

Occasionally I see an older woman decked out in a bright red or blue satin suit and a little hat and even though I might not want to wear that myself, I feel happy for her – go for it! She’s obviously enjoying herself. And so are the many artists and other creative folk who invent colorful costumes.

Yoga, pilates and other workout studios are popular here – and so are new stores selling the right clothes to work out in. Yoga pants in wild colors and prints are now walking from morning to night up and down the sidewalks. They are extremely forgiving and with a flowy blouse or cardigan, look great.

I prefer to change into jeans when I get home from yoga. I like my yoga pants, but they are a little too warm and sweaty for me to wear all day. And my jeans keep my diet honest. When they feel tight, I know I’m eating too much.

Really I think we should be able to wear what we want and enjoy whatever style we think suits us and our lifestyle. Overall, that’s the general way fashion goes for most of us. I try to keep an open mind about what others wear.

I’m just having a hard time with the sexpot look. I am not against looking sexy, but when I see the poor women newscasters on TV with every bulge magnified, I feel sad. Hopefully the Mad Men phase will pass. Recently I read an article on how fashion designers are promoting a new gender neutral style. Photos of androgynous models in heavy wool pants and sweaters. They aren’t as bad as the top-heavy jackets of the 80s, but my god, looking at them makes my skin itch.