Ally McBeal, the perky and at times ditzy attorney in Fox TV's hit series that bears her name, seems to have sparked a quiet debate among working women in Los Angeles.
McBeal is a lawyer who wants to be taken seriously even though she sports short, skimpy skirts that offer a revealing view of her long legs.
Critics think such clothes are inappropriate for business. Admirers say that if they looked like actress Calista Flockhart, they would dress the part.
"If I had her legs," said Georgett Studnicki, a vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment, "I'd show them off."
McBeal may be a fictional character in a television series, but such debates among working women over what to wear short skirt or long, pantsuit or dress, pumps or flats is an endless one. And the dilemma is particularly acute in Los Angeles.
With its warm weather, casual lifestyle and disparate industries, Los Angeles long has been a town with not one dress code but many. It's also a trend-setting place and a magnet for young, stylish women putting even more pressure on those hoping to stand out from the crowd.
Simply put, what do you wear if you have a luncheon meeting with some movie hotshot in Beverly Hills and a 2 o'clock appointment with a banker downtown?
Professional women from the worlds of finance, sales, entertainment, advertising and other fields say there is no one simple answer, and that on many days events will call for several wardrobe changes just like in a Hollywood movie.
"I have to dress appropriately for each client," said Nina Gordon, owner of Nina Gordon Public Relations. "I deal with producers, sports executives, businessmen. You always want to look comfortable but professional, nothing daring. Pantsuits are always easiest. If I have to go to a black-tie dinner at night, I can bring a change of jewelry and a different pair of heels, so I don't have to go home and make a complete change."
Alicia Kaye, owner of Los Angeles-based London Temporary Services, also dresses for her part each day.
"If I am going to Paramount, I can look a little wild because it is the entertainment industry," she said. "If I am going to Herbalife, I wear a suit. If I have to go out at night, I'll bring along my Manolo Blahnik stilettos to look dressy."
These daily considerations, of course, are almost exclusively the domain of women. While men may occasionally have to choose between a suit or sport jacket, women are confronted each morning with a much wider array of fashion decisions. And no matter what their choice happens to be, women must deal with the knowledge that people are paying a lot more attention to what they are wearing than they would to a man.
"I've got to tell you, there have been times when I envy men," said Anita Santiago, founder of Anita Santiago Advertising Inc., a Latino advertising firm in Santa Monica. "They are not watched as closely as women. People say stuff like, 'Oh my God, she's wearing that suit again.' Men can get away with a lot more."
Thus, the short skirts flaunted by Ally McBeal may boost the show's ratings, but similar attire in the real world may not go over the same way.
"I don't want my life in the hands of a lawyer like that," scoffs Barbara Hower, a novelist and journalist who favors Armani suits.
But other well-established career women acknowledge that women just getting started are dressing more provocatively these days.
"In recent years, my students have begun wearing shorter and shorter skirts and clothes that are tighter and tighter to job interviews," said USC law professor Susan Estrich.
"They seem to be more comfortable with their own sexuality. The big issue is, what does a woman who makes it to the top wear that won't make men feel uncomfortable, especially the ones who work for her?"
Many women, including former NBC programming executive Lin Bolen, counsel rising stars to stick with suits.
"When I was at the network, I wore suits and silk shirts that were better tailored than the men," said Bolen, who is now an independent producer. "But if you start wearing see-through clothes that are suggestive, you are inviting some kind of comment from a man."
Suits put women on an equal footing and send an "all-business" message, fans say.
"If you want to close the big deals, you have to develop confidence and it's not going to happen running around in micro-miniskirts," said Loretta Pierce, founder of Master Design, a Torrance-based apparel maker that provides personal shopping services for corporate women.
Pierce, a former vice president at Merle Norman Cosmetics, founded her company to solve another problem facing businesswomen finding the time to buy clothes.
"I didn't have the time or energy to shop," she said. "I knew other busy women had to be going through the same thing so I just started my own business and sent out fliers to women I knew."
Master Design clients can call for an appointment and a style coordinator will come to their homes or offices with clothing samples, brochures and fabric swatches.
After a client chooses what she wants, Master Design will pluck the pieces from its inventory and have them altered at no extra charge.
But service like that isn't cheap: An average suit goes for about $500 and a blouse is $200.
Which raises another issue: cost. For women in the executive suite, Armani suits are favorites, but those can easily cost several thousand dollars. Many women executives say they spend in the five figures every year on clothing, shopping at places like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Barney's and Saks Fifth Avenue.
But it's not uncommon for women of all stripes to search for bargains. Hower and Estrich say they both comb resale stores, thrift shops and discount emporiums like Marshall's and Ross.
The important thing is not to stand out and to dress more like colleagues even if they are male.
Kathryn Schloessman, president of the Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Commission, said she emulated men's clothes when she was first getting started in commercial real estate.
"I never wore dresses and I always (wore) black or dark-colored suits with white shirts; it was more mannish," she recalled. "If somebody remembered what you wore that day, you wore the wrong thing. And no leather skirts, no stilettos and no minis."
As Schloessman's profile grew, so did her ease about what to wear and her spending budget. "As you get more established, you have more latitude," said Schloessman. "I threw out all my white shirts."
Ilene Kahn Power, a producer who works for New Line Television, said women should never give up their femininity for a job. "You can't neuter yourself," she said. "You have to go with what looks good on you. Men try to neuter you already. If you look good in boots, wear boots."
So where is Ally McBeal in all this?
"She's a TV character who is far out," said Bolen, the former NBC executive. "She has a lot of fantasies about attracting men and that character would wear short skirts. But if she was a district attorney or a character on 'L.A. Law,' she'd be more buttoned up. But for this show, we have to give her leeway."
Sounds like a metaphor for women in Los Angeles.
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