Power suits back, minus shoulder pads
It was a spot for the cable television show “What Not to Wear” that sent me running to my clothes closet, determined to retire some “power” suits.
The commercial, which aired in March 2006 to promote new episodes of the fashion-makeover series, poked fun at what the announcer intoned was “Life Lesson No. 80: Not everything comes back in style.” The spot featured a woman trying on old work ensembles at home, happy to find one that still fit. She then is seen in the lobby of an office building, walking sideways through a security-screening device because the shoulder pads on her suit jacket — a gold-colored relic from the 1980s — are so big. “Where’d you park your DeLorean?” smirks the guard as she passes, invoking the name of the iconic sports car of the decade.
As I laughed at the commercial, I realized that I had a couple of suits with those wide, wide shoulders and that — egad! — I sometimes wore them.
Surely you remember the power suit, the woman’s equivalent of the dress-for-success men’s staple that Vogue says transformed the workplace in the 1980s.
The fashion magazine, in a history of the power suit on its Voguepedia website, describes the matching jacket and skirt (later trousers) as being designed to give women a “masculine silhouette” that evoked “an aura of authority.”
“The jacket was oversize, often double-breasted, with shoulders that extended well beyond the contours of the natural body,” according to the site. The preferred colors were black, gray and navy; a white shirt, “floppy bow tie” and basic pumps completed the look.
“The power suit made a woman look like she was somebody,” Voguepedia says, citing as example the role it played in the improbable rise of Melanie Griffith’s title character in the 1988 movie “Working Girl” from Staten Island secretary to Manhattan deal broker.
But as the 1990s dawned, “The message of competence and confidence sent by the woman in a gray pin-striped suit has been received,” Vogue wrote at the time. Designers were tired of big shoulder pads and women no longer wanted to dress like men.
Fast forward to this fall, though, and you’ll find that contrary to the “What Not to Wear” commercial, some things do cycle back into style.
As reported earlier this month by the Wall Street Journal, the power suit was featured on the fall 2013 fashion runway and now is making its way into stores. Compared to its predecessor, it’s “leaner and meaner,” according to the newspaper.
“The tailoring is knife-edge sharp,” the Journal reported, with “more feminine shoulders than the football-player look associated with 1980s women’s suiting.” Key to the latest incarnation is a “strong jacket,” the paper said, which “serves as a piece of armor, disguising and idealizing the upper body.” The new power suit also mimics some colors of the past: black, gray and beige.
Websites such as those for women’s retailer Ann Taylor describe jackets of “impeccable fit” with options such as “functional sleeve buttons” that allow the sleeves to be pushed or rolled up for a down-to-business look.
So does that mean I can pull out the suits I banished to the spare-bedroom closet after seeing the “What Not to Wear” spot?
Because, according to the Journal, the shoulder pads and heavy fabrics common to 1980s styling are just too old-fashioned for today’s power silhouette.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.