It still may seem like a man's world, but these days women needn't dress like their brothers in order to succeed in business. In fact, women are trading in the corporate blue suit of the '70s and '80s for the individual style of the '90s.
But the switch has not happened overnight. The evolution of office dress has been slow. Even so, a few mileposts deserve attention.
The most recent was in 1985, when designers such as Donna Karan created ensembles that allowed women to look polished, yet feminine. Ms. Karan also "pioneered a system of dressing that was like a man's but for a woman," says Kendall Farr, fashion editor at Working Woman magazine.
Giorgio Armani, master of the draped suit for men, also has influenced the latest soft-suited look for women. Designers and clothing manufacturers are creating separates and talking about mixing and matching. And that is what working women are talking about.
More women are wearing pants and split skirts on the job. "I think we'll see a lot more pants in the workplace," says Ms. Farr. "Pants offer a comfortable, but elegant solution to the skirt [length] controversy."
Many women also are buying clothes for the job that will work for them after office hours. The focus is on classic pieces that will remain in style and fit into tight budgets.
"We have busy lifestyles. We don't have time to go home and change after work, so we dress for all occasions," says Deborah Hinyard, an account manager at NationsBank in Dallas."I can't afford to be too trendy. I need a lot of basics in my wardrobe."
Some of the most sought-after, well-tailored suits and coatdresses of the '90s admittedly are influenced by men's fashion, but this time, that influence takes a distinctly more feminine and relaxed spin than in 1977.
That was the year John T. Molloy published "The Woman's Dress For Success Book" and asserted, "Letting the fashion industry influence your choice of clothes is a whopping mistake."
Mr. Molloy offered detailed advice on what to wear to work based on his "scientific research." The corporate-climbing uniform wasn't pretty. It looked efficient and was, well, dull: the boxy blue or gray suit, a white man-tailored blouse, a loose bow tied at the neck, a skirt slightly below the knee, natural colored pantyhose and simple pumps.
Indeed, the wardrobe demands of today's working women are more complex than in 1977, depending more on a combination of geography, corporate culture and personal preference.
Remnants of the Molloy look remain, however. The young law intern or ambitious job applicant is always easy to spot in some version of the old "success" suit. But over the past 15 years the uniform has undergone subtle changes. It has been "modified," says Valerie Steele, who teaches in the graduate division of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
One of those modifications occurred when big shoulder pads came in during the '80s and the executive's uniform began to take on "a more hard-edged geometric" look, says Myra Walker, director of the Texas Fashion Collection at the University of North Texas.
But in the mid- to late '80s, that hard edge began to soften. The working woman began to look less corporate and more individual.
Recently, for instance, Ms. Hinyard shortened her skirts, and she wears more dresses to the office these days. "I also wear a lot more color and more pins and scarves than I used to."
Such wardrobe changes echo those of many women around the country. A survey by Converse Inc. published in February's Glamour magazine indicates that at 201 corporations, 84 percent of women executives are wearing dresses instead of suits, 57 percent have shortened their skirts, 57 percent wear flats or open-toed heels, 31 percent wear pants to work and 79 percent wear stylized suits. The firms also reported that 65 percent of their women executives wear less traditional business clothing to work.
"Women feel a lot freer to express their sense of individuality," says Ms. Farr. "If the early '80s was directly related to acting like a man and looking like a man in the workplace, that has changed."
And according to many working women, showing wit and fashion savvy in one's dress does not preclude professionalism.
"I don't dress flamboyantly," says Elysia Holt, a Dallas real estate consultant. "But when I want to wear pretty colors or a skirt that is above my knees, I do it.
"In the '90s, I see women being more conscious of their femininity. The suit isn't a uniform any more, because women are more individualistic and aware of high fashion."
Some say the "asexual" look did more harm to women than good.