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Lessons from the Iron Lady

Vivia Chen

January 25, 2012

Margaret Thatcher_Time Cover - Time.comBad news, ladies: You might have to trash the Manolos and the Jil Sander ensemble. Instead, break out the sensible Ferragamo pumps and head to the nearest Talbots for some royal blue suits. And while you're at it, stock up on the extra-hold hairspray.

If you want credibility in the workplace, there's only one tried-and-true style model. "Put down the self-help books and rush out to see The Iron Lady this weekend," advises More magazine. "That Margaret Thatcher—she's the one you want to emulate."

On both sides of the Atlantic, Maggie Thatcher is being hailed as the originator of the power look for women. (British Vogue even provides an item-by-item diagram of her clothes and accessories.)

This is how OxfordStudent analyzes Thatcher's sartorial arsenal:

She was a woman who throughout her career managed to turn her clothes and accessories into clever mediums of communicating power. . . her signature pearls, shoulder pads, handbags, and lurid blue suits stand out as a medium of control.  .  .  . Her style was always precise and impeccable. It was a regal uniformed [sic], highly groomed and sharp. She opted for tailored suits so that she could stand quite literally ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with men.

One golden rule about the Thatcher power look: Don't wear pants! Suzy Menkes in Harper's Bazaar writes that "Mrs. T certainly dressed to please men, [so] perhaps the skirt or dress seemed a better choice." (Did Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi falter because they favor pant suits?)

A study by the University of Hertfodshire supports Thatcher's choice, finding that says skirts deliver a "better first impression." Reports today.msnbc.com about the U.K. study:

In the study, 300 participants (males and females aged from 14 to 67) were asked  to provide snap judgments of images featuring women in various office outfits—skirts and pantsuits made in the same exact fabric and color—with the faces blurred. They then gave feedback based on five factors: confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary, and flexibility. In just three seconds, they were able to determine they far preferred the more feminine options.

So it comes down to this: Walk softly and carry a big stick—but do so in a skirt. The idea that women are taken more seriously if they look ladylike and are a tad dowdy (e.g., neutered, sexually unavailable)—was something I thought we'd outgrown.

It's disturbingly retro, but I fear there might be some truth to all this. What do you think? Is donning Thatcher's armor the logical choice for women who want to get ahead?


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People are commenting on issues of “To wear skirts suit or pant suit”, “conservative dowdy versus modern chic” or “ the use of accessories”. Those are the detail!

The main point is that Mrs. Thatcher was highly successful because she knew herself, her business, and her message, and she dressed accordingly. She took the time to create her own personal style.

What it is “really about” is finding one’s own signature style that is effective in communicating
one’s own message. It’s not about copying someone else’s style.
Margo Hasen The Style Strategist

Ladies, get over it. You're the client, you're meeting your attorney and maybe a couple of the firm's associates, and it's costing you a couple of thousand dollars an hour. How would you perceive them if they showed up in less than business attire? Manolos are great, and I'm all for showing legs, but really, is that "business attire?" If you want to be taken seriously, you have to dress the part, men and women.

Clothing doesn't change who you are, but it does change how people respond to you.

Twenty years ago, I was on my way to a job interview in Chicago, wearing my first suit (navy blue, double-breasted blazer, slim skirt, & silk blouse from Brooks Brothers), pumps, and real pearl jewelry from my husband. What a change from being a scientist who worked in a lab and wore holey jeans! I couldn't believe how much that get-up cost, but I was feeling pretty good about myself that day.

Now wouldn't you know, Chicago O'Hare wouldn't let our plane land and we'd been circling for an hour when my stomach went crazy. I get up to use the restroom - and - on the way back to my seat - a woman asks me politely if I can get her a pillow and if I know how much longer it will be until we land!!!

Of course, I help her find a pillow, but then she realizes I'm not a flight attendant and we laugh about it. So much for the expensive outfit.

My friends and I had a good laugh and came to the conclusion that navy blazers give people (and women in particular) authority. Flight attendants need to project authority if they are to have any chance of managing a mob in case of an emergency.

There are so many more choices for business clothing nowadays. As long as the clothes are well-tailored, you can wear what suits your personality and makes you happy (skirts, trousers, dresses, etc.) I don't think anyone's limited to navy blazers anymore. Unless you find a picture of yourself on the "People of Wal-Mart" website, chances are it's not your wardrobe that's holding back your career.

Why not use the rules instead of whining about them? I'd say there's more than one way to clothe a smart cat. Look at Mary Wells Lawrence, retired advertising diva, founder of Wells Rich Greene, and first woman CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. She has a style worth studying, chic, attractive, and not come-hither. But you'll have to spend some money, ladies, to get that look. Talbot's is not for the Prime Minister or the CEO, it's for your assistant.

Clothing is armor. When women are not covered sufficiently, they are vulnerable to attack, be it verbal or in more subtle ways: they don't get taken seriously, don't get the promotion, don't get the raise. Ladies, it's time to wake up and lose the distractions (cleavage and too much leg for starters) that are keeping you from advancement. Take a page out of Maggie's book and understand that certain clothing conveys power, authority, expertise, confidence and a host of other messages.

While I admire Maggie, this isn't England, and it's not the '80's. In my middle age I've come to prefer the Lynn Tilton look - unapologetically racy.

basic question that needs to be asked - what are you selling?

Is it good legal advice, or something else?

Vivia--i fear you are correct, but maybe for a more depressing reason than you think. I am a transactional lawyer and was told by an investment banker once that he really appreciated the fact that i always wore maxi skirts (remember them?) and buttoned my third button. he said it helped him stay focused on his work because he wasn't always waiting for me to flash something. maybe he would have preferred a burka...

I find it difficult, and disturbing, to learn how much thought clothes still get in the business world.
Yesterday I met a man I had reached out to last week because I caught both his savvy and decency when we were in a larger meeting together. One of the things that made me reach out is that he was subtly brilliant while wearing khakis. At our meeting yesterday he was in a suit and tie because he had met a new client who he shared was wearing khakis. It is important not to turn off people with clothing, to respect rules others may expect, and to be cautious about sartorial offense. But after that, please impress me with your skills, your ability to communicate and connect with others and your decency.

You're kidding right? Wear a skirt but be dowdy? Be feminine but don't? Be like the men (shoulder-to-shoulder) but don't?

Not buying it. One more way to keep women second guessing themselves. Be proud and loud ladies!

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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