Donna Karan and Diane Von Furstenberg are two contemporary American designers who possess Status and Power. However, it is the difference between what kind of power and status that they have that determines how they empower women. For example, Donna Karan came from a working class family and is known for dressing the Executive Woman. She gained status and power through becoming an influential CEO of a multi-million dollar company. Conversely, Diane von Furstenberg married into aristocracy at the age of 23 and instead represents the Woman of Leisure as someone with a noble title and money. Through their different styles, Karan and Von Furstenberg redefined the connotations of power and adapted them for women including a transformation from the woman as Thorstein Veblen’s “vicarious consumer” to a “conspicuous consumer”. Additionally, the appropriation of a man’s role and dress is considered with Karan’s tailored menswear. What are the connotations of wearing such a traditionally male outfit and how does this contrast with the overt femininity of Von Furstenberg’s designs?
Donna Karan’s focus is generally on that of tailored menswear. The link below is from her Fall/Winter 1992 line and showcases the tailored menswear that is a fundamental part of her design aesthetic. This includes the following:
- Day to Night
- Sensual and Feminine
- Mostly neutral colours (black, white, grey, camel etc.)
- Tailored Menswear
Padded shoulders at 0.33 minutes.
Here, Donna Karan aims to empower the executive woman by placing her in the suit which is seen as the gold standard of business wear for men. Although not the first designer to adapt menswear (consider Chanel’s menswear inspired clothes and Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking”), Karan was one of the designers to adapt it to create the Power Suit – one of the signature looks from the 80s. Her looks were even complete with padded shoulders to mimic a man’s broader shoulders (watch video above).
Karan’s choice to adapt menswear for the woman executive was clear. In the light of the lack of women’s rights before the 1980s and the increasing instances of women at executive level jobs, Karan’s style reflects the cultural trend towards women gaining corporate influence and power. In order to level the corporate playing ground for the sexes, she adapted the suit which has a long history. According to William Hamilton, it was first popularised by the Prince of Wales who wore it when not in royal regalia (192). The impact of seeing someone of such high status wearing something affordable and obtainable by plebeians meant that the suit proliferated throughout society even reaching to the Far East (Hamilton 193).
The fact that it “united all its wearers in a single anonymous, international, and interacting commercial urban class” meant that no matter what socio-economic group you were from, all men could wear something comparable (Hamilton 193). With its subsequent popularisation through the media, the suit cemented itself as the power player’s outfit of choice. In the light of the equalising power of the suit, Karan’s choice to adapt something that had historically united all men was therefore a shrewd one when making the woman’s power suit. However, Karan intentionally imbibed the power suit with femininity as it is cut to fit a woman’s body. Therefore, although Karan takes her interpretation of power from a universal masculine standard, she has appropriated and adapted it for the new, business woman. It is there unsurprising that she dresses some of the most politically powerful women in the United States including former State Secretary Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Michelle Obama as they represent the ultimate form of Executive Power (pictured below).
In comparison, Diane Von Furstenberg possessed aristocratic status as a former princess through her marriage to Egon Von Furstenberg, an Austro-Hungarian prince. Even though they divorced only three years later, Von Furstenberg consciously decided to keep her married name due to the connotations of the Leisure Class that it evoked. Although Von Furstenberg also made her own name through designing her own line thus proving to be a self-sufficient and powerful businesswoman, she modelled her business as a luxury line. Based on Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of Conspicuous Consumption: The Leisure Class”, Von Furstenberg has supplanted the traditionally male role of “conspicuous consumer” with the modern woman. As defined by Veblen, women in the past had roles as “vicarious consumers” where the woman used the wealth and influence of their husbands or male relatives to showcase wealth (Veblen 44). This would then further support the social standing of their husbands who were the primary sources of income in the family. With Von Furstenberg, there is instead an inversion with the woman becoming the conspicuous consumer and taking her own wealth, future and career into her own hands.
The principles behind Von Furstenberg’s line have also manifested in her line. Her tag line “Feel like a woman, wear a dress!” is strongly indicative of her belief that a woman is powerful when she is in touch with her femininity and sensuality. Compared to Karan’s line, she has a significantly smaller number of pants or trousers and significantly less tailored menswear. Her dresses also tend be much softer in form compared to Karan’s hard shapes and use much brighter colours. Instead of measuring equality with a male standard like Karan, Von Furstenberg’s woman revels in the differences between the genders and embraces the leisure class lifestyle with the woman as the conspicuous consumer. This is exemplified by the fact that she dresses movie stars and celebrities (pictured below) – the modern day equivalent of aristocracy. Similarly, the fact that her mother was a holocaust survivor also influenced her desire to create clothing that embodied a sense of freedom. Cut to flow and move freely and comfortably, this important aspect of Von Furstenberg’s clothes is fundamentally rooted in her defiance or racial and religious oppression.
For a short bio on Von Furstenberg from Fashion Memoir, click on the link below.
Another fundamental aspect to understanding these women’s interpretation of power is that they are moguls in their own right. Both women own multi-million dollar companies and branding rights to items such as household furnishings and cosmetics that extend far beyond their clothing lines. As contemporaries born within only two years of one another, Donna Karan and Diane Von Furstenberg both grew up during the second wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 60s and rejected the objectification of women, instead choosing to empower the new independent woman of the times. Both dress the career woman, albeit with different tacks on how to do so.
So what does this dichotomy between the hard-edged and masculine Executive Woman and feminine Woman of Leisure mean? Is there a bipolar split in the interpretation of a modern and powerful woman? The answer is more likely found in the woman's need to be both. Diane Von Furstenberg and Donna Karan cater to different aspects of a woman’s life: at times needing to be more feminine and sensual, at others, a woman capable of being as cutthroat as any other businessman. It is not the fact that they interpret the definition of woman power differently but rather that Karan and Von Furstenberg have transformed the definition of power itself. The woman is no longer subject to her husband’s money and status for influence but provides and creates it for herself. She can also take a symbol of power that is traditionally associated with men such as the suit and quite literally cut it to suit her own needs. In this century, power is attainable to both men and women and Donna Karan and Diane Von Furstenberg are some of the best designers that reflect this trend in Man’s socio-cultural history.
Thorstein, Veblen “Conspicuous Consumption,” from "The Theory of the Leisure Class,” New York: Dover, 1994
Hamilton, William. “Suitably Attired: Well-dressed Men have Worn the Same thing for a Century Now – A History and an Appreciation of the Suit” The Fashion Reader, Ed. Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun. Oxford, UK, 2007, pg 191-194