Dress-for-success guru changes his tone Fashion: John T. Molloy relaxes strictures on women's office wear. But not too much.

Remember the businesswoman's uniform that was advocated in the late 1970s by image guru John T. Molloy in his best-selling book, "Women's Dress for Success"?

Essentially, it was a feminized version of a man's business attire: a tailored wool suit with knee-covering skirt in gray or dark blue, a white or pale blue blouse, a somber bow at the neck and dark pumps. Wear an outfit like this and you will be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of business, Molloy told women.


Well, that was then and this is the mid-'90s. Much has changed in the workplace over the past 20 years -- as even a conservative traditionalist like Molloy admits in his latest work, "New Women's Dress for Success" (Warner, $12.99).

In this book, Molloy offers comprehensive guidelines for avoiding failure and ensuring a better shot at success -- all backed up by almost 20 years of research in offices across the country.


His studies have shown that women who wear casual clothing to work are regarded as less serious, professional and powerful, and tend to earn less than women who dress formally.

"A woman's success does not depend entirely or even primarily on how she dresses," Molloy admits, "but dress is an important factor in most women's careers. Research shows that when a woman dresses for success, it does not guarantee success, but if she dresses poorly or inappropriately, it almost ensures failure."

Since Molloy's first "Dress for Success" book was published, women have made giant strides into the upper echelons of business, industry and the professions, where they have proved their abilities and gained widespread acceptance and respect. They no longer need to dress like men to succeed like men. As a result, Molloy now says, executive dress has become a little more feminine, colorful and varied.

Also, the addition of casual attire to the dress codes in many workplaces has allowed women to loosen their floppy neckties, swap their man-tailored coats for blazers or collarless jackets, and even replace their modest skirts with pants.

It is obvious, however, that Molloy's prejudice against women in pants remains entrenched. "Wear pants only if you need them to look like a member of the team or to perform tasks that require them," he advises in his book. And always add a blazer.

For some reason, he seems unwilling or unable to accept that a classic pantsuit, made from top-quality fabric in sober, businesslike colors, has become a staple in the wardrobes of successful women in a wide range of professions. Women value the polished look of a pantsuit, as well as the fact that they often are more modest and comfortable than many skirts and look better with low-heeled shoes.

It is unlikely these women would be willing to swap their tailored pantsuits, which look every bit as formal as men's business suits, for the more casual look of pants plus blazer.

And speaking of casual, Molloy contends that dress-down days are a mixed blessing for women climbing the ladder of success. While bringing a new level of comfort into the office, they also diminish the status of the wearers and -- if done right -- cost a pretty penny.


Here are Molloy's key tips for dressing for success in the '90s:

Wear a suit

The conservative business suit remains a staple in most businesswomen's wardrobes. "In fact, the suit made a resurgence in its popularity when Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first professional career woman to become first lady," Molloy says. He now identifies five categories of dress-for-success suits:

The traditional skirted suit, which imitates the colors and basic style of a man's suit -- except that the jacket may come without lapels. These are high-authority suits.

The "aggressive feminine" suit, which comes in strong colors (purple, red, raspberry) or bold patterns (checks, plaids, herringbones). These suits send a message that is both feminine and assertive.

The "stylish professional" suit, which generally has a jacket designed to be worn without a blouse. These make a woman appear softer -- but still serious.


The "soft feminine" suit, which usually comes in a pastel color, may have feminine detailing such as a velvet or lace collar, and may be in a knit fabric. These suits work best in warm, Southern states, and for women who already have established their professionalism.

The "conservative feminine" suit, which Molloy says is the favorite of most powerful women. "It has a conservative cut and color, but the color is one that would be found only in a woman's suit -- for example, mahogany, dark plum, deep maroon. These suits send the message that most women want to send: They are feminine and powerful."

Think twice about dresses

Seventy-two percent of business people today think a woman in a dress can be effective, Molloy's research indicates. However, 93 percent think she would be more effective if she wore a jacket with the dress.

"Today, because the jacket outfit is an almost universally recognized uniform for businesswomen, any woman who does not wear one puts herself at a real disadvantage," Molloy says.

However, if a woman prefers to wear a dress to work, she should choose a style that is tailored, dark and conservative.


Mind those colors

Molloy is at odds with the "color me beautiful" school, which advises women to wear only those colors that flatter her complexion.

"Think in terms of being effective as well as attractive," Molloy advises. "Remember, the colors you wear announce your success, background, status, authority, personality and more."

In general, bright colors draw attention to you, dark colors make you an authority figure, upper-class colors (rich yet subtle) give you dignity and power, and earth tones make you appear approachable, sympathetic and persuasive.

Use top quality accessories

All accessories -- scarves, jewelry, shoes, bags -- should scream money, class and status, Molloy says.


He advises wearing designer scarves, gold jewelry, expensive watches, conservative pumps with a medium heel and dark color, and leather handbags and briefcases.

He is no longer opposed to women wearing vests. His research has shown that a vest can help a woman retain an air of authority when she removes her jacket.

He suggests that the best winter coat is a camel-colored, wraparound -- or, if you are heavy, a chesterfield style. The best raincoat is a belted model in beige, tan, navy or black. Your coat should never look tight or skimpy and should be long enough to cover whatever you wear under it.

Pay attention to grooming

When Molloy did his original research in the early '70s, "there was no doubt that being feminine and alluring was not an asset" on the job. As a result, he advised women to wear little or no makeup and no nail polish.

But by the end of the '80s, "a more feminine approach by women in business was not only accepted, but often worked better than the masculine, serious approach that had worked several years before."


In his updated book, Molloy says that knowing how to apply makeup "is an essential business tool." He recommends an understated look -- natural-colored lipsticks and eye shadows, carefully applied eyeliner and mascara, and either red or clear nail polish.

Hairstyles that work best for businesswomen are shoulder-length shorter, and look managed and controlled but not masculine.

Like it or not, image is an effective tool in building a successful career, Molloy says. Prejudices still exist in the workplace -- not so much against against women in general but more against women who are sloppily or inappropriately dressed, poorly groomed, overweight or aging.

This is not fair, he says, but it is fact.

If a woman accepts this premise, the advice he offers should help her overcome those prejudices -- and open doors to success.

How to dress for success


Dress to fit in with your co-workers.

Be one of the more traditional and conservative dressers in your group.

Spend comparatively as much on your casual business wardrobe as you do on your traditional wardrobe.

If your boss is a man, be as traditional as possible. If your boss is a woman, mirror her style without copying her outfits.

Stick to colors and color combinations found in traditional men's sportswear.

Carry and wear businesslike, traditional and obviously expensive accessories.


The best business casual clothing is made of natural fibers -- cotton, wool, silk. But to avoid anything that wrinkles easily choose natural fibers that have been woven or treated to resist wrinkling or blends that look like natural fibers.

Wear serious footwear -- no boots, sneakers, sandals, spiked heels or open-toed party pumps -- and unless you are tall, don't wear flats.

Keep a navy jacket handy that you can throw on in case of an emergency.

Wear pants only if you need them to look like a member of the team or to perform tasks that require them.

If you do wear pants, they should be tailored to de-emphasize your feminine figure. A full-cut pair of slacks with pleats in a conservative color would be ideal.

Neatness counts more when you are dressed casually, so do professional-looking hairstyles and makeup.


Wear nothing that might be considered too sexy for the office by your father.

Source: "New Women's Dress for Success" (John T. Molloy)

Pub Date: 1/02/97