Even if you missed Apple’s big iPhone unveiling this past Tuesday, you may have seen the photo: Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s retail boss, on stage wearing black-framed glasses, a white v-neck t-shirt, and a pale pink lace trench coat.
The coat — made by the company Ahrendts used to run, Burberry — caused an immediate reaction. W Magazine, Racked, and Glamour all covered the coat, and Twitter’s reaction to it. I tracked down the coat in question and found out the price tag: $US2,895.
And then, the hate-mail came.
“We are horrified you are focusing on her outfit — really?” one Twitter user wrote to me, referring to herself and her female friends in Silicon Valley. “Very disappointing.”
“You think Ms. Ahrendts’ fashion choices are newsworthy? Really? Must be a slow day for you.” a man told me in an email.
“Why did a technology-focused site even publish something about her outfit?” a woman wrote by email. “Your article is one that my daughter asks about, and requires a sit down with her and her two brothers to explain why it is of zero importance that this powerful woman wore a jacket and it was expensive.”
Many of the criticisms were valid. They pointed to the issues women in tech — and the world as a whole, let’s be honest — have always faced: Not being taken seriously, and a lack of representation in boardrooms, on executive teams, and in male-dominated fields like technology, sports, or engineering.
Ahrendts is the only female executive at Apple, and she was the only woman on stage at the company’s big event on Tuesday. She was there to talk about what’s ahead for Apple’s retail stores, which includes a new flagship store in Chicago, a return of the glass cube over the Apple store on 5th Avenue in New York City, and more programs at the stores themselves to help them become something akin to community centres.
I want to be clear about something: What Ahrendts wore on stage at the Apple event was not more important than what she had to say.
But I also want to be clear about another thing: What Ahrendts wore on stage was not accidental. It was not chosen at random, or plucked last-minute from a pile of Burberry trenches lying on her bedroom floor.
What Ahrendts wore on stage was intentional, and it’s absolutely worth noting.
The power of clothing
When powerful people appear in their professional capacities, every action they take is open to scrutiny and interpretation. That includes what they say, their mannerisms, their voice, and yes, their clothes.
And their choice of clothes serves a very deliberate purpose.
When Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit during the third presidential debate, it had a double meaning: Not only was it a suit made by an American designer, Ralph Lauren, but it also signified solidarity with suffragists, who used white as their signature colour. Her outfit choice wasn’t accidental.
When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, he did his best to use clothing to appear like a regular guy, not one who only paid a 15% tax rate thanks to his substantial wealth. Romney often wore Gap jeans or a silver-tipped belt, frequently looking like a rich person guessing at how regular people dress. He was trying to shake his East Coast, rich guy, elitist image, and he used his clothes to do it.
But perhaps the best example of someone who thought consciously about the power of clothing is Michelle Obama, who used her clothes as a diplomatic tool.
She wore a gown by Indian designer Naeem Khan for the Indian state dinner, chose a dress by Korean-American designer Doo-Ri Chung for a state dinner with the president of South Korea, and donned Christian Siriano, an American designer and “Project Runway” winner, for a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Even the prints and colours she chose often paid homage of the cultures of the countries she visited.
More recently, when Melania Trump wore stilettos en route to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, the internet mocked her for seeming out of touch, even though she did change into more sensible shoes later on. In that instance, she was making an official visit in her capacity as First Lady, and her outfit was open to criticism.
If there are more examples of the power of fashion as it pertains to women, it’s likely because women, on average, put more effort into their clothing choices than men. That’s not to stereotype, or to say that women don’t prioritise other things over appearance — I’m willing to bet the majority of women do.
It’s because women are often forced to try harder, be more professional, and put more effort in than their male counterparts.
Some of Apple’s male execs at the big event last week, including services boss Eddy Cue and marketing chief Phil Schiller, looked downright schlubby as they paced the stage in wrinkled shirts, ill-fitting jeans and unfashionable shoes. The reality in Corporate America is that women don’t have the same leeway to “dress down” as men.
An unspoken responsibility to have great taste
Jobs’ “look” was part of his identity and the identity of the company. The black mock turtleneck and jeans became as iconic to Apple’s brand as the company’s white earbuds or the famous logo of an apple with a bite missing.
Jobs appreciated the power of fashion. He chose to wear the same thing everyday both for its convenience and its ability to convey a message. He once even asked famous designer Issey Miyake to create special uniforms for Apple employees, according to the biography of Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Jobs abandoned the idea after employees raised hackles).
I can only guess at Ahrendts’ motivations when she got dressed Tuesday morning. There are some obvious conclusions to draw, though: San Francisco’s climate is temperate, and often only calls for a light jacket, so a lace trench coat would suffice. And as former CEO of Burberry, she probably still has affection for the brand and its signature product, the trench coat. She owns several, and seems to wear them often.
As for her larger motivations, I have some ideas.
As head of Apple’s entire global retail presence, Ahrendts has an unspoken responsibility to have great taste. She’s responsible for putting Apple’s products in their best light, for getting people to walk into a physical retail space (no easy feat these days), and for deciding the look and feel of the stores.
So what Ahrendts’ outfits need to project is an air of competence, stylishness, approachability, luxury, and a dash of futurism. At the Apple event, she knew she was going to be the only female presenter on stage, she’s familiar with her colleagues’ fashion sense — or lack thereof — and she’s aware that she’s one of the most important women in tech, and the highest-paid one at that. So Ahrendts chose an outfit that was feminine and powerful; fashionable and forward-thinking.
Ahrendts’ clothes are not the most important thing about her (although she is a particularly fashionable woman). They will never be more important than the things she says, or the work she does at Apple.
But when it comes to powerful people, it’s not only acceptable, it’s important to notice what they’re wearing. The belief that a person like Ahrendts throws on any old thing before an event, and that what she wears doesn’t influence how others perceive her, is a naive point of view.
In situations like these, clothes say the things the person doesn’t, or can’t, put into words. Pay attention.