Trickle-down leadership wardrobes?

It’s still early days to be drawing conclusions from our survey data, but anecdotal data and conversations beyond the formal research project suggest that people’s style changes when they shift from the classroom into formal leadership roles, and again when they ‘upgrade’ schools (moving to larger schools, or to more preferred locations, and so on).

At the moment I’m reading Changing Fashion: A Critical Introduction to Trend Analysis and Meaning by Annette Lynch and Mitchell D. Strauss.

In it, the authors talk about different theories of fashion from different eras, one of which is ‘trickle down’ fashion.

For a quick explainer: Think The Devil Wears Prada‘s famous scene about the cerulean sweater, where Miranda Priestly gives a scathing (and apparently fictionalised) account of how couture eventually becomes fast fashion trends.

Essentially, the original ‘trickle down fashion’ theory seems to have been the suggestion that upper class styles were adopted by people striving to move up to those classes, adopting their style as a status symbol. Over time, these ideas were challenged by fashion scholars and the theory was adapted to include fashion that ‘trickles across’ status groups, and ‘fashion float’ where high fashion adopts street-style.

More recent adaptations to the trickle down fashion theory have emphasised power and status groups, rather than traditional ideas of class, which makes sense especially in light of this research project. The premise is an interesting one through which to think about leadership wardrobes in this sense, particularly for women.

The book discusses the way leadership wardrobes, for example, have trickled down giving women a style of power dressing that has traditionally been largely masculine. In fact, in the revision of trickle down fashion theory from class to power, the example used in this book was the differences between men’s and women’s working wardrobes and their implications for perceptions of leadership and leadership abilities.

The authors noted:

For example, the classic fashions of men in workplace leadership positions typically consisted of austere, precision-designed, painstakingly tailored suits of expensive worsted fabrics which symbolized gravity, focus, responsibility, and mastery. In contradiction, traditional women’s workplace fashions were more embellished, colorful, softer and less structured, and therefore communicated whimsicality, as well as diminished rationality and intellectual substance, all leading to the notion that women were not up to the requirements of leadership-track responsibility. In sum, as long as women wore their traditional and stereotypical fashions in the workplace they would continue to hamper their potential for career growth because of the lack of capability that their dress symbolized. (Lynch & Strauss, 2007, Chapter 4). 

The theory went that as women began to take on more formal leadership roles in workplaces their wardrobes evolved to take on some aspects of men’s fashion “in features such as structures, colours, and fabrics, while still maintaining the fundamental elements of women’s attire”.

According to the authors, “women were motivated to assimilate male vestiges of power through fashion change and simultaneously to drop symbolic liabilities, thus on balance they acquired symbolic advantages and gained status in the workplace.”

So now I’m wondering how trickle-down leadership wardrobes might work.

I find myself thinking about the ideas of power dressing and the origins of the items we see as ‘leadership’ clothing, knowing that there’s a fascinating body of wardrobe and fashion sociology, and career studies which has tackled some of these ideas before us. The precipice of a new research project where you get to start reading completely different ideas is one of my favourite parts of the process.

How might our style change as we move through the ‘ranks’ of schools and leadership positions? Anecdotal comments and my own experiences suggest that a shift happens from the wardrobe of the classroom teacher, to the teaching principal, to the principal of larger schools who no longer teach, and so on. How do these items of clothing appear at different points throughout career stages? When do we take up new wardrobes? At what points in our work do our wardrobes shift? What are the items that trickle down as we start dressing with the adage in mind to dress for the job we want, not the job we have?

Has your leadership wardrobe evolved over time or with different leadership positions? Share your reflections and experiences with us in this 15-minute survey. We’d love to hear from you.