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January 15, 2015updated 25 Jan 2016 5:33pm

Power-dressing today is less about shoulderpads, more about geek chic

By Sam Leith

What says power-dressing to you these days? A charcoal cashmere overcoat of miraculous softness and astronomical price? A pin-sharp Salvatore Ferragamo suit? A conical Jean-Paul Gaultier bustier? Shoulderpads so wide you need to go through doors sideways? Full DPM fatigues accessorised with reflective Oakley sunglasses, desert camo helmet and an M4 Carbine?

The answer, I guess, is that these things are situational. (And besides, you’d look a fright wearing all those things at once.) But even in the standard situation — ie the boardroom, rather than the armed encounter with jihadis or Daleks — you know less and less where you are. The days in which the bull was rampaging down Wall Street and Gordon Gekko was resplendent in his braces and slicked-back hair and his fug of cologne are long gone. What does power-dressing mean these days? Is there even such a thing any more?

Well, for women there certainly is. The thought is prompted by the opening of an exhibition called ‘Women Fashion Power‘ at the Design Museum, billed as ‘an unprecedented look at how princesses, models, CEOs, dames and designers have used fashion to define and enhance their position in the world’. It really is punctuated — or not punctuated, rather — that way. Clever. Leaves it open as to whether this is an exhibition about ‘Women, Fashion and Power’, or how ‘Women Fashion Power’, or how ‘Women + Fashion = Power’ or, my preferred alternative, an exclamation, Spice Girls-style: ‘Women Fashion Power!’

Ruth Hogben, who has made a film to go with the exhibition, is quoted on the show’s website as saying: ‘Fashion is not a frivolity, it is an armour. It should be used to elevate rather than disguise oneself.’ That almost certainly remains true for women: as they power through the glass ceiling they need (thanks to the gendered gaze of their male contemporaries) armour.

But the opposite now seems to apply to men. Back in the day the power was with the man with the most impressive ruff or the most vertiginous periwig; more recently the CEO had the heaviest cufflinks, the widest shoulderpads, the most protuberant tie-knot, the broadest and most colourful braces, and the most expensive shoes.

Those braces, incidentally. They could be useful. The best scene in Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full has a so-called ‘workout artiste’ giving a boardroom dressing down to a creditor. ‘In the process of taking his jacket off, the artiste thrusts his thick chest forward. Running down it are a pair of suspenders. They are broad and black, these suspenders, and even at the other end of the table you couldn’t miss the motif embroidered on them in dead white: the skull and crossbones, repeated over and over.’

Magnificent. But that, too, belongs to a vanished era. That’s part of what we might call the post-Gekko continuum. Nowadays, that sort of outfit is a surefire way to look like an estate agent, and a junior one, at that.

What says power and money now? In large part thanks to the tech industry, with its noisome hacky-sackkicking fortysomething teenagers, it’s the non-power suit. The person wearing a suit and tie marks himself out as anxious to impress his superiors, whereas the person wearing Converse sneakers and an old Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt marks himself out as having no superiors to impress. He is like: dress code? You are looking at a man with no pockets in which to carry the damns he might be expected to give.

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Think of Steve Jobs with his jeans and his polo-neck; or Mark Zuckerberg, wandering around in cargo pants and such like. Think of the oligarch wearing trainers and a leather jacket, or the media tycoon in his tracksuit bottoms. It’s the butler bringing him a banana who wears a bow tie. The guy wearing his loafers with no socks in the Michelin-starred restaurant: he’s the one you’ve got to watch out for.

It provokes a little dash of melancholy. You knew where you were with power-dressing. And other people knew where they were with you. Being — as I habitually am — a little scruffy (jumper with a hole at the elbow, traces of baby-sick on the shoulder, jeans and Doc Martens), there’s now the fear that someone will mistake me for a Master of the Universe.

So how is the basic down-at-heel, non-Master of Universe book-bothering literary type to represent himself now the MoU has appropriated his usual mufti? I suppose he starts wearing a smart suit and a tie. Perhaps something with some shoulderpads. And braces. Or even… Scratch that, actually: now the Silk Road is down I haven’t the first idea where I’d set about getting hold of an M4 Carbine.

Women Fashion Power runs until 26 April 2015 at the Design Museum

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