DOES the way people dress affect their career paths? John T Molloy thought so: in 1975 he published a Dress for Success manual that became a best seller. Nowadays the concept seems, on the surface, quaint - an impression reinforced by Molloy's failure even to broach the issue of what women should wear to climb the professional ladder, explaining feebly: 'frankly, the phenomenon is so complex . . . absolute rules are ridiculous . . . if next year women decide to wear bones in their noses, fellows, there's nothing you can do about it but accept it and hope the bones are tasteful'.

The tone might be laughable but, 18 years on, he still has a point - it seems women continue to find dressing for work a complex issue. In theory it should be easier for them than for men - after all, they have far more choice. Yet most professional women feel they are required to wear specific clothes at work, even though often it is they, not their male colleagues, who institute the guidelines.

This second-guessing leads women to err on the side of caution. In some cases when the women here took what they considered to be big risks sartorially, they were pleasantly surprised to find that their male colleagues, far from being frightened off, were appreciative.

The holy trinity of Eighties power dressing - big shoulders, spiky heels and short skirts - might have disappeared, but the concept of dressing for success is very much alive among women of all ages, as the four women here show. Interpretations varied only in details: from wearing strong colours to always wearing a jacket.

On one point they were united: work clothes remain a form of psychological armour. Getting them right is essential. The ideal seems to be to look efficient (thus, despite their popularity on the catwalks, loose, unstructured clothes are not the answer for many), but not scarily so.

All four stressed that they do not spend much time thinking about what to wear. Perhaps they protested just a bit too much. When pressed, it transpired that at some time all of them had carefully orchestrated their working wardrobes, arriving at ideal solutions after years of trial and error.

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