Dress-for-success guru changes his tone Fashion: John T. Molloy relaxes strictures on women's office wear. But not too much.

January 02, 1997|By Jean Patteson | Jean Patteson,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Remember the businesswoman's uniform that was advocated in the late 1970s by image guru John T. Molloy in his best-selling book, "Women's Dress for Success"?

Essentially, it was a feminized version of a man's business attire: a tailored wool suit with knee-covering skirt in gray or dark blue, a white or pale blue blouse, a somber bow at the neck and dark pumps. Wear an outfit like this and you will be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of business, Molloy told women.

Well, that was then and this is the mid-'90s. Much has changed in the workplace over the past 20 years -- as even a conservative traditionalist like Molloy admits in his latest work, "New Women's Dress for Success" (Warner, $12.99).

In this book, Molloy offers comprehensive guidelines for avoiding failure and ensuring a better shot at success -- all backed up by almost 20 years of research in offices across the country.

His studies have shown that women who wear casual clothing to work are regarded as less serious, professional and powerful, and tend to earn less than women who dress formally.

"A woman's success does not depend entirely or even primarily on how she dresses," Molloy admits, "but dress is an important factor in most women's careers. Research shows that when a woman dresses for success, it does not guarantee success, but if she dresses poorly or inappropriately, it almost ensures failure."

Since Molloy's first "Dress for Success" book was published, women have made giant strides into the upper echelons of business, industry and the professions, where they have proved their abilities and gained widespread acceptance and respect. They no longer need to dress like men to succeed like men. As a result, Molloy now says, executive dress has become a little more feminine, colorful and varied.

Also, the addition of casual attire to the dress codes in many workplaces has allowed women to loosen their floppy neckties, swap their man-tailored coats for blazers or collarless jackets, and even replace their modest skirts with pants.

It is obvious, however, that Molloy's prejudice against women in pants remains entrenched. "Wear pants only if you need them to look like a member of the team or to perform tasks that require them," he advises in his book. And always add a blazer.

For some reason, he seems unwilling or unable to accept that a classic pantsuit, made from top-quality fabric in sober, businesslike colors, has become a staple in the wardrobes of successful women in a wide range of professions. Women value the polished look of a pantsuit, as well as the fact that they often are more modest and comfortable than many skirts and look better with low-heeled shoes.

It is unlikely these women would be willing to swap their tailored pantsuits, which look every bit as formal as men's business suits, for the more casual look of pants plus blazer.

And speaking of casual, Molloy contends that dress-down days are a mixed blessing for women climbing the ladder of success. While bringing a new level of comfort into the office, they also diminish the status of the wearers and -- if done right -- cost a pretty penny.

Here are Molloy's key tips for dressing for success in the '90s:

Wear a suit

The conservative business suit remains a staple in most businesswomen's wardrobes. "In fact, the suit made a resurgence in its popularity when Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first professional career woman to become first lady," Molloy says. He now identifies five categories of dress-for-success suits:

The traditional skirted suit, which imitates the colors and basic style of a man's suit -- except that the jacket may come without lapels. These are high-authority suits.

The "aggressive feminine" suit, which comes in strong colors (purple, red, raspberry) or bold patterns (checks, plaids, herringbones). These suits send a message that is both feminine and assertive.

The "stylish professional" suit, which generally has a jacket designed to be worn without a blouse. These make a woman appear softer -- but still serious.

The "soft feminine" suit, which usually comes in a pastel color, may have feminine detailing such as a velvet or lace collar, and may be in a knit fabric. These suits work best in warm, Southern states, and for women who already have established their professionalism.

The "conservative feminine" suit, which Molloy says is the favorite of most powerful women. "It has a conservative cut and color, but the color is one that would be found only in a woman's suit -- for example, mahogany, dark plum, deep maroon. These suits send the message that most women want to send: They are feminine and powerful."

Think twice about dresses

Seventy-two percent of business people today think a woman in a dress can be effective, Molloy's research indicates. However, 93 percent think she would be more effective if she wore a jacket with the dress.

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