'Dress for success' - a fashionable idea whose time has gone?

Just when some of us thought we couldn't bear to read one more article on Power Dressing, or look at one more perfectly polished model in a skirted pinstripe suit and floppy tie, the fashion revisionists arrived.

''You Don't Have to Dress (Like a Man) for Success,'' Ms. magazine assured its readers last spring. A few weeks later researchers at New York University warned that strict business uniforms could actually be the wrong strategy, sending signals that the women who wear them may be ''very junior'' or ''insecure'' in their jobs. As Self magazine summed up last month, ''The whole dress-for-success business has become less of a formula and more of an art ... the point being to look professional and not like Clones on Parade.''

What a relief!

Finally it was acceptable - fashionable, even - to buy more of the tailored dresses and softly feminine suits some of us had been wearing all along.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the fitting room. Designers unveiled their fall collections, and suddenly masculine looks were everywhere. Androgyny became a household word. Goodbye once more to feminine touches, hello again to man-tailored everything.

Mixed signals have long been the stock-in-trade of the fashion industry, and the current reversal merely represents one more case history in confusion.

''What women really need and what magazines show often don't coincide,'' says Jacqueline Ari Murray, director of Dayton's FYI wardrobe service in Minneapolis and a corporate business-dress consultant. ''There's a real tug of war out there for control of women.''

That tug of war might be more amusing if there were less at stake. But consider the plight of the working woman, short on shopping time and long on conflicting advice, caught between the dictates of fashion theorists and the reality of retailers' stock. So dogmatic have been the rules laid down by fashion moguls like John Molloy that whole careers, women have been made to believe, can depend on wearing The Right Sartorial Stuff.

Nor is style the only criterion by which a working woman is judged. She must buy quality, the theorists insist, endlessly reciting the advantages of ''investment dressing'' - pricey goods that can play havoc with all but the highest salaries.

The sartorial snob looks down a fashion-conscious nose at such things as polyester blouses, no matter how well designed (''only silk will do'') and insists on the finest leather shoes, handbags, and briefcases. Men might invest in stocks and bonds; women, it seems, are encouraged to hang their dividends in the closet.

Given the spiraling cost of women's clothing and the fact that women still earn only 62 cents for every dollar men earn, the cost of a wardrobe becomes a double burden.

As if correct style and high quality were not demands enough on a woman's taste and pocketbook (or wallet, as the fashion may be), quantity is also a heavy requirement. What might be called the more-is-more philosophy of wardrobe planning pops up in subtle and often unexpected ways.

Former anchorwoman Christine Craft, for example, charged that station KMBC in Kansas City set up a ''clothing calendar'' to ensure that she would not repeat an outfit during a three-week period. And in the recent trial of John De Lorean his wife, Cristina Ferrare, was observed wearing a different outfit every day for the first five weeks of the trial.

Even Working Woman magazine encourages practically limitless costume changes. One recent article describes in detail a New York banker's wardrobe (''more than 25 suits and dozens of blouses'') and the four closets in her ''small Manhattan apartment.''

One closet, the writer explains, holds ''dressier suits - velvet and fine wools,'' another ''everyday work suits.'' Dresses and evening wear hang in a third closet, coats in a fourth.

Maintaining such a wardrobe can be a further step toward bankruptcy, with dry cleaning and alterations costing our banker ''at least as much as the $2,000 to average working woman, who often has barely one closet to call her own and whose median salary in 1983 was under $13,000.

Fortunately, a more sensible approach is being advocated by realists like Ms. Murray, who recommends multi-use wardrobe purchases - for instance, ''buying one blouse that can do many things.'' Even so, Ms. Murray observes, a woman spends far more of her salary on clothes than a man.

Clothes may make the man. They threaten to unmake the woman. There is a double standard in the closet, as well as other places. A man satisfied to dress conservatively can't go wrong. Nobody will remark about him, ''What is his regimental tie saying? What does his button-down collar mean?''

On the other hand, the slightest detail of a woman's outfit - the lace on a cuff, the color of a belt, the length of a hem - gets read as a statement, proving the wearer's intelligence, leadership, and moral character, or the opposite.

It would be an improvement if women, earning that 62 cents on a man's dollar, didn't have to spend $1.62 compared with a man's dollar to satisfy the uncertain conventions of ''dressing for success.'' But it would be even better if nobody judged anybody by appearances where competence is the issue.

To borrow the favorite male metaphor of sports, on the playing field of life it's the performance, not the uniform, that counts.

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