Businesswomen are beginning to discover that they don't need to dress like men to be taken seriously in the corporate world. In subtle ways, they are starting to soften the corporate ''uniform'' and express more individuality in office dress, says Mary Fiedorek, founder and president of Streets & Co. in New York City, one of the first stores in the country geared exclusively for the executive woman.
''Women are much more willing to accept something new,'' she says, looking polished and summery in a cream-colored suit brightened with a small scarlet flower in the lapel.
Mrs. Fiedorek, a former dress buyer for Bergdorf Goodman in New York, finds that corporate women coming into her shop are experimenting with brighter colors , taking more interest in style, and adding more creative accessories such as cummerbunds, lace pocket squares, and unusual lapel pins. New quiet, neutral tones such as taupe, charcoal, mauve, lavender, and celery are gaining acceptability in office settings, in addition to maroon, deep greens, and blues from the classical palette.
Still, the cliche dark suit, white shirt, and ''floppy tie'' combination continues to set the norm for many women in conservative, male-dominated professions.
''If anybody is putting women into a predictable 'power look,' it's women themselves,'' asserts Mary Fiedorek in ''Executive Style: Looking It, Living It'' (New Century Publishers Inc., Piscataway, N.J., $12.95), written by Diana Lewis Jewell.
''Men have had a long time to get comfortable with what they feel is an appropriate look,'' Mrs. Fiedorek says. ''Women are just at the dawn.'' As they gain confidence in corporate circles, she sees businesswomen as a group developing their own office dress code that is formal and feminine, and allows for a degree of personal flair.
Although dresses are getting the nod from a few corporate women, suits continue to reign as the mainstay of the professional wardrobe.
''Everyone feels better in a suit, especially when meeting clients,'' says Mrs. Fiedorek, who bases her observations on personal interviews, market research, and her retail experience. Even in choosing a suit, she emphasizes, there is some room for flexibility in style and color.
Although women just entering the work force tend to make more conservative clothing choices than those who have worked a few years, it is not necessary to revert to a solid gray, navy, or black ''interview'' suit, she believes. A woman entering a profession such as law or banking, for example, might consider a tiny , sophisticated tweed, a muted glen plaid, or a suit with a subtle fleck.
Blouses offer even more opportunity for variety by choosing different collar treatments and colors, although Mrs. Fiedorek suggests limiting fabric choices to cotton or silk if possible.
A good starting wardrobe, she explains in the book, consists of two suits, one skirt, one blazer, and five blouses. This core wardrobe can cost between $1, 500 and $2,000. While this may sound like a large investment, the author argues, the importance of a polished, professional image cannot be underestimated. Proper dress for both men and women is a visual signal that the incoming worker understands the environment he or she is entering and contributes to the newcomer's credibility and confidence.
A large financial outlay for a wardrobe may not be feasible for some women, particularly those who have been out of the work force for a number of years. According to one computer analyst quoted in the book, ''You've got to guard against buying too much too soon. What you think is right may be far too inflexible.''
In any case, Mrs. Fiedorek believes women should be more willing to look to experts for wardrobe assistance. A homemaker about to reenter the work force might work with a knowledgeable salesperson to coordinate a working wardrobe around appropriate pieces she already owns.
In making the transition from a suburban look to a professional look, for example, a woman can dress up a matching skirt and blouse by adding a simple necklace or bow to finish the neckline, a belt, a blazer, a tailored bag, and businesslike pumps. According to Mrs. Fiedorek, wearing too many prints, too much polyester, and clothes with too little tailoring can contribute to the ''office mother'' role and should be avoided.
Tailoring is a service men generally take for granted but women overlook or are reluctant to seek. Although it is not always easy for women to find good tailoring services, Mrs. Fiedorek maintains that ''no one can put on a suit or a dress and have it fit properly. It needs to be tailored.''