From Cinderella to CEO / by Lee Ann Jastillana

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When I was eight, I was set on becoming a Disney princess. I didn’t know how I’d claw my way into the profession, but I was certain that was what I wanted to be and look like. Flash forward twelve years later and Alexander Wang’s celebration of the female CEO in black, white, silver, and pink ensembles leads me to rethink this princess situation.

Inspired by his days as a Vogue intern, Wang’s collection reinvented the way we perceive the professional working woman by incorporating futuristic flair into corporate fashion. Held at the former Condé Nast headquarters, Wang’s last New York fashion show featured structured black and white blazers, tuxedo mini dresses, tiny sunglasses, and leather mini skirts.

From Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo to Mary Barra at General Motors, women run several of the nation’s largest companies. It’s empowering to see fashion draw inspiration from female CEOs who have undoubtedly experienced (and probably continue to experience) sexism in the workplace. Realistically, Wang’s pieces aren’t suitable for daily corporate wear, but the collection still took the strength and grit of the female CEO and celebrated it.

“I’m blessed and honored to work with such incredible, smart, powerful women,” Wang told friends and staff, according to Vogue. “It felt timely to do a collection that reflects a different part of my life.”

The Times Up movement founded this year seeks justice for the sexual abuse and harassment women endure in the workplace. In the onslaught of feminism fueled by the #MeToo and Times Up movements, young women no longer aspire to look clean-cut and traditional, and designers like Wang and Raf Simons at Calvin Klein have moved on from depicting them as such. We’re inching back from “pretty” and heading toward “powerful.”

After being elected president of the Washington Post Company in 1963, Katharine Graham became America’s first female Fortune 500 CEO. When she first inherited the company, Graham experienced immense self-doubt, heightened by her male co-workers who questioned her leadership. Though it feels like we’ve made strides in gender equality since then, only 6.4 percent of companies on the Fortune 500 list were run by women in 2017.

The Post (2017) dramatized the sexism present during Graham’s time at the paper. The movie stars Meryl Streep as Graham, and costume designer Ann Roth was tasked with dressing Streep, drawing from old photographs of Graham wearing boxy blazers with shoulder pads, pressed dress shirts in playful patterns, and pencil skirts. Roth’s outfit choices ensured Streep’s prominence and authority in rooms full of men.

Historically, the power suit had been a menswear piece until the earliest version for females—the suffragette suit—rose to popularity during the early 20th century.

In 1914, Gabrielle Chanel repurposed the masculine elements of the power suit into the iconic Chanel suit. According to Hazel Clark in Iconic Designs: 50 Stories About 50 Things, the power suit was worn by young women to their new office and teaching positions.

“The suit was already associated with women’s emancipation, having facilitated female participation in the ‘man’s world’ of urban work and leisure,” Clark wrote. “Chanel successfully developed a suit that accommodated the rapidly changing lifestyle of modern women.”

Soon enough, female employment in the United States climbed to 24.3 percent in the 1930s, and, consequently, Marcel Rochas’ wide shouldered pant suits (that were nothing short of controversial) rose to prominence.

During the 1970s, wearing suits became a woman’s way of proclaiming she was a respectable businesswoman. As more women graduated college and were employed, pant suits slowly began to trump dresses.

“Between 1980 and 1987, annual sales of suits rose by almost 6 million units, while dresses declined by 29 million units,” Susan Faludi wrote in her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.

Giorgio Armani can be credited for the immense popularity of the power suit in the 1980s. His big-shouldered jackets and pants were meant to separate gender from the person. Further, the tailored suits were made to create authority for the career-oriented woman.

Today, traditional workwear like blazers, dress shirts, and trousers continue to evolve–they are reshaped, ripped up, and altered every season. However, it is worth noting that the incorporation of these power pieces in current and past female fashion stems primarily from male designers. Though Miuccia Prada’s fall collection was a phenomenal feminist statement, I hope to see more working-women collections from female designers.

The number of current female CEOs is ridiculously small, but progress is progress, and female revolution is always in vogue. Looking like princesses is a thing of the past. We want to look and feel like the all-powerful female CEO.

Illustration by: Francisco Guglielmino