How to Be Tough, Yet Womanly

October 21, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- Mr. Blackwell wants to share his years of collected wisdom with the folks on the O.J. Simpson case. This week, the man who churns out Hollywood's Worst Dressed List had some advice for Deputy District Attorney Marcia Clark.

''She has to stop wearing white.''

''She needs to bring her hem to just above the knee.''

In the best legal opinion of this one-man jury of good and bad taste, if Marcia just gets the skirt a teeny-weeny bit longer, she'll be more likely to get a guilty verdict.

In fairness, Mr. Blackwell is not the only O.J. watcher who has made a small cottage industry of measuring Ms. Clark's hemline and color coordination. The woman's style -- sartorial and prosecutorial -- has been the talk of L.A. since she arrived at the jury selection having undergone a ''makeover.''

It appears that some focus group in Phoenix had convicted Ms. Clark of the unwomanly crime of abrasiveness. The former dancer who hasn't lost a case in five years wasn't warm or wiggly. She lacked that crucial je ne sais quoi of jury appeal. So she was feminized or mommified, as some put it. The hairdresser who wielded the scissors to her black locks said he had just ''softened her up.'' Indeed ''soft'' was the watchword.

She lightened up the suits and the effect. She smiles to the media and talks about her kids. She comes on friendly and non-threatening to the prospective jurors, actually asking one, ''You won't hold it against me if I ask just a few questions?''

Nevertheless, when Ms. Clark goes into court she still runs the gantlet of hemline-watchers and gender-assessors who are there see if she can hew the fine line between strong and tough, warm and weak, woman and D.A. Indeed, willy-nilly, Marcia Clark is becoming a perfect portrait of the balance women must maintain just to go about their work lives. Remember, the woman who was accused of having a prosecutorial style actually is a prosecutor.

Now it's true that men also have to worry about appearance. O.J. would not plead his case in a hooded sweatshirt. For that matter, few of us would buy heart surgery from a male doctor with an earring. We rarely see ponytails on CEOs. But if you want to know how differently the style issue plays out for male and female professionals, consider what would have happened if Marcia Clark had posed for People magazine the way defense attorney Robert Shapiro did. Without a shirt on.

Women do have an endless array of personal choices. They can have ''looks'' as individualistic as their DNA. But it's much harder to find a style for professional life that fits the work and the chromosome. This is more than a matter of wardrobe. Another self-described media consultant warned recently that the thing Ms. Clark couldn't do, besides wear short skirts, was get angry. Public displays of female aggressiveness are as inappropriate as professional displays of female thigh.

Indeed in another California soap opera -- The Senator Versus the Empty Suit -- Dianne Feinstein was recently prodded into a display of pique by Michael Huffington's jabs. A female politician who watched them face off on ''Larry King Live'' groaned that Ms. Feinstein had lost that round: ''Women can't get mad. It isn't fair, but there it is.''

The greatest conflicts between the appropriate female style and the appropriate professional style are experienced by women who hold jobs that actually involve conflict. In courtrooms we are supposed to be adversarial, but never unpleasant. In political campaigns we must show our toughness, but not by attacking.

How do you dress for the balancing act? A political consultant once told me that the one safe role model for women in politics was to adopt the style of the female television anchor. But even anchors will tell you that they get more comments on what they wear than what they say. The truth is that there is no hairdo, no pair of earrings, no pair of shoes that doesn't give off some cues. Unless you are in the police force or the Army, there isn't even a gender-free uniform. Women aren't ''suits.''

In the wake of this, some women are offended that Ms. Clark went soft. Others are appalled that she had to. In the long run, we'll have to accept a full range of female styles. But in the short run, it would be awfully nice to have a uniform in the closet.

As for Marcia Clark, couldn't we rent her a black robe like the ones British lawyers wear? Oh, I forgot. Mr. Blackwell says that black also is a no-no.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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