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The new rules of modern power dressing

By Caroline Leaper ( China Daily ) Updated: 2017-06-24 07:14:09

Being stylish and well put together is more important than a suit

For all the political punditry and economic moves monopolising the election headlines over the last seven weeks, fashion analysts have been equally occupied by Theresa May's "strong and stable" style campaign - which may have dramatically de-stabilised at times, but has maintained an overall balance of strict tailoring and flourishes of personality. Whether or not it secures her a majority, it makes her look as though she's in control, even if her decisions aren't bearing that out.

When someone gets it right, it's called power dressing, and it's an art form that no one in politics or public-facing careers can ignore. Even the notoriously anti-fashion Jeremy Corbyn has stepped up his efforts in response, apparently seeking advice from a stylist. Twitter users have gamely applauded the individual who has "turned the Corbyn look from a freight train-jumping hobo into a vaguely credible-looking adult".

"With voters increasingly interested in the personality of their elected officials, it is important for high-profile figures to use the way they dress to connect with the electorate," says Laura Dunn, founder of the blog Political Style, who tracks May's every fashion move on the Instagram account @theresamaystyle.

"May's love of fashion can start a conversation with individuals who may not be so interested in policy, but who want to find out more about the woman who wants to be prime minister. For that, this is an authentic and powerful tool."

Along the trail, May has played some savvy sartorial tricks, subliminally connecting with the areas she has visited by wearing, for example, tartan in Scotland or a red jacket and Welsh brand Celtic Treasure's jewellery in Wales. She's also given a nod to Margaret Thatcher's iconic "Tory blue" ensembles, made modern in a cobalt Diane von Furstenberg cropped jacket, and teamed with a chunky chain necklace and leopard print Russell & Bromley flats.

These touches may seem a bit literal to some (see also The Duchess of Cambridge's overtures in this direction). "But, May's campaigning uniform is no fuss, no mess," says Dunn.

"She wears familiar favourites and gets on with the important job of meeting the public in a professional way. She shows her fun side through accessories and scarves, but displays strength through a structured handbag or tailored jacket."

This hard and soft approach is a tried and tested one among many of the world's power dressers and allows the wearer to control, to a degree, how much of their personality they want to give away.

Nicola Sturgeon reaches for her sharpest tailoring when there's a critical vote approaching, and her jackets are often edged with white piping to define the lapels and help her look more distinctive. She also plays the colour game, wearing red, white and blue, with the occasional splash of SNP yellow.

Moderators Julie Etchingham and Mishal Husain, meanwhile, both opted for putty coloured jackets with softer collars during the ITV and BBC debates respectively. Could a stronger statement have helped to stop the more graphically-dressed politicians from shouting over them?

Theresa May and Michelle Obama have also used cut, as well as colour and accessories, to reinforce the message of the day. Both have worn architectural shirts by British label palmer//harding to show their creative side at key work events, with Obama approaching the designers for the first time in March as she began plotting her new, post-White House career (and its accompanying wardrobe) with her stylist Meredith Koop.

"For professional women in the public eye, there's a lot of history and seriousness associated with the shirt," designer Matthew Harding considers. "But because of the flourish in this design [the asymmetric-hem shirt that Obama wore] you cut down a little bit of that barrier so, while people know you're serious, you're not too stiff."

Costume designer Kemal Harris has pushed the sartorial balance of power to the extreme in the new series of the Netflix political drama House of Cards, where she outfits the formidable TV First Lady Claire Underwood in dresses by Armani and Ralph Lauren. She says that defining the FLOTUS's strong physique is a particularly effective strategy, especially in work environments that are traditionally male-dominated, like politics.

"One of Underwood's key techniques is to intimidate and disarm whoever she's engaging with via her clothing," says Harris of her triple-threat approach; a killer fit, with expensive-sounding labels, and pale colour schemes that say, "I don't need to take public transport".

She adds: "Pencil skirts and very fitted sheath dresses throw off some of her male counterparts because they're thinking, 'You're gorgeous and scary and smart, how do I talk to you?'"

The fictitious Underwood exemplifies a new genesis of sensationally Hollywoodised, glossy career women. But what began as a celluloid concept is becoming a reality in some offices - call it the 'workebrity effect'. For Underwood's wardrobe, Harris considers every detail, right down to the military-style buttons and epaulettes on shirtdresses used to emphasise Claire's dictatorial manner.

"Every single piece that you see on the screen has been tailored to within an inch of its life," she says. "It's very sexy - but it's never revealing. Using your physicality in that way is subtle but so effective."

Stealth sheath dresses are also a fixture in both Melania and Ivanka Trump's new White House wardrobes, the former having undoubtedly altered her previous brand of glamour to be more "First Lady-like" since her husband was inaugurated in January.

It's a move that has seen critics accuse her of trying to copy elements of Jackie Kennedy's demure 1960s suiting, and indeed of becoming a "soap opera First Lady", like Underwood. She looks undeniably smart and polished. But is it too glamorous for the role of FLOTUS?

To further perfect their sharp silhouettes, the best power dressers now also employ personal tailors to fine-tune everything that they wear. Obama relied on seamstress Christy Rilling during her time in the White House, and is working with her again as she forges her new career path, campaigning publicly for women and children's health causes in the US.

"Everything can, and probably should, be tailored if you want to look amazing in your clothes," says Rilling, who will even alter high street items for her well-heeled clients, making things look vastly more expensive. "Many women don't know, or just forget, that sizes off the rack are vague."

Victoria Beckham perfects the trouser suit.

Cutting the right professional figure is now a priority for businesswomen around the world, with Amal Clooney, Victoria Beckham and other ultra-sleek, intensely groomed celebrities becoming workwear style pin-ups.

As such, there is now a host of great brands catering to the demand, meaning that we can all look a little slicker when we leave for the office in the morning.

"The workwear options were depressing, frumpy and masculine," says Polly McMaster a former management consultant who co-founded fashion label The Fold in 2012, offering style solutions for city girls around the country.

"There was definitely a gap for what women like myself wanted to wear to work in a demanding job where you might be meeting with a CEO one day, presenting to a senior team that's typically mostly male, or travelling for a five-day business trip.

"Just because I was in a corporate environment didn't mean that I shouldn't be stylish. I needed to be more elevated than what the high street could offer, and the designer choices were too pricey.

"Our brand, The Fold, delivers a more modern approach - we focus on key pieces; the perfect jersey dress, a statement dress with flattering details, and clean and modern tailoring that can be mixed and matched.

"Power dressing is now about confidence. Being stylish and well put together is more important than wearing a traditional suit."

That said, fashion can only take you so far. Is Melania's glossiness enough to convince you that she's got her new role sussed? And will a cooler jacket and a splash of leopard print really make you vote for May? Of course not - but they're right to think that looking the part will help.

The new rules of modern power dressing

Fromleft:Melania Trump arrives at theBrusselsAirport; TheresaMay leaves theConservative Party's Headquarters.Photosbyhannahmckayandpeternicholls/reuters

(China Daily 06/24/2017 page24)

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