x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The return of the power jacket

Jackets for women have come a long way.

Whoever was behind the edit for the Versace for H&M collection was particularly clued up on current fashion, as well as the Versace archive. Both sort of overlap right now.

In true 2011 style, accessories far outnumbered the actual clothes, meanwhile the best-selling items have turned out to be "power" jackets, and printed silk scarves. Both are legacies of the late, great Gianni Versace who used them to "feminise" the ugly, mannish jackets that had started to creep into women's wardrobes circa 1989-1990.

Historically, it was Giorgio Armani who ripped the linings out of men's jackets in order to offer a solution to women who required a jacket for work (he also helpfully threw in trousers as a potential bottom half); but it was Versace – always a master at reading women's minds – who tweaked the shape of men's jackets, added quirky military touches such as shiny gold buttons and palm tree prints in linings, along with girly suggestions of what to team jackets with: printed leggings, short, tight pencil skirts and, of course, very high strappy heels.

The result was a mainstream fashion look that had nothing to do with the rise of female emancipation or what you might wear to the office, but was absolutely fabulous nonetheless.

The other week I went to a preview of Meryl Streep's latest movie The Iron Lady, which goes on general release early next year. The subject of the film, the one-time British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, reminded me just how much her jackets, like all women's "business" jackets of the time, were such a literal take on what the Japanese might eloquently call the top half of Mr "salaryman".

Mrs T's cartoonish nods towards femininity – the ladylike scarf, pussy bow blouse and big earrings – did little to help the cause of women struggling to smash the glass ceiling of male-dominated executivism, but they did miraculously make it on to the fashion radar.

I recently met several high-powered, high-earning female executives who have to wear smart business suits or at least jackets every day for work. Their choice of jacket is equally neutral veering on masculine; using instead tools such as shoes, bags, scarves, jewellery and hairstyles to hint at their fashion prowess.

I would argue that looking "like one of the boys" has never actually been the point of a power jacket. These remain neutral centrepieces for women to work their own style – or the fashion of the day – around.

This makes them the "bread and butter" of any designer collection and a linchpin of a designer's greatness. Coco Chanel is testimony to her jackets far more than her most famous discovery: the Little Black Dress. Versace being remembered for his jackets is considered an equal feat.

The Iron Lady lets you make up your own mind about whether the steely Thatcher ever had anything as frivolous as fashion on her agenda. She was, however, clearly image-conscious, stamping on anything that might hint at the traditional weakness of women while clinging to what she personally believed was crucial to her success.

In one early scene she is advised by spin doctors to lower her vocal tone and ditch her hat and pearls. To which she growls in a passive aggressive voice that makes them physically wince, "the pearls are absolutely non-negotiable". A role model for Sarah Palin, no doubt.

The notion that Lady Thatcher was a woman in a man's world is not the only thing I came away with. Whenever she strayed into tweed (which hinted bizarrely at a Miuccia Prada look), you clearly see the roots of the familiar boxy 1980s power jacket, which is all over the high street.

How do you wear your power jacket today? A little like in the early 1990s, funnily enough, with a printed silk scarf or blouse, or a ladylike pencil skirt, preferably in polka dots or a cute print.

Belts, another early 1990s stalwart – Versace originals go for a fortune – are back in fashion, as are "Versace" neon brights and prints. Wide belts go over a longer length, skinny ones cinch in a printed dress under a cropped jacket.

Designers such as Henry Holland have been instrumental in weaning the younger generation off boyfriend jackets and on to styles that are more ladylike. Two of his current styles, a cropped soft leather motocross biker jacket with studs, and a double-breasted "bandstand" blazer with gold buttons, are very Versace indeed.

If you missed the H&M collaboration, look no further. House of Holland has even supplied the ubiquitous bottom half for teenagers and pop stars: shorts. And short skirts. Thatcher would definitely not approve. I'm thinking Versace would, though.

 

artslife@thenational.ae