Softening the Edges Flowing, longer look in lighter fabrics is suitable for office

April 15, 1993|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Staff Writer

This spring, career clothes have lost their starchiness. High fashion has been moving to a softer, longer silhouette since the turn of the decade, but significant change is now showing up in lower-priced lines in department store racks, which are the wardrobe source for most working woman.

Women are now having to reassess the way they put themselves together in the morning -- a chore significantly more traumatic than meeting the income-tax filing deadline.

The suit, that reliable staple of business attire, has been altered dramatically. Jackets have lost their tough tailoring and are now shaped longer and fitted softly to the body. They may be cut with a soft shawl collar or pared to a simple cardigan.

A blouse now, when it finishes a suit, is not always the ubiquitous little silk shell or stiff shirt, but often of longer, floating design.

Skirts, until now obligatory for office wear, have been moving downward with the fashionable, narrow lengths reaching nearly to the ankle and unbuttoned or slashed to allow movement. Short skirts have ease of motion built in, and may be the reason many women are refusing to abandon them.

With the fall of hemlines, trousers have risen in importance -- on the marketing level, at any rate.

Fashion mavens tell women pants are a marvelous option in these times of a fluctuating hemline market.

"The woman who has the option of wearing pants at work is a very lucky woman," says Heather Femia, fashion director for Nordstorm. "Personally, I know I get a lot more done if I'm in pants for the day. But most women have to conform to what's dictated by the workplace."

If pants are appropriate, they're a great option.

Nancy Sachs, fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, is another trouser fan.

"They get you where you want to go faster," she says, "and in today's world that's important. That, and a sense of style."

She says the fluid, natural shoulder suit is being welcomed by a lot of women, "much more so than the mannish suit copies, which didn't fare very well -- although even those can be softened with a long chiffon scarf or a blouse with a collar that has some flounce."

Flow is the key to suits now. "The fabrics are softer, and lightweight. That's a definite plus. I have pretty much given up on linen. Who needs to iron? A linen suit tends to look used and abused after a day's wear. Women now own very little that can't be worn 10 months of the year -- soft silks, raw silk, light gabardine or twill in wool and cotton," says Ms. Sachs, "and pants work year round."

She's not talking about the sharply creased fly-front classics borrowed from the men. The newest have no crease at all, and are cut from crepe-textured silks and wools. They are meant to be worn loose and longer with a puddled break at the instep.

Not everyone agrees however.

As appealing as the unconstructed and relaxed pants suit may be, itis far too casual for the conservative corporate world, says Susan Bixler, author of "Professional Presence" and head of Professional Image Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm.

"They will be accepted in creative and fringe businesses which need to be fashion-forward, such as retailing or interior decorating, where you expect a trendy look. But women who are serious about advancement look at the fashion magazines, laugh, and turn the page."

She sees pants in the office as a step backward. "A woman in pants diminishes herself, in the sense that trousers have always been worn by people who have to do manual labor. The last thing we need is to take a step backward. We don't need to do anything that limits us professionally and, I believe, trousers do. I wouldn't dream of hiring an applicant in trousers."

The short skirt raised equally strong and divergent opinions when it reappeared on the fashion scene six years ago. The traditionalists were for holding to the dress-for-success floppy bow tie suit hemmed at the calf. Today short skirts are pretty much the norm, and it is the trendy long looks that get the attention.

* Skirts, which are longer, should allow soft motion. The most wearable are cut on the bias or draped to the side. Avoid the tight and narrow hobble skirt which just stands there doing nothing for you.

* The vest, which last fall was cut strictly along menswear lines and fabrics, now works as softly as a blouse. It's long, loose and could, in hot summer months, work in lieu of a jacket.

* Give the shirts a rest a few days of the week. Look for blouses and tops with minimal seaming and detail. The newest blouses are long and meant to be worn loose and not tucked. Designers showed them hanging below a shorter jacket or vest, a tricky technique which should only be tried by women with a very sure sense of style. A mistake translates into sloppiness.

* Long and looser also applies to accessories. Ease belts out by a few notches and let them rest on the hip rather than cinching. A necklace or chain hanging to the waist or below gives the illusion of length. The newest scarf is an extended rectangle to be knotted softly and low.

* Experimenting with new proportions is taxing enough, so stay within the neutral pallette. Bold colors and patterns make extra work.

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