Gone Are the Days When Women Were Hemmed In by the Power Suit

Dresses, pants, and softer, more feminine looks are acceptable in even the most conservative offices.

When Donna Antonacci began working in investment banking, her boss told her something that stuck in her mind: "Only secretaries wear pants."

Today, 12 years later, Ms. Antonacci is an assistant vice president at an asset management firm, and, guess what? She's wearing pants. "Women don't need to prove themselves anymore," she explains from her New York office. "You get to a confidence level and define 'professional dress' for yourself."

Gone are the days of stiff gray career-girl uniforms, when skirted suits with big-bow-tie blouses were the female answer to a man's Brooks Brothers suit.

As women continue to climb the corporate ladder, create flextime schedules, and start their own businesses, dressing for work has become more about "what works for me" than "what statement do I have to make?"

But company expectations aren't far behind. Appropriate dress depends on a lot of factors, professionals say, including your office environment, where you are in your career, and where you live. "The power suit is still there, but the look has softened and it's not as structured and tailored," says Jimmy Newcomer, associate professor of fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. "Janet Reno and Madeleine Albright are still wearing 'the uniform,' but that tells the public what their status is."

Fashion norms for women have lightened up considerably over the past 10 years. While slacks and dresses aren't replacing suits altogether, they are more commonplace than they were at the turn of the decade. And many women say that a blazer makes almost any outfit look businesslike.

At a time when even some of the most conservative corporations have adopted dress-down Fridays for both sexes, women feel freer to finesse workplace fashion. They are sporting garments that have more-feminine lines and brighter colors, are more comfortable, and are made from more-relaxed materials - including polyester (gasp!). From Donna Karan to Donald Deal, designers propel the casual trend.

"Women are not afraid to look feminine," says Mary Lou Andre, a corporate image consultant based in Needham, Mass.

Not that we will see garden-party floral in the boardroom, however. There are definite boundaries, Ms. Andre says. While the fashion press may go gaga over the return of Diane Von Furstenberg's wrap dress, she predicts, "It won't be an office look." On the other hand, she has seen some "dynamite dresses in structure, color, and appropriate neckline and cut."

Renewed interest in the dress on fashion runways this fall has caused some women to reevaluate their closets. The appeal of a professional-looking dress over a suit is obvious.

"You jump in it, zip it up, and go. There's no fuss, and you don't have to worry about coordination," Antonacci explains. She just bought her first dress-that-looks-like-a-suit last month - it's burgundy with a scoop neck and a flattering line. Another plus: If you're going out after work, it transitions well, she adds.

"A dress is a no-brainer," Andre agrees. "We're talking about a one-piece garment versus a three-piece [suit ensemble]. The days of spending a lot of time on your wardrobe are over."

Sometimes it's not that easy. Andre has seen a rise in requests for dresses, but she has not had the greatest success in finding them.

"A lot of women are in pursuit of the perfect dress, but it's difficult to manipulate the size," Andre says. "I have very few clients who can wear off-the-rack dresses; they're difficult especially for women who have figure challenges."

With suits, you can get a size 12 skirt and a size 10 jacket, she explains. Lest we forget, the average American woman is a size 14. "Women enjoy wearing dresses. But are they going to throw all their suits away? No way."

Peggy Heeg, senior vice president in human resources for Bronner Slosberg Humphrey, a high-profile advertising agency in Boston, says she sees more pants-and-jacket combinations. Appropriate dress depends on the nature of your business, she reiterates. A lawyer will always dress more conservatively than a graphic artist.

Two years ago, Ms. Heeg's firm established a "business casual" dress code and even published guidelines for employees. Mondays through Thursdays it's business casual, then on Fridays it's casual (including jeans). The rule of thumb: "If a client popped in [unannounced], would you be embarrassed?"

Heeg says her work attire has changed a lot from eight years ago, when her closet featured more suits. "I still have that wardrobe, and I visit it once in a while," she says with a smile.

Michele Rothstein, like Antonacci, adhered to a strict self-imposed dress code while she rose in her career: She, too, would never wear pants. Today, things are different. She has arrived in her career as vice president of marketing for Chelsea GCA, developers of upscale outlets across the country. Now she dresses for comfort, wearing designer separates - slacks and jackets. "I look professional, but I'm super-comfortable.... If my son wants me to pick him up and hug him, I'm going to do it," she says.

Subtle or blatant, the "casualization" of women's professional dress is showing up everywhere - from specialty shops to department stores. Ms. Rothstein sees many types of women combing her company's outlets for the smart-comfortable look. They tend to be between 25 and 55 and range from the single professional to "the juggler" (homeowner with a family and career) to the country-club lady of leisure.

Other women interviewed for this article also point out that casual Fridays aside, their calendar often determines what they wear to work. "If I'm going to a client's or giving a presentation, I'll wear a suit - no question," says Julia Downs, a marketing consultant. "But if I know I'm going to be at my desk all day doing conference calls and putting together proposals, then it's smart-casual."

If snow is predicted, the boss is out, you don't have client meetings, and you're running errands during lunch hour, chances are you'll wear something casual.

At the same time, women still need to keep in mind that what they wear indicates professional aspirations, Rothstein says. "You essentially wear your promotion." Adds Andre: "It's all how you choose to package yourself. How do you want to present yourself in the workplace?"

FIT's Newcomer has a prediction certain to wrinkle a few brows: "Some designers can't wait to bring back the '80s," he says, pointing out that fashions tend to reappear every 20 years. That means the return of big shoulder pads - and quite possibly the power suit, just for fun this time.

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