Office Cover-Ups : Career Wear Has Become All Business--Revealing, Tight Clothes Don't Cut It Anymore


On television, "Melrose Place" diva Heather Locklear parades around her make-believe office in skirts so tiny she literally can't sit down.

At the movies, Demi Moore in "Disclosure" does something most executive women wouldn't dare: She goes to work without wearing pantyhose.

In this month's Vogue and other fashion magazines, ads and editorials feature models in tight-fitting suits that show off every curve.

While the entertainment and fashion media present their version of a career woman's wardrobe, those who know better--most real-life working women--offer a much different picture of what clothes work best for the office.

Orange County businesswomen say they have found a fashionable medium between the frumpy, floppy-bowed looks of the dress-for-success '80s and the tarted-up career looks seen on "Melrose."

They seek out clothes that show off their figures without revealing too much. They wear their skirts above the knee, and some even wear pants, but they won't wear thigh-high skirts and they won't wear jeans except on casual Friday. Although they occasionally wear a tailored dress, the suit is still their working uniform of choice. For them, shapeless floral-print waif dresses are taboo.

"Dressing like a bimbette is not going to cut it," says Peg Maynard Rothfelder, a Dana Point attorney. "I don't care how smart you are--you won't be taken seriously."

Rothfelder practices a "less is more" philosophy when it comes to her courtroom attire.

"I don't wear short skirts to work," she says. "We all know how poor Marcia Clark got zonked" for showing too much leg at the O.J. Simpson trial.

Rothfelder won't wear the pin-striped suit her husband bought her because the skirt hits well above the knees. She only wears the suit to social functions.

"The majority of judges and opposing counsel are male. If you wear something revealing, their eyes will go to that," Rothfelder says. "They aren't going to be listening to you, they'll be so absorbed by your tight sweater, short skirt or low-cut blouse."

Fran Mulvania, owner of Mulvania & Associates, a public relations company in Corona del Mar, recently discovered just how important clothes can be to closing a business deal. She met with a prospective male client who asked her point-blank how she dresses for work.

"He wanted to know if I would look professional," she says. "You really represent your business by your attire."

Inappropriate business attire can leave a bad impression. While waiting in line at a local coffee shop, Mulvania has seen women on their way to work wearing what she calls "hot-pant skirt lengths." A talented woman she occasionally does business with wears blouses that show off her cleavage.

"It's embarrassing. I'm uncomfortable with it," Mulvania says.

Mulvania is no frump. She hates the kind of "choirboy ties" worn by women in the '80s, and she wears her skirts at or above the knee.

"It's very flattering and comfortable. Skirts don't have to be mid-length," she says. "But wearing your skirt halfway up the thigh is not the impression a business person wants to make."

Classic business suits are a staple of her working wardrobe. She also likes wearing a camisole instead of a buttoned-up blouse.

"Modest silk camisoles are wonderful. I wear a lot of them, but I don't wear lacy, see-through ones. I must have 10 or 12 that I interchange with my suits all the time. They're very feminine."

Appropriate attire doesn't have to be dull or masculine, she says. "You can be more flamboyant with color, scarves and accessories."

Susan Gaitan, director of membership for the Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau, is known for her savvy business attire. She prefers tailored suits or coat dresses unless she has to meet a client on a yacht--then it's walking shorts with a blazer, stockings and flat-heeled shoes.

"Heather Locklear is notorious for her short skirts and mules--I couldn't see myself lasting a day wearing that," Gaitan says.

She finds most of her career wear at Ann Taylor, Bebe in Fashion Island Newport Beach, Bullock's and Nordstrom.

Details count when dressing for work, Gaitan says. She makes sure her shoes are in good condition--no nicks on the heels--and she prefers wearing a cream-colored sheer hose or even dark stockings instead of bare-looking nude hose.

Clothes have to move easily if they're going to survive a day at the office. Fabrics must breathe, and not wrinkle.

"It's really important to be comfortable if you're sitting around a lot," says Beverly Ray, owner and chairman of the International Bay Clubs Inc. in Newport Beach.

"Fitted suits are wonderful, but if you're behind a desk all day, they're not practical," Ray says. "They wrinkle, and you can't remove the jacket if it's as tight as I see in some fashion magazines." That's because many of the new suits have no room to accommodate a blouse.

While overseeing the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, Ray usually wears suits in winter, lighter-weight dresses in summer and an occasional pantsuit. She avoids lingerie looks--the lacy or sheer bodysuits sometimes seen peeking out from the opening of a woman's blazer--and says gold or silver sweaters should be paired with suits only for evening.

"Understated clothing is always best," Ray says. "You're wearing the clothes instead of the clothes wearing you."

Looking professional doesn't mean dressing dowdily. Many of the latest career styles for women accent the figure without being too revealing.

"The big emphasis is on the waist. Jackets are shorter and much more fitted, with a lot of seam detail and little slim belts," says Joanne Renner, marketing manager for Episode in New York City.

At Episode in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, there are jackets and skirts made of silk or rayon that drape softly over the body. One collection features a deep grayish-green two-button silk jacket ($218) that can be interchanged with a classic straight skirt ($94) that hits at mid-knee ($94), a shorter, swingier A-line skirt ($96) or a soft drawstring pant ($148).

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