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Upgrade in Five Easy Pieces

Finding the balance between style and appropriate

May 19, 2003, 12:00 AM EDT

From Bloomberg Businessweek | Subscribe | Reprints

Professional women looking for business clothing have to navigate a fine line between style and what's "in style." Much as they may love fashion, their business wardrobe has a job to do. The professional woman can't be swinging from, say, the glamorous hippie look to Doris Day retro. "I dress with the view of what clients expect -- and it's not trendy," says attorney Jean Chin, a partner at Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw in New York, who likes "very simple clothes with straight lines in blue or black."

As you get higher up the ladder, "you want the message of who you are to be convincing -- to superiors, boards of directors, and subordinates," says Dara Lamb, president and CEO of New York store Darabin Ltd., which sells her line of women's hand-tailored clothing. You should have a "constancy of presence," regardless of what industry you're in.

A good way to start is to focus on five wardrobe building blocks: skirt suit, coordinating slacks, and dress with jacket. These five pieces can become the backbone of a wardrobe that can get you from office to conference room to cocktail reception to business trip.

The Suit. A great suit is the result of a flattering cut, good tailoring, and fabric that is distinctive, comfortable, and has a good drape. It also needs to resist wrinkles and stand up to the wear and tear of 12-hour days. Wool does that best -- even in warm weather. "In the dog days of summer, you want to remain crisp," says Lamb. A tropical-weight wool-mohair combination is "an unbelievable performance fabric. It's cool to the touch." For our illustration, we chose a tailored skirt suit in a textured wool, mohair, and linen blend. While the color is a neutral sage green, it has a carmel-colored windowpane and hints of light blue in the horizontal weave.

When you try on a jacket, it must sit smoothly along the neckline without gaping, and it must also fit well at the shoulders, since the neckline and shoulders are areas that can't easily be altered. The collar should lie flat without any crumpling in the lapels, if it has lapels.

The proper sleeve length should be just past your wrist, though that's not a hard-and-fast rule. "If you're doing a lot of presentations -- using your arms to point and gesture -- you will want your sleeves a little longer," says Lamb. "If you like to wear jewelry, you may want them a little shorter to show it off. If you are in a profession where you write a lot, your cuffs will show more wear, so take that into consideration."

The Skirt. We selected a basic straight skirt, but skirts this season have detailing you might want to consider. A slight flare or a few inches of pleating can add interest at the hemline. What about length? At the knee or just above seems to be a good all-around choice.

Even though slacks are acceptable for most business situations, there are "occasions where a skirt is [more] appropriate," says Nina McLemore, who switched from running a private-equity firm to selling her own clothing line, named after herself, at trunk shows in various cities.

The Slacks. We chose to pair our suit jacket with khaki slacks in a lightweight wool twill. For a more formal look, select matching pants.

The best investment is slacks with a straight leg or boot cut or maybe even wider. Very narrow legs look dated. A plain front is likely to be more flattering. "Pleats add weight no matter what," says Virginia Sandquist of DLS Outfitters, who consults with independent retailers. Opt for slacks that are lined. They will wear longer and hang better.

Always pick full-length pants. Capris are never appropriate for the office. If you want to show off a pair of shoes, wear them when you buy your slacks and have the pants hemmed to just the right length.

The Dress. Paired with a jacket, a dress reflects a return to a more feminine style, says Ken Downing, vice-president for fashion presentation at Neiman Marcus (NMG ). The look is also enormously practical. You can keep it simple for daytime, perhaps accessorizing with a scarf. For evening, add interesting jewelry, and you're set for a cocktail reception. You can remove the jacket and be comfortable outside in hot weather. And you can slip it back on in over-air-conditioned interiors.

You can always choose basic black, but for our illustration, we picked a simple sleeveless dress in aqua silk for a summery look. At the moment, the stores are full of pink. "Candy-cotton pink really does pop things," says Sandquist. Toward fall, the pinks will become darker berry colors, working into reds. Designers will also be featuring brown, particularly chocolate brown. Blues, including aquas and medium blue, will continue to be important. And navy is always a best-seller.


The Jacket. You get much more flexibility if your jacket and dress complement each other, especially when you mix textures. For our illustration, we paired our dress with a jacket in a loosely woven wool bouclé fabric with bits of bright pink, aqua, and gold. For travel, you can combine the jacket with dress slacks (the khaki slacks we chose match perfectly), and you get a whole extra outfit. "We're seeing a lot of jackets this season with great detail," says Downing. "If you're looking for an investment piece, buy classic, not the novelty of the season."

The Other Pieces. Your tops and accessories are a matter of personal preference. Knits and sweaters are easier to fit than blouses and a lot more comfortable. And cashmere sweater sets can go from business casual to dressy. Silk blouses are beautiful but fragile.

There are no rock-solid rules about accessories, either, except that you can't have too many scarves to choose from, and your shoes needn't match your bag. The classic pump changes only slightly from season to season. This fall, you'll be seeing a slightly thicker heel.

Whether you're selecting an individual item or looking to buy an entire five-piece ensemble, "buy clothing that fits your current body," says clothing-care expert Steve Boorstein. "Too many people are still waiting to lose five pounds." Smart shopping will reward you with less clutter in your closet and fewer wasted purchases.

Even though consistency is the goal, your business wardrobe never has to be boring. "Look to the people you admire in the company you work for as role models as to how far you can take fashion sense in any direction," says Downing.

The payoff: "If you dress well and look presentable, not over the top, your odds of being called into the important meetings are greater," Lamb says. "You are likely to have more visibility. Your message will appear to be coming from a constant place. The money will follow."

One thing's for sure: It can't hurt.

By Christine Summerson

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