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Fashion 88 : Pants Get a Big Push for Home, Office Wear

Times Fashion Editor

The gap between illusion and reality widens once again as the big fall selling season hits retail stores. Pants, they tell us, are in.

Bullock’s, the Broadway and Robinson’s all spotlight pants on the covers and inside their fall catalogues, embracing the look for career and evening wear.

Vogue magazine features 25 pants outfits in 40 pages of its big September issue. And W, the glossy consumer publication of Women’s Wear Daily, pictures three dozen pantsuits in half as many pages of “what retailers like for fall.”

The trouble is, most women don’t really care what retailers like anymore. They all but stopped shopping last year when stores touted super-short skirts and Barbie-doll silhouettes. And whether they’ll start again, now that dress-up trouser-suits are purportedly the rage for office and evening wear, is the multimillion-dollar question.

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The pantsuits involved are undoubtedly handsome, designed as investment outfits rather than seasonal splurges. Jackets are soft and shapely, of supple fabrics, with classically elegant styling meant to endure. Pants are wide-legged and wearable, with or without their jackets.

Prices are still astronomical for top-of-the-line designer labels. Calvin Klein’s houndstooth check, mandarin-collar wool jacket is $664; matching pants are $435. But moderately priced labels, which are often excellent adaptations of the high-priced styles, are within reach of most working women. Prices on Carole Little’s fall trousers, for example, range from $80 to $105; matching jackets cost $110 to $160.

But it’s an illusion to think that today’s women will buy any style just because it’s supposedly in. Millions who’ve always worn pants on a regular basis may buy more of them this season because there are so many good styles available. Those who’ve never worn pants to work--either because they don’t look good in them or because they’re forbidden--will not be swayed, no matter how heavily pants are promoted.

Ironically, women who work at the Broadway and Bullock’s aren’t permitted to wear the new look while trying to sell it. “Pants are not allowed (for saleswomen) at the Broadway. We prefer dresses and skirts,” said Joan Stern, divisional vice president of compensation and benefits.

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“Pants are OK for the men,” quipped Lynn Liebig, Bullock’s human resources manager, who added that her store “observes professional dress standards for employees. That means dresses for the ladies,” she explained.

Robinson’s echoed much the same sentiments when a spokesperson said the store “prefers female sales associates to wear dresses and skirts.”

Sue Morrise, a receptionist-clerk for an office-temporary agency, says she won’t “buy into” the pants syndrome no matter who recommends the look. “If you want to make good money, you have to look sharp and dress for success,” she asserts.

Morrise likes a “tailored, classic look, with neat little straight-skirt suits and maybe a blouse with a little lace.” Before any interview she thinks about “what personnel people want you to wear” and tries to comply.

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“When I went for a $1,250 a month job recently, I wore a taupe suit--a skirt and blazer from the J. C. Penney catalogue. It was a very neat look. I paid attention to my hair, to my colors. You don’t want anything too loud because it turns people off. I got the job, partly because I looked right. The interviewer told me she liked the way I dress. I would always pick a skirt over pants.”

L.A. designer Little doesn’t think trousers will replace skirts for fall. A certain kind of “soft pants” will sell like crazy this season she says, but “the fabric must be fluid, the legs full, the waistline elasticized. That kind of pant is very flattering and can cover a multitude of sins. It’s like the old palazzo pajamas, but it’s definitely not for the office.”

In fact, Little doesn’t think women will wear pants to the office this year, the way they did in the 1960s. “If it’s got a zipper and it’s a real trouser, I don’t think it’ll be a big hit,” Little says.

Dana Buchman, the New York designer for an upscale division of Liz Claiborne, recently visited Bullock’s South Coast Plaza store with her fall collection. Buchman says she “loves pants,” wears them every day and designed lots of them for fall. “But I know most women can’t or won’t wear them to the office. If you work for a large brokerage firm, for example, there’s no way.”

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Buchman found that “executive women, those who had control over their own businesses, and women with highly creative jobs” are more likely to wear pants than anyone else.


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