Last Updated 21 Dec 2022

The Dress Code Became Standard For Men in Business and Professional Settings

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Olivia Pope is a dynamic character that commands the attention of her audience and co-stars with one carefully decisive stare and her signature line “consider it handled.” She is the epitome of power, wielding her influence over powerful men in politics: namely the President, his Chief of Staff, and the District Attorney. That power does not only originate from her intimidating personality and striking beauty, it also comes from her wardrobe. Similar to magic, the business suit transforms its wearers. The pantsuit for women is no different, but until its creation in 1960, the pantsuit was just a figment of domestic housewives imagination. However, once it was created, it enabled women to command the same presence and power their male counterparts had. The only thing missing to give them an edge over their male counterparts was the femininity that was inherently their own.

Women in corporate America adhere to dress codes that force them to become vague objects that fade into the background with muted tones, making sure it is difficult to tell if the wearer underneath is male or female. This touch of femininity that was missing in corporate America became prevalent when Olivia Pope graced televisions across America in 2012 in the hit television show Scandal. Her stylists played to the strength of her femininity rather than hiding it inconspicuously; Olivia’s pantsuits were tightened to fit the shape of her body and colored to stand out. This point of power in feminism first occurred from women such as Hillary Clinton, breaking boundaries and shattering corporate America stereotypes. The hit television show Scandal incorporated many different powerful women who were taking these initiatives to stand out and put them into one person- Olivia Pope.

The pantsuit has been a staple in the closets of professional women around the United States since its origin, but few know how that hard-fought origin came to be. The evolution of clothing in business hasn’t diverted much from its original theme. The dress code became standard for men in business and professional settings; they were instructed to look groomed and put-together at all times, the business suit and tie became staples for professionalism. Men dress would dress in traditional business suits, and based on their wealth and status, dress that suit up with superfluous accessories or have it designed based off of custom lengths. Until the war, women were banned from corporate America. The introduction of their dress code was more strict than their male counterparts, and was designed to be as inconspicuous as possible. Women covered themselves in neutral colored skirts and blouses that were modest in construction.

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The jacket was finally added to this strict dress code in 1945 when more jobs became open for women. However, once the war was over, women went back to their domestic lives and put their suits away. It wasn’t until 1960 that women made another shot at cracking into the professional working world and away from domestic life. This time, women wore pants and introduce a new professional style: the pantsuit (. Gender had become a social construction of what was acceptable for those with different genitalia to wear and present themselves in. It became evident that dressing was role-playing, and was inexplicably tied to power relations. Men mentally link their business attire to power and success, and women emulating them is their way of stealing that power. Many men refuted the trend of women wearing pantsuits that emulated their own suits by claiming specific reasons for women to remain in their traditional garb. A prominent supporter of these was Gregory Stone. He climbed that,“Gender should be silently known and established by ones appearance.”

It wasn’t until the mid 1950’s, early 1960’s that it became more socially acceptable for women to wear pants at their respected Universities and business professions. “this was a visible assertion of their (women) ascension into corporate America.” However, even then, women who wanted to break the ‘glass ceiling’ did not wear bright colors that would allude to their sexuality. Alluding to sexuality would break the spell that the emulation of power wearing pants created. Pansuit’s were expected to be worn in neutral tones and the coverage of the business uniform needed to be modest. All of these trends and unspoken rules for women who sought out success were outlined in texts for women to purchase, specifically “Dress for Success” and “Color Me Beautiful” that included grooming and fashion advice. Breaking this trend of women in business wearing pantsuits that hid their physique was the entrance of Olivia Pope to televisions across America in 2012.

Women had been attempting to break this stereotype in political America, but had been critiqued for their stylistic decisions. Later in the paper, Hillary Clintons role in the creation of Olivia’s character will be outlined, as well as the influence of Monica Lewinsky. Scandal became an instant hit not only because of its juicy drama and mysterious intrigue, but also because of its striking main character. This character was the marriage between good and bad, but never lacking in power or command. Olivia Pope takes on many forms, with many facets to her personality in the hit tv show Scandal. Olivia is an African American female who has entrapped the president with her beauty and powerful personality. This is scandalous not only because an African American female had not starred in a television show for decades that aired prime-time on ABC, but because the Scandal the show is initially speaking about is the relationship Olivia has with her white president, a relationship that some people believe should not occur- especially when infedelity is at the forefront of that relationship.

Olivia’s character is so intriguing because of the role she plays in the show; even though she has not been elected by the voters, Olivia controls what goes on in the White House. This is an interesting concept to ponder when considering if that really goes on in our own government. Women elected into the political scene are a minority in today’s society. While the number is growing every election, there are people who still believe that women are too emotional to make the important decisions that they are given. Olivia’s personality is shown as emotional, but also as level headed. When it is practical to be emotional about something, she shows her emotion, when it is not and she has an important decision to make- she makes that decision by following her gut feeling. As the people who work in Olivia’s business, Olivia Pope and Associates, say- “Her gut is never wrong.” However, even with her heart of steel, Olivia has a tumultuous relationship with the President of the United States.

This relationship shows the vulnerable side of Olivia, because she is very much in love with Fitz. Their relationship is the backbone of the television show, and recurs as Olivia’s weakness throughout every season. Even when powerfully dressed, she succumbs to her feelings for him and their history. It is refreshing to see a character come alive on the screen that is relatable and has flaws just as every human does; even if her job isn’t that relatable. However, Olivia’s striking personality needs to be matched with an equally powerful wardrobe, which is where costume designer, Lyn Paola, and the iconic pantsuit come into the picture. Each color, each fabric, each accessory were paired to match the emotion that Olivia was feeling in the scene she was filming, while also embodying feminism. The outfit was not complete without the Olivia Pope confidence that Kerry Washington gave each outfit when she put it on, transforming from fabric into a statement.

The detail that Paolo put into each outfit for Olivia was astounding. She is able to capture one single emotion in a tiny accessory like a pair of gloves, a trench coat, or a hat. She pulls all of that together for a whole host of emotions to be present in Olivia’s signature outfit: the pantsuit. In an interview that Paola did for FASHIONISTA, she was nostalgic when reminiscing on past seasons. Her favorite item to craft for Olivia was naturally the pantsuit, and she told followers of the show her thorough process that she used in the creation of each outfit; she painstakingly worked down to minuscule details such as the color and shape of broaches that were used as accessories, or the length of the collar on a suit jacket. While as an audience we may not have noticed these minute details, without each one of them the atmosphere and emotion of different scenes could have been immeasurably different, changing an important scene in the show forever.

Olivia was dressed in her pantsuit for specific scenes, those scenes typically being when her character needed to make difficult decisions, or needed to prove a point to male characters in the show. The color of that pantsuit differed depending on her attitude and the setting. When Olivia needed to be pure and a follower of the law, she wore the white pantsuit and Paola paired it with a sometimes metaphorical white hat, bringing along the famous line: “I’m wearing the white hat.” When Olivia metaphorically wore her white hat, she did good for the people. In contrast, towards later seasons Olivia strays from her good deeds and begins to work away from the confines of the law, the power that she took for herself leading her to believe that she controls the United States and therefore has the power to act however she pleases. In these scenes and sometimes whole episodes, she is never pictured in white.

Rather she is shown in red, a deep blue, and black. These scenes continue to highlight her femininity, but they do it in a way that is different from the white pantsuit. Rather than being a powerful agent for good, she is depicted as powerful in a way other than just from her commanding personality, she is shown as sexy. This is something that women in politics are criticized for doing, by putting Olivia in a place that showcases this side of her feminism, the writers of Scandal and the costume designer Paola were making a political statement not only on the television show, but in the real world. In the real world, politicians are put under severe scrutiny, the American people taking into account the candidates gender, race, body size and shape. However, not only the candidate themselves are put under scrutiny, their families are put under the same microscopic lens.

Groomed appearance and physical attractiveness are two main things that the public looks for, as shown in a study done by students at Stanford University, also accompanied by their political party and the amount of exposure the candidate has had. Candidates often also choose signature accessories so that they have a memorable appearance, rather than being lost in a sea of other candidates. However, while the need to look groomed and put together is a necessity, voters do not like it when their party candidates have expensive habits. Candidates that seem frivolous and spend campaign money for their own gain are often booted out of contingency quickly. The middle lane between this is to bridge politics and aesthetics with dress. The twentieth century gave rise to the new political uniform that all men in politics had to adhere to: the business suit. They typically wore gray or blue, but not black.

This was something that female politicians copied, up until Hillary Clinton was running for Senator and wore a monochromatic suit. While her suit was inconspicuous, it gave her more leeway to focus on her politics and gave the voters less time to focus on her appearance. That is, until the voters decided to focus on her evolving hairstyles throughout her time as first lady, up until her own campaign. This proved the statement that politics and aesthetics must have a bridge, because the voters need something to focus on other than just political ideals and affiliations. Females in politics also were also shown that they could not be too masculine, but in turn could not show off their femininity. It was also a delicate line that was crossed on either side several times for the few women that are in politics today. Basically, political substance is marginalized in favor of paying attention to how candidates appear physically and what they put on their bodies to enhance that physicality.

When people were ushered into the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal, they called Monica a whore and home-wrecker, commenting on her items of dress as a telling sign that she would end up in the scandal she found herself apart of. In turn, the public also scrutinized Hillary’s dress, stating that she looked more like a man than a woman in her clothes, making statements such as “no wonder her husband lost interest.” These statements were particularly hypocritical, in the sense that when Hillary did wear clothing that showed her femininity, she was criticized for it.

One night while in a pantsuit, her blouse was buttoned low enough that a small amount of her cleavage could be seen. That cleavage almost became as much of a political scandal as the sex-affair between her husband and Lewinsky. Taking this event into consideration, it is evident that people will find criticism with female political candidates no matter what they are wearing, taking the events out of context. The creator of Scandal, Shonda Rhimes, crafted a marriage of young Lewinsky and seasoned Hillary, intertwining their personalities, status, and dress to form one of the greatest television characters in history.

Olivia is a mixture of powerful women in history, and when an image of her comes to mind, she will be imagined in a pantsuit. Although it isn’t her pantsuit that gives her an aura of power, it is Olivia Pope embodying confidence and the power of her own personality. While she seems more powerful when wearing her pantsuit than any other item of clothing, it is an illusion. By saying that the pantsuit transforms its wearers, we give it a sort of magical power. That magical power doesn’t exist, and the only transformation that occurs to the wearer is that they are instilled with more confidence than they previously had.

That confidence comes from societies notions that wearing a pantsuit or business suit of any kind means that the person holds a high station. That being said, the pantsuit does elevate the status of its feminine wearers who showcase their femininity. Olivia Pope is a prime example of the fact that women who wear pantsuits that showcase the feminine side take women out of the box that they are supposed to be put into. Women prove that it is possible to be both beautiful and powerful at the same time. Has this idea not already been explored with women in history such as Cleopatra? Women who chose to embrace what made them feminine as a source of power because it made them different, often are noted in history as the most powerful of all. Even though Cleopatra never wore a pantsuit, it is easy to see the parallel’s in gender and power.

If putting on a form fitting pantsuit in a bold color is what it takes for women to embrace their confidence and internal power, then they should go for it. Olivia Pope will be known as a character who broke boundaries and Kerry Washington will forevermore be the face of that character. While Olivia did not usher in the #pantsuitnation movement, she quickly became a participant. People saw Olivia Pope wearing pantsuits on televisions across America and wanted to emulate her, wearing pantsuits themselves. However, their pantsuits more mirrored hers than those of years past, highlighting their gender and showing their personality through the colors they choose to wear and the accessories they choose. Olivia’s pantsuits are iconic, their creativity showcasing that powerful women can wear things that make them look feminine and still be powerful. They have the potential to be immeasurably powerful if the wearer of the pantsuit can embrace their own internal power and confidence.

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