STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's step back in time for a moment, back to the 1980s. It was a decade notable for many things, including the women's power suit. Tom Wolfe satirized the suit in his novel "Bonfire Of The Vanities" - a royal-blue jacket with shoulders out to here. In 2014 the power suit is still around, but it has evolved. And it matters since your clothing, like your face, inevitably says something about you. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the latest in our series on the changing lives of women.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Early power suits were worn by businesswomen who didn't want their gender to be a distraction in their move to the top. Here's Diane Keaton as a corporate bigwig in the 1987 comedy "Baby Boom."
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DIANE KEATON: (As J.C. Wiatt) I need the PNLs on Atlantic Overseas. I also need the latest ZBDs and PBDs, and, Robin, I want you to get me the CEO of IBC ASAP.
BATES: The suit's long, boxy jackets had aggressively large shoulder pads. There was even a stand-in for men's ties, says Teri Agins, a fashion journalist who writes the Ask Teri column for The Wall Street Journal.
TERI AGINS: I started working at The Wall Street Journal in 1984. And that was during the whole reign of the floppy bow tie and the suit. And that was the look that most women in their 20s and 30s wore when they first started working in the workplace.
BATES: Think Sigourney Weaver's character in the 1988 movie "Working Girl" as she gives guidance to her secretary, Tess.
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SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Katharine Parker) I consider us a team, Tess, and as such, we have a uniform - simple, elegant, impeccable. Dress shabbily, they notice the dress; dress impeccably, they notice the woman - Coco Chanel.
MELANIE GRIFFITH: (As Tess McGill) How do I look?
WEAVER: (As Katharine Parker) You look terrific. You might want to rethink the jewelry.
BATES: Tess, played by Melanie Griffith, simplifies her wardrobe and is taken more seriously because of it. By movie's end, she's a power player. The power suit had its advocates, most famously Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein.
But Teri Agins says by the '90s women had hung up their broad-shouldered jackets to favor the softer, luxurious fabrics used by designers like Donna Karan. Her upscale designs used lots of cashmere and suede accessorized with buttery leather and reptile skins. Agins says this was a different kind of power look, and it got attention.
AGINS: It reeked of money. It suggested exclusivity. I mean, this was something that women could wear in a board room and still be respected.
BATES: But, says Agins, is doesn't matter how luxurious your ensemble is if it hits you in all the wrong places, even if your office-wear is jeans.
AGINS: Alterations are a great way to make you look great because even if you're wearing something just very casual, if it fits well, you are going to stand taller. And you're just going to look more authoritative.
DANIEL LAWSON: Your clothes have to fit you in order to come across as powerful, and, you know, that's what we're talking about - power dressing. It has to look like you command the clothes, not that the clothes are commanding or wearing you.
BATES: He should know. Daniel Lawson is responsible for the power looks you see each week on the hit TV series "The Good Wife," now in its sixth season. Here's a primer - when her politician husband resigns after sex scandal Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, dusts off her law degree, stops being a stay-at-home mom and returns to work at a prestigious law firm to support her children. In the beginning her clothes are presentable and unexceptional. But, Lawson says, as the series progresses, Alicia's look evolves.
LAWSON: I think Alicia definitely has one foot rooted in the classic sort of traditional perhaps somewhat conservative world and the other foot in the modern. And as we've seen over the season, she has grown, and her wardrobe has greatly changed.
BATES: As a very junior associate in season one, Alicia wore bland colors, no jewelry and scarves you can buy at most airport gift shops. Dan Lawson chose her wardrobe to reflect Alicia's rise at her law firm.
LAWSON: Her clothes definitely started to get more expensive, and I will say expensive-looking. She started to have more of an ensemble feel, and as we've headed into seasons five and season six, she makes much more money than she was making; she has her own firm, definitely head-to-toe ensembles is the way that she looks now.
BATES: By this season, Alicia looks much more like senior partner Diane Lockhart, played by Christine Baranski. Both wear jewel-tone knits and sleek, little suits that don't attempt to disguise their curves. Their gold jewelry discreetly telegraphs money. Dan Lawson says the fact that these women's clothes fit perfectly has a lot to do with their ability to stride confidently through the world, whether it's their office or the courtroom.
LAWSON: It's important to feel confident from inside and then let that wardrobe support that. It's good to put on clothes that you feel good in.
BATES: In fact, these days, feeling empowered by what you wear, whether it comes from a discount store or a pricey boutique, is the ultimate form of power dressing. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.