Powerful Women and Their ‘Uniforms’: What I’ve Learned

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This week on the Cut we’re exploring how to get your act together when it comes to personal style — from organizing your closet, to finding your signature scent, to figuring out your work uniform.

Sometimes I count the ways in which I am blessed, and one of them is that I get to wear jeans and a T-shirt to the office. I’m a writer, not a member of Congress, so the bar is low — anything better than fleece and I’m dressing for success. Still, I settled on my work uniform for the same reasons that other professional women settle on theirs: It’s reliably flattering; it’s comfortable; it meshes with my work environment; and the various components can be endlessly mixed and matched, which means I don’t have to expend a single extra brain cell figuring out what to wear during that heinous morning hour when I’m also walking the dog, packing lunch, making breakfast, hustling a child out the door, consuming my morning news, and returning all the email that came in overnight. As a friend of mine, another writer, wrote on my Facebook page, “I’d like to devote as little mind share as possible to the question of WTW.”

But a successful work uniform does much more than save time and brain space. It tells the world what kind of work you do, how seriously you take it, and — here’s the complicated part — what kind of woman you are. It’s the costume in which you perform that most central role in your life; it defines your public-facing self. Do you signal your willingness to play with the boys with suits, leaving any sexual display to the strappy heels on your feet? Or do you prefer to be more feminine, hiding your steel behind cashmere and silk? Are you a woman who values comfort above all — flat shoes, breathable fabrics, nothing too tailored — or one who prefers, as I do, the macho versatility of dark-washed denim? Can you define your professional image by one palette (black, navy, khaki) or a single designer (Theory, J.Crew, Eileen Fisher, Diane von Furstenberg) — or are you more of a vintage/thrift/your-closet-through-the-ages type? These distinctions matter. Their consequences are practical, of course, but they’re also existential. Your work uniform signals your ambition, authority, experience, age. It conveys if not actual competence, then your feelings about your competence as well as your desire (or not) to blend in.

Its elements can be hard to define, but as with art and porn, you know a good work uniform when you see it. Margaret Thatcher is possibly the first, and last, example anyone needs of a woman who embodied a uniform completely (or, better put, whose uniform embodied her priorities). She wasn’t called the Iron Lady for nothing; her Aquascutum suits and helmet hair and boxlike purses functioned quite literally as armor, shielding her from political foes as well as from any sexist implication that she was insufficiently formidable for her job. Sheryl Sandberg, who writes about the importance of female self-confidence at work, favors form-fitting knits and exposed collarbones. A tech executive at Facebook, she intuits that the founder’s hoodie is not an option for her. I read somewhere that Anna Wintour’s haircut serves as her work uniform: As she is professionally obliged to wear a wide range of designers and styles, her hair provides her with consistency and authority. But the prize for the most virtuosic deployment of the work uniform today goes to Christine Lagarde, the French lawyer who runs the International Monetary Fund. Her tailored dark (black or charcoal) suits are accessorized with a great haircut, dangling pearl earrings, and an Hermès scarf. That’s it. She’s nearly 60 and succeeds in looking both female and powerful without seeming to overthink either. Never has so little looked like so much.

The most successful work uniforms resolve, at least on the surface, a woman’s own inner conflicts about sex and power. Because that’s really the question, isn’t it? Dressing for the office is harder for women than it is for men — it is harder — because workplaces are still overwhelmingly run by men, and women, who compete for recognition under that male gaze, must decide how willing they are to be sexy at work. (For better or worse, the idea of a workforce uniformed in neutralizing “power suits,” armies of men and women decked out in shoulder pads and button-downs, never took off.) How much do you acknowledge to your subordinates and bosses that you have boobs; how much do you remind them with your wardrobe choices that the clothes you’ve put on in the morning sometimes come off? When faced with decisions about what to wear, women have to navigate these issues constantly and explicitly. Inside every woman’s mind runs an endless ticker: How much leg, how much waist, how much skin, how much ass, etc. Are you a Peggy, all self-serious, hiding your sexuality beneath a tweedy habit? Or are you a Joan, flaunting it, understanding that with sex comes power?

Hillary Clinton has visibly struggled with what to wear. For so much of her career, her femininity and attractiveness were, unfairly, under attack; she tried — and failed — to find a uniform that might quell her critics. She tried headbands and frills and high-necked blouses. She tried nubby suits and attention-grabbing hues. During her Senate run, she opted for mannish pantsuits in Easter egg colors. But now that she’s a grandma, with questions of sexual attractiveness largely behind her, Hillary seems to be embracing her clothes — remember the muumuu? — more than worrying about what people might say about them. There is something to be said for women, like Hillary, who wear their life experience on their faces. Who cares what Madeleine Albright or Ruth Bader Ginsburg is wearing (although, to be sure, Ginsburg wears a most elite uniform)? Their expressions carry so much more than sartorial weight.

Even once you’ve settled on a uniform that works, it inevitably changes with new jobs, babies, age, or different responsibilities. I’ve been a journalist my whole life, but when I was a young reporter at The Wall Street Journal, I wore suits and heels to my cubicle in lower Manhattan. Part of it was the environment: a more corporate place in a more media-affluent time. And part was the job: We felt that we should dress as much as possible like the people we were writing about. But part was also me: Young and ambitious, I wanted work clothes that signaled my seriousness and protected me if I happened to find myself in a roomful of men in suits. Just so, my new work uniform — jeans and a T-shirt, dressed up or down as the occasion requires — reflects the casualness of our age, an elitist dismissal of materialistic display and corporate informality purveyed by the dreamers in Silicon Valley and artisans of Williamsburg. (These days my bosses wear jeans, and the people I’m writing about are likely to show up for our interview in jeans as well.) But for some women, all this liberty provokes another kind of crisis: At start-ups, you see every outfit under the sun. Women wear Anthropologie and Lululemon and Patagonia hiking shorts and sundresses and thrift stuff. When photographed together, employees look like refugees from competing summer camps. A young woman I know, who works in marketing at start-ups, describes her approach to her closet like this: “Yes. This. Today.” But another friend who just changed jobs, moving from a corporate office culture to a high-tech one, says she is “having to learn to dress all over again.” Pencil skirts and J.Crew don’t cut it anymore. She is experimenting with the cashmere hoodie, she says.

That the current normcore moment allows me to dress like a more upscale version of my college self is a happy thing. But it also reflects my current professional status: In middle age, my striving is less defensive than it used to be; I am more content to let my bosses and colleagues take me as I am, less worried about falling off or down a ladder established by someone else. As I write this piece, I find myself compelled by photos of Samantha Power, the Obama friend and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, for she raises the art of the work uniform to a meta level. Her wardrobe looks, at first, like a mishmash — wrinkled, hastily put together, and with no organizing principle. There’s tomato-soup orange, there’s black, there’s emerald green. There’s a striped shift, there’s a plunging neckline, there’s the teal chiffon prom dress she wore to the White House when dining with the president of France. Each item of her wardrobe seems to have an entirely different provenance: This sweater she seems to have bought in Nepal; that dress, at an import-export store in Harvard Square; this black sheath possibly purchased at the urging of an adviser with an awareness of her increasing visibility ("there will be television, you have to have something to wear"). It’s not a uniform at all, until you step back. Power’s work uniform is not a thing she hangs in her closet but an impression she gives as she moves through the world. Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on because I’m too brainy, too important, and way too busy to give a crap. Sure, with her unruly mane of red hair, Power is beautiful enough to pull this off, but she is also a reminder that confidence is the best style of all.