In late February at the Glasgow Film Festival, a group of panelists convened to discuss something of latent importance to everyone with a job: Is the power suit dead?
It seems that years of casual Friday, capped with Mark Zuckerberg shopping Facebook’s IPO (FB) in a hoodie in 2012, signaled the end of the traditional power suit. But before you throw out your ties and buy stock in Lululemon (LULU), it’s time for a reality check.
“The power suit is absolutely not dead!” Yahoo Style Editor-in-Chief Joe Zee said. The numbers support his claim – sales of suiting for both women and men increased in 2013, the latest year for which NPD Group has data. For both genders, the power suit is still a force to be reckoned with.
Sales of suit separates were up 55% in the first half of 2013, according to NPD. Sport coats alone saw a 14% increase. “I think we were buoyed by the idea of casual Friday and how that’s seeped into casual week and casual work wear. But you’d be surprised, I think. The power suit is still alive and kicking,” Zee said.
The idea of the power suit as we know it came about in the Wall Street heyday of the 1980s. “It defined it so much, in such a concrete way, in the '80s. You had all the Jordan Belforts and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’” Zee said. Anyone who has seen the 2013 Paramount flick is familiar with the flashy suits Zee is talking about.
But when we’re talking about movies defining power suits, Zee said the real credit would need to go to Giorgio Armani and the 1980 movie “American Gigolo.” Zee points out it was the first time a fashion designer worked on a film to really create a look that would catch on in the mainstream.
“You saw all those manifestations of [the power suit] and today it’s really still there. It’s just a constant revolution,” Zee said.
The key to getting the power suit right these days is to avoid going too fashionable or trendy. “I think when a suit becomes too flashy it’s no longer a power suit,” said Zee. That means stay away from bright colors or fabrics like sharkskin.
But when in doubt, go designer. “In the world of finance, the world of the status power suit still exists. It may have been Armani once upon a time, and it still is, but Hugo Boss, Zegna, all of these great big brands are still status. It’s not just a suit for those guys but, ‘Whose suit are you wearing?’” said Zee.
Of course, workers should also be mindful of their particular industry. If you’re working in the tech world -- where jeans and t-shirts are the uniform -- wearing a power suit (or a suit of any kind) won't really fly. “When you say a power suit, it’s not necessarily a suit, it’s a confidence and the authority and the personality you give off wearing that suit,” said Zee, adding: “I think if you’re Mark Zuckerberg wearing a hoodie and a pair of jeans, you are wearing your suit.”
For women, the power suit originated in the 1930s with Coco Chanel who essentially created the classic look. “She really did something that … was a scandal and revolutionized the way people look at fashion; she put women in pants,” said Zee.
In the '40s, women like Katharine Hepburn furthered the power suit by imitating men. Hepburn famously wore men’s pants, helping to make the suited look iconic for women in the process. In the '70s, Diane Keaton's character in "Annie Hall" inspired women once again to channel men in their sartorial sensibilities.
By the next decade the power suit was redefined with big shoulder pads and ankle socks. Since then, however, the power suit has become more toned down. Women are able to wear dresses and separates and a more diverse variety of wardrobe choices while still commanding respect in the office – it’s not just about the suit anymore.
In fact, if you look at some of the top-paid female executives out there, very few are wearing boring black suits (or at least photographed in them). The thought is, "I don’t need to dress like the guys to run with the guys," said Zee. "I can absolutely conduct a meeting in the boardroom [in a dress] with equal credibility and authority."
"Women still wear suitings today," said Zee. "I think you can see that in sales, suitings have gone up but the suitings have really changed. It’s a lot more feminine, it’s a lot more fitted."