My fiercely feminine guide to power dressing

HELENA MORRISSEY’s fiercely feminine guide to power dressing: Ignore anything billed as ‘workwear’. Always put on make-up (it will get you a pay rise) – And, no, wearing heels isn’t sexist!

  • There are 16 female CEOs in the UK’s top 350 listed firms, less than five per cent 
  • Helena Morrisey has worked in the finance industry for three decades 
  • Mother-of-nine reveals how enhancing your style can boost your career success
  • Recommends considering what defines you and what you hope to achieve 

When newspapers call me ‘superwoman’ I don’t much like it — my life is a lot less glossy than portrayed — but I do see why people want to know how I’ve achieved success.

For three decades, I’ve worked in the male-dominated finance industry; and for half that, right at the top as a CEO. I’ve also had nine children, who are now aged between 12 and 29. For 20 years, while at the peak of my success, I always had a child aged three or younger.

How did I become a leader in a world built for men? And how on earth did I do it with such a huge family, too?

The answer isn’t just about hard work and being good at my job: it’s also about the ways in which I have consciously influenced perceptions of me as a woman.

Helena Morrisey (pictured), who has worked in the male-dominated finance industry for three decades, revealed how enhancing your style can boost your career

The secret I’m going to let you into here is that becoming a leader is in no small part about acting — and dressing — like one. And that doesn’t mean acting or dressing like a man.

At the start of my career, it was obvious I was being held back. As a younger woman in the City in the early 1990s, I failed to get promoted despite working the longest hours on my team of 16 and trying desperately to ‘fit in’ to a very male culture.

I was, of course, the only woman on the team and, even more obviously, the only mother, having had my first baby at the age of 26. So I took a step back and re-evaluated. I was trying hard to be one of the boys, right down to a pinstriped trousersuit, But it clearly wasn’t working. So why not take a different tack?

I gave myself a career makeover. I moved companies and ditched that suit for more feminine clothes — still professional, but with more personality and ‘more me’. I experimented with my hair and took presentation-skills training.

To walk the fine line between being myself and being accepted, I became ‘bilingual’ with male colleagues — able to speak and (mostly) understand their language, office politics and meetings etiquette, but remaining true to my own views and style.

Seven years later, I was appointed CEO to investment management company Newton.

My story seems almost unbelievable, and yet what it illustrates so clearly is that we can achieve success by ‘working’ what we have, as women, so that we are noticed and promoted in our own right. If you look, sound and feel the part, you are the part.

Attitudes have certainly progressed since I was in my 20s, but not to the point where we can assume we will be treated fairly. Women at the top remain the exception: there are currently 16 female CEOs in the UK’s top 350 listed firms, or less than 5 per cent. There has never been a black female CEO in this country.

Helena said whether we like it or not, successful women need to create and show a personal brand. Pictured: MAX MARA Blue knit, £180, and midi skirt, £250, available at

And it’s not just in big firms where women are passed over. In any career or size of company, at any age or level of aspiration, women too often find themselves working harder than their male peers, and with better qualifications, and yet still in second place when it comes to climbing the ladder.

But I think we have much more agency and ability to change this than we realise. Whether we like it or not, successful women need to create and show a personal brand.

You might be surprised by the emphasis on appearance here, but studies have shown that if we look physically put-together, people assume that we are mentally put-together, too — and they make inferences about our capability and our conscientiousness.

In this first extract of my new book on how women can win at work, we’ll look at how to enhance your style to boost your career. It doesn’t matter at all if you’re not interested in fashion, by the way; there are tricks here that anyone can pull off.

In part two, I’ll set out my advice on making the office work for you, so you’re judged not by the hours you spend sitting at the same desk but by what you get done.

I’ll show you how to navigate those parts of a woman’s life that in the past have held us back — from juggling the needs of a family to going through the menopause.

But first, let’s get you started on the makeover that will create that all-important personal brand — and ensure you’re seen as proficient and valuable as you truly are.


Helena said it’s not vain to give your style some thought, as others make judgements based on what they see and hear. Pictured: EDELINE LEE Dress, £770

Of course, most of us don’t spend much time thinking about our style. For a start, it might seem narcissistic. But others make judgments based on what they see and hear, so it’s not vain to give this some thought, it’s smart. If you’re going to develop a personal brand and style that works for you, the first step is to stand back and consider (truthfully) what defines you and what you hope to achieve.

My goals are a happy family and more women fulfilling their potential — the latter via the 30% Club campaign I founded in 2010, with the aim of getting women filling a minimum of 30 per cent of the places on boards and in C-suites — the highest-ranking senior executives within a company.

Those are two very big ambitions with two very different target audiences. I dress in a fairly invisible, practical way at home, but ramp things up for the office and when I’m campaigning.

Over the years, I’ve learned to dress in a more eye-catching style, turning up the volume by choosing stronger colours or quirkier shapes. I have consciously and consistently remained feminine: the message I want to convey is that women bring our own qualities to bear, rather than needing to be honorary men.


Helena recommends having style models to be inspired, not a wannabe. Pictured: KAREN MILLEN Jacquard suit jacket, £179, and trousers, £109

My style role models are (unoriginally) Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. The late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy — Calvin Klein publicist and ever-stylish wife of John F. Kennedy Jnr — is another source of inspiration. I also love the Duchess of Cambridge’s recent looks.

Your stylistic role models might be similarly unobtainable, or they might be close friends or women you work with. The key is to be inspired, not a wannabe. In any case, none of my role models actually offer career-dressing templates: they offer general guidance around the art of dressing well.

When I shop for an outfit, I’m looking for something that works for my life, while being drawn towards flattering fit-and-flare dresses and narrow coats (the Duchess of Cambridge), sleek minimalist shapes (Bessette-Kennedy), shirt-dresses, slim ankle-length trousers and classic polo-necks (Hepburn) and chic separates for daytime plus glorious chiffon for special occasions (Princess Grace).

Certain looks do give me specific ideas. My favourite ‘Princess Kate’ outfit is a pale blue diaphanous skirt and blouse, by Lebanese designer Elie Saab, which the Duchess wore at Royal Ascot in 2019 with a matching hat and silver heels.

Her beautiful tulle concoction would not translate well to the office, but the soft blue colour certainly does. I kept a lookout and found a simple shift dress by Roland Mouret in the exact same shade that’s perfect for work.


Helena said almost every woman has something special about her that can be accentuated. Pictured: JOSEPH Top, £275, and silk skirt, £495

Think about the physical characteristics you like about yourself: those are the ones you want to accentuate. Qualified praise (‘my hair isn’t too awful) doesn’t count. Only unequivocal positives are allowed.

Although it feels uncomfortably like boasting, I’m going to say it: I like being slim.

Clothes that lightly skim my body are most flattering. Anything tight accentuates my lack of curves and makes me feel uncomfortable (both physically and mentally). But I mustn’t shroud my best feature in shapeless or oversized clothes. On the occasions I’ve done so, I felt nondescript, and that’s a miserable backdrop to what might otherwise be a good day at work.

Your best feature might be your hair, unusual colouring, great eyes, shapely legs — or simply being well proportioned. Almost every woman has something special about her, and if not, it’s usually because she is hiding it.


Helena (pictured) said being honest about your body shape helps to project a more considered look, in turn boosting your confidence 

This helps to project a more considered look, in turn boosting your confidence and making you feel comfortable and in control — all positive factors at work.

I’ve sometimes veered off-course and been tempted to dress as if I have a curvy hourglass figure, whereas in reality I am what is bluntly described as a ‘column’ — narrow, and straight up and down.

To look and feel the best version of myself, I need clothes that give me the illusion of shape — styles with a waistband or a belt to draw in dresses. The most flattering jackets are fitted but not too skimpy. Ideally, they curve out towards the hip and have structured shoulders to create a little more width. The jacket is hourglass, even though I’m not.

Certain necklines are also good at creating width where it’s needed. Boat-necks, cut wide from shoulder to shoulder, suit this shape well. (Think of the Duchess of Sussex’s wedding dress.)


Helena (pictured) said good underwear can make all the difference to the fit of an outfit, therefore it’s worth getting professionally measured 

Good underwear can make all the difference to the fit of an outfit, and to your comfort and posture. Get it right, and that’s one less thing to worry about or be distracted by during your working day.

We’re told that eight out of ten women are wearing the wrong bra size, and although I’m not convinced we’re that clueless, it’s worth getting professionally measured just to check.

My favourite lingerie brand is Stella McCartney — a perfect fit, long-lasting and (in the styles I choose) invisible — closely followed by the more affordable Chantelle, which is stocked in John Lewis and has a good range of seamless bras, briefs and camisoles. I am also a big fan of Kim Kardashian’s Skims for comfortable shapewear, which comes in every shade of ‘nude’.


Some people have clear-cut colouring. My daughter, Octavia, is an obvious ‘winter’: cool and bright. She has dark brown hair, pale skin and clear blue-green eyes, with striking dark eyebrows.

She looks wonderful in strong colours: scarlet, emerald green, purple and cobalt blue. Black and pure white suit her, too. Pastel shades don’t flatter her at all.

Her younger sister, Cecily, also has dark brown hair but is a ‘spring’: soft and bright. Her skin tans easily and she has light green eyes. She looks lovely in peachy shades, soft yellow, green and blue. Pastels generally flatter her, some brights work well, but red and purple are overwhelming.

Helena (pictured) cites a study that suggests women who wear make-up earn up to a fifth more, while admitting she feels naked without cosmetics 

You can either seek an expert’s opinion for a colour analysis or work out what suits you based on feedback.

I once bought a lovely skirt-suit in a pale duck-egg blue, but it made me look ill. I wore it to an investment conference and then changed into a more flattering colour for the evening session. Interestingly, someone who I had been working with during the day introduced himself to me, not recognising me at all. I now steer away from anything in that duck-egg blue, even if I love the style.


Women who wear make-up earn up to a fifth more. Really, it’s true. One study, based on data collected from more than 14,000 employees, found a link between income and ‘effort-based’ attractiveness — especially for women — and that the differential is as much as 20 per cent.

We might be annoyed about being judged in this way, but we do have control over the effort we make over our appearance.

Personally, I feel naked without make-up, and if I am wearing none (or very little) people ask after my health. This would have been just as true in my 30s or 40s as it is today.

Wearing make-up is not about ‘succumbing to the patriarchy’. It’s about using what’s available to help us feel more confident — and, in turn, help us to succeed.

The make-up that has the biggest impact on how others assess our professionalism is foundation. It evens out skin tone and creates a polished base, but I’ve never been very good at applying it.

Helena (pictured) said she found her hair mojo by sticking with the same salon and trusting the colourist and stylist to decide what suits her

My advice is to watch online lessons geared towards career rather than glamour make-up. Trinny Woodall’s short YouTube videos (my favourite is How to Wake Up A Washed-Out Face) are short, honest and fun.

For lipstick, I like a nude shade that deepens my natural lip colour. Charlotte Tilbury’s Pillow Talk in its original form is perfect.


I’ve had many struggles with my hair over the years, suffering episodes of hair loss after I’ve stopped breastfeeding or when feeling stressed. I tended to wear my hair up to disguise its wispiness during those times.

I eventually found my hair mojo by sticking with the same salon and trusting the colourist and stylist to decide what suits me.

They know my work is serious, and by developing an understanding of my life and career alongside the shape of my face and the limitations of my hair, they have come up with a style and colour that works and is relatively low-maintenance.

The first lockdown revealed my natural colour all too quickly — a dull half-grey, half-brown that really is the definition of mousy.

The experience made me think about when and how I should go grey. At 55, I’m in no hurry. But I reckon that by the time I’m 60, brown hair might look rather odd with my face.


Family: Helena with husband Richard, their six girls and three boys

I’m often asked if I think high heels are sexist. It’s not a straightforward question. As with make-up, if wearing heels makes us feel more confident, then no. I like the extra height and that they make me stand up straight and walk more deliberately.

When a foot operation forced me to wear a hideous surgical boot for several weeks, and then my husband’s trainers for months because my own shoes didn’t fit, my self-esteem collapsed.

As far as bags are concerned, less can be more. I used to have a sizeable collection of bags for work, amassed over decades, until burglars stole most of them. I didn’t replace them, realising that it was an opportunity to declutter and work out what was most useful.

The burglars took only well-known labels, leaving me with a couple of elegant logo-free top-handle bags in neutral colours, plus a bright orange bag that’s good at lifting subdued outfits.

The only ‘no’ in an era where conspicuous consumption looks out of touch is anything overtly flashy or designer. Discreet, high-quality bags can upgrade everything else in your wardrobe.


Its taken me many years to find my style. Along the way, I’ve made bad wardrobe choices, suffered a distorted body image and lots of shape-shifting challenges (nine successful pregnancies, two miscarriages), unfortunate haircuts and colours.

My personal brand started as classic and ordinary and has evolved to be deliberately more impactful, even exuberant, to help meet my goals. I dress to make an impression before I speak. Most shops haven’t really caught up with this concept yet.

I’m a fan of Karen Millen styles, though the firm isn’t as environmentally-conscious as I’d like.

I popped into another well-known High Street fashion store recently and noticed that they had a ‘career dressing’ rail. All the separates were black. Boring jackets, skirts and trousers, with the odd shift dress in grey or navy and a few basic white or striped shirts — a (very slightly) adapted version of the male professional uniform.

The thinking is not intentionally anti-women, but in my opinion it obscures what’s great about us. Ignore the office uniform rules and find your own style.

Adapted by ALISON ROBERTS from Style And Substance, by Helena Morrissey (Piatkus, £14.99), out October 14, 2021. © Helena Morrissey 2021. To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid to October 24, 2021; UK p&p free on orders over £20), visit or call 020 3176 2937.

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