Today, we see a multitude of sartorial power symbols, from “power suits” to “power heels.” But what makes a garment “powerful”? According to sociologist and political theorist Steven Lukes: “We speak and write about power, in innumerable situations, and we usually know, or think we know, perfectly well what we mean … And yet, among those who have reflected on the matter, there is no agreement about how to define it, how to conceive it, how to study it, and, if it can be measured, how to measure it.”
Fashion has always been an important part of how people define themselves and others. As such it can be a powerful tool of influence. This can be direct: studies show we are more likely to trust and even obey orders from people dressed in suits or uniforms. Fashion’s influence can also be indirect and constitute a form of soft power. From Wellington’s boots to Gandhi’s shawl and Mao’s ‘Mao-suit’; from Elizabeth I’s ruffs to Diana’s dresses to Thatcher’s handbags, famous individuals become associated with certain clothes, which they often consciously use to project an image of themselves or their country. Dior’s ‘New Look’ spread the idea of modern French chic to millions. Armani re-enforced the image of Italy as a center of style. American jeans are worn on every continent. They have even been claimed to have played a significant part in the end of the Cold War, as part of the soft power of Western consumerism over those living in the drab Soviet Union.
Arguably this has always been true. The suit jacket began its life when Charles II literally dictated a new fashion for them as part of a calculated strategy to undermine French influence on Britain. The colors of Modern suits owe much to the Regency dandy, Beau Brummell, whose subtle sense of style influenced King George IV and high fashion. Fashions may change, but fashion has always and will always be with us. As long as people wear clothes and accessories, they will consciously or unconsciously influence each other by the way they dress. The connection between fashion and soft power will therefore remain intrinsic and enduring. And fashion will continue to project UK influence as well as benefiting its economy.
Story by Jen Ruane.