Politics at hand: Women’s briefcases stir debate about fashion in the Trump era

Beyond the deluge of feminist slogan Ts and blush-tone cat hats shown for fall was, perhaps, a more coded trend that riffed on the political and cultural issues at hand.

Briefcases — seen in the women’s runway shows of brands including Balenciaga, Thom Browne, Altuzarra and Dries Van Noten — were not only the latest look, but for some observers, encapsulated women’s outcries for power and the current political climate.

While the fashion industry’s main goal is to create desirable products for consumption and profit, there are those who believe it also should serve a larger social purpose, especially now: Enact social change and provide a wardrobe with which women can articulate confidence and a rallied togetherness.

Admittedly that’s a large responsibility — but do the new power suit and related accessories fit the bill? The bags particularly spark a crossroads-type discussion.

According to buyers, the briefcase trend accompanied a dressier, suited-up tone in ready-to-wear — an about-face from more feminine designs that have been popular over the last few years. Bags previously had been small — often adorned with whimsical floral or rhinestone appliqués.

“For a number of years, designers were putting all of us in dresses and we are finally in a moment of pants. I looked to politics a bit on that, I think not just nationally — but globally,” said Bergdorf Goodman senior vice president, fashion and store presentation Linda Fargo. “When a woman wears a jacket there is something almost armorlike, something protective. It’s a little more serious — ‘I’ve got big shoulders, bring it on.’ There is certainly a lot of activism afoot — a lot of us are standing up — and designers are reacting to that, giving us almost these uniforms.”

For fall, designers often presented suiting that obscured elements of the female form. At Céline and Dries Van Noten, suits were broad and baggy, while Thom Browne’s tailoring was layered with meaning: One piece was inscribed with “It’s too cold for a dress,” on its back. At Balenciaga, creative director Demna Gvasalia juxtaposed youth and reality — parading girls in floral baby-doll dresses, accompanied by oversized briefcase bags.

Given the fashion cycle, it was likely that designers started work on these more conservative collections prior to President Trump’s election — stirring the question of whether the suits and briefcases were an homage to the signature pantsuit garb of Hillary Clinton, of if they were a reaction to Trump.

Pia Arrobio, founder of Los Angeles-based fashion label LPA, said: “I think it’s funny and very ironic that a lot of Clinton’s clothing was so off-putting to people, it seemed it was armor, and then we have Trump as our president and the first collections did have a lot of suiting. Internally we were probably all saying to ourselves, ‘We are here for you Clinton.’”

The complete look harkens back to the late-Eighties “Working Girl” aesthetic, a reference that some observers consider regressive: revisiting a time when women employed masculine styles to gain respect in the workplace. Others find the look liberating — thus invoking just one facet of debate surrounding the briefcases’ corporate aesthetic.

Made fashion week cofounder Jenné Lombardo questioned: “In order for a woman to wield power, does she have to dress like a man? But then, is that dressing like a man — just because they wore it first?

“These bags make me feel a couple of conflicting things. On one hand, they could represent alternative expressions of femininity, but at the same time the corporate feel of them presents an issue to me,” said Internet meme artist Dre, who goes by her Instagram handle @gothshakira, known for its commentary on femininity and post-capitalism. Dre — who declined to reveal her last name — recently created work for Gucci’s meme campaign. “It harkens back to a feminism that conflated equality with women adopting aesthetic and behavioral traits that are considered ‘masculine’…which is counterintuitive.”

Lisa Says Gah assistant buyer Gabriela Pelletier has more democratic feelings toward the briefcase style: “Everything is from somewhere. The silhouette is strong and beautiful no matter who wears it. That’s the problem in society. We are so focused on separating men and women and it doesn’t matter if you get the job done. That’s why we are now seeing the emergence of genderless fashion.”

That said, Pelletier and others have also noticed a rising sense of commoditized feminism. Politically charged marketing campaigns by the likes of Tory Burch and Pepsi have drawn mixed response. “It’s great and important to stay together and come together as a group as strong women, but there are some houses just trying to make a dollar,” Pelletier added.

Said astrophysicist and Pioneer Works science director Janna Levin: “If you are into men’s clothes, go for it. Just be genuinely creative and genuinely responsive to what’s happening in the world. To do business suits and briefcases does not seem to me genuinely responsive to what’s really happening in the world — that seems to be opportunistic and disappointing as a result.”

“Even the idea of dressing the part is so coded,” opined Grace Sparapani, an art history graduate student at the University of Texas who is best known for her sharp feminist and aesthetic memes posted to the Instagram handle @TequilaFunrise. “In these bags there is the question of what’s the right balance between ‘manning up’ and staying feminine enough that you’re still appealing/nonthreatening. I feel like every time I get dressed for an interview it’s like, ‘How can I command both power and desirability?’”

The briefcase and suit look’s conservatism are a departure from the voyeuristic, dreamy feminist aesthetic seen on Instagram — where young women often use their Internet prowess and bare skin as a platform to express empowerment.

“Feminist” scrawled in pink across the bum of underwear, underarm hair dyed in pastel colors, pigtails and miniskirts were pre-election expressions of liberation for the selfie generation. The movement had been championed by photographer Petra Collins and the art/commerce collective Me and You, founded by Mayan Toledano and Julia Baylis. Now with Trump in the White House, their tastes have begun changing.

As Baylis explained: “With Obama, as a young person, an artist, a creative – you felt invincible, it allowed for a frillier aesthetic. Now post-Trump there is not as much room for that. We want to do something a little earthier, more real. I think in general people are dressing more covered. There is not as much room for being whimsical.”

Illustrator Joana Avillez, who designed wallpaper for the women-only working space The Wing, has also noticed a shift: “There is a very serious tone since the election, a true sadness mixed with anger and horror and a feeling of how much there is to do, how much we all have to do. Hyper-girly things can feel indulgent and hubristic.”

Arrobio said: “I typically dress really sexy and the way [Trump] speaks about women is so disgusting, it makes me feel almost like I don’t want to be overly sexy I don’t want to give that ammunition.”

She went on to note: “Younger women are being challenged to grow up a little bit because of the political climate. I think it’s a wake-up call for everyone. A trend on the runway is one thing. I’m dying to see which fast-fashion company picks it up – I’d love to see if a twentysomething wears a Zara briefcase. Who will pick this up in the real world?”

But Baylis does not think the suiting trend will catch on, labeling their creative inception as “obvious.”

“I think that it’s a dated approach to dressing – you don’t even see men wearing suits anymore. It’s more about girls dressing like skaters – so many girls are walking around in vintage Eighties windbreaker suits. It’s about comfort, utilitarian genderless dressing, rather that this constraining clothing.”

With this, many women are now questioning how best to express themselves through dress in this day and age. As Lombardo reconciled: “I used to think I had a seat at the table. I realized I was kidding myself. I have absolutely felt discriminated against in different boardroom meetings. Sometimes in order to put yourself forward and be taken seriously, your appearance goes along with it.”

Said Pelletier: “Design plays a huge role in how we feel and see ourselves. I think designers want to share that – they have a huge platform with so many eyes on them, I think it’s really about trying to make a difference.”

“Clothing and accessories are the talismans we adorn and surround ourselves with to communicate our identity to others,” said Dre. “Prominent designers have the platform to influence significant swaths of people for better or for worse. It is imperative that they do all they can to influence for the better.

“When looking to conceive and create and an ideal women’s wardrobe for an uncertain political climate, designers should use diversity and multiplicity as guiding perspectives. Beautiful things should belong to everyone.”


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