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Pants Suit Women Even in Staid Offices

June 21, 1995

In some of the stodgiest corners of the American workplace, executive women are wearing the pants.

Take Cindy Tzerman, a partner at the 102-year-old law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue in New York. When Ms. Tzerman wore pants to a meeting with a client last year, her attire not only failed to raise eyebrows but brought compliments. In the past two years, Ms. Tzerman has noticed more female attorneys wearing pants, even in court. ``The barriers aren’t there anymore,″ she says.

As company dress codes crumble and female executives grow more secure about their place in the corporate hierarchy, professional women are becoming more relaxed about their business attire _ and for many, that means pants.

The fashion industry has responded with an array of dressy pants ensembles in high-quality fabrics. Indeed, marketers of women’s apparel see trousers as the trend that may finally jolt their business out of its long slump; a recent Glamour magazine reader survey found dressy pants were the only kind of clothing that women were inclined to buy this spring.

This fall, for the first time, Federated Department Stores Inc.’s Macy’s division will make pants the centerpiece of its better-sportswear line, which is mostly medium-priced work clothes; pants will account for 75 percent of the merchandise. ``There’s a tremendous change in the psychology of what women are wearing to the office,″ says Carolyn Moss, fashion director for Macy’s eastern division.

Some of the biggest pants buyers are women in their 20s and early 30s, who come to their jobs unencumbered by the fashion taboos that once ruled the workplace. ``Younger women are more relaxed and less concerned about the traditional image of women in business,″ says Susan Dresner, a New York-based wardrobe consultant whose clients are women managers.

To be sure, there are still pockets of resistance, particularly in such male bastions as Wall Street and in the South and Midwest.

``I won’t wear pants,″ declares Davia Timmons, a public-relations manager at a Wall Street brokerage firm. ``In skirts, women look more professional and are taken more seriously.″ Cherie Brown, a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, adds: ``Southern women are more conservative; in downtown business districts, pants haven’t hit the South yet.″

But in many regions, a trickle-down effect seems to prevail in office fashion. As women move into powerful positions _ and adopt pants _ their subordinates follow suit. Pants-wearing U.S. Senators Carol Moseley-Braun and Barbara Mikulski paved the way for a relaxed Senate dress code in 1993 that allowed female staff to wear pantsuits on the Senate floor. Previously, women had to wear dresses or skirts with jackets.

Even First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has made speeches and other public appearances in pantsuits. ``Mrs. Clinton believes that pants can be elegant and practical ... she wears pants about once a week,″ a White House spokesman says.

When Sally Frame Kasaks became chairman and chief executive of AnnTaylor Stores Corp. in 1992, she reversed the pants ban instituted by her predecessor, Joseph Brooks. Ms. Kasaks, who says she wears pants ``about 65 percent of the time,″ always pairs them with jackets, because ``the jacket is the cue that you’re dressed up.″

The dressiest pants have a moderately draped leg and are rarely lined, Ms. Kasaks says. ``The lining often distorts the way pants hang,″ she says.

Since the era of Rosie the Riveter, blue-collar women have worn pants to work, but until recently the trend didn’t take hold among professionals. For most women, a dearth of flattering styles hampered acceptance of pants in the office: Pants were poorly tailored, too casual or too tight.

By the mid-1970s, vast numbers of women were working alongside men in offices. Seeking a serious image, some women took to wearing severe pin-stripe pantsuits and wing-tipped pumps. ``Those suits weren’t cut for women’s bodies and made women look too masculine,″ says Ms. Dresner, the consultant. Many women came to associate pantsuits with that sexless look.

Then in the late 1980s, Italian designer Giorgio Armani coaxed high-paid women back into pants with a feminine version of the draped pants-and-jacket look he had popularized for men. His pantsuits sell for $925 to $2,000. And Hamburg-based designer Jil Sander has built a $200 million business purveying pants in the luxury trade: Her collection includes 25 different pants styles in ensembles that sell for between $1,800 and $3,500 each. Ms. Sander’s suits are known for their variety of cuts and use of the fine wools traditionally associated with men’s suits.

Sheila Schroeder, a vice president at Lehman Brothers Inc. in New York, says the Jil Sander pantsuits she wears to work two or three days a week travel well and ``are simple, straightforward and not trendy.″

And mainstream fashion marketers such as Dana Buchman, AnnTaylor, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein II are doing a brisk business in dressy, tailored trousers and jackets. Dana Buchman has gained a big following by pairing pants with tunics that are longer than traditional jackets.

Dressy pants are also helping retailers to sell more units. Women who buy a jacket and skirt ``are also likely to buy the pants that go with them,″ says Joan Kaner, fashion director at Neiman Marcus. Saks Fifth Avenue detects pent-up demand for trousers suitable for work. While dresses and skirts often wind up on the markdown rack, Saks says more expensive pants such as $250 Zins are selling at full price. ``This tells us that women don’t already own them,″ a Saks spokeswoman says.

Amid the changing fashions, Linda Stack hews to two standards. The director of marketing communications for Latin America at International Business Machines Corp. wears pants two or three times a week at her office in Mt. Pleasant, N.Y. But she dons a skirt when she visits IBM’s corporate headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., where women have yet to adopt the casual dress code that the company instituted in February. Ms. Stack believes most IBM women will become pants converts. ``It’s just a matter of time,″ she says.

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