Belfast Telegraph

Undo that button and loosen that skirt, for women’s fashion in the workplace has moved away from constriction and discomfort to soft and relaxed...

By Frances Burscough

For years, fashion has moved at a snail’s pace in the workplace.

Outside on the high street, trends chop and change so dramatically that this season’s must-have item becomes next season’s cast-off as soon as you’ve removed the price tag and paid the credit-card bill, but in the office it’s a different story altogether.

There are so many restrictions about what is and isn’t acceptable in a professional environment — particularly for women — that even a slight nod to current trends can take months to become acceptable.

This was certainly the case when I last worked full-time in an office in the 1990s.

In those days, the ‘power suit’ was compulsory for women who wanted to get ahead, and it seemed like the only way one could climb to the top of the career ladder was with great difficulty in the most uncomfortable combinations possible.

Unless you were trussed-up in a figure-hugging jacket-and-skirt combo with just enough leeway to allow access and egress at toilet breaks or to bend over the photocopier without a button-popping wardrobe malfunction, worn with heels that could double-up as a hole punch/docket spike, you weren’t going anywhere.

For women, the trick was a ‘skilful cover-up’, where you over-emphasised your shape without revealing much at all. In short, women looked like women but with all the round bits sharpened off and the soft bits toughened up. Vulnerability, delicacy, smoothness and femininity just didn’t have enough balls to make it in business.

So the regulation uniform formula was as follows: shoulder pads and nipped-in belted waists emphasised your curves alright, but jackets were buttoned high without so much as a glimpse of décolletage in case it was misconstrued as being provocative.

Remember how obsessed we were with political correctness in the 1990s? Well, breasts weren’t politically correct. And as far as the nether regions were concerned, tight knee-length pencil skirts were okay because they suggested prim’n’proper and, therefore, well-organised; while shorter skirts would only do if they were accompanied by legs concealed beneath a 40-denier layer of (often sweltering) opaque micromesh.

To complete the picture of total constriction and utter discomfort, shoes were as high as you could walk in without getting vertigo or pole-vaulting yourself across the office on a regular basis.

No wonder so many lost their balance and tumbled arse over tit on their way up towards the glass ceiling.

But things have at last started to change and a more relaxed mood with a greater variety of styles seems to be taking over the office.

A number of external influences have come into play this side of the millennium that have worked wonders for the working woman. Strong, sassy female figures such as Michelle Obama, Helen Mirren, Anna Wintour and Kate Middleton have led the way in showing, with aplomb, that you need not sacrifice your sexual allure to look the part among your peers.

The 1960s’ secretary look — as perfected by the fabulous females in the TV series Mad Men — has also made a massive impact on the way we now dress to impress.

The tailored dress, for example, worn with a silk scarf and a well-cut cardi, has made a welcome return thanks to characters such as Joan played by the voluptuous Christina Hendricks, who wears any number of variations in every episode and never fails to look the business. And as sexy as get-out, too, for that matter.

Softness has returned in the form of the classic twin-set in luxurious cashmere, or fine merino wool worn with a pussy-cat bow blouse in shimmering silk; the sun-ray pleated skirt that just skims the knee and slouchy draping palazzo pants in peach-skin silks or crisp linen all look professional without being restrictive or uncomfortable in any way.

Even shoes are becoming more forgiving. Heels are still high — and always will be, because they look so damn sexy that ease of mobility is a small sacrifice to make — but new developments in ‘flexible sole’ technology mean that you can now look just as good with a spring in your step and without running the risk of being certified lame before your mid-forties. Happy days.

Now get back to work. I need those stats by tomorrow

Belfast Telegraph