Remember the movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith? She played the secretary who received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fill her bosses "stilettos" and become the power player at the office. Griffith's character transformed from the big haired, long-nailed, tight-clothing-wearing secretary to CEO before our eyes with the right haircut and the quintessential power suit. Eighties movies like Working Girl, Baby Boom and Mr. Mom paid homage to the struggle working women had with remaining feminine while being taken seriously and the difficulty of maintaining this delicate balance.
Unfortunately, the working woman vs. style theme didn't stay in the '80s with shoulder pads and perms -- it's made its way into 21st Century culture as well.
In Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon's character changes her entire look to fit into her serious surroundings at Harvard Law School. She dons glasses, pulls her hair into a ponytail and wears muted colors. In the Devil Wear's Prada, it was the reverse -- Anne Hathaway's character wasn't taken seriously until she started taking her fashion (and herself) seriously as well. Her character said, "what difference does it make what I look like?" These days, a lot.
Movies aren't the only place you will find the battle between smarts and style. When Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for President in 2008, there were countless articles about her pantsuits and hairstyle. Her pantsuits were no accident, of course; she wanted to move from the image of Hillary the FLOTUS to Hillary the President. Then you had Sarah Palin, whose six-figure makeover captured headlines as well as her flirtatious winks. With the help of a stylist she was transformed from small town governor to potential Vice President (although it would take more than a flat iron and some pumps to make that leap) and played up her feminine wiles in contrast to McCain's uptight stodginess. And regardless of the outcome for President in 2008, the "Hockey Mom" technique worked and resonated with millions of women.
The notion that serious women can't be stylish is a fallacy. So, why has society continued to perpetuate the lie? For decades, Western society has turned up its noses at countries that force women into ensembles that cover them from head to toe -- but the same can also be said about the aforementioned power suit. Both were designed to suppress femininity and deny women their full expression of self.
Thankfully, there are two women we have to thank for Washington's recent style evolution: First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden. These two women have single-handedly reversed the assumption that women can't be taken seriously if they are chic. While both women have teamed up on the Joining Forces initiative which supports military families (an extremely serious endeavor), neither of them feel the need to suppress their style in order to convey their message.
Through the trials of our foremothers, who had to bear the reality of the Mad Men era and scrimp and scrape their way to the top, I can't help but wonder -- if we're still having the "great suit and hair debate" in the 21st Century, have we really "come a long way, baby"?