As a Senior Style Editor at PEOPLE, I have flexibility with my work wardrobe. And I exercise that freedom by wearing everything from over-the-knee boots to ripped boyfriend jeans to the office. I consider myself to have multiple style personalities (think Kourtney Kardashian). I’m not scared to try any one trend, and I don’t really have a defined signature look. I’m also surrounded and inspired by a team of women who express (and out right own) their individual styles every day.
I’m lucky to enjoy a fairly judgment-free zone at work (when you dress for girls, there’s a lot of “cute shoes!”), but in corner offices and Capitol buildings across the country, women in power still frequently find themselves defending their wardrobe choices rather than their great ideas. As we’ve seen firsthand in recent months, even a woman running for the highest office in the country still finds herself constantly asked to answer for her outfits, something even Secretary Clinton herself has riffed on.
And no one understands this better than Nina McLemore. The fashion industry vet founded Liz Claiborne Accessories and served on the executive committee of Liz Claiborne Inc. before starting her own line dedicated to dressing “C-Suite” women: senior female executives at big corporations. She’s dressed Secretary Clinton, who is currently fighting for the biggest “C-Suite” (that would be the oval office), and she maintains that no matter what, in high-powered corporate environments, people will always focus first on what a woman wears before considering her skills.
“I’ve talked to a lot of professional men and they admit that they are very reluctant promote young attractive women who are dressed too provocatively. It creates a problem,” she explains. “Our business was founded on creating clothes for women so that when they walk in the room they look like they belong at the table — and even at the head of the table.”
We’ve seen a resurgence of power dressing in popular culture. It’s invaded primetime TV with female driven “lady bosses” including Olivia Pope on Scandal, Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder, Selina Meyer on Veep and Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Their high-fashion professional clothes have become synonymous with authority and have become a fantasy wardrobe for female viewers.
McLemore maintains that these shows have influenced more women to embrace a more professional form of power dressing.
“Particularly in the Washington store, we do see younger women who are recognizing that they need something past that black suit because that has been the go-to, and it’s frankly about all they can find out there,” she explains. “They need something that takes them up to the next level. I do see a trend toward some women who are beginning to recognize that they need to distinguish themselves. Whether somebody is giving them advice or they are figuring it out for themselves, that dressing in a sexually provocative way isn’t helping their career.”
In the spirit of election season — and feeling inspired to add some more polished pieces to my own wardrobe — I tried to see if I could be “well-suited” (get it?) to McLemore’s recommended style. Here’s what I learned about Power Dressing 101.
A Go-To “Britt” Outfit
This pussy bow Rebecca Minkoff blouse is probably one of the most “corporate” pieces in my closet. The All Saints leather jacket and Stuart Weitzman over-the-knee boots have become my fall staples.
Power Dressing Look 1
When I first stepped into McLemore’s New York showroom I was blown away by the rack of rainbow-colored blazers filling the racks. The first step was finding the right fit. We landed on this Double Face Wool Crepe Blazer in a royal blue hue (I immediately stood up straighter when I put on the design), teamed with the Equestrian black double-slit pencil skirt and a coordinating black cami. McLemore advised to pair the look with black sheer stockings and a classic black pump. She also coached me on the importance of fit (the first skirt I tried was a little too tight and “Kardashian like”), explaining that sometimes she’ll send one her pieces back to the seamstress up to 20 times to make sure the cut is perfect.
Power Dressing Look 2
This look was a bit more dressed down — think “casual Friday” at a Big Four firm. The red Herringbone blazer layered perfectly over the long-sleeve white cotton button down. And the Petite Rise pants were not only extremely comfortable but they also flattered my figure and felt like a pair of pants that every woman should have in her wardrobe.
So what did I take away from the experience? That it’s important to have some well-made suiting separates in your closet at all times — and that while trends come and go, a good blazer lasts forever.
Below McLemore’s top 5 rules for dressing like a boss below.
1. Find the Right (Non-Black) Blazer
“The problem with black is, when you walk in the room and 80 percent of the people in the room have on black, you don’t distinguish yourself. Make sure you choose a color that is flattering for you, and a color that is seen as strong. Bright red, bright blue [and] turquoise are all colors that a lot of people really like and look really good on most people. If it’s a pink, it could be a really strong magenta kind of shade. Stay away from soft pale colors. When you walk into a conference or a crowded room or on the stage or you’re sitting at the table, what people see is really waist up.”
2. Invest in a Tailor
“My particular pet peeve is I really don’t like jackets where the sleeves are too long because I think it makes people look insignificant — too schlumpy and too ill-fitting. The fit should be good and if you have to pay that extra $35 or whatever it is to get the sleeves the right length … But the bust, the waist, the hips, it shouldn’t be pulling and it shouldn’t be too loose. It should really be the right fit.”
3. Get a Haircut
“The fashion is very long, straight hair for younger women that falls on the front of the jacket or the dress, and I find it distracting. It looks somewhat messy to me. And it doesn’t look like you’re in business. Hair pulled back is more polished.”
4. Don’t Shy Away from Statement Jewelry
“If you wear jewelry it shouldn’t be too delicate. The trend, of course, is delicate, soft jewelry but I think that is a little too weak. It shouldn’t be overwhelming but I always recommend to people that they buy one important piece of jewelry that you can wear every day. A necklace or earrings. The earrings should not be dangly because when you move your head it creates motion. While it’s nice in the social setting I think in a business setting it can be distracting.”
5. Dress for Your Platform
“All of the things I am saying to do, change based on what industry you’re in and where you are. I feel very strongly if you are going to be on stage or if you’re going to be on TV, or if you’re wearing pants, I like a longer jacket that is more or less covering the hips. But absolutely not too short and not too tight.”
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