The power dress: Kelly Hayes-Mcalonie at TEDxBuffaloWomen

The power dress: Kelly Hayes-Mcalonie at TEDxBuffaloWomen


Translator: Robert Tucker
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo I’m going to speak to you today about the importance of the dress and the complexity that a lot of women in the history of women in professions have had with it. And I’ve been thinking about this
because of my research on Louise Bethune, my work with Architect Barbie, and also as a practicing architect. I have come to see the dress
as a symbol of power, and this power was invented here. So, December 18th marks
the 100th anniversary of the passing of Louise Bethune, America’s first professional
woman architect, and a fellow Buffalo gal. Bethune was like many professional women
at the time, in that she faced the prejudice
that men around her felt that she lacked the talent,
the intellect, and the business acumen
for professional life. But Bethune also faced
an additional prejudice, and that was in her dress. You see architects in the late 1800’s were expected to supervise construction, and because women were confined
to wearing dresses at that time, it was believed by many that they lacked
the ability to supervise construction. But supervise construction
Louise Bethune most certainly did, probably by wearing men’s trousers
underneath her dress. Bethune supervised at least a third
of her firm’s projects over her career, and in particular the Hotel Lafayette
across the street. Bethune was also a founding member of the Buffalo
Women’s Wheel and Athletic Club, one of the first women’s bicycling groups
in the United States. Indeed, Bethune was the first woman
in Buffalo to own her own bicycle. The Wheelers did a tremendous amount
to support the suffrage movement. In fact, Susan B Anthony said
that Wheelers had done more for the suffrage movement
than anything else. So, women continued to enter
the architectural profession, and they continued to dress fashionably, and by the Civil Rights era, and after,
when they had reached critical mass, they were dressing mostly
to suit themselves. And, in general,
they were wearing pantsuits — preferably in black. Now, in 2011, I had the great opportunity
to work with my friend and colleague, Despina Stratigakos, professor at the UB School of Architecture
and Planning, on the design and launch
of Architect Barbie in collaboration with Mattel. It was the I-can-be
career doll of that year. This doll was immensely popular
among its target demographic: little girls. But there were some people
in the profession who were critical. In general, I dismissed many
of these comments, because comments like: “She doesn’t wear enough black,”
and “She’s got on too much pink.” “She isn’t cool enough
to be an architect.” All of those in my mind
seemed superficial, and they missed the point
behind the project, which was to spread awareness
of architecture to little girls. But there was one group, who criticized
the project, that did give me pause, and this was women of a certain age, those baby boomers
and the generation before, who had worked in the trenches
and paved the way for Gen-Xers like me, and the generations that followed. When women from that generation
critiqued the project, well, that did sadden me. Many of these women felt
that the whole idea of Barbie stood for every stereotype against which
they had fought for so many years, and the fact that the doll
was wearing a dress, well, no woman would wear
a dress to work, especially on a construction site,
and be taken seriously. So, I closed out 2011
with these two histories on my mind. First, the prejudice that Louise Bethune
and her contemporaries experienced by men who said that because she was confined
to a dress, she could not be an architect, and then contemporary women
critiquing a doll in a dress, and saying that that doll
represented architects. And then tragedy struck. On December 30, 2011,
I woke up and I could not stand. By the end of the day, I was in
a hospital ICU on a ventilator and paralyzed from the neck down. I was diagnosed with
Guillain–Barré syndrome, a neurological, autoimmune syndrome that breaks the connection between
the brain, the spine and the muscles. Most people survive Guillain–Barré, however, of the few who do succumb, they do so because of complications
with the ventilator — which I was on. My case was particularly severe. It is a strange thing to go from being
a vibrant, energetic person in the prime of her life one day, to becoming an invalid
on life support the next. I can tell you that I was filled
with deep despair. However, this story has a happy ending
as I stand here before you, (Laughter) (Applause) but there were moments, I’ll be honest, when the complications
with the ventilator took place, and I thought that those moments,
I was going to die. However, miraculously, glacially,
incrementally, I began to recover, and when I finally got off the ventilator, I was able to push my body
to make those neurological connections, so I could learn how to walk
and talk and feed myself. My recovery was isolating
and, at times, painful, but, in general, I was so glad
to be alive, and I was desperate to get back
to being the old Kelly. You see, 2011 had been
the most fulfilling of my career, an I so much wanted to be
that person again. On March 16th, 2012,
I was released from hospital, and when I began to make
occasional public appearances, especially the rare
professional appearance, I desperately wanted to seem strong
and in control, even though, as you can see,
I was often in a wheelchair, I was frightfully thin, and I needed my husband’s assistance
for the basic of skills. So, I remember saying
to my speech therapist, I’m an architect,
I work in a male-dominated profession, I am often the only woman in a meeting, I cannot sound like
a Looney Tunes character. And so also one of the most salient
concerns I had was what to wear. Because I needed something
that looked professional, yet at the same time
I could manage on my own. Now, I have always loved the dress. My husband will tell you, for every occasion
I have a little black dress, accompanied by a little red dress,
a blue dress, a red dress — I have all the dresses. However, I also had
an arsenal of suits, power suits, that I would wear to meetings
when I wanted to own the room. The problem, as you may have noticed,
is that my hands haven’t recovered. They may never recover. Zippers are difficult:
buttons are impossible. I needed something
that I could wear to work, that I could manage on my own,
if I was going to be in control. So, I wore dresses. I wore dresses for fun,
I wore dresses for play and parties, I wore dresses to work, I even wore dresses
on the construction site. And I have since
redesigned Architect Barbie — (Applause) — to look like a certain architect and,
I know, complete in power dress. And I think she looks great. But what is a power dress? Well, in 1977, John T Malloy published the groundbreaking book
“Dress for Success.” And it was from that book that came
the idea of the the power suit. And that power suit was meant for the wearer to convey strength,
leadership and skill. The power dress does the exact same thing:
Allows the wearer to present strength. For Louise Bethune the society
of Gilded Age America dictated that she be confined to a dress. And then those around her, who either lacked imagination
or were threatened by a strong woman, used that dictate to limit her abilities in terms of her career ideas
and other freedoms. But the power behind Louise Bethune was
in demanding equality despite the dress. And the fact that she wore a dress
on a construction site, and on a bicycle, challenged the people around her
to rethink what a woman in a dress can do. Architect Barbie’s costume by
any adult standard is not a power dress. But that dress is not intended
for an adult audience; it is intended for a 7-year-old girl. And the power behind Architect Barbie
is in the message: I can be. That is: I can be anything I want to be
and wear the dress, or my value is in how I see myself,
not how others see me. Indeed, the message behind Louise Bethune,
and Architect Barbie, is that I’m good enough
to be what I choose. And as for me, well, I identify
with both Louise Bethune and Barbie. At this point in my life and my career, I’m limited in certain choices
because of my disability. But, as I emerge from my cocoon, I’m able to pursue my professionalism
with grace and dignity, because of the dress, and the lessons I have learned
from Louise Bethune and Architect Barbie. We three, all blondes, I might add, and the power dress were invented here
in Buffalo, New York. Thank you very much. (Applause)

11 Replies to “The power dress: Kelly Hayes-Mcalonie at TEDxBuffaloWomen”

  1. Congratulations Kelly.  You are an amazing young woman who has overcome many obstacles.  You are a credit to your mom and dad and the town of Brigus.  Good on you.

  2. YES! Awesome speech.. radical Feminists contradict themselves.. They want to be men! Why cant we be feminists WHO ACTUALLY WANT TO BE WOMEN! I love the dress and love this speech! Lets be proud to be female

  3. Amazing beautiful women and speech, we should not hide our feminimity or masculinty in whatever we do!

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