Suitable for the Office

By CLIFFORD PUGH
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 8, 2006WORRIED about what to wear to the office?

You can’t go wrong with a suit.

“It just gives you so much more credibility,” says Helen Perry, a Houston image consultant who assists companies in writing dress codes. “There’s nothing that says ‘professional’ like a suit.”

For fall, designers have come up with lots of gorgeous suits in all price ranges that are feminine yet exude authority in the workplace. The styles include skirt suits and pantsuits, which are acceptable in most workplaces.

“For some ‘figure situations,’ pantsuits work better,” Perry says. “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the best legs, but she looks better in a pantsuit.”

All kinds of shapes abound this season, reflecting the different proportions with which designers are experimenting. Skirts billow at the waist or hug the body in a long, slender silhouette. Trousers are long and full or narrow and skinny. Jackets are fitted, cropped a little shorter and often marked with a distinctive neckline.

Many of the outfits are so stylish they can transition from office to evening for the woman on the go.

Some suits feature menswear-inspired fabrics with a chalk-stripe or checked pattern. Colors are largely neutral — black, white, purple, gray — and work well in the workplace.

The subdued colors can be jazzed up with an eye-catching piece of jewelry on the lapel. Other ways to highlight your fashion sense: Accessorize with red pumps or a bright purse. Cinch the jacket with a wide belt. Or throw on a cape to add some flair.

If your workplace environment is creative, take some dramatic license with gaucho pants or a tunic and leggings. But make sure the outfit is appropriate to your job.

“Unless you work at Vogue, the leggings and the tunics might be a trickier silhouette to do,” admits Vogue magazine fashion news director Sally Singer. “But for the creative professions, (clothes with) voluminous shoulders and dramatic sleeves are fine because the clothes have authority.”

Another option for Houston’s mild climate: a sleeveless winter dress that can be worn with a cardigan when needed. “There are a lot of great knits out there,” Singer says.

Perry admits that figuring out appropriate attire for the office can be tricky. You don’t want to be too casual, but you don’t want to overdress. She recommends always dressing “one notch above your client’s dress code, not two or three.”

Fit is important, too. The most common complaints Perry hears from companies: Clothes are too tight and too revealing. Visible panty lines, unprofessional footwear (flip- flops, sandals) and tattered sweaters hanging on the backs of chairs are also points of contention.

She recommends visiting the couture department of luxury stores for fashion ideas even if you don’t have the budget. “See what the top designers are doing. It all trickles down (to discount stores),” she says.

You don’t have to be a slave to fashion, but updating your look to reflect current trends can boost your career, Perry contends. “People associate outdated hair, clothing and makeup styles with outdated skills. It’s a subliminal message.”

Even “casual Fridays” are no excuse for not looking your best. If your company allows denim, you can make sure your jeans are crisp and add a nice blouse, jewelry and jacket.

“Even if you had a wild Thursday night, don’t look like it,” Perry says. “It really sends a poor message. People who work around you want to know they can count on you. Being well-dressed and well-groomed every day really sends a nonverbal message that you’re reliable.”

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