1997 will be the year of the Woman in Charge - provided she's wearing a `statement' jacket, polo-neck and power-bob, writes Eleanor Bailey
When Clare Whelan stood for selection as parliamentary candidate for Lewisham West, Conservative Central Office gave her a little friendly advice. Image is all important, it counselled, especially for a woman. She should wear a black skirt and a bright pink jacket. "When I had the selection interview there was only one other woman," Whelan remembers. "I couldn't understand why the interviewers kept laughing. It was because the other woman was wearing exactly the same outfit."

This, we are told, is to be the year of the woman in power. If the Labour party performs as expected in the election, there will be an influx of female MPs into parliament. Marjorie Scardino has taken the helm at Pearsons to become the first female chief executive of a FTSE 100 index company. And meanwhile, across the pond, Madeleine Allbright has made history by being appointed the first ever female Secretary of State. But as more and more women enter the public eye, will they at last be freed from the constant public scrutiny of their wardrobes and personal style? Or will Madeleine Allbright have to run the gauntlet that past powerful women, from Margaret Thatcher to Hillary Clinton, have had to?

In the case of Maggie and Hillary, the spin doctors moved in fast and created for each of them the look that has become the equivalent of the male corporate suit: power bob or similar, sober but smart jacket and skirt or suit - serious but soft and, well, feminine. And dull, dull, dull, in the opinion of Clare Whelan. "The image makers push you into a mould," she complains. "Labour politicians especially are keen on cloning."

Smart women, according to Whelan (who works as assistant to Edwina Currie), are showing two fingers to the image-makers and finding their own style. "Shoulder pads used to be obligatory, but all that's changing. I have adopted a uniform black or cream polo neck and a bright jacket." After all, breaking the mould can work to a woman's advantage. "In a room full of 300 men in grey suits and one woman in pink you are the one people remember," she adds.

That is, as Whelan's selection anecdote demonstrates, until all the other pink jackets walk in. For colour consultant-constructed woman, loud and proud and brightly painted, is fast become another female stereotype. It's what Judi James, author of the book Bodytalk, the Industrial Society guide to positive business images, calls "the loud `statement' jacket, the uniform for assertiveness. As if they have been told that wearing bright red or that apple green will make them look more confident" (and they probably have).It may be fine in the boardroom of Marks & Spencer, but in the corridors of power?

It's a fine line to tread, but no one can deny that image is all important. In Bodytalk Judi James quotes Albert Mehrabian, who identified through research that the visual impact counted for 55 per cent of the impression a person gave, tone of voice counted for 38 per cent and what the person actually said counted for just seven per cent.

And in politics, image matters more than anywhere else, especially for women. Yet, ironically, there is also a horror of being seen to admit that such things are important. Successful women would not want it thought that they worried about anything as shallow as image. Thus the Labour party's former queen of dress sense, Barbara Follet, has now drawn a veil over what is now too fluffy an occupation for a serious economic advisor. The Labour party, once open about its make-overs, now claims to be above such things. A spokesperson said huffily "we don't tell women what to wear, they can wear what they want. It's not important".One political public relations adviser claimed that this was nonsense. "Politicians are absolutely paranoid about creating the right look these days. But they are terrified of being found out, meetings go on behind closed doors. It is considered even more important for women that they should have the right mix of power, maternal and siren images. It's probably very sexist but that's how it is."

Oona King, regional organiser for the GMB union and a candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow at the next election, acknowledges the problem. "It's like going to a new school and being the only person who doesn't have the proper uniform," she says. "And it always works against you. If you dress in a `male' way you're thought of as dowdy, if you dress to be different you're considered frivolous. When I went to my selection interview, I wore a terrible outfit. I deliberately dressed to look like my grandmother. There were five or six women and we had all done exactly the same thing. I won the selection and then afterwards went on a train to go clubbing and changed into my hot-pants in the loos. Unfortunately when I returned to my seat, all the people from the selection meeting were on the train looking horrified. Fortunately it was too late for them to change their minds."

At work, the slippery career ladder can be more slippery still for women who don't attend to matters of image. In male-dominated structures such as the City, says Isabel Bird of the executive search company Bird Associates, a rigid dress code of skirt and jacket, usually navy blue, still prevails. "If a woman in a top position adopts a more relaxed wardrobe she may be seen as encouraging other women to do the same, but generally having fought the battle to get to the top it would be unusual for a woman to then wage a battle against the prevailing dress code."

Familiar old negative stereotypes persist. "Women still complain that bosses like them to wear high heels, with their hair down and short skirts," says Judi James. "Business is gradually coming round to the realisation that women can look formal in trousers, but there is still a lot of pressure out there to dress `like women'."

Women have to tread warily. While at the beginning of her career, dressing sexily might be essential to attract attention, to rise up the ladder a more sombre style is usually required. Helen Cook, 39, an accountant, walked the image tightrope. "When I joined the company all the women had raunchy outfits. Not tacky, but they all wore a lot of make-up, short skirts and Wonderbras. But there was a cut-off point on the ladder when all the women started dressing like girl guide leaders. I now find myself having to wear horrible tights and knee-length skirts. It's expectations, I suppose. Part of me would love to have an automaton uniform to put on every morning which I know would be acceptable, and part of me wants to rebel altogether and wear trousers."

The option of trousers for women is, astonishingly, just beginning to penetrate more formal workplaces. Women in the States have been wearing them for years, but in Britain their Sapphic overtones, together with relative lack of availability, have hitherto ruled them out of the boardroom. "It was difficult to buy a decent trouser suit even three years ago," says executive search consultant Jane Nallor.

As women are becoming more established and confident they feel more able to wear what they like. Hence, unsurprisingly, women in the top of their fields express less dissatisfaction about their dress code than women further down the ladder. A new survey published by the Institute of Management revealed that women in managerial professions were no longer worried about clothing issues. Lower down the scale, however, more traditional prejudices prevail. The situation is improving as male chief executives are get younger, and even the older ones recognise women as an intelligent life form, says Mary Spillane of colour consultants, Colour Me Beautiful. "Change is filtering from the top down. It will only take one top female MP to start wearing trouser suits and there will be a stampede."

Additional reporting: Katie Sampson


THE QC Nadine Radford, QC

As of last year we are allowed to wear trousers if they are part of a business suit. This relaxation resulted from two considerations. Firstly the desire from women within the profession to wear trousers had been loudly voiced, and secondly the fashion industry had begun to wake up to the need for smart suits with the option of skirts or trousers. Once this option was available the same argument that nurses and policewomen had used to allow them to adopt trousers became acceptable, namely that if you are carrying heavy loads or travelling long distances trousers will be the most practical and the most decent form of dress. Many women have adopted trousers whilst making an effort to maintain their femininity. However the days of wearing shocking pink suits as seen on LA Law are thankfully far away, since the suit worn must always be in the same dark colours as the robes. For swearing in, judges or silks of both sexes must wear tights under britches. Before the ceremony we received written instructions informing us that tights should be applied under and not over trousers. Apparently some men had misunderstood this.

THE PUBLISHER Lucy Ramsey, publicity manager with a large publishing house

In the past many of the women in publishing were expected to wear little black dresses and pearls. Nowadays women can get away with more than men, who are still expected to wear suits. Women tend to wear a lot less make- up than they did, often in an effort to look more serious. Editors dress as they want, often quite eccentrically, both because they are not the public face and because they are traditionally seen as having their minds on higher things. Women in accounts dress more smartly because they want to be differentiated as business people. Across the board dressing sexily is generally seen as off-putting, bad mannered frivolity. We used to have a "dress down" day but it wasn't a great success because it actually made people feel more uncomfortable.

THE ADVERTISER Katherine Boon, account director of a leading advertising agency

If women make it into advertising they are confident enough to wear what they want but they tend towards the fashionable, well-turned-out understatement. We don't have to wear stiff suits and we can wear colours but the days of flash and brash dressing are over because of the unpleasant associations with the over-confident 1980s. When you get higher up you have to be mindful of how you are perceived - wearing a short skirt could undermine your credibility.

THE PSYCHOLOGIST Emma White, clinical psychologist

Clinical psychology is female-dominated and has a vast range of dress codes - some regard themselves as radical social workers, others as medical professionals. However, overall the code has changed significantly: women dress smartly now, which reflects the increased credibility of the profession, and they no longer feel the need to dress oppositionally. Clothing is seen as a therapeutic rather than professional issue, as a rule in order to get the client to express his or her feelings it's best to dress in a neutral but professional way. You have to get trainee psychologists to think about the message conveyed by their dress; one mustn't transmit one's own views or character to the client. Unfortunately trainees can misunderstand this and see one as a clothing fascist.

THE ACCOUNTANT Jan Garside, senior tax manager with a leading accountancy firm

I have been in accountancy for over 25 years and have witnessed a great change in the dress-code. It's not uncommon to see juniors in crop tops and trousers are acceptable across the board, whereas when I started they were only acceptable on cleaners. Most of the men in this firm ogle the girls, but today's women are confident enough to withstand their stupid remarks.

Interviews by Katie Sampson