Your true colours revealed - for a fee: Choosing clothes used to be a matter of taste. Now the right 'season' is all. Naseem Khan remains sceptical

I STUMBLED into all this by accident. The prospectus for 'Presenting Yourself' had promised a one-day workshop on voice, body language and appearance, and I'd enrolled to pick up tips that would help my public speaking.

Little did I know that I would find myself in the realm of shoulder pads, colour coding and leather chequebook covers. But tourists, I told myself, should keep their mouths shut and their eyes open and they might learn something. I certainly did, but whether it was worth knowing is a different matter.

Other people's judgement of us is based 53 per cent, it seems, on appearance and 38 per cent on voice, the tutor said. A neat, trim woman with alarming shoulder pads, she explained that actual words were unimportant. They accounted for a mere 7 per cent.

These are not facts to be trifled with, and the group cowered under their force. Clairol, the cosmetics firm, she continued, the light of messianic battle in her eye, once undertook an experiment. It 'made over' a number of women and sent photographs to firms showing them before and after the treatment. In what income bracket, Clairol asked, would the firms place these people if they were applying for jobs? The 'crisp executive' look consistently came out on top.

The group was silent as the impact of the facts sank in. A shaken young woman whispered that she had just spent pounds 1,000 on new clothes. It was an act of desperation: she had been made redundant a number of times and was determined to do the right thing in the job she now held. Could it be, by some awful stroke of fate, that she chose the wrong clothing? Maybe the message her new wardrobe gave was: 'Sack me again'. The possibility of failure, derision and ostracism loomed.

Authority was the name of the game, the instructor said encouragingly. She listed the items we should pay attention to: belts, jewellery, buttons, briefcases. We noticed people, didn't we, who signed the cheque at Sainsbury with a leather-bound chequebook? 'That says you're going somewhere,' she said.

And above all, jackets. How many of us did not wear jackets to work - the essential armour of the working woman? A few in the group muttered that they did, but several shuffled their feet. (Buy jacket, I wrote down obediently.)

She gave us examples of the power of appearance: the home economics tutor who could not control her pupils. She bought a jacket and, bingo, you could have heard a pin drop in her classroom; the hospital complaints officer who was mercilessly harried by impatient people. Her assertiveness problems vanished when she dressed with authority.

Look, said the tutor, she would demonstrate. And she proceeded to 'de-rank' herself, discarding jacket, high heels, chunky jewellery, belt, make-up. To my eyes, she looked much nicer, with a more natural form of assurance.

Colour was her next target. I'd always thought I was good with colours - olive green mixed with sharp emerald and maroon and orange give me a thrill. I had also thought the colours people chose should be determined by common sense and a simple liking for them. Far from it.

The world, in fact, is divided into four colour types that go by the names of the seasons. Individuals have a spectrum of diverse colours that suits their appearance and from which they stray at their peril.

The instructor started to demonstrate on eager participants, holding alternate scarves in different colours under their chins. A tall, dignified black woman turned out to be a 'winter' person. What a relief, she sighed. They were the colours she chose anyway. She was a single parent and could not afford to buy new clothes. The pounds 1,000 anti-redundancy wardrobe also, thank goodness, more or less passed muster.

The group was now transfixed. There is something comforting about rules. Follow them and success will follow. They make sense of the arbitrary nonsense that is life. (Buck the rules and who knows what will

ensue.)

Notebooks out, we prepared to take down the 20 pitfalls facing the working woman. She should not wear ankle chains, nor should she have hairy legs, double-pierced ears or pop socks. Hang on a minute . . . ankle chains? When had I last seen a woman wearing ankle chains to work? Or with over-long, over-red fingernails (pitfall 8), chewing gum (11) or wearing over-tight, over-short clothes?

Were we really paying pounds 51 for this? Doubts persisted. I noticed, for instance, that only one of this small group was of English origin. Significant perhaps? However, docilely, I wrote on: Italians and Japanese spend a third of their income on clothes, while the Brits spend only 2.2 per cent. Discard wire coat hangers from the dry cleaners.

I wondered if Cinderella had abandoned her wire coat hangers and had her colours done? Maybe if she had gone to the ball in the wrong colours, the prince would have waltzed off into the sunset with one of the Ugly Sisters. Perhaps her unswerving faith in herself would have carried the day, even if her shortsighted godmother had wrongly kitted her out as spring, and as a dramatic (one of six basic personality types) and not an ingenue.

Clearly I was alone with my reservations. The day ended and the instructor packed away her glorious wheels of coloured fabrics, lipsticks and blushers.

The only sound from my companions was the ripping of cheques torn out to pay for the cost of further private consultations. It gave a new meaning to the phrase 'buying power'.

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