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The most seismic fashion happening in the past few months had nothing to do with Fashion Week or the who's-wearing-what news from the Academy Awards. It was much more focused on one woman: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Arriving at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield in Germany in late February, Rice, wearing an all-black ensemble of sleek high-heeled boots, a military-inspired coat, and just-above-the-knee black skirt, was devoured wolf-pack style by news outlets. Her ensemble was described as everything from dominatrix wear to a take on looks from the movie "Matrix."

The outfit became such extreme fodder for the press that talk about it made its way onto television shows that generally don't deal with fashion, among them MSNBC's "Hardball" and NBC's "Meet the Press."

Why all the hoopla?

"They had the picture that perfectly matches the power she holds," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "Chris Mathews and Tim Russert for once had the opportunity to play red carpet commentators instead of Joan and Melissa Rivers."

But beneath that superficiality, says Thompson, lurks an issue that has haunted women since they've been going to work. "There is no question that women are constantly trying to negotiate what the uniform of power is. How does one balance modernity, fashionable-ness and a uniquely feminine style?"

How, indeed? Rice's commanding look is just one example of how powerful women are dressing now, and perhaps is a marker for a brave, new world of fashion freedom. Author Naomi Wolf, whose book "The Beauty Myth" deals with society's emphasis on women's appearance, says today's professional women have more flexibility about dressing. "This is because they now have more financial/professional power," she says.

"There is definitely a way of exuding power through clothing," says Sass Brown, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. "It sends an extremely strong message."

You can read that message loud and clear on the ABC show "Boston Legal." Shirley Schmidt (played by Candice Bergen), the firm's powerhouse managing partner, reeks of authority, class and chic. The effect has been consciously engineered by costumer Loree Parral, who says the goal was to allow a woman to appear authoritative without looking like a man or trying too hard. "Shirley is confident, sophisticated and feminine, but womanly, not girly and frilly," Parral says. "She's very sexy and that comes from strength and an experience. She has lived."

So you might see her in a perfectly tailored Armani pantsuit and a crisp white shirt. Parral uses accessories to elevate the character's look: "a 20-strand bib of pearls, chunky turquoise -- they seem like things she's had for years, maybe acquired during her travels, and that creates a history."

"I think that women are still fighting for power," says Parral, who has worked on many hit shows, including "LA Law" and "The Practice." "My whole career in costume has been about what a woman can look like and still get the respect from her peers," she says, recalling her battle to get actress Susan Dey ("LA Law") out of those "godawful little bows around her neck."

Manhattan matrimonial lawyer Jacalyn Barnett, 53, who became a partner in her first firm at 33 and went out on her own in 1997, remembers those bows. "Oh, they were disgusting. . . . It was like you should dress like a man, and I thought if I did, I would always be a facsimile. I always dressed for the next job I wanted to have."

Barnett's wardrobe is a lively medley of designer names that she mixes, matches and accessorizes with zeal.

Parral of "Boston Legal" thinks that despite the kind of scrutiny directed at high-profile women like Rice, there's been a lot of progress in the way professional women dress. "I think they are getting pretty gutsy." But, she warns, "there are always going to be rules."

Wolf, too, believes there will always be scrutiny. "Whenever a woman is in an unusually powerful role," she says, "her sexuality and appearance is focused on as a way to contain her power and undermine its impact."

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