It's referred to in as many names as fashion has faces -- business suit, career dressing, tailored strategies, business fashion. But it all boils down to one simple fashion design: the timeless, ubiquitous, all-purpose suit. In women's fashions this fall, the suit is as important as ever, and this time it's struck a softer, less boxy silhouette than in previous years, and has reverted to old-fashioned classic grays and muted English browns and checks that spell ``minimal,'' conservative, and understated. As with dresses and separates, the suit this fall enhances a woman's figure, emphasizes the waist, and drapes more softly over the shoulder, even if some shoulder pads are still present. Because its colors are muted and its appointments -- collars, lapels, special pockets -- are extremely simple and understated, such accessories as wide belts, chain necklaces, and scarfs play an important role in dressing up the classic suit.

Although there are a number of ``leisure suits'' in the market (i.e., suits used for other than the 9-to-5 slot) and there are some interesting dressy suits for evening, most suits fall under the ``working'' category. So today's suit, as of old, is expected to withstand stress and last longer than just a season or two.

Wool, polyester, and wool/polyester blends are the stuff most suits are made of. The pure polyesters tend to shine and look stiff (not to mention not breathing) and are generally regarded as unfashionable. The polyester/wool combinations, if well executed, sometimes offer the best aspects of both fabrics: the no-wrinkle qualities of the polyester and the suppleness of wool. For a suit of high fashion and quality, however, we must look to wool.

The classic tweeds and flannels are woolens, but they tend to be heavier than many of the Italian and other European worsteds that are generally preferred by most masters of high fashion. Generally, the fabric accounts for one-third to one-half of the manufacturing cost, and in buying a suit it's as important to look at the quality of the fabric as it is the label or fashion design. A good fabric looks rich. It looks trustworthy. And it springs almost unwrinkled from your grip.

Subtle herringbone patterns and other twill weaves, such as sharkskin, are popular this season, as is the simple hopsacking weave. Grays and browns often mix with subtle shades of pink or purple threads to give a rich, subdued look that stands out for its simplicity.

Interfacing, the scaffolding of a suit jacket, is usually fused to the fabric. Woven interfacing makes for longer-lasting and better constructed suits than knitted or nonwoven. Seams should be pressed flat. The shoulder seam should hit just at the point of the shoulder.

For women, the hip cut should be more important than the waist -- that is, a suit can always fit a little loosely at the waist as long as the hips are amply accommodated. A tight-looking suit defeats its natty purpose.

The length of the skirt is a subject for long and wide discussion. Generally, hems are shorter this season, in order to emphasize the hour-glass figure that has made a comeback. Whereas individual skirts or separates do tend to run just below the knee, however -- with some notable exceptions that run all the way down to the ankles and all the way up to the miniskirt or culotte line -- the classic business suit looks its best in the standard Chanel length, about two inches below the knee. The Chanel length not only has the banker's seal of approval for its character and respectability, it also has common-sense appeal. A good suit that you're likely to invest from $300 to $600 in should have not only wearability, but also longevity from one season to the next.

The best suit is the one you wear, and not the one that wears you. A suit with too many appointments, unusual cuts, or larger-than-life lines may be carried off splendidly by a tall, lean figure but look overwhelming on a short, plump woman. Generally, the rule of thumb (especially this season) is: Less is more. The less complicated, the better you look. A second rule of thumb is: When in doubt, go for the classic look. That is, don't fall for the ``line'' of a single season. Look beyond. Also, study the proportions of a jacket and skirt carefully on you, not on a model.

In general, there are certain national characteristics to suit design. British suits have slightly padded shoulders and a pinched waist. American suits are generally cut full and straight at the waist, but like their British counterpart, the jacket tends to be long. European suits tend to be fitted at the hips, with more pronounced padded shoulders and shorter waist. In general, the American and British cut are a bit roomier and more traditional, and the European tend to reflect more the season's fashion. The American and British are usually cut for leaner and taller women than the European designs -- although certain Giorgio Armani suits also seem designed for rather impressive-looking models.

In choosing the suit that suits you, it's a good idea to study which style might be best suited for your size and proportions as well as likes and dislikes. Sometimes what we like looks best on someone else, and what we originally dislike becomes transformed when we actually try it on. Trying on a suit and taking the time to live in it in front of the mirror has actually saved many days of backing and filling between tailors and department stores. A suit that's not right for you can't be totally revamped. If the essential cut and style don't look instantly right, you're probably better off trying on a different label.

A suit should have versatility. One Madison Avenue executive says she's able to wear the same suit to work three times a week without appearing boring or unfashionable. Her trick is changing blouses or silk sweaters of very different colors and textures each time she dons her Harve Bernard.

On the whole, the art of being well-suited starts and ends with you. Gone are boxy shoulders and the uptight male look-alike cuts; and in their place a new freedom stalks the world of workaday suits.

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