I met her once. She was more horrible than I could have possibly imagined,” designer Vivienne Westwood once said, offering her views on Britain’s Iron Lady. In fact, at the peak of her regime, British fashion designers and eminent women were no fans of Margaret Thatcher. Yet, before the release of Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic, the Fall 2012 collections of most top designers — Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Marc Jacobs, to name a few — were overflowing with their interpretations of the iron lady look.
Earlier this month, actor Kareena Kapoor wowed crowds at the Lakme Fashion Week in her tough, iron lady-like ensemble. The look, understandably, took everyone by surprise. She walked the ramp dressed in a long, black and white jacket draped over a black bustier from avant-garde designer Kallol Datta’s collection. With a spike necklace, her hair worn up in a sophisticated coiffure, Kareena looked mature and confident. Not quite a Margaret Thatcher, but undeniably a far cry from the peppermint-pink bubbly bimbo she has had to play in so many movies. Later, Pankaj and Nidhi’s tasseled ensemble again lent the usually girly actor a powerful persona. And Kareena’s not the only one who’s shifting gears.
Model Lisa Haydon shows off a Chanel jacket with a chic, short hairdo on the cover of a women’s magazine this month, while Hollywood sex symbol Mila Kunis is a picture of conservative career-woman refinement in the Miss Dior handbag autumn/winter 2012-13 campaign. Is the trend the consequence of an attitude shift? It’s possible that women, and consequently designers, have once again come to appreciate the wisdom of French designer, Coco Chanel, to who is often attributed the quote, “Dress sharply and they notice the dress. Dress impeccably and they notice the woman.”
Here, no one pulls off power dressing as well as Shabana Azmi, which may have something to do with the fact that actor’s attitude off screen complements her wardrobe. Recently seen sporting a grey jacket over a soft pink blouse, her elegant high bun accented by dangling earrings, Shabana oozes power just as successfully in a formal churidar kurta at a film award ceremony as she does in an elegant cotton sari while handing slum dwellers the keys to their new homes through the work of her NGO, Nivara Hakk, the actor, who organises fashion shows to raise funds to empower women in rural Uttar Pradesh, through her Mijwan Welfare Society, clearly understands the power of fashion like few others do.
Film stylist Shalini Mehta’s favourite examples of power-dressed women though are Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi. The stylist, who has assisted designer and fashion director for a fashion magazine Anahita Shroff Adajania on some projects and has also contributed her skill to films such as Billu Barber and Love Aaj Kal, explains, “Their crisp, cotton saris and neat, classy hairstyles scream power.”
When the power-dressing trend last surfaced in 2009, English actor Joan Collins, whose character Alexis Colby from the ’80s TV show Dynasty had given the term new meaning with her ultra haute-couture wardrobe, said she was thrilled. “Why don’t designers today make dresses with sleeves?” she asked a reporter. “The empowerment of women in the past 30 years, which was reflected in the strong, ‘statement’ clothes we wore, has been greatly eroded by this recent desire to look super-skinny. It’s a Barbie doll look that can be achieved only with severe dieting and implants.” Is the resurgence of the elegant we-mean-business look then a 21st century version of the bra-burning movement?
Designer Nimish Shah, whose LFW Winter/Festive Collection 2012 was inspired by retro ’70s and ’80s fashion, and who describes his label as, “a retro vintage-inspired brand,” explains, “It’s essentially a look for someone who spends wisely; it’s the 30-plus woman who is most likely to power dress.” He believes economics and old-fashioned practicality may have a part to play here. “Power dressing was about the women’s revolution in the workplace,” Shah explains, telling us about the birth of the trend. “Women had started occupying higher positions then, so it was about moving from the secretary’s desk to executive chairs. Men were in suits, and women required something that offered a comparable tailored look, which at the same time would retain femininity in their wardrobes. That sort of fashion is coming back to a great extent as women are looking at investing in apparel that will last longer, rather than garments that just fit a temporary craze or look.”"
It was her quest to deliver exactly such long-lasting fashion that led American designer, Donna Karan, to invent her simple dressing system for busy working women and mothers back in 1985. Karan, who had then come out with a list of “seven easy pieces,” fashion essentials that could be mixed and matched to conjure fuss-free sophistication, has now, once again, reinvented the working woman’s style with her AW12 collection.
Reported to have once said, “Power-dressing is designed to let the woman inside us come through,” Karan now seems determined to drive the point home with her new collection which includes smart, tailored suit coats, interestingly draped pinstripes and pleated chiffons in bold shades of ochre, blue and scarlet, not just mannish grays and blacks.
Strong and feminine
Jacqueline Kapur MD and co-founder, Ayesha Accessories, a fashion accessories brand, defines modern power-dressing as a complete look. “It’s about making the right statement with your clothes and getting a sartorial edge in the boardroom,” she says. To Shah, power-dressing means a return to, “round necklines, cleaner shoulders, cropped jackets and calf length dresses.” To this list, Deepika Mehra, proprietor, Vanilla Moon emphasises the addition of the right shoes. “Can you imagine Hillary Clinton addressing an international summit in rubber chappals or Pratibha Patil handing out awards in knee high boots?” To add power to your look, Mehra advises, “With a skirt suit, wear a pair of court shoes, ballerinas or boots, depending on the weather. High heels are a must with a blouse and trousers. You could power up a salwar kameez with high-heels, wedges, flat-but-dressy sandals or even some closed shoes. With a sari, open sandals — flat or with high heels — work best.”
Mehta says the hairstyle is as much a part of the look as the apparel, and points out, “People generally think power dressing requires charcoal suits, but the modern interpretation is more relaxed and feminine. The style is about sporting confidence and competence on your sleeve and these can be projected just as easily in stylish, feminine clothes and colours, stitched along clean lines, as with tailored suits. You can use a blazer to achieve the effect, or even accessorise your outfits with a suitable scarf or brooch to create the look.”
Offering examples of how to accessorise, Kapur says, “You can spell authority with a black turtleneck sweater by teaming it with a blue or red necklace, and a pencil skirt and white silk blouse could be elegantly accessorised with a single solitaire necklace.”
Sandy Dumont, founder and president of the World Association of Image Consultants, believes power-dressing for men and women, isn’t just about style. She offers advice on the use of colours and styles to power up your look on her website. Dumont postulates that fashion may well be the difference between corporate leaders and followers. If she’s right, then, with Indian companies going all out to recruit female employees, the Iron Lady’s clearly going to be around for a long time.