Fruit-bowl fashion: ill-suited for the office?

After nearly a decade of somber sartorial tones - black, brown, and gray - fashion shoppers face a bold new choice this spring: color. Lots of color.

Store windows, dotted with pink, look like an explosion in a bubble-gum factory. Edibles are, in fact, a running motif in color names. Think cotton candy. Think sherbet - or sorbet, as one design house calls its colors. Also think citrus - lemon, lime, clementine - and fruits: berry, mango, apricot, melon, papaya. It's enough to make a shopper head for the supermarket instead of the dressing room.

For winter-weary customers, these delectable shades offer a welcome change from the prevailing hie-thee-to-a-nunnery look. "People are looking for color," says Mary Lou Andre, president of Organization by Design, a fashion consulting firm in Needham, Mass. She calls the "color thing" the "hottest trend" right now.

But this sartorial sizzle can also precipitate a minor identity crisis for urbanites who wonder: Who am I if I don't wear black? And will the world take me seriously if I wear - gasp - pink?

"Among professional women there's a little bit of laughter," says Ms. Andre. "One of my clients said, 'I'm not going to look like a fruit bowl when I go to the office.' "

Talk to fashion historians, designers, and retail sales people and the challenge of color becomes apparent.

"I believe it's not going to work," says Alison Lurie, author of "The Language of Clothes." Pink, she explains, "is not becoming to most women after a certain age, although when you're elderly and have white hair, it's nice. Pink has traditionally been worn mostly by children and young girls, and then by grandmothers. It's a romantic color."

Clothes usually echo the colors of the landscape, Ms. Lurie finds. "That's why people in big cities tend to wear black and gray, whereas in Florida, they tend to wear green and blue and sand, the color of the beach." When fashion editors tried to promote brown last year, she adds, "It didn't work. Brown works best in a northern outdoor landscape, with tree trunks and earth and pine needles, if you're buying clothes to go hiking and camping."

A lady can wear pink, sometimes

Yet color, used properly, can enhance a professional image. Elizabeth Dole, who appeared on the front page of newspapers recently in a bright coral suit, earns high praise for her use of color.

"Elizabeth Dole looks great in those colors," says Anne Hollander, author of "Seeing Through Clothes." "She looks powerful because she had complete composition, the pinkness being part of it, the pearls, the feminine hair, the way she speaks, and her style of political behavior. She's a lady. A lady is a very powerful person."

But using bright colors in a public role, Andre cautions, is not the same as wearing them all day at work. "If you're a television anchor doing a three-minute story, it's very different than being with somebody eight hours in something very loud."

No wonder customers cling to the safety of dark clothes. "Black is a no-brainer and it's easy," says Arlene McLeod, who sells designer lines at Bloomingdale's in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Black can also look richer than it is. "A cheap white suit is a cheap white suit," says Andre. "A cheap black suit, a lot of times you can't tell."

Calling a dark suit "very authoritative," she adds, "Women have worked so hard in the workplace to further their credibility." She encourages clients to incorporate color into their wardrobe, "but in a way that's going to help them with their personal and professional goals."

Andre makes a case for consistency. "To go to the office one day conservatively dressed and the next day with some of this very trendy clothing and color can send very mixed messages about who you are. People wonder, 'Is she a consistent thinker?' "

Even those attitudes may be softening. Irene Kurzner, a designer at OKW women's clothing store in Boston, says, "Ten years ago, people were very concerned about the issue of being taken seriously. They thought somber colors reflect a serious attitude. That's definitely no longer true."

Ms. Hollander, an art historian, traces the appeal of black to the 16th century. In Castiglione's "Book of the Courtier" in 1512, she says, "he suggests that a way to look imposing and interesting and wonderful and distinguished is to wear black. This of course is the High Renaissance, which had a lot of colors going on."

Credit the movies for black and white

In this century, Hollander adds, people learned to appreciate black during the first two decades of the cinema, when black had great power. "We learned how to read and see the black-and-white spectrum."

Hollander calls black "a very powerful way to look marvelous." She adds, "You're not going to find either sex getting rid of black," although presidents and heads of state no longer wear it. "For women it's still sober and respectable, but not as sober and respectable for men as it was in the 19th century."

Whatever the color trend, Hollander rejects the notion that designers hold dictatorial power. Rather than tyranny, she says, fashion represents a challenge.

"We are challenged to integrate what designers do into our lives so we show ourselves to be of our time, which we all have to do. These days we don't have to follow one fashion, capital F. We can follow 17 different fashions. Women make their arrangements with what's out there."

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