Dressing with Authority

Last week I attended a brilliant women’s lunch. It was hosted by city law firm Cameron McKenna, organised by the wonderful Sarah Lloyd-Hughes of Ginger Public Speaking, and featured stylist Ilka Dunn presenting on the subject of Dressing with Authority.

The immaculate and captivating Ilka is a political scientist who was working with political candidates on their campaigns and communications when she noticed, again and again, the speed with which people made assumptions about candidates’ competencies.  She also noticed that the candidates’ appearance drove much of these assumptions.

Ilka Dunn

Ilka talked us through the “codes of authority”that we all subconsciously use to assess others. Helping women to navigate these codes and use them to our advantage has become ‘my feminist project’ in Ilka’s words.

Military uniformis the source of most of these codes. A brilliant example of how this works in practice is the airline industry, which borrows heavily from military dress codes. When we see the pilot in his or her starched uniform, badge and pilot’s case, striding onto the plane, we immediately feel in good hands. Switch that up for flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt and the confidence we place in this institution may start to falter.

Ilka ran through many examples of these codes in practice. The fascinating part was that she was wearing all of the below items and more, and as she removed them one by one, she started to appear less authoritative and more vulnerable. In particular:  

  • A brooch, worn high, is a powerful indicator of rank and decoration (in the military sense)
  • Watcheswere given to generals and also indicate rank as well as efficiency and respect for one’s own and others’ time
  • A necklaceor scarfdenotes jugular protection. A bare neck in a formal setting can look vulnerable

I was fascinated by these insights and was struck by how many of these codes of authority I respond to without questioning why. The bottom line is that women have to work harder than men to appear confident and competent. It’s unfair, and to be aware of the above dynamics and use them when necessary can be helpful.  

Ilka wants to make our lives simpler and cleaner (her personal style is minimalism after all). Her formula for success is:

Find your own authentic style
Find the right colours for you
Choose the codes of authority that work best for you


I think the keyword here is authenticity. None of us will be comfortable or convincing playing at being someone we’re not. Ilka’s objective is to show us how to be MORE ourselves – a bigger, bolder, better version of ourselves that will have impact whether we are sporty, classic or one of many other styles.

In her personal styling sessions with clients Ilka can offer a range of services, from a colour consultation to a style & cut consultation, which determines your style personality and most suited cuts (both £350). She also offers CEO styling and styling for specific events, interviews or presentations you may have.

Please contact Ilka on ilka@ilkadunn.com

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