Why powerful women are going sleeveless
As some of the world's most influential women exercise their right to bare arms, it's time to ditch the sleeves and get your guns out, says Anna Murphy
Published 15/08/2014 | 12:12
For reasons unclear, earlier this summer I found myself at a dinner for Forbes Most Powerful Women International.
It quickly became apparent that I was the only woman there not running Something Important. And as if the one-way chat weren't enough - I couldn't really hold my own on the travails of German boardroom life for a girl, to be honest - the dress code underlined it. Everyone was wearing a tailored jacket, no surprises there. But then suddenly everyone was taking off said jacket to reveal a sleeveless top and the toned upper arms of a Russian gymnast. Had I missed the signal for "guns out"? Was I at a dinner, or Barry's Bootcamp?
This, I soon realised, was 21st-century power-dressing at its purest - a kind of arms race in which women must prove they can man up, play with the big boys, tough it out (I could go on with the metaphors) by flexing their non-metaphorical muscle, in the form of delicately popping biceps and not remotely wobbly triceps.
Yes, as if the multinational-running über-frau sitting next to me didn't have enough to do, she appeared to be pumping iron, or cranking out downward dogs, on a daily basis. In the Eighties a working woman such as her could make like she was up to playing hardball in a man's world courtesy of a kind of fancy dress, aping the inverted triangle of the male torso with her shoulder-pads. Now she can't simply play dress up to look like she means business: she has to work out.
The acme of the modern power professionelle are those high priestesses of Silicon Valley, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, and their arms are frequently laid as bare as their ambitions for global domination. Then, of course, there are the remarkable biceps of Michelle Obama. (She exercises for 90 minutes every day. No one says arms that good are easy.) "The toned arm has replaced the designer handbag," observed Newsnight's Emily Maitlis last week. No doubt Becky Sharp would be similarly buff if she were elbowing her way through the world today.
You can drill down further into the symbolism. According to the fashion pack's favourite fitness trainer, Christina Howells of thatgirllondon.com - who trains the editor and super-stylist Katie Grand (more on her later) - "toned arms are more important than ever". It is the decline in testosterone as a woman ages that causes upper arms to soften, says Howells. Keep them hard and you are signalling that your testosterone - a hormone found naturally at higher levels in men, which encourages competitiveness, if not aggression - is a force to be reckoned with. Which is not to say that there isn't also a distinctly feminine appeal to a toned upper arm. It can have all the allure of a finely turned leg, but its power - in being less gendered, and therefore less un-PC - is less compromised in the post-Mad Men workplace.
Needless to say there is a whole new mini-industry to cater for the arms race, churning out chic, sleek, powerful-looking sleeveless dresses and tunic tops for the chic, sleek, powerful-looking women who wear them. Rob Jones, of the British label Teatum Jones, recounts how a commercial strategist advised them recently that sleeveless is key: "She said the women who are working hard are also working hard at their body and don't want to hide it." (A stunning rose-drenched dress by Teatum Jones is £700 at liberty.co.uk .) Other British designers producing disarmingly lovely dresses include Roksanda Ilincic and Jonathan Saunders (£938 and £690 respectively; matchesfashion.com ). Such is the scale of a certain sort of woman's current obsession with sleeves-free that even such a contrarian item as the sleeveless jacket - as modelled by Olivia Palermo - is everywhere from French Connection to Marks & Spencer.
How ironic. For while the superwomen, with their superhero(ine) biceps and their, quite frankly, supernatural triceps, want to show off their arms, the rest of us want sleeves, for reasons I needn't go into here. (Last year Belinda Earl, Marks & Spencer's style director, said she would transform the brand's fortunes by offering "90 per cent of dresses with sleeves".) So how will this fashion spat be resolved? Not, I hope, for the sake of us lesser mortals, with an arm wrestle.
At what point does a magazine become a coffee-table book? And when does a coffee-table book become an actual coffee table? Questions I found myself asking when the current 508-page issue of Love magazine, edited by the Katie "Guns Out" Grand when she isn't styling for Marc Jacobs, landed - with considerable reverb - on my desk. Flicking through the many pages of advertising is like looking at the fashion Domesday Book of our age. A record of what luxury looks like now; a mirror to our ultimate consumer desires.
And what would this document reveal to an interested extra-terrestrial party? What was the defining feature of said advertising? The handbag. I counted 34 of them before I had even got to the contents page. Clasped like a lover (Kate Moss for Stella McCartney), gripped like a talisman (Cara Delevingne for Burberry). I am sure those Martians would, pace Emily Maitlis, declare ours to be a leather-goods-worshipping society.
And they would not be wrong. Many of the luxury brands began their lives as leather goods companies (Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci…), then shape-shifted into fashion labels. Yet today the majority of those brands make most of their money in accessories (along with perfume). Why? Because while few of us can afford to dress head to toe in Louis Vuitton, slightly more of us can save up for the handbag.
And, whether we like it or not, the handbag we carry communicates something about us to the watching world (though thankfully there are plenty of people looking the other way). No wonder we obsess about them. Carry that "perfect" bag hooked over your perfectly pilate-ed arm and, well, anything's possible…
OK, so you know about jet lag, but have you heard of fash lag? It's a syndrome that befalls less branché members of the fashion community such as myself. Usually it involves shoes. Sitting on the front row, you think: "Hmmm, I am not sure about those shoes. Aren't they a bit weird/ugly/the most revolting things I have ever seen in my life?" Then, months later, there is nothing you want more than those shoes. By which time, of course, they have sold out.
Often I suffer the worst fash lag with the labels I love most - a matter for psychoanalysis, no doubt. Take Prada. When I interviewed Miuccia Prada she talked to me about her fascination with "racchio", ugliness; how she set out to challenge good taste. Season after season, she does just that with her shoes, and I always fall in love with them in the end. (When she first showed brogues with a platform sole in 2011, I thought: No. Now I am finally going to get my hands on a pair, thanks to Prada launching its made-to-order shoe service in Harrods this month; from £740.)
My most recent fash lag has been Dior - its £740 "fusion" trainer (above). I like trainers. I like sequins. But I do not like trainers with sequins. Or so I thought, until a month ago. When I rang Dior. Sold. To the woman in the right timezone. But spies tell me they're coming back in stock.