Originally created 01/08/97

Successful dress

Remember the businesswoman's uniform advocated in the late 1970s by image guru John T. Molloy in his best-selling book Women's Dress for Success?

Essentially, it was a feminized version of a man's business attire: a tailored wool suit with knee-covering skirt in gray or dark blue, a white or pale blue blouse, a somber bow at the neck and dark pumps.

Wear an outfit like this and you will be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of business, Mr. Molloy told women.

Well, that was then and this is the mid-'90s. Much has changed in the workplace over the past 20 years - as even a conservative traditionalist like Mr. Molloy admits in his latest work, New Women's Dress for Success (Warner, $12.99).

In this book, Mr. Molloy offers comprehensive guidelines for avoiding failure and ensuring a better shot at success - all backed up by almost 20 years of research in offices across the country.

His studies have shown that women who wear casual clothing to work are regarded as less serious, professional and powerful - and that they tend to earn less than women who dress formally.

``A woman's success does not depend entirely or even primarily on how she dresses,'' Mr. Molloy admits, ``but dress is an important factor in most women's careers. Research shows that when a woman dresses for success, it does not guarantee success, but if she dresses poorly or inappropriately, it almost ensures failure.''

Since Mr. Molloy's first Dress for Success book was published, women have made giant strides into the upper echelons of business, industry and the professions, where they have proven their abilities and gained widespread acceptance and respect. They no longer need to dress like men to succeed like men. As a result, Mr. Molloy now says, executive dress has become a little more feminine, colorful and varied.

Also, the addition of casual attire to the dress codes in many workplaces has allowed women to loosen their floppy neckties, swap their man-tailored coats for blazers or collarless jackets, and even replace their modest skirts with pants.

It is obvious, however, that Mr. Molloy's prejudice against women in pants remains entrenched. ``Wear pants only if you need them to look like a member of the team or to perform tasks that require them,'' he advises in his book. And always add a blazer.

For some reason, he seems unwilling or unable to accept that a classic pantsuit, made from top-quality fabric in sober, businesslike colors, has become a staple in the wardrobes of successful women in a wide range of professions. Women value the polished look of a pantsuit, as well as the fact that they often are more modest and comfortable than many skirts and look better with low-heeled shoes.

It is unlikely these women would be willing to swap their tailored pantsuits, which look every bit as formal as men's business suits, for the more casual look of pants plus blazer.

And speaking of casual, Mr. Molloy contends that dress-down days are a mixed blessing for women climbing the ladder of success. While bringing a new level of comfort into the office, they also diminish the status of the wearers and - if done right - cost a pretty penny.

Here are Mr. Molloy's key tips for dressing for success in the '90s:


The conservative business suit remains a staple in most businesswomen's wardrobes. ``In fact, the suit made a resurgence in its popularity when Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first professional career woman to become first lady,'' Mr. Molloy says. He now identifies five categories of dress-for-success suits.

  • The traditional skirted suit, which imitates the colors and basic style of a man's suit - except that the jacket may come without lapels. These are high-authority suits.
  • The ``aggressive feminine'' suit, which comes in strong colors (purple, red, raspberry) or bold patterns (checks, plaids, herringbones). These suits send a message that is both feminine and assertive.
  • The ``stylish professional'' suit, which generally has a jacket designed to be worn without a blouse. These make a woman appear softer - but still serious.
  • The ``soft feminine'' suit, which usually comes in a pastel color, may have feminine detailing such as a velvet or lace collar, and may be in a knit fabric. These suits work best in warm, Southern states, and for women who already have established their professionalism.
  • The ``conservative feminine'' suit, which Mr. Molloy says is the favorite of most powerful women. ``It has a conservative cut and color, but the color is one that would be found only in a woman's suit - for example, mahogany, dark plum, deep maroon. These suits send the message that most women want to send: They are feminine and powerful.''

    Seventy-two percent of business people today think that a woman in a dress can be effective, Mr. Molloy's research indicates. However, 93 percent think she would be more effective if she wore a jacket with the dress.

    ``Today, because the jacket outfit is an almost universally recognized uniform for businesswomen, any woman who does not wear one ... puts herself at a real disadvantage,'' Mr. Molloy says.

    However, if a woman prefers to wear a dress to work (and many Southern women do, Mr. Molloy says), she should choose a style that is tailored, dark and conservative.


    Accessories - scarves, jewelry, shoes, bags - should scream money, class and status, Mr. Molloy says.

    He advises wearing designer scarves, gold jewelry, expensive watches, conservative pumps with a medium heel and dark color, and leather handbags and briefcases.

    He is no longer opposed to women wearing vests. His research has shown that a vest can help a woman retain an air of authority when she removes her jacket.

    He suggests that the best winter coat is a camel-colored, wraparound - or, if you are heavy, a chesterfield style. The best raincoat is a belted model in beige, tan, navy or black. Your coat should never look tight or skimpy and should be long enough to cover whatever you wear under it.


    Mr. Molloy is at odds with the ``color me beautiful'' school, which advises women to wear only those colors that flatter their complexions.

    ``Think in terms of being effective as well as attractive,'' Mr. Molloy advises. ``Remember, the colors you wear announce your success, background, status, authority, personality and more.''

    In general, bright colors draw attention to you, dark colors make you an authority figure, upper-class colors (rich yet subtle) give you dignity and power, and earth tones make you appear approachable, sympathetic and persuasive.


    When Mr. Molloy did his original research in the early '70s, ``there was no doubt that being feminine and alluring was not an asset'' on the job. As a result, he advised women to wear little or no makeup and no nail polish.

    But by the end of the '80s, ``a more feminine approach by women in business was not only accepted but often worked better than the masculine, serious approach that had worked several years before.''

    In his updated book, Mr. Molloy says that knowing how to apply makeup ``is an essential business tool.'' He recommends an understated look - natural-colored lipsticks and eye shadows, carefully applied eyeliner and mascara, and either red or clear nail polish.

    Hairstyles that work best for businesswomen are shoulder-length or shorter and look managed and controlled but not masculine.

    Like it or not, image is an effective tool in building a successful career, Mr. Molloy says. Prejudices still exist in the workplace - not so much against against women in general but more against women who are sloppily or inappropriately dressed, poorly groomed, overweight or aging. This is not fair, he says, but it is fact.

    If a woman accepts this premise, the advice he offers should help her overcome those prejudices - and open doors to success.

    Dress-for-success tips

    1. Dress to fit in with your co-workers.

    2. Be one of the more traditional, conservative dressers in your group.

    3. Spend comparatively as much on your casual business wardrobe as you do on your traditional wardrobe.

    4. If your boss is a man, be as traditional as possible. If your boss is a woman, mirror her style without copying her outfits.

    5. Stick to colors and color combinations found in traditional men's sportswear.

    6. Carry and wear businesslike, traditional and obviously expensive accessories.

    7. The best business casual clothing is made of natural fibers Ä cotton, wool, silk. But to avoid anything that wrinkles easily choose natural fibers that have been woven or treated to resist wrinkling or blends that look like natural fibers.

    8. Wear serious footwear Ä no boots, sneakers, sandals, spiked heels or open-toed party pumps Ä and unless you are tall, don't wear flats.

    9. Keep a navy jacket handy to throw on in case of an emergency.

    10. Wear pants only if you need them to look like a member of the team or to perform tasks that require them.

    11. If you do wear pants, they should be tailored to de-emphasize your feminine figure. A full-cut pair of slacks with pleats in a conservative color would be ideal.

    12. Neatness counts more when you are dressed casually, so do professional-looking hairstyles and makeup.

    13. Wear nothing that your father might consider too sexy for the office.

    Source: New Women's Dress for Success, by John T. Molloy.

    Poor style can hurt credibility

    About 60 percent of women reaching for top executive or professional positions hurt their chances by dressing poorly, says John T. Molloy, author of New Women's Dress for Success.

    According to the author, most women who dress for failure fall into one of the following eight traps:

  • Allowing your background to kill your career. If you come from a less sophisticated background, don't rely on your own taste or that of store clerks. Learn by cross-shopping Ä by studying similar garments in the lowest- and highest-priced stores in town.
  • Falling into the fashion trap. In most workplaces, women who wear fashionable clothing are viewed as lightweights who cannot be trusted with important matters.
  • Following advice of self-appointed experts. Many clothing consultants are unfamiliar with the requirements of a traditional business environment.
  • Confusing sex appeal with success appeal. When attractive women dress in a sexy fashion, most men make passes at them, date them and perhaps marry them. But they seldom promote them or trust them with important assignments.
  • Miscalculating how men perceive your image. Most women do not recognize the fact that men and women see clothing differently. What a woman views as stylish, a man often sees as inappropriate for business.
  • Dressing too casually. If a man dresses casually, he loses some of his authority. If a woman dresses casually in a male-dominated environment, she loses all her authority.
  • Thinking you are too successful to follow the rules. Success does not give women the right to ignore the dress-code rules.
  • Dressing to smash the glass ceiling. Women assume the style that helped them get into middle management will take them to the top. It will not.

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