Best Work Dresses for Women

The stale office uniform has given way to personality-driven alternatives. Black scarf-neck jacket with white piping (about $1,665), black midcalf pencil skirt (about $625), Hussein Chalayan. Barneys New York. Details, see In Best Celebrity Style. Fashion Editor: Tonne Goodman

The Zeitgeist, designers are offering suits for lunching, negotiating, and dominating. The runways for fall were teeming with suits, from Gucci’s streamlined black power suit to Versace’s sexy pastels. These new uniforms are an amalgam of past ideas. They are not solely sexy, feminine, or tough; they possess all these qualities, and toy with them, in the same way that women now do.

While we are not wearing suits to the office every day, they still occupy a com-mand position in professional wardrobes from New York to San Francisco. There remain moments when only a suit will do.

We know this to be true because we asked. We gathered women together for a “suit summit.” In five different cities, architects and homemakers, attorneys and full-time fund-raisers spoke their minds about suitsand about the way that working clothes, in general, have evolved. The panelists reviewed photographs of looks from the fall collections and critiqued them. With gusto.

While each city had its favorites (and the women invariably feigned horror over the choices made by their counterparts in other regions“That looks like a wedding dress!” “That’s universally despicable!” “Pimp mama!”), the mystique of the suit transcended geography. Nothing else compares to its shorthand.

“The suit is a triumph of civilization,” the fashion anthropologist Anne Hollander once remarked. Tweak it if you must, but trying to improve upon its essence is futile. And to say that it is dead would, quite simply, be dead wrong.

Atlanta three of the five women gathered in Atlanta are not of the corporate world: Danielle Rollins, Lisa Stein, and Boots Strauss are stay-at-home mothers, powerhouse fund-raisers, social butterfliesand all of the above. So when Rollins looks at a Giorgio Armani suit and sniffs, “I’d never wear it. It just looks too corporate,” don’t be confused. She lives outside the realm of PalmPilots and conference calls.

The Atlantans arrive carrying Fendi Baguettes covered in lustrous mother-of-pearl paillettes, and wearing customized Manolo Blahnik sandals on their perfectly pedicured feet. They share an affection for Jeffrey, the local designer boutique that also has an outpost in New York. Not only is its owner, Jeffrey Kalinsky, able to rattle off their telephone numbers without a glance at his Rolodex, he also vetted their ensembles for our roundtable morning. He pooh-poohed pink as being far too Southern and advised against gold because it might not photograph well. (They listened patiently and then dutifully ignored his suggestions.)

The fourth participant, Philomena Parker, is a sales consultant at Jeffrey. (She can list every item of clothing in each of her co-panelists’ closets; today, she wears a pair of black shoes that Kalinsky hatesdamn it!with a black godet skirt and a tomato-red Jil Sander blouse.)

Our fifth panelist is Katherine Byer, a human resources specialist for Arthur Andersen. She goes to an office! She deals with clients! She must navigate a dress code! “Atlanta is very conservative,” says Byer, 26. “A lot of suits I can’t buy because people would look at me like I was crazy. In our workplace, you have to wear hose. It’s not business-casual but business-appropriate. For instance, there are no open-toe shoes.”

Atlantans agree that the suit evokes confidence. It says business. It says, Give me money.

“When I go in asking for money, it’s not easy,” says Rollins, 32, a mother of two who does a lot of charity fund-rais-ing work. “A suit is like armor.”

Atlanta women are inclined to consider suits for occasions outside of business. A suit can be a sexy evening alternative when it’s worn without a blouse, for instance. Strauss, who is 62 and dressed in a Courreges T-shirt and a silver-studded Jil Sander skirt, recalls “theater suits and dinner suits from an age of elegant dressing. It was safe dressingbut you always knew that if you were wearing a beautiful suit with beautiful tailoring you could go anywhere.”

Southern formality lingers in Atlanta. Women know the code: No white shoes after Labor Day. Wear a slip with that filmy dress. “It’s a Southern uptightness,” says Rollins.

Strauss clarifies: “It’s being proper.”

And for a lot of women, the only way to accomplish that is to wear a suit. “I see [sales consultants] at work struggling with those suited ladies,” says Parker, who doesn’t tell her age. (Rude

question!) “Generally, they gravitate toward Jil Sander.”

The women pass Best Celebrity Style’s runway photos from hand to hand. A lemon-lime Versace look provokes a debate. Byer likes its crisp lines. Rollins disapproves: “Just say no to shoulder pads!” she admonishes.

A deep-red, hourglass Donna Karan look draws unanimous praise. “I like the fact that people here wear color,” says Rollins.

“It’s a happy city.”

New York the women invited to the Manhattan breakfast seem less interested in pondering their clothes than in scrutinizing the guest list. “Who else has been invited?” they ask. “Who else is participating?” Who, who, whothey start to sound like a flock of agitated owls.

For Barbara Corcoran, chairman of the Corcoran Group real estate company, suits are essential; even though it is her day off, she wears one to our group discussion. “Why do I wear a suit every day?” she asks. “Probably out of insecurity. It makes me feel more powerful. The way suits look today, they’re a perfect cross between power and a feminine edge.” But, she explains, the suit still says, “You belong in the boardroom.” If a suit doesn’t say that, New York women have little use for it.

“The suit is really for the deal,” says Lee Rolontz, an independent TV producer. “When I’m going to make the deal, I want to look like a million bucks.” The suit is a no-thought, no-fuss foundation: Women personalize it with reptile slingbacks, say, or the perfect crystal bangles. In some ways, suits are easier to wear than casual clothes. “You put it on, and it’s done,” says Marcia Wilson, president of Daffy’s, the discount clothing chain.

Corcoran concurs: “A poorly made suit is better received than poorly put-to-gether separates.” (Can we get an amen?)

“I usually put on a suit when I’m not having a good morning,” says Bernice Kwok-Gabel, who works for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Comfort isn’t the top priority; confidence is.” In this way, a suit is akin to a killer pair of stilettos: The point is the effect, the sense of having conjured your inner divaor having given your outer one free rein.

“As a woman of authority, you don’t want to distract,” Rolontz says. “If you’re excessively fashionable, people look at your clothes.”

Of course, a woman’s clout can be derived, in part, from her being daunt-ingly chicand able to spend a king’s ransom on clothes fit for a queen. Stylistic intimidation is a uniquely New York currency.

At the Met, Kwok-Gabel says, “there are women who come in with spectacular suits, and you’re intimidated, and you know this lady went to some haute couture show that no one got invited to and went into the back room.

“That’s a big distraction, but that’s a good distraction.”

Washington, D.C.

does she have a blouse on?” demands Nancy Ives, the press secretary for Senator John McCain of Arizona. She eyes the sliver of exposed torso in a tweed Donna Karan suit. “No blouse would be a problem.” If there is anyplace in the country where the suit still leads a prosperous life, it is the nation’s capitala sober landscape peopled by attorneys, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and consultants. When the president or a congressman calls, a suit is always in order. “When I’m in my office on a casual day, I keep a blazer around in case someone calls me into the governor’s office,” says Renee Samuels, a speechwriter for Maryland governor Parris Glendening.

Here, clothing is parsed with the same care as a White House press release. To understand Washington style, heed the philosophy of the successful political aide: A fashion risk is not merely a personal misstep; it has the potential to be a political incident. “Recently, I was in Vietnam with the senator, and we had to make a quick change, and I wasn’t paying attention to the next thing on the agenda,” says Ives. “I found myself in black cropped pants for a meeting with the foreign minister. I came downstairs, and there was Mrs.

McCain in her St. John knit suit.”

Ives could imagine the sound bite: “McCain aide insults Vietnamese head of state. Details to come.”

“There are rules in this city,” says Laurie Fenton, chief of staff for Jon Kyi, Arizona’s junior senator. It was in Washington, after all, that Martha Stewart, poor dear, was taken to task for wearing a pink Ralph Lauren trouser suit to a White House dinner. (The gall! The horror!)

“It’s not about us; it’s about our principles. We operate very quietly behind the scenes in most cases,” Fenton says. “You don’t want to be too present.” Here, people strive to be part of something biggerpart of the power nucleus. And the seat of power doesn’t wear Alexander McQueen.

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