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What Nancy Reagan & The Notion Of Power Dressing Mean For Fashion Today

Photo: Images Press/Getty Images.
Nancy Reagan, who passed away Sunday at the age of 94, has left behind a legacy that far exceeds the political landscape of which she was a part. Perhaps it was because she followed in the footsteps of Rosalyn Carter, who was so "anti-fashion," as many described, that she preferred sewing her own clothing to purchasing new ones, but when Reagan entered the White House in 1981, the notion of how a First Lady was meant (or rather, expected) to dress, shifted. Fashion became something that powerful women could, and should, indulge in once again, for better or worse.

Reflecting on her time in the White House has people looking to the way in which she dressed for the role; something she did well, and in a powerful, unabashed manner. She wore American designers, like James Galanos (who designed the gown for her husband's 1981 inauguration), Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, and Bill Blass, almost exclusively, and pushed boundaries by wearing shoulder-baring pieces, for example, that were surprising to many for not just her position, but her age. Her aesthetic, as a whole, was pared-back and elegant, but in a way that felt as unexpected as it did like a reflection of the times.

It may seem cliché to refer to the popular trends of the '80s (and ones Reagan embraced whole-heartedly) — bold shoulders, suit sets, overly beaded items — as "power dressing," but at its core, the clothing of the time was meant to empower women. With the "third wave" of the movement toward gender equality in full-force, women began to embrace positions of power typically reserved for men, which naturally translated into what they wore. It was a time when clothes served a purpose other than just dressing: they made a statement, both stylistically and politically.
Photo:Diana Walker/Getty Images.
Her choice to, more often than not, wear the colour red, reflected this notion. "I like red," she told W magazine in 2007. "It's a picker-upper." But the "Reagan Red," as it became famously known, superseded its typical connotations, and instead became recognised as a symbol of her (often-criticised) conservative views; particularly those "anti-feminist" suggestions that a woman should choose to support her husband, rather than create a career of her own.

Her extremely thin appearance was also critiqued, with rumours that she battled anorexia (claims she later denied in her book My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan: "No I am not anorexic," she said, "and I never have been."). Her expensive taste (like the time she spent $200,000 (£140,000) on fine china), too, was heavily scrutinised, leading her, just a year into her husband's presidency, to stop borrowing clothes from designers (something that even today's First Lady continues to do). Yet despite this, her collection of high fashion had its place — it was central to her tendency toward ostentatiousness. When looking at the pre- and post-Nancy Reagan eras of first ladies, things are less show-y. The cuts are more conservative, the aesthetic more modest (with the exception of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, of course). Even if Reagan didn't believe in power for women in the political sense, it was clear that she did believe in asserting power through clothing.
It's that notion that holds true today; and not just because Reagan's passing has us looking backwards. This past week in Paris, runways, almost too coincidentally, have been showing revisions of these decades-old trends. The '80s' conspicuous consumption-type clothing have made a resurgence in the fall 2016 collections, with Balmain's four-digit crystal dresses; Lanvin's wide-breasted plaid blazers; Isabel Marant's blend of a one-shouldered silhouette and lamé; Balenciaga's exaggerated suits that only flatter the supper-skinny. Power dressing, in whatever sense you choose to interpret it, has returned. And what it stands for (both in Reagan's era and today) couldn't be more relevant.

The return of these pieces isn't as simple as recycling and reimagining once popular items. Rather, it's more of a reflection of what women need and want in not just fashion, but all areas of life. We're living in a time when politics, fashion, and social aspirations and anxiety are so intertwined that, even if we don't realise it, they're consistently shaping one another. In Reagan's era, the expensive clothing alluded to the dream of social mobility, which in the reality of her time, remained a dream for many. Today, our country is fighting the same battles, with the conversation of class fluidity and socio-economic unfairness at the top of our current election season agenda and national conscious; it's no wonder the conspicuous displays of wealth and power Reagan championed are rearing their head again. Let's just hope the way they empower women will be more inclusive this time around.