How Women Owned Sport, And Sport Ruled Women's Wear In 2016

From Serena Williams' Grand Slam slayage to the street style circuit, a new athletic brand of feminism ruled

Can you dress your way to excellence? To watch Serena Williams walk into a crowded room in Milan and part a sea of photographers with just the sheer dynamism of her presence is to understand the woman crush. This is what happened when a group of us from ELLE were seated across from the tennis champ – all poise, glutes and abs! – front row at the Versace SS17 show.

Suddenly our pre-show small talk turned to topics such as going to the gym more, eating less refined sugar and artificial colouring, and sitting taller (it had been a long fashion month spent eating carbs and slouching on benches at shows).

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2016 has had a lot of that: women daring other women to raise their game. It's fitting that the year in which women made historic gains in politics across the world would also be the year in which they owned sports headlines – and in doing so, storming not one but two big old boys' clubs.

From the string of female athletes who slayed the Olympics (boxer Nicola Adams; Simone Biles and the entire US gymnastics team; swimmer Katie Ledecky; Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini, the list goes on) to Serena sealing her position as the greatest tennis player of all time with 38 titles – more than any active tennis player today – 2016 may have had a lot of drawbacks, but it also gave the fitness-minded woman much to fan-girl over.

2016 has had a lot of that: women daring other women to raise their game.

And the fashion world took notice. Sportswear has been a hot topic for several seasons, and the trend isn't slowing down. On the AW16 and SS17 runways, designers used athletic wear as a tool to show the emotional and physical strength of women – whether it's the rise of the puffer coat dominating this winter, from Topshop to Marques'Almeida to Chanel, or the return of the ski trouser as seen at Emilio Pucci, Balenciaga and many others.

Donatella Versace even included a feminist manifesto in the soundtrack for her athletic spring/summer collection: 'This show is for the women taking chances. Take the leap. If we do nothing, we get nothing.' Those words drove home the message of power that is present in her nylon dresses. 'Sportswear is the future of fashion,' she said.

Meanwhile, at Maria Grazia Chiuri's debut as Christian Dior's first female Creative Director, she played up a theme of feminism and empowerment with quilted fencing jackets and T-shirts reading 'We Should All Be Feminists'.

So we get it, fashion is heaving with girl power right now, with clothes to match. It's a new kind of power dressing that couldn't be more different from your mother's old broad-shouldered, Prince of Wales check suit. This is instead an elevated version of performance wear, clothes to move fast and make big moves in. Clothes that dare you to be amazing. And they're most importantly made for women by women: Versace, Chiuri, Clare Waight Keller, Stella McCartney, they were all on message with their most recent collections.

But just because a woman dresses herself like an Incredible doesn't necessarily make it so. Or does it? I ask this question as someone who is allergic to heavy-handed, targeted marketing. (Don't tell me I should be a feminist now just because you want to sell a dress!) But the sense of sisterly solidarity that swells in me with the sight of powerful women in fashion using their platform to celebrate all that women can do is too strong for my inner cynic to squash. Get it queens!

And as a fashion editor, I know the benefit to dressing for the position you want in life. Researchers at Northwestern University found that clothing can affect your state of mind, which can affect productivity*. Sometimes you have to literally wear your confidence on your back before it actually sinks in, similar to how scientists often say the simple act of smiling will make you feel better on a shit day.

I'm not a natural runner, but when I put on a pair of new Lycra tights and kicks, I feel like there's no limit to how far I can sprint. The clothes don't turn me into something I'm not, but the right kit (and a mental picture of Serena) gives me the extra oomph I need to get there.

* The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, April 2012

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