The power suit for women of the '90s isn't a suit anymore. It's a dress.
After years of wearing the dress-for-success uniform of an understated suit, silk blouse and pussycat bow tie, women began noticeably softening things up about a year ago. Aggressive shoulder pads shrunk. Skirts got shorter. The bow tie disappeared.
Now the most feminine symbol the dress is back. And some say the change in style reflects a new, self-assured image of women in the corporate world.
"I think we're past the prove-it stage," said Judith Langer, president of Langer Associates, a New York-based market research and trend spotting firm, who calls the shift from the hardness of the '80s to the '90s "soft power."
"We needed in the '80s to have symbols of power. And the suit was that," she said. "Women still have to look appropriate, but we don't have to wear uniforms."
Retailers are embracing the trend. I. Magnin is increasing its dress orders by 50 percent compared with last year. Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue also are bullish on dresses. By as early as January, fashion-conscious shoppers should be able to find a far greater selection of dresses at a variety of price levels in most major stores.
"We're in a softer era, so this brings dresses to center stage," said Susan Hughes, vice president and fashion director for dresses, and other divisions, at Saks Fifth Avenue.
"We think the dress ensemble with a jacket is great in place of a three-piece suit," said Rose Marie Bravo, chairwoman and chief executive officer of I. Magnin.
This is, of course, good news for dress manufacturers. The Nicole Miller dress business, for example, is 20 percent ahead of a year ago. The company is expecting to do a total business of $35 million to $36 million by the end of 1990.
Sportswear designers will benefit from the return of the dress as well.
"I have never seen as many dresses on sportswear runways in my life," said Jessica Mitchell, vice president and fashion director of sportswear at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Before separates such as jackets, blouses, skirts and trousers became the key components in women's closets in the late '70s and '80s, dresses used to be the mainstay of a woman's wardrobe.
Then "Dress for Success" author John T. Molloy seduced millions of professional women into wearing conservative suits to look like clones of their male counterparts.
The suit's takeover was so complete that buying a dress now may be a new experience for many women.
"A lot of young customers have never worn one. They went from blue jeans to separates," said Marjorie Deane, publisher and chairwoman of the Tobe Report, a retail advisory publication. "Some buy their first dress for their prom, and some when they go to get married. And they say, 'I've never worn a dress before.' "
Economically, the dress will appeal to women of all ages.
"Prices are high, and dresses are one piece. When you're buying sportswear, you must take a jacket, skirt and top. Three pieces comes out to $500, whereas a dress is $300," said New York-based designer Helen Hsu, who just opened a dress collection for spring '91 after designing sportswear for more than 10 years.
The one-stop beauty of slipping into a dress rather than deciding how stylishly to combine three or four pieces for a professional look can also simplify the lives of millions of working women in the morning.
Florence Newcomb, fashion director of the Doneger Group, which advises 900 American stores, personally discovered the appeal of a dress recently.
When she slipped off the jacket of her suit, an up-to-the-minute fashion colleague said, "You know, Florence, if you were wearing a dress today, when you took off your jacket, you'd be left wearing a nice dress. Now you're just wearing a turtleneck and skirt."