The Power Suit Makes the Woman Tiffany Ludwig and Renee Piechocki asked nearly 600 women in 15 states, "What do you wear that makes you feel powerful?" The result is their new book Trappings: Stories of Women, Power, and Clothing.
NPR logo

The Power Suit Makes the Woman

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/87937922/87937869" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Power Suit Makes the Woman

The Power Suit Makes the Woman

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/87937922/87937869" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbites of TV show, "Project Runway")

Mr. TIM GUNN (On-air Contestant Mentor, "Project Runway"): Make it work. And basically make it work. Diana, this is make-it-work time for you.

DIANA (Contestant, "Project Runway"): I know.

Mr. GUNN: You have to make it work. This is the classic make-it-work time, all right?

(Soundbite of music)

ALISON STEWART, host:

Well, I love about Tim Gunn, that phrase, make it work. When it comes to clothing, make it work can mean a lot of things. You can work an outfit, meaning you make the clothes come to life, or sometimes an outfit just really works for you. Remember Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Germany's Wiesbaden military base where she rocked that "Matrix"-like long black coat with the seven gold buttons and a pair of knee-high black leather boots?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I mean, would you mess with her if you saw her in that outfit?

What is the one piece of clothing that can make you feel really strong or powerful? Well, two artists wondered what everyday women slip into when they want to show off their inner strength. So they spent the last six years asking more than 500 women in 15 states one question: What do you wear that makes you feel powerful? It's all in a book and a new art exhibition. I'm going to read from one of them.

This woman - you see her, Rachel? She's wearing a tank top that says, Too Good for You.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Mm-hmm.

STEWART: That is her power shirt. And she says, I went shopping with this shirt and this woman was like, oh my God, you're so brave. I always wanted to own a shirt that says that. And it's great to go into a bar by myself, like honestly, a great thing. It's like, don't get near me. I'm here for a drink, not to pick up a guy. I think power means having control over my decisions.

Now, answers like this woman's make up a new multimedia exhibition and a book called "Trappings: Stories of Women, Power, and Clothing." And joining us in the studio this morning are the authors and artists, Tiffany Ludwig and Renee Piechocki. Did I say that right?

Ms. RENEE PIECHOCKI (Author, "Trappings: Stories of Women, Power, and Clothing"; Artist): Yes, ma'am.

STEWART: All right. Together they make up the artist collaboration, Two Girls Working. Nice to see both of you, thanks for coming in.

Ms. TIFFANY LUDWIG (Author, "Trappings: Stories of Women, Power, and Clothing"; Artist): Thank you so much.

STEWART: So Tiffany, let's start. What was the genesis for this project back in 2001?

Ms. LUDWIG: Well, Renee and I began this project because as artists, we wanted to do something new together. We were working in our own studio practices, but decided to collaborate, first of all, create a project outside of our studios, including as many women as possible from across a discipline as possible. And we really wanted to talk about feminism, but we knew we were going to get black or white answers, no gray scale. You know, how do we talk about a hot button topic? And we realized that clothing was kind of the easy entrance into a highly-charged conversation about what power is and all of that kind of tensions that can come off of that.

STEWART: What do you have to add, Renee? Yeah?

Ms. PIECHOCKI: That's exactly right. When Tiffany and I started working together, we identified that we wanted to make alternative art spaces of our designs. Instead of making an object in our studios, what we did as artists is create a platform for women to discuss issues about how they identify with power and how they express power to the world.

STEWART: When did the connection happen for you that clothing was your gateway?

Ms. LUDWIG: We spent a full year developing this. We met in 2000. And over that first year, we were living nowhere near each other, and worked on the phone and through email, and sending slides, you know, back in the day, that kind of thing. And during that year, we developed the project question, our collaborative name and the project title. And so it was a slow, kind of painstaking process to come up with exactly the right key to access an easy conversation. Everyone gets dressed in the morning.

STEWART: It's universal. So when you - trying to narrow down that one question, how'd you do that? How'd you focus the - it had to be the exact right wording.

Ms. PIECHOCKI: You know what? You're exactly right. It had to be the exact right wording. I mean, you notice the question isn't what do you wear that makes you powerful? Because what we're asking women is about - that use of the word, feel, very important, 'cause it's about your perception about yourself and how you perceive your own personal power.

And also, we didn't shy away from the word power. And that is kind of getting to what Tiffany was talking about. We wanted to talk to women about contemporary issues that they were dealing with at home and in the workplace. You know, and as feminists, we felt that by not shying away from a strong word, which is power, that that was the issue that could help us access all of these other things going on in women's lives.

STEWART: Well, let's listen to a clip from an 18-year-old at one of your interview sessions. We'll discuss those in a minute, because those are interesting in themselves. This woman is from Michigan, and she says it's her lacy underwear that makes her feel powerful.

Unidentified Woman #1: You know, you walk a little different. You like know that you've got this on and it just like makes you feel just more - like I feel taller.

STEWART: Now, the setting where women are having these conversations, and in some cases making these confessions, you modeled them after the classic Tupperware party.

Ms. LUDWIG: Exactly.

STEWART: Explain to me how you found these women and the environment they were in when they started talking about the clothing that makes them feel powerful.

Ms. LUDWIG: Right. Well, you're right. We modeled it after the Tupperware party, and we did that because it's a model that women understand already. It's a tried-and-true method for getting groups together to usually sell plastic ware, but we wanted to do was sell nothing. So we sent out an invitation. Everyone knows the project question ahead of time. They know that we're going to be there with cameras and lights and they're going to become a part of this national project. So we show up with, you know, equipment that will fit in someone's home or boardroom or office space. And one at a time, the women get up in front of the camera to answer this question. It's our only scripted question. From there we just riff off whatever they're talking about.

So everyone is prepared. They know to come either wearing their power item, carrying it, ready to talk about everything except it, if that's what they want to talk about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUDWIG: But it's a party. So we have food and we introduce the project and then get rolling. And women aren't pulled out the room. Everyone's interviewed with each other in the space so that it's a dialogue project. It's not about being sequestered and a secret confession. It's very much about, all right, you know, ask your friends on camera if you have questions you've always wanted to ask them if they're not bringing up the stories that really we should be hearing. So it's a pretty dynamic environment.

STEWART: And I have to imagine there are many layers. Because first - my first instinct would be to just simply describe it. And then, how did you peel back the layers to find out more about the women and how they really felt about the clothing?

Ms. PIECHOCKI: Well, part of that is definitely through asking follow-up questions. Really, like Tiffany said, the only thing we say is introduce yourself and tell us what you wear that makes you feel powerful. A surprising number of women are immediately revealing about a lot of different kinds of things, that then when it gets to be our turn to ask questions, we can kind of pull out those stories.

But other times, I think it has a lot to do with the interview environment in which we're meeting them. You know, they've been invited by a host who they know somehow. They get the information. They're surrounded by a group of friends or peers or colleagues that they know in some way. Making women comfortable enough there is what helps them feel comfortable enough to share things with us. I mean, there are - I'd say in 90 percent of the interview sessions, we've never met or spoken to anyone who shows up.

You know, so this - we always come back to this one story. Like we're in Fairbanks, Alaska, after going all the way across the country in a car that we've rented, and we're sitting in front of our friend - well, now our friend - Joanna's house, and Tiffany and I are looking at each other, going this is kind of crazy what we do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PIECHOCKI: Like, we've gone all this way to talk to eight women. But there's this sense of trust that builds immediately. And I think it's because people realize right away that we're not there - we're not expose reporters. We're not there to have them talk about something that they're not willing to talk about. And we preface the whole session by saying, you know what? This is an art-making environment that we're having, and if you say something today that you don't want to share with the world, you let us know and we'll work on your editing.

STEWART: One of the things I found delightful about the book and surprising was, was I expected to see a lot of women in high heels, in power suits and in red.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Which is sort of the cliches. But you had women saying, my lab coat, my head wrap, my tattoo. Were there any answers that you just carry with you that you think about are really interesting?

Ms. LUDWIG: Absolutely. It depends on the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUDWIG: Right when I leave for the day, I pick a different chapter…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUDWIG: …and it fuels me for…

STEWART: What's today or yesterday? Or…

Ms. LUDWIG: Oh, what a good question. We watched - we gave a book reading and signing last night, and we watched the second to last chapter in the book, which is Amelia and Michelle Joyner's(ph) interview. And she talks about having different personas for different aspects of her life. And it's kind of beautiful how she reveals something that we all do internally or secretly, whether we know it or not. We have maybe a public face and a private face. So it's interesting how looking at different interviews, I feel like I can really kind of tap into, you know, elements that they're saying and apply it to all kinds of scenarios.

STEWART: Well, let's listen to one woman from Pittsburgh who sees that her purple cape as an homage for leaders of the women's suffragette movement.

Unidentified Woman #2: When I've gone into these stuff boardrooms with a whole bunch of men in their suits, and, you know, I can put on this purple cape, and I'm like Alice Paul, and everybody's with me and we just storm in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: She's so great.

MARTIN: I just want to ask quickly, do you have an answer for this question? Did you answer it for yourselves, what makes…

Ms. PIECHOCKI: You know, I'll say we politely decline to respond to that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. PIECHOCKI: In the very beginning we thought how could we put women through this and not respond? But we quickly realized, thankfully, that if we answered, we cloud the question. And that was the instinct we had. And then many years later, we would be showing up at interview sessions, and women would be like, oh, I knew I was coming to this so I went to your Web site to look at the archives to see what you said so I would know what to say.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. PIECHOCKI: So it was like, you know what? As artists, it's our role, really, here is to be a connector and platform provider and not to make just artwork about us. So…

STEWART: One of the things I loved was there's a - there's a woman in the book - you also talk, you explain how some women use clothes to become powerful. This woman here, she calls this her yes dress because when she wants somebody to say yes to her in business, she wears this dress. She says, my clothes are a tool. So, for instance, this dress, it's called my yes dress because when I'm asking someone for something. I want good results. I wear this yes dress. This really interesting combination of a strong color, the reds, so I get to wear red shoes, but it's also nude. It's like being nude with a tattoo. Every morning, I get up and I look at my calendar and I see what I've got to do, and that's how I pick my clothing.

Ms. PIECHOCKI: The really interesting thing I think about that interview is how sometimes in a corporate environment, women will neutralize their sexuality. And while that participant really decided, well, I'm going to use that as a tool. I work in a male-dominated environment, and I've just decided I'm going to make men nervous, and that's okay.

MARTIN: (unintelligible) different. Alison and I noticed that we're both wearing what we call man shirts today.

STEWART: It was hard to get dressed today. I was trying to find my power shirt.

MARTIN: I didn't even think of that. It wasn't even a conscious choice. But I imagine that there were people who responded that they do wear like a vest or something with a collar or cufflinks. And what does that say about gender identities and power structures? Did you come across that?

Ms. LUDWIG: Absolutely. It's interesting, you know, how wide the gender continuum is and where clothing falls along that line. And I think women who maybe typify as very feminine will use very masculine clothing sometimes, and vice-versa, and really reject that idea, too. I mean, you know, it comes up over and over again that one woman's, you know, power suit may be her casual day wear or something like that. It's interesting how people can kind of really turn this idea inside out.

Ms. PIECHOCKI: I think actually looking at the woman on the cover of the book is an interesting example of that.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. PIECHOCKI: I mean, here she is in her, you know, evening dress, walking through her town square in Oxford, Mississippi. But when you get to her story, the first photo you see of her, she's in boxing gear because she was in training to be a professional boxer. And she really examines the constraints of femininity in her town, which is Oxford, Mississippi. And how - she has this great line of like, I wear the flowery dress for a reason, because I feel like a linebacker and it helps to kind of balance that.

STEWART: So interesting. So you went across the country. You did these interviews. You took these pictures. And then, clearly, I can understand how it's a book. Can you explain the art installation, how you turned it into an art installation?

Ms. LUDWIG: Mm-hmm. A few years ago, Renee and I decided that we wanted to take some of the work that we were exhibiting in group shows and in solo exhibitions and combine it with some new work and create a national traveling exhibition. So that's what we did. We launched that in the summer of 2006 at Carnegie-Mellon University. And since then, it has been going around the country, and this weeks it opens at the Bronx River Arts Center on Friday night.

So this is a combination of installation videos, smaller intimate video portraits of women, an enormous piece that includes an image and quote of all, now nearly 600 women, who have been involved in the project and Project Ephemera. We like to really kind of show the interview process that we're discussing and how we're doing this and why we're doing this. That's a part of what's up on the wall in the installation: audio works, portraiture, still photography.

STEWART: And we should mention that it's going to also be in New Mexico, and you're going to Missouri. And where else with it?

Ms. LUDWIG: And in Wyoming (unintelligible).

STEWART: In Wyoming. Well, we'll link through to your site on our blog. Thank you so much for coming in. Tiffany Ludwig and Renee - let me get it - Piechocki.

Ms. PIECHOCKI: Yes, ma'am. Thank you.

STEWART: All right. Authors of "Trappings: Stories of Women, Power and Clothing." The traveling exhibition begins this Friday in New York. You can find out about the other cities and dates and a documentary, too - that's exciting you guys are going to be working on that. Go to our Web site: npr.org/bryantpark.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.