Will the right suit take you to the top?

When John Lennon referred to the people who controlled the Beatles' business interests, he coined a clever phrase. He called them "men in suits," or simply "suits." The description - sometimes amusing, occasionally pejorative - caught on, neatly conveying images of the power and authority vested in businessmen, bureaucrats, and politicians.

It's a phrase with particular relevance this fall. Suits are everywhere - if not yet on streets and in offices, at least in stores and ads.

A few Sundays ago, the Boston Globe landed on suburban driveways sheathed in a plastic bag advertising suits by Banana Republic, a company more often associated with casual attire. An accompanying brochure pictured both "modern" and "classic" styles.

Similarly, Nordstrom's is now running attention- grabbing newspaper ads for suits, with the tag line: "Be honest. Were you ever really comfortable with casual Friday?"

And in The New Yorker, a special advertising section for Toyota, headlined "Move Into the Fast Lane," includes a full-page ad with a young man dressed in a handsome gray suit, crisp white shirt, and silk tie. Oh, yes, and don't forget the silver cuff links being offered for sale as well.

Obviously the beleaguered menswear industry hopes to pump up suit sales, which are rebounding somewhat after dropping precipitously when polo shirts began replacing pinstripes in the corporate world during the height of the casual-Friday fad.

All this sartorial splendor in ads serves as a welcome harbinger of change - an acknowledgment in some circles that a polished, professional look can benefit both business and the wearer.

At the same time, the presence of all these men in suits prompts an intriguing question: Where are all the women in suits? Not the ones in fashion ads, but those in real life, who, despite several decades of steady progress, remain relatively invisible?

Open any big-city newspaper any day of the week and men in suits still reign as newsmakers in photos and headlines. In politics, in business, and at events such as last week's World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, Mexico, "suits" predominate and rule. It's one way to measure the distance still to go for women.

In Congress, for instance, women hold only 13 percent of seats, although that is up from 4 percent 20 years ago. In the corporate world, just six women hold the title of CEO in Fortune 500 companies. Women account for 11 percent of corporate officers in those companies.

It has been nearly 30 years since a generation of women clutched copies of John Molloy's sartorial bibles, "Dress for Success" and "Dress for Success for Women." If women could just put together a professional wardrobe, Molloy implied, all things would be possible. They - we - would be on the way up those ladders to success. To be taken seriously, he decreed, women needed tailored navy suits and floppy ties. Stand back, world.

If only it were that simple. Mercifully, the floppy ties disappeared. Suits and colors softened, wardrobe options increased, and well-tailored pantsuits found a permanent place on the professional sartorial map.

Clothes don't make the man, or the woman, although they can make or break a professional image. They also serve as a reminder that it requires far more than even the best wardrobe to "move into the fast lane."

As more women take their place in boardrooms, congressional chambers, and Page 1 headlines, many look forward to working equally with the men now in power. But they may have to stop short of coining a new phrase. Somehow "women in suits" just doesn't have quite the same ring as Lennon's original phrase.

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