Style at work: Suits with soft touches and shirt dresses can separate work from play

Sunday, September 24, 2006

NEW YORK -- Work clothes aren't nearly as much fun as play clothes.

But that doesn't mean they can't be stylish, and this season there are plenty of good looks to choose from that go beyond the suit-pantyhose-and-pumps uniform. Diane von Furstenberg, who is about to become the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, even named her fall collection "Working Girl."

"The working girl is always on my mind. It's the same girl this season: she's active, in charge of her life and she's in the driving seat," von Furstenberg says. "Personally, I like bold colors for her. They actually can be more flattering."

Von Furstenberg says one of her inspirations was the late cosmetics guru Elizabeth Arden. "This collection really is a celebration of the working girl, from the pioneer woman to the executive to the beauty queen."

Women who want to be taken seriously don't have to sacrifice personal style, but they do have to think about how they want to present themselves. The same goes for women who aren't working traditional jobs but who do spend their day working in other ways, such as stay-at-home mothers, von Furstenberg adds.

None of these women, though, has to try to look like a man.

"I think the whole concept of dressing for work has evolved tremendously. It's not about masculine pants and men's shirts, but it's not bohemian, either. It's about a well-cut pantsuit and a feminine blouse, or a camisole with a little lace or a tunic top under a jacket," says Nicole Fischelis, fashion director of Macy's East.

That said, Fischelis notes that menswear touches -- pinstripes and glen plaids, in particular -- are not only OK for stylish women, they're also a trend. The key is making sure the overall look is soft. "We're feminizing and modernizing the whole concept of suiting."

An example? Try a velvet jacket or even a leather jacket -- in a blazer style, not a bomber -- with tailored trousers, she suggests.

Women, however, do love their skirts and dresses, too. "They're so strong because the shoe business is so strong, and women want to show off their shoes," Fischelis says.

Von Furstenberg's collection is driven by dresses, both her signature wraps and shirtdresses. "A shirtdress is the equivalent to the blue suit for a man," she says.

"A shirtdress is the easy way out," agrees Fischelis, noting there are so many versions now -- bias cuts, softer skirts, military flap pockets. They're made in all fabrics ranging from wool crepe to matte jersey.

Put on one these dresses with nice leather boots and you've created a foolproof yet fashionable outfit.

But there are other dresses that work for work. For example, a sheath can be worn under a jacket that's either cropped and fitted or a looser style with shorter, bracelet sleeves. (Bracelet sleeves hit midway on the forearm.)

At Banana Republic, executive vice president of design Deborah Lloyd says the big winner is the black pencil skirt. "It has a wide waist, so you could wear this season's wide belt and make your own statement, but it works for every situation."

It's actually easier to dress up a piece than appropriately dress it down, Lloyd says. With the pencil skirt, she'd go with a sweater instead of a jacket if you work in a "creative environment," such as an ad agency or Web site.

"If you're going to a creative place, they like you because of your style no matter what it is, but you do need to give a nod to the atmosphere," she says.

Banana Republic partnered with Yahoo! HotJobs on a recent survey about workplace dress and found that more than 25 percent of recruiters say wearing a business suit to an interview can be too formal.

"The big thing is overdressing, but it's natural. People do want to impress. I'd say be more concerned with being comfortable and being yourself," Lloyd advises.

First impressions are still incredibly important, adds Susan Vobejda, HotJobs' career expert and vice president of marketing. If you arrive for an interview at a business-casual company in a three-piece suit, it's an indication you didn't do your homework, she says. It also might indicate you're not a good fit for the culture.

"It's absolutely OK to ask about what you should wear to the interview. They (human resources managers) want you to be successful and will be happy to give you clues."

If you're still in doubt, Vobejda recommends throwing on "the third piece," either a casual jacket, a wrap or cardigan sweater. "It adds polish to your look."

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