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What is a Power Suit?

By M.J. Brower
Updated May 21, 2024
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A power suit is a conservative tailored suit worn by men or women to project a sense of self-confidence and authority. The phrase came about in the 1980s, when a big-shouldered, dark-colored suit was the norm for anyone who wanted to be taken seriously in the business world. Books like John Molloy's Dress for Success introduced the business world to the concept of power dressing, and in the 1988 movie Working Girl, women got to see a secretary turn herself into a business executive after she cut off her "big hair" and donned a power suit.

The epitome of the 1980s power suit for men was a designer suit in a dark color such as navy blue, black, or charcoal gray. The suit was usually solid, or had a very subtle pattern such as a narrow pinstripe. Women's suits usually had a straight skirt that got shorter as the decade progressed. The suit was often worn with a blouse that had an exaggeratedly feminine design to soften the lines of the suit; blouses in soft fabrics with accents such as bows or ruffles at the collar were popular. For both genders, shoes, belts, and accessories were color-coordinated.

The power suit lost its appeal in most fields during the 1990s. In creative professions such as advertising and graphic design, these suits disappeared almost entirely, to be replaced by more casual looks for both men and women. In some business environments, the power suit never really went away; lawyers, for example, have nearly always been expected to wear traditional businesswear in most places.

Today's power suit for both genders is not as formal as its 1980s predecessor. Navy and charcoal remain standard colors for these suits, and dark brown is usually as acceptable as black. Jacket shoulders are not nearly as large and square as they were in the 1980s. In most fields, pantsuits are perfectly acceptable for women, although skirts might still be preferred in some regions. Women's power suits are sometimes in bolder colors than in the past.

For men, a modern power suit typically calls for a white shirt, a silk tie, and black leather shoes. The jacket should have either two or three buttons and a single or double vent in the back. Women's blouses are simpler than in the past; shoes and accessories are also typically simple and classic.

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Discussion Comments

By anon200120 — On Jul 26, 2011

I can never find a quality pinstripe suit for women anymore. Any suggestions? The couture brands are too trendy/not conservative enough usually. And I'm sick of Ann Taylor, and it hasn't had pinstripes in a long time. Any suggestions?

By surfNturf — On Jul 03, 2011

@KangaBurg - Wow that really is the meaning of a power suit.

I just wanted to say that I think that whether it is a men’s power suit or a power suit for women, the most important aspect is the fit.

The suit needs to fit properly and it should look like the suit was tailored for that specific person. The suit should not be too tight or too big because that does not portray a powerful image.

I think that power suits should also be conservative colors like black, grey, or navy and a man can wear a bold red tie to really make a powerful statement. A hint of red like this adds a level of passion necessary without going over the top. It really says that you are in charge.

By kangaBurg — On Jul 02, 2011

What color of power suit should I get? I am just starting to put together a work wardrobe, but I sort of need to do it piece by piece, so I want to get one that's pretty versatile. What is the best, most versatile color or style of power suit?

By Vegemite — On Jul 02, 2011

I remember that women’s power suits in the 1980s had ridiculously huge shoulder pads at one time. They looked really silly, but I think they did project more of a powerful image than today’s power suits.

Somehow, I just don’t think of corporate power when I look at today’s feminine suits with their curvy lines and airy fabrics. Light colored suits - like beige or white – can also be considered power suits. That’s odd, because light colors usually don’t symbolize power in western cultures like ours.

To me, a woman’s power suit should be dark – black, deep navy, or deep gray – with squared shoulders. The blouse should show no cleavage and be a strong color, like deep purple or green. It should be a pants suit because skirts are too feminine, in my opinion. Lastly, pinstripes always say “power” to me.

That’s the way I dress at the office, and I always feel like I’m on top of things.

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