It’s a normal Tuesday morning in the office and people are staring at me. They look me up and down as I fill my water bottle. They give me side eye in the lift. This is not an anxiety dream. This is real life. My appearance is inspiring unspoken questions in my colleagues. Namely: what on earth is she wearing? And why?
What I am wearing is an Isabel Marant suit. It is woollen, grey and double breasted, with burgundy stripes and softly padded shoulders. In the Guardian’s proudly dressed-down environment, where jeans and T-shirts are practically compulsory, I am an aberration.
It’s not just scruffy journalists who don’t wear suits in 2017. The world of work is in flux, and the world of workwear with it. In an age of telecommuting and the gig economy, the old rules are eroding. Formal attire is not extinct, quite yet, but it is endangered. MPs are no longer required to wear ties in the House of Commons; titans of industry wear hoodies as often as pinstriped suits.
As we face these anxieties, trust the fashion industry, in all of its contrariness, to back the corporate look in a big way, with designers from Céline to Calvin Klein sending suits down the catwalk. Meanwhile, a wonkier take on office wear – shirts spliced with blazers, herringbone jackets fashioned into strapless dresses – has become the calling card of brands including Palmer//Harding and Monse. Menswear has gone managerial, too. At Balenciaga the concept has spread from the clothes to the entire brand aesthetic, with business cards used as show invitations and boardroom carpet providing the backdrop for ad campaigns.
Fashion’s corporate fascination has piqued my own interest in trouser suits for the first time since graduation. My usual work clothes are – and I deliberately employ a fancy word here to make this seem more aspirational – deshabille. The hard-cornered boardroom aesthetic isn’t part of my fashion vocabulary for the same reason that I don’t have a LinkedIn profile. Working in the dressed-down media is a big part of my identity, as is the lack of delineation between office and weekend clothes. On the moodboard in my mind’s eye is Kate Moss’s bedhead hair and the tousled insouciance of Carine Roitfeld’s casually misbuttoned silk blouse. Sadly, crumpled chic is rather less iconic the way I wear it – not least because I’m 5ft tall – but I’d rather be a bit of a mess than look as though I’m trying too hard.
Wearing a suit feels physically weird. It’s a lot more fabric than I would usually put on my body. I’m hot. So hot that I tug at my collar like a dodgy banker in a movie about insider trading. Meanwhile, my colleagues appraise me, coolly. “It’s a conspicuous look,” one says. Another adds that I look “intimidating” and “a bit like a carpet”. “You look fucking powerful,” another says. He is smiling, but I sense a chasm between us. The stiff wool boxes me in, surrounds me completely. I feel weirdly isolated, as though I have set myself up in opposition to the tribe.
The next day I trot into the office in high heels and a Stella McCartney checked coat-dress and one co-worker trills: “Oh, here she is, executive realness has arrived.” This phrase, well-known to viewers of Paris Is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race, is pertinent. Wearing double-breasted power tailoring does feel like a form of drag; a fantasy and a performance. It’s also screamingly 80s – other colleagues compare me to David Byrne and Working Girl – harking back to an era when power dressing manuals such as John T Molloy’s The Woman’s Dress For Success Book advised females to smash the glass ceiling with their shoulder pads. Molloy’s manifesto makes exhausting reading. Blouses should not be too high-necked or too revealing. Haircuts should not be too long or too short. Suits should ape men’s tailoring but femininity should be subtly preserved. Women should avoid sweaters and floral patterns “which say ‘lower class’ and loser,” he writes, charmingly. The history of women getting dressed for the office is so fraught that it almost feels as though somebody didn’t want us there.
Still, power dressing has its benefits. I don’t feel small any more. The finer details of my body shape feel irrelevant, which brings with it a sort of confidence. Occasionally, I interpret my own behaviour differently. After work, during my customary sprint from the tube station to my son’s childminder, I feel less like an utter failure for resorting to running and more like a high-flying, productive individual for whom walking is not sufficiently quick.
I like this feeling of pulled-together efficiency. But the exaggerated lines of this outfit – the shoulder pads – are making me self-conscious. I feel like a throwback to an era when a different battle was being fought. Power dressing is still fraught with difficulty for women, of course, as the furore caused by Hillary Clinton’s scrunchies and Theresa May’s leather trousers proves. But the suit is not the neat solution that it pretended to be in the 80s. Author and editor Tina Brown, a keen suit wearer until recently, says: “When I look back I see how very overdressed we were with bigger shoulders. There was a sense that we had to be almost aggressively put together to make a statement, which is not where we are now or where we want to be.”
The next outfit on my agenda is very different: a wilfully anti-fashion fitted shirt, tie and tie clip, inspired by the menswear catwalks of Balenciaga, Martine Rose and Gosha Rubchinskiy. This looked achingly cool on the catwalks. Recreated via an M&S shirt and Acne Studios trousers because my body is not long enough to do menswear, it does not look cool on me. Alistair O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, reminds me that this trend is all about context. Fashion designers have long been fascinated by workwear – think of the lumberjack shirts worn in city centres, not forests. This time it’s white-collar work being mined for inspiration. True Gosha disciples, he points out, would wear this “to a club, or to go shopping, or when off to the skate park. The dissociation from office culture is what will make the clothes so enjoyable to wear by those who will consume them as fashion.” Sadly, I am not hip enough to make this look work. I feel a bit like Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, with a touch of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, brisk and no-nonsense, as though I am holding an invisible clipboard. Or, as a co-worker says: “I’m scared that you’re about to make us do a team-building exercise.”
The fourth and final look is a breeze, literally and figuratively. It’s a billowing take on a striped shirt from Palmer//Harding. For the first time in days, I am not overheating. When I walk into the office my colleagues seem relieved. “I’m into it,” our stylist says – the ultimate compliment. Then she strokes the fabric of the cuff, appreciatively. I am approachable, again.
The shirt is the perfect soft power garment. I also love the bag I carry with it: a huge Balenciaga tote with corporate-style logos running across it diagonally. The logos bring to mind the branding of desk phones and photocopiers; the unglamorous insignia that permeated our lives before the sleek black and grey lines of iPhones and iMacs took over. It is these details – the little logos, the business cards and tie clips – that are so evocative. They remind me of how much has changed in office lives, in the 15 years since I started working, and how much will continue to change. You know, when the robots take over. Against this context, the mundanity of an office – its paperclips, staplers and tea runs – has become a source of nostalgia, something to be cherished.