ON THE JOB Women putting style to work


It still may seem like a man's world, but these days women needn't dress like their brothers in order to succeed in business. In fact, women are trading in the corporate blue suit of the '70s and '80s for the individual style of the '90s.

But the switch has not happened overnight. The evolution of office dress has been slow. Even so, a few mileposts deserve attention.

The most recent was in 1985, when designers such as Donna Karan created ensembles that allowed women to look polished, yet feminine. Ms. Karan also "pioneered a system of dressing that was like a man's but for a woman," says Kendall Farr, fashion editor at Working Woman magazine.

Giorgio Armani, master of the draped suit for men, also has influenced the latest soft-suited look for women. Designers and clothing manufacturers are creating separates and talking about mixing and matching. And that is what working women are talking about.

More women are wearing pants and split skirts on the job. "I think we'll see a lot more pants in the workplace," says Ms. Farr. "Pants offer a comfortable, but elegant solution to the skirt [length] controversy."

Many women also are buying clothes for the job that will work for them after office hours. The focus is on classic pieces that will remain in style and fit into tight budgets.

"We have busy lifestyles. We don't have time to go home and change after work, so we dress for all occasions," says Deborah Hinyard, an account manager at NationsBank in Dallas."I can't afford to be too trendy. I need a lot of basics in my wardrobe."

Some of the most sought-after, well-tailored suits and coatdresses of the '90s admittedly are influenced by men's fashion, but this time, that influence takes a distinctly more feminine and relaxed spin than in 1977.

That was the year John T. Molloy published "The Woman's Dress For Success Book" and asserted, "Letting the fashion industry influence your choice of clothes is a whopping mistake."

Mr. Molloy offered detailed advice on what to wear to work based on his "scientific research." The corporate-climbing uniform wasn't pretty. It looked efficient and was, well, dull: the boxy blue or gray suit, a white man-tailored blouse, a loose bow tied at the neck, a skirt slightly below the knee, natural colored pantyhose and simple pumps.

Indeed, the wardrobe demands of today's working women are more complex than in 1977, depending more on a combination of geography, corporate culture and personal preference.

Remnants of the Molloy look remain, however. The young law intern or ambitious job applicant is always easy to spot in some version of the old "success" suit. But over the past 15 years the uniform has undergone subtle changes. It has been "modified," says Valerie Steele, who teaches in the graduate division of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

One of those modifications occurred when big shoulder pads came in during the '80s and the executive's uniform began to take on "a more hard-edged geometric" look, says Myra Walker, director of the Texas Fashion Collection at the University of North Texas.

But in the mid- to late '80s, that hard edge began to soften. The working woman began to look less corporate and more individual.

Recently, for instance, Ms. Hinyard shortened her skirts, and she wears more dresses to the office these days. "I also wear a lot more color and more pins and scarves than I used to."

Such wardrobe changes echo those of many women around the country. A survey by Converse Inc. published in February's Glamour magazine indicates that at 201 corporations, 84 percent of women executives are wearing dresses instead of suits, 57 percent have shortened their skirts, 57 percent wear flats or open-toed heels, 31 percent wear pants to work and 79 percent wear stylized suits. The firms also reported that 65 percent of their women executives wear less traditional business clothing to work.

"Women feel a lot freer to express their sense of individuality," says Ms. Farr. "If the early '80s was directly related to acting like a man and looking like a man in the workplace, that has changed."

And according to many working women, showing wit and fashion savvy in one's dress does not preclude professionalism.

"I don't dress flamboyantly," says Elysia Holt, a Dallas real estate consultant. "But when I want to wear pretty colors or a skirt that is above my knees, I do it.

"In the '90s, I see women being more conscious of their femininity. The suit isn't a uniform any more, because women are more individualistic and aware of high fashion."

Some say the "asexual" look did more harm to women than good.

"Imitating men's dress simply didn't work," says Barbara Otto, -- national spokeswoman for 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. She cites the case of Ann Hopkins, who was not promoted in her job at Price-Waterhouse because "she was too masculine." The Hopkins case serves as an example of the women's wardrobe dilemma in the workplace, says Ms. Otto, despite the fact that Hopkins won her case at the Supreme Court level.

Still, Ms. Otto suggests that women assert their individual styles on the job because "if women want to break ranks, we've got to demand that we are judged on performance and not on what we wear."

There is a problem with that, says Steele of F.I.T. A puritanical attitude prevails in American culture, she says. "Since 1910, women in the work force have been told that what they wear is too sexy or too severe or too man-like."

Women in professional fields are welcoming the opportunity to change the strict corporate uniform, or even to simply add their distinctive touches. Some professions, such as advertising or art directing, reward creative dressing among men and women. Others don't require more than jeans and a T-shirt.

Dress codes vary according to department at Convex Computer Corp. in suburban Richardson, Texas. Sheree Thueme, 36, an employee relations manager, works in "an informal, flexible work environment." But out of personal preference, Ms. Thueme wears "dressy casual" clothes to the office and, she says, "If I have a meeting, I wear a suit."

Some women never chose to wear the old corporate suit and have served as role models for other women.

"I was an anomaly" in the courtroom in the '70s, says Leigh Bartlett, a partner at Vial Hamilton Koch & Knox, a Dallas law firm. "I seemed to be more of a maverick because I did not want to dress like a man. At the time, there were no role models, so I developed my own style. I wore smart, upscale suits and coatdresses. . . . We now have a number of female associates in the firm and they have developed their own styles.

"I think there is more flexibility in what a woman can wear these days," adds Ms. Bartlett. Men aren't as lucky, she says. "I see men wearing colorful ties and suspenders in everyday situations, but not in court."

In some ways the change in women's office wear coincides with gains women have made in the workplace, says Rosemary Dempsey, vice president for action at the National Organization for Women in Washington.

"As an attorney, I remember the days when I felt I was putting a client's case in danger if I did not wear a certain kind of dress or skirt to court. Judges were gender-biased," she says. "That has changed."

How a woman dresses, however, is not an excuse for harassment.

While more than 50 percent of women who work outside the home report they have been sexually harassed, says Ms. Dempsey, "there is no evidence that shows women are harassed because of the way they are dressed."

"If people learned a lesson from Anita Hill," she says, "it is that it is not up to women to change men's behavior. It is up to men to change their attitudes and behavior."

Some women believe the old uniform actually did harm.

Aggie DeLaurenti is critical. "I think women did violence to themselves when they dressed like men in the '80s," says the owner of Jordan-DeLaurenti Inc., a technical training and government contractor in Dallas. By wearing the uniform, she says, women gave up individuality, and found that dressing like clones sometimes resulted in being treated like clones.

At Jordan-DeLaurenti,there are no specific dress requirements. Receptionist Shelley Ellis, 24, who served on a committee that set out to establish a dress code, recalls that "out of 40 people working for the company, there were 40 different opinions," on what was appropriate office attire. After realizing a specific dress code was ludicrous, the panel settled upon "appropriate business attire."

Ms. DeLaurenti says her female employees dress both professionally and fashionably. "Some even wear walking shorts and jackets to the office -- but they still look dressy.

"I like to dress with pizazz," she adds. "I wear lots of color and jewelry." The jewelry, she says, is "a mark of success," in the business world.

"We are more productive when we wear the clothes that make us feel good," says Leah Ostercamp, 25, a secretary at Jordan-DeLaurenti. She has been working in business offices since 1985 and enjoys looking "professional."

"Even if I am the low man on the totem pole, I think I will be jTC treated better if I dress well," she says. But more importantly, "I feel more competent. What you wear does make a difference," she says. "You may be judged on your performance, but you are also judged by your appearance."

Since appearance matters in most corporate settings, dressing for success can be complicated in the '90s.

"There is a fine line between being ourselves and knowing what is expected," says Leslie Smith, associate director of the National Association for Female Executives. She predicts that what women wear in the '90s "will be more important than the last decade because jobs are more tenuous."

"I suggest women look to two or three levels above themselves and wear what those managers are wearing," she says. That doesn't mean women shouldn't stand out, she cautions. "Bright colors are fine," she says, "but whatever we do, we're still not one of the boys. That is why the whole dress-for-success thing never worked."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad