BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 08 FEB 21
Featured in
Issue 217

The Eccentric Art of Power Dressing

In a culture so fixated on image, Sean Burns explores why what’s beyond ‘the look’ is more important than ever

S
BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 08 FEB 21

In David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Meryl Streep’s Anna Wintour character, Miranda Priestly, admonishes her new assistant, played by Anne Hathaway, after she sniggers during a meeting with a group of flustered stylists. Priestly reads her apparent outsider stance and lack of style, detailing how her cerulean – not turquoise, not lapis – ‘lumpy’ sweater is the result of a long chain of decisions initiated in that very office. Priestly is a powerful character and, indeed, the film is about how outsiders negotiate such dragons and their enormous egos.

In a culture so fixated on image, it can seem as though what’s beneath or beyond ‘the look’ doesn’t much matter. Like editors, artists and curators partake in similar deceit where the clothes we wear are an accomplice to the aspirations we hold. If ‘we’re born naked and the rest is drag’ (as RuPaul wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Lettin’ It All Hang Out), what we choose to put on communicates a lot about how we want others to see us. For Priestly, power is the goal, which is why legendary New York stylist Patricia Field dressed Streep with echoes of Glenn Close as the terrifying Cruella de Vil in the 1996 film version of 101 Dalmatians, with a shock of white hair and artful forelock.

Jenkin van Zyl 2020
Jenkin van Zyl, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

When I think of ‘power dressing’, my mind wanders to an image of Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington Colby in the television series Dynasty (1981–89), clad in a red Nolan Miller suit with shoulders pointy enough to take your eye out. The term was coined in the mid-1970s to refer to an authoritative type of business wear. But, as Collins demonstrated, it takes more than a look alone to exude power. Anyone can slap on a light smattering of experimental make-up nowadays and think they’re fascinating; however, it’s dedication to body-altering choices that makes something truly interesting.

Take fashion priestess Michèle Lamy who, style-wise, is past the point of no return. With a mouthful of gold teeth and fingertips stained with dark Japanese dye, her commitment to a look isn’t a passing fancy for likes: it’s a move towards a more liberated way of being in the world. Or artist Jenkin van Zyl (dressed like Catherine of Aragon crossed with Rumpelstiltskin), whose armour, both literal and figurative, contains the same complex web of historical and filmic references that permeate his artwork. Stepping out on the street in your homespun creation is the ultimate litmus test for an ensemble. If parents pull their children away, you’re on the right track!

Radclyffe Hall
Radclyffe Hall. Courtesy: Getty Images 

It’s not about getting everything right, either. As James St. James famously announced in the club kids’ film Party Monster (2003): ‘If you have a hunchback, just throw a little glitter on it, honey.’ Accentuate the negative. Of course, power statements don’t always have to be extravagant; subtlety can be a useful weapon, too. Maggi Hambling finishes her scruffy-but-tailored attire with an arch cigarette, adding a forbidding air to any pose. Her play of gender conventions references the annals of lesbian history via the writer Radclyffe Hall and her lover Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge. Pioneers of drag, they wore sharp jackets and trousers long before Yves Saint Laurent’s celebrated Le Smoking hit the catwalk in 1966.

Diane Pernet
Diane Pernet, 2014. Courtesy: Getty Images

When we’re in them, offices are the everyday arena for fashion power moves, but ‘professionalism’ can pose a narrow gap to aim through. In her film FELT TIP (2020), Elizabeth Price examines how the humble necktie contains insidious patriarchal energy. Like the limp, fabric phallus that idly hangs around the throats of business people, many items of clothing that we think of as innocuous are, in fact, rooted in a history of oppressive forces. Try to find small inlets to subvert accepted standards and always remember, as Oscar Wilde allegedly said: ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’

Whether you want to cut a grieving widow figure like critic Diane Pernet (replete with 1950s shades and gothic veil) or you’re an eruption of theatrical expression (with latex gargoyle horns) like Van Zyl, a look should reveal more than it conceals. Beware: you’re wearing it, not the reverse. And if your ultimate goal is, like Priestly’s, power and status, then the devil really is in the detail. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline ‘Look Sharp’.

Main image: Michèle Lamyt. Courtesy: Getty Images

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and frieze editorial assistant based in London, UK. 

SHARE THIS