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WOMEN NEED TO DRESS THE PART

My sister will enter what I like to call the grown-up workplace this summer. By that, I mean that she is not life-guarding, busing tables or scooping ice cream. She will be reporting for duty in corporate America. And like so many milestones in Jessie's life -- from first Holy Communion to prom -- this one requires shopping for clothes.

This time, however, Abercrombie & Fitch and The Gap were not on the travel schedule. Pre-ripped clothing, pre-wrinkled clothing, bare midriffs and shrink-wrapped bosoms are not on the real-world dress code.

Instead, we wandered through the previously unexplored regions of Ann Taylor, Talbot's and Nordstrom to find something that didn't show a lot of skin -- or fit like it.

What we saw on the mannequins shocked us both.

You can imagine what Jessie thought of pinstripes and suit jackets. But I was struck by the camisoles, the spaghetti-strap T's, the sheer blouses and the boat-neck and v-neck sweaters.

In the dressing room, Jessie struggled as if these new clothes were trying to strangle her. She kept trying to force the waistbands down to her hip bones.

But I was struck by the revealing nature of so much of what is out there.

I figured Jessie and I would have trouble agreeing on what to wear to work -- but I never guessed that I would be so completely out of my depth.

"We get phone calls all the time asking how to dress for this law firm or that advertising agency," said Gregg Andrews, fashion director for Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle.

"The thing is, every workplace has a different dress code. What is appropriate for a law firm wouldn't be appropriate in a more creative atmosphere."

Andrews said the lace camisoles that are showing up under sweaters and suit jackets this spring are not a scandal.

"They are a layering piece. They are never meant to be worn without a jacket or a cardigan," he said.

"And they are just a touch of femininity."

Andrews talked about the 1980s when women, just hitting their stride in the corporate world, imitated the men they worked with, wearing power suits in dark colors and pinstripes over crisp white shirts. "Even little ties."

"Now women don't have to compete quite so much, so they can show a little more of their femininity. A higher shoe, multiple strands of pearls, or an oversized brooch.

"Instead of the black pump, you can wear a magenta sling-back shoe with a magenta camisole under your suit."

But the twentysomething entering the work force doesn't have to imitate the mature women she works with, Andrews said.

A softer, fuller skirt instead of a pencil skirt. A cardigan instead of a jacket, kitten heels or a dressy ballet flat instead of pumps.

"These young women need to present themselves in a very professional, polished way. They need to build a work wardrobe that is fashionable, feminine, but not overly sexy and not suggestive."

Sadly, the workplace has not changed so much. These young women often don't know how attractive they are. What looks professional on a hanger can stop traffic on a young body.

Young women can invite unwanted attention and off-color remarks without even attempting to look tempting.

"It's about dressing smart for the workplace," Andrews said. "You don't wear what you would wear to a club on a Friday night."

While young men can't go wrong with the standard-issue khaki pants, oxford-cloth shirt and tie, the fashion choices for young women cover an enormous range.

What to choose?

"You have to read the culture of that particular workplace," said Melody Jones, director of human resources at Baltimore's T. Rowe Price, which has adopted the rather vague dress code of "business casual."

"Look at the women who have a position a couple of levels above you. Look at the woman who has the job you want. What is she wearing?

"If those women are wearing pantyhose, you better keep breaking out the pantyhose.

"Maybe she is wearing leather mules and dressy Capris. But that doesn't mean you can wear flip-flops and khaki Capris."

Jones said that young women should dress a shade more conservatively than the women around them.

"In the late 1980s, everything was a two-piece skirted suit. We've gotten away from that.

"But the best piece of advice I could give a young person is, you need to always wear a jacket. It will give you the presence you don't have yet."

Especially when you don't have the clothes yet, either.

Baltimore Sun

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