Women's wear gets down to business

No doubt about it, clothes to wear on the job are proliferating, which is as it should be. That all-important fashion question -- "How to dress for work?" -- deserves increased attention.

There's "The Board Room Dress," a double-breasted chalk-striped flannel with plenty of top-executive cachet, from Ralph Lauren's new collection. There is almost all of Liz Claiborne -- a designer who has understood the sportswear needs of the working woman and has set her sights on fulfilling them. And there are lots of others. Like Jones New York, and various spiffy catalog specialists.

If there is more of a selection now, that is partly because attitudes have loosened up a lot lately. The strictly tailored shirt-skirt-blazer uniform is no longer regarded (if it ever was) as the built-in guarantee of upward mobility that certain dress-for-success proponents claimed it was.

It is occurring to employers that a job applicant who conforms to this stereotype might not be executive material. Instead of making a good impression , she could be sending out signals that she lacks initiative or imagination.

"We don't totally subscribe to the 'dress for success' school," says Leonard Boreski, mid-Atlantic personnel manager at IBM's regional office in Valley Forge , Pa. "In women's fashions in terms of business, the two- or three-piece suits with blouses, there can be enough variation so it isn't a cookie-cutter kind of image."

Such variations are easy to come by this fall. Fashion is still in the age of diversity. While mannish clothes with hard lines have been banished from even the most tailored collections, the outlay of styles appropriate for business life is otherwise expansive, in dresses as well as in suit looks. Fabrics and colors are softer. Shapes have eased up. Gathers, pleats, and bias cuts make them somewhat fuller.

Shirtdresses, a career standby, come with middy and/or pleated frilled collars in addition to the conventional shirt collars or bow necks. Tucked tuxedo fronts and narrow lace trims are other departures, in both dresses and blouses, that raise regulation-style classics above the norm.

Nice as it is, a blazer does not have to be the one-and-only jacket to own. New shapes include interpretations of Armani's band-collared style, with slightly shirred sleeves, done by Jones New York in wool crepe as well as tweed. Flannel cardigans with jewel necklines work beautifully over turtleneck sweaters and over round-collared blouses.

Braid-edged versions of Austrian jackets abound on the pages of such catalogs as The Talbots. Although the boiledwool Alpine jacket would be too warm (and in some business environments, too sporty) for the office, Liz Claiborne's gray flannel Austrian jacket with black-braid banding could go anywhere dressed up or down with appropriate blouses, skirts, and accessories.

The range of accessories is, by the way, more extensive. Along with the little silk bow tie, a means of varying necklines, there is the foulard print belt with leather end pieces. Other renewing touches for last year's clothes include new shades in dark stockings, to be toned in with shoes and skirts. The shawl is a yes and no proposition for business wear. A paisley shawl of moderate, manageable proportions, flecked perhaps with a hint of metallic thread , would only be a practical choice for wear going to and from the job.

As to metallics in general, there is no reason why a bit of bronze, copper, or pewter cannot be introduced as an accent. As piping on a leather belt or pump, for example. But discretion would be the wise course here. The flashy gold tote is obviously too much.

The real danger zone in this season's career dressing is in innovative pants. A divided skirt would certainly be the newest separate to consider buying. This , however, is an area for experimentation best left to the woman who knows what is expected of her in her particular professional setting.

In builing a career wardrobe of classics piece by piece (the system that still produces the best longterm results), acquiring some new matching separates as well as coordinates will provide an almost endless series of combinations.

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