When Michel Foucault described the body as a site of power, he gave voice to an idea that’s been around since a suddenly flustered Eve first grabbed a fig leaf. Because the body, marvellous as it is, only really achieves its full potential as a symbolic entity. That it is easily subjected to the agendas of others goes without saying. There is no more effective site for the inscription of power – whether sexualisation, suppression or a Virgin Atlantic shirt. And there is no more potent piece of propaganda than a living, loving, laughing human being – raising their children, walking their dog and occasionally regretting things.
Recognition of this – and an understanding of its potential for abuse – has driven dress reform since the suffragettes first burnt their corsets and a brave lady cyclist donned her bloomers and careened down the street. Yet attempts to rationalise power dressing seem doomed to disaster. The 1980s, which saw women finally wage a sustained assault on the glass ceiling, also gave birth to a look that would have appalled early reformers for whom practicality and comfort were the key signifiers of emancipated dress. More recently, the corset has been re-appropriated as an expression of empowered female sexuality. Elsewhere, the controversy surrounding the right to wear the veil proves that liberating women through clothing is never as simple an issue as it seems.
For those unsure of what power dressing means – who begin to wonder if we are destined to be always unwitting sartorial agents for shadowy agendas – there is a solution. And it’s a simple one. Because true power dressing is about dressing like yourself. And in this, the age of personal branding, it’s never been easier (or more important) to indulge in a bit of self-aggrandising propaganda.
Clothes are my way of talking without opening my mouth. When I am happy with what I see in the mirror, I launch myself into the outside world, dressed for battle. Power dressing is in the boldness of a single feature or where the eye decides to focus. Clarity is compelling. I’m not asking for attention to my body. I expect attention for my intellect, my experience, my ideas. – Caryn Franklin
As we become accustomed to creating and managing multiple online alter egos, projected identity is increasingly revealed for what it is: a construct, and one we have the power to control. In this context, individualism is at a premium, resulting in the pick and mix approach to image construction adopted by Generation Hipster today. This reminds us that what may, superficially, seem an instrument of repression can become something entirely else when wielded consciously; a snobbish emphasis on authenticity cowers before the woman who protests her right to sport blue hair, and even an obviously fake tan can feel good to its wearer. This, of course, brings us back to a place of some confusion again. To consume and self-represent freely and consciously is the only solution – but the fact is that negative influences abound and the body continues to be hotly contested property.
Enter Caryn Franklin MBE, the model in this shoot and a leading fashion activist. Caryn’s work in the politics of image and self-esteem, involving refugees in battle zones, workers in free-trade zone slums, MPs and government ministers, reminds us that fashion is about far more than feeling good – it can impact on the basic quality of human life. In 2009, she founded All Walks Beyond the Catwalk with Debra Bourne and Erin O’Connor. Using high profile press campaigns, parliamentary initiatives and educational schemes, it celebrates diversity and individualism. Because whether it’s a shortage of positive female role models, body fascism or unethical production practices, the battle wages on and the need for armour remains.
Featured Image: Black blouse, £1,240 by Holly Fulton (hervia.com). Bangle, £POA by Matthew Campbell Lorenza (mcldesign.net). Trousers, £290, Helmut Lang, (237 Westbourne Grove, London W11); ‘Gas’ Black suede sandals, £120 by Carvela (kurtgeiger.com).
Image 2: Panther and paw earrings, £209 by Joubi (joubi.co.uk). Tuxedo Jacket, £190 and Ultimate Tuxedo Suit Trouser, £120, both Karen Millen (karenmillen.com). ‘Britton’ shoe in black pony skin, as before.
Image 5: Sunglasses, £385, by Louis Vuitton (louisvuitton.com). Silk-blend herringbone jacquard jacket, £1,050 and Ed jacquard tapered trousers, £930, both Haider Ackermann; Black blouse by Saint Laurent Paris.
Words Ashley Mauritzen. Styling Eoin Dillon. Illustration Daisy Hardman. Photography Cat Harbour.