Working women trading dress-for-successuniform for softer, feminine styles

September 26, 1990|By Jean Patteson | Jean Patteson,Orlando Sentinel

Every decade seems to produce fashions women woul fTC rather forget. Poodle skirts and crinolines in the '50s. White go-go boots with black fishnet stockings in the '60s. Bell-bottom trousers and polyester pantsuits in the '70s.

Now it looks as if the "I Can't Believe I Wore That Stuff" award for the '80s is being pinned on the tailored lapel of the corporate business uniform the mannish navy suit, plain white shirt and little red necktie that women in their thousands affected as they started to climb the career ladder.

The business suits of the '90s could hardly be more different from the uniform of a decade ago. Man-tailoring has given way to a more fluid drape. Severe shades of navy and gray have been overshadowed by vivid reds, purples and yellows and pretty shades of peach, taupe and pink.

Skirts are shorter or longer than the old just-below-the-knee requirement. Blouses are brighter and more detailed. And bold, colorful scarves, belts and jewelry have replaced the regulation necktie.

These changes are partly the result of an overall fashion trend away from stiff, structured looks toward softer, more natural styling. But the changes also are the result of women's revised attitudes about their abilities and worth in the workplace.

Women no longer feel they have to look like men to be accepted, to get the job done or to get ahead.

In the late '70s and early '80s, women in significant numbers started moving into middle- and top-level jobs in the business and professional world. They were acutely aware that their housewifely shirtwaists and poster-girl sweater-and-skirt outfits looked wrong in a workplace dominated by men in smart, businesslike suits and ties.

They figured the best way to fit in and be accepted was to hide their femininity and appear as much like men as possible.

Reinforcing this notion was author John T. Molloy and his best-selling "Woman's Dress for Success Book," published in 1977.

"There is a firm and dramatic step women can take toward professional equality with men. They can adopt a business uniform," he wrote.

And adopt it they did.

"When I came to the bank five years ago, I came with the stock supply of navy blue suit, dark gray suit and a tan suit for summer," said Ann Clement, an investment officer at Barnett Bank in Winter Park, Fla. "I can remember going to meetings and everyone was in blue or gray men and women."

Occasionally, when she felt "really brave," she would wear a pin on her lapel or a colored blouse instead of a white one. "That was my fashion statement," she said.

Clement has phased out her dark, solid suits in favor of shawl-collar jackets and slightly shorter skirts in subtle plaids and brighter colors. The last jacket she bought was purple.

"I probably wouldn't wear it to a major meeting. I still get in conservative mode for those," she said.

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