I never really understood the concept of the power suit - a woman in a suit always just reminded me of my mom watching Murphy Brown. I have always been drawn to the leather jacket, tight skirt Kelly Bundy kind of power, the sexy dangerous kind. When I was in college in the mid aughts, I worked part time at a Talbots in the skyway in Downtown Minneapolis. If you don’t know what a Talbots is, it’s a conservative women's clothing store for the traditional working woman - specializing in suits, cardigans, wrap dresses, bi-strech fabrics, petite through plus sizes. The perfect office attire for a midwest-chic accountant or executive assistant. I lived in a punk house at the time and outside of work I was much more of a Kelly Bundy than a Murphy Brown -  my job was like a secret life I was living on the side. I had a locker at work and would change into my professional attire after riding my bike there in a mini skirt and cowboy boots. My 71 year old coworker Carol could sure throw a mean side eye. But she also used to clean the bathroom in her under clothes and girdle, so I wasn’t the only one showing off.

Truthfully I was a little embarrassed that I worked at Talbots and not somewhere edgy and fun like First Ave. But, it was a good paying job, offered benefits, and we had a diverse all female staff of about 15 women. I took the job because it was flexible and well paying, I stayed for 4 years because I ended up loving it. The all female environment provided me with so much support and stability at an otherwise extremely difficult time of early adulthood. All of our regular customers were professional women who would often spend their long lunch breaks with us. One of my absolute favorite customers was Kathy. I don’t remember what Kathy did professionally, I just remember her and her best friend Jackie would come in at least once a week to find out what was new, and what was going on in my love life. After a couple of years of helping them select 80% of their wardrobes, they were like family.  One day Jackie came in without Kathy, it turned out Kathy had been diagnosed with breast cancer. 

A month or so went by before I saw Kathy again. On a particularly quiet and miserable Minnesota winter day, Kathy and Jackie popped in on their lunch. Kathy always had a head of voluminous blonde hair that was just as bouncy as her personality. She had new hair that day, and she came in looking for some new suit pants. The chemo-steroid cocktails had caused her to go up a few sizes, so this was an important mission. We picked out a couple of styles of pants for Kathy to try and I went back into the fitting rooms with her. Just before she closed the door to her room she turned back to me and smiled, and in her not so subtle Minnesotan accent she said,  “Do you want to see? I’ll show you my bald head.” We both laughed, hard and loud like we did. Curious and moved by the intimacy of the moment, I went into her fitting room with her, she took off her wig and showed me. It has been 15 years since Kathy showed me her bald head in the dressing room at Talbots and I am still thinking about it. I had never seen such a badass. We found her some suit pants that fit and she went right back to work without skipping a beat, graceful and powerful as the day was cold. My perception of a power suit was forever changed that day.

 

I always look back on my time at Talbots as “Talbots University” because I worked there for 4 years from the age of 18 to 22. I learned more life and communication skills there than 4 years of college could possibly teach a person. The diverse crew of strong women surrounding me helped mold me into a functioning confident adult. At that time I was really confused about what a powerful woman was, how she looked, where her power came from. As a young wild woman I thought power was all about sex appeal, it turns out it’s all about grit. Do I still ride my bike in a mini skirt and cowboy boots sometimes? You bet your ass I do. Do I think that working women in pantsuits are badass? Absolutely. Power is something that comes from within, and with the right outfit for the job it’s only amplified. Two years ago when the opportunity to interview for my dream job came up, the first thing I did was go out and buy a new suit. For the first time in my life I put on a suit jacket and it didn’t feel like a costume, it felt like exactly the right thing to wear. When I got on the flight to Portland for the interview, I carefully laid my new suit in the overhead bin, and I knew I was going to get the job.

 

WRITTEN BY ROSEMARY SINDT

PHOTOGRAPHY BY NAOHMI MONROE