Revamping a wardrobe for the professional look; Working women: from casual clothes to suits

Career fashions have been headline news in the past several years. There are books that can help you dress for success. Department stores have special shops just for "career clothes." And Women's Wear Daily reports that professional women (lawyers, bankers, and corporate executives) spend $5 billion on apparel annually.

But what about the homemaker going back to work, whose wardrobe for 10 years has consisted of comfortable dresses, pants, and pullover sweaters? And what about the first-time job seeker on a limited budget with a closet full of casual high school or college garb? The sophisticated (and expensive) executive look is just not necessary or attainable for reentry women or new job seekers.

Patricia Lucero of Rochester, N.Y., has empathy for women who can't afford either the money or time for a "career" wardrobe.

"I went to a fashion show for working women where the wardrobe cost nearly $1 ,000," says Mrs. Lucero in a telephone interview. "I always listen to women, and their comments were, 'Great, but who can afford it?' A lot of women only have $200 to spend on clothes each year, and if the washing machine breaks, the money has to go to that."

She and partner Nora Carney offer seminars on fashion, makeup, and poise, so they approached the fashion show sponsor and said they could model working wardrobes that cost half as much. Each woman uses one basic suit and a variety of blouses, sweaters, vests, and accessories to come up with a five-day office look plus one evening outfit. It is basically the same look adopted by executive women, but Mrs. Lucero urges women to use ingenuity in stretching its use.

"You can get so many outfits from just one suit," Mrs. Lucero says.

Veronica Taylor, owner of The Suitor, a clothing shop aimed at working women in St. Petersburg, Fla., agrees. She adds that women should take a tip from men.

"We need to establish a working uniform," Mrs. Taylor says. "When you see a man walk down the street in a suit and tie, you know it's a businessman. When you see a woman, it's hard to know what she does."

Both women assert that sensible office clothes are good for morale, and they are important for first impressions.

"In an office, if you dress appropriately, you give an air of authority," says Mrs. Lucero. "When someone walks in and sees you, he or she will think, 'She'll know . . . .'"

Work outfits should be kept simple.

"If you wear a conservative suit and then loud platform heels, you'll spoil the look," Mrs. Lucero says.

Pauline Alexander of La Cabine, a New York City clothing shop for working women, points out that what is acceptable for one job might not be for another.

"If you work in an investment bank, you should dress more conservatively, no matter what level your job," she says. "But if you are working in advertising, communications, or a creative firm, it would be almost inappropriate to come to work dressed conservatively."

Both Ms. Alexander and Patricia Lucero find that many reentry women are not confident about how they will look. And many have not kept up their wardrobe to include clothes that would be good in an office.

The first thing a woman should do is go through her closet and get rid of the clothes that don't look attractive, Mrs. Lucero says.

"I recommend that she invest in a blazer that she can wear over her dresses and skirts to start with," says Mrs. Taylor.

She has noticed that many young women seeking jobs do not know how to dress. Her idea of a serious applicant does not include a young woman with a disco shirt and pants. Mrs. Taylor recommends a navy blue suit and white blouse for a first interview.

Mrs. Taylor says women should be more concerned with looking nice than with being a fashion plate. During seminars she gives on fashions for working women, she asks the women to stand up, turn around, and recall what the woman in front of her was wearing.

"They usually can't remember," Mrs. Taylor says. "Women are vain, and they think they have to wear something different every day. If you are looking nice, that is what will be remembered."

She then asks each one to recall if the woman in front was well dressed or not.

"They willm know that," she says.

How can job seekers invest in work clothes while operating on a low budget? Patricia Lucero suggests that women either have a suit tailored or shop carefully for sales. Go to a fashion coordinator at a store and explain the work situation and price range.

Pauline Alexander points out that most reentry women already have a wardrobe of separate sportswear, which will serve them in good stead while building a work wardrobe.

"If she already has a navy blazer, she should take it around with her when shopping and get skirts and blouses to go with it," Ms. Alexander says. But she also stresses that a reentry woman should make sure her wardrobe is not already too worn out.

Add to the wardrobe when money is available.Invest in a sweater to wear with a suit or skirt, and then buy blouses and accessories.

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