WHEN I was on the panel judging the best-dressed business people for Management Today magazine last week, it soon became apparent that women haven't quite worked out a grammar for dressing at work. This is not to say that British women per se don't have any dress sense, which is blatantly untrue but businesswomen have a different agenda to women in general and need to develop a proper code for office dressing. This means not simply choosing clothes for practicality but also choosing flattering clothes with panache.

Part of the problem is that there are imagined internalised constraints on working women in Britain who concentrate on trying not to look too "sexy" when they're at work, and making sure they are taken seriously by men, a reaction in part to the fact that there are not enough women at senior management levels.

Particularly when women get to a senior level at work, there's an urge to shut it all away - not to be mannish exactly, but to de-sex herself so as not to be the object of attention. In France and Italy, by comparison, you can be businesslike and feminine and glamorous all at the same time. I'm not suggesting that businesswomen should start behaving like Sharon Stone during her "leg-crossing" phase - too much skin or tightness of clothes is wrong with either gender - but women need to relax about the relationship between their clothes and their profession because this fashion reserve translates into a complete lack of style. That's why we still get the Eighties power dresser, the overly relaxed dresser, or the classic "mother of the bride" matron look.

I'm the first to admit that men have it easier than women with work clothes because they have an accepted uniform. That's why it was easier to judge the men's side of the competition. (Lord Saatchi won, if you're wondering.) But clothes have become a vital communication tool at work and women have to decide what they want to say and work to get their own "look".

This already happens in Europe, with women wearing Armani couture, while the American version is probably the Donna Karan trouser suit. We are starting to catch on in Britain; but there's not enough sense of quality at the moment. This is why British women can veer from looking absolutely amazing to looking deeply naff, while Parisian women may look slightly boring in their approach to work clothes, but will always have an idea in their head about what is "good" dressing. Still, I know we'll get there eventually.

Columnist Peter York is MD of management consultants SRU Ltd.



SO, WOMEN should take more care over their appearance at work, should they? Well, according to a survey by Britain's "leading business magazine" - and fashion bible? - Management Today, they should. While men - this survey said - can more than hold their own in the workplace sartorially speaking, British women lag woefully behind their French and Italian counterparts and "need to learn how to use clothes as part of their individual marketing strategy". Stern words indeed. Apparently, however, women in this country are personally fearful of provoking criticism - of being labelled frivolous - should they pay too much attention to the way they look at the workplace. (Who are these women?) Our designers, meanwhile, are failing to produce the kind of garments a working woman needs to achieve elegance (and/or respect?) in the office. Have a word with yourself, Alexander McQueen.

All of this makes me wonder what planet exactly - and what century, for that matter - the brains behind such a thoroughly archaic initiative hail from. It's hardly news that the single unifying factor of fashion in the Nineties is that rigid dress codes are finally, thankfully, eroding. There is no need, for example, for a woman to wear a dress so overblown it would hardly fit through the door to a gala dinner and dance. Conversely, should she wish to wear sequins and sparkle to brighten up a wintry morning at the office, then so be it: such fashion frippery is no longer the preserve of Saturday nights at the Hippodrome, thank you.

More good news comes with the fact that those natty little skirt and trouser suit combos - the sort we all swore by in the label-obsessed, power-driven Eighties - are no longer the only workwear to see and be seen in. If women do want to dress like that then so be it - they will be spoilt for choice - but anyone who expects them to do so needs their head examined. Get real, Management Today! Get modern! The last thing any self-respecting woman needs to worry about while she's feeding her children their breakfast and doing last night's washing up is her image: that prescribed lick of mascara and dash of red lipstick that will ensure she is respected at the office once she finally gets there.

To judge any person purely on the way they look is offensive, whatever his or her environment. The way we all dress may, to some extent, be a reliable indication of the sort of person we are and, even more so, the particular image we choose to project. However, to suggest it has even the slightest significance where our ability to do our jobs properly is concerned is to lose the plot - fashion or otherwise. Tidy tailoring does not a tidy desk (or tidy mind) make.

Anyone mad enough to set store in such outmoded and proscriptive garbage should spare a moment to think on this (a minor practicality but one worthy of the working woman's consideration nonetheless): what exactly is the point of our spending time and money over what we wear to the office when the only people we are likely to impress by so doing are a load of boring old farts in suits?

Susannah Frankel is fashion editor of the Independent on Sunday.