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MATERNITY CLOTHES FOR THE OFFICE - BUSINESS AS (NOT SO) USUAL

By Carolyn Hammer

Some of the most painful memories of my pregnancy were not actually in the labor room, but in my own bedroom at 6:00 every morning, twisting and coaxing my immobile body around on the floor, in a battle with my Lycra sheers! Added to my discomfort, was trying to squeeze my swollen feet into the only pair of flats that still fit me (shoes that were later burned after the birth of my daughter!) One glance in the mirror, at my frumpy, clingy maternity skirt and peter pan jacket, completed my total frustration of dressing for the business world. I was pregnant and working at the wrong time!

Fortunately a few years afterward, trend setting maternity fashions finally made their debut, and the dress code evolution in Corporate America mercifully followed 'suit'. The conversion to less structured and more flexible dress environments swept across the country and almost all corporations fell in line. Organizations that formerly maintained a strict corporate dress environment joined in the more relaxed business casual dress code, and thus began the birthing process of Casual Fridays (pun intended :)!

However, many did not stop there. As one Human Resource Director from a large Professional Services firm explained, his company believed that Casual 'Every Day' was more in order. In their adoption of this contemporary attitude, they discovered that when employees dressed and felt more relaxed and comfortable, employee enrichment, productivity and efficiency significantly increased. Their new policy does not permit sneakers, sandals, culottes or shorts; however, women have the ultimate luxury of forgoing the hosiery, if they prefer (take that, you Lycra sheers!)

Other industries have answered the dress code revolution with varying degrees of modification, with the incorporation of a 'situational' Business Casual policy. The banking and securities trades, for example, have found that there are instances where the time honored blue wool suit and white oxford blouse is a must. Meeting clients and making presentations to the board mandate the respect of traditionally tailored apparel. However, in the interest of competition, and in the days of dot coms, they have slowly begun adopting casual wear on a more day-to-day basis, and have also begun to allow some degree of interpretation of professional dress, such as 3/4 length sleeve jackets, bolder colors, and fashionable prints.

Still, however, not all corporate worlds are created equal. Despite the chic fashions portrayed on 'Ally McBeal', large law firms still remain 'buttoned down.' Some of Manhattan's leading law firms have indicated that their dress codes remain as standard corporate attire, since most of their work includes interfacing with clients, or court representation during trials.

With all of these various new approaches to the business dress codes, it has been an enormous challenge for maternity designers to create a collection to meet such a wide spectrum of needs.

Trend setting maternity designer, Barbie White, sees more of a need for the Casual 'Everyday' with her customers. Her San Francisco based maternity company, Japanese Weekend, has always had a casual career focus. She is noting the movement in the direction of less formal suiting and more casual construction with less tailoring. Interestingly, she also sees casual styles adopting some of the tailoring and stitching detail that was formerly reserved for business suiting. Her collection is responding to the new Business Casual needs with suit-like fabrics for bottoms, paired with knit tops in rayons and synthetics with the comfort of cotton, and twin sets to complete the look with a sophisticated flair.

Pat Gillespie of Duet Designs says that despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, she is selling more business suiting than ever before. The big difference is that instead of lined wool suits and oxford shirts (the lethal combination that can turn a pregnant gal's already escalated internal thermostat up to 150 degrees!), Pat has altered her line to include suits that are less structured, unlined, and in versatile fabrics that embrace the current fashion trends. The new fabrics often include fibers that allow for much needed stretch, and look dressy without sacrificing comfort. In her answer to the new flexible definitions of Classic Professional, she has expanded her line with key separates and layering pieces such as funky prints and fabrics in non-traditional blouses, with contemporary details such as ruffled trims, open cutwork, and new half sleeves.

Lorraine Zistler, founder of the Maternity Outfitters and the Online Maternity Mall, has created her business around the needs of pregnant women who MUST dress the 'Complete Professional' at the office. Maternity Outfitters is in the unique business of leasing designer suiting to women who do not want to invest in the cost of a diverse maternity wardrobe. Many of her clients are women in the media who must have a large variety of outfits because they are in the public eye, and doctors and lawyers who must adhere to a stricter dress code. Lorraine does not see a huge movement toward more casual business wear among her clientele, and, in fact, most of what she carries is still strictly corporate lined suiting in wool or wool blends. But, for the occasional 'kick', in addition to her classic black, navy or khaki colored suits, she also adds new shades of fun in red, kiwi, wine, indigo, and berry. Some suits even have removable fur collars, or zebra collar and cuff!

But what does all this mean? With all these interpretations and 'situational' policies, how does one furnish a maternity wardrobe that will meet the varying demands of today's dress codes, and still leave something in your pocket to send your child to college? (Yes, that day will come!) How do YOU...the current working mom-to-be, the 'core' in Corporate America, struggling to look great, feel great, and attain all your goals...how do YOU do it?

The answer seems to be: PURCHASE SOME HIGH QUALITY BASIC WARDROBE STAPLES... and then build from there. Dark colored pants and skirts are a good foundation. If your work environment more often demands the Classic Professional style, add some separate jackets, layered over some pretty blouses, perhaps with some fun prints for the occasional mood lift. If your dress code is more on the Business Casual end of the spectrum, add more of the great new tops in the contemporary Pucci prints and colors, perhaps with one coordinating jacket for those important board meetings and sales presentations. Versatility is the key to many women. A career wardrobe must be flexible enough to present the right image in a variety of situations, often in the course of a single day.

Marilyn, who lives and works in Georgia, agrees. 'I bought a few very good separates and added some bright blouses and tops, and one jacket that went with everything. I liked the versatility of separates, rather than complete suits - they were perfect for the more causal atmosphere at my office, but I could easily add a jacket to take me to an important lunch meeting. I often had to be ready to change my image on a moment's notice, so I kept my jacket in my office closet!'

Keeping cost in mind when planning this whole new career wardrobe is tricky business, especially for those that must lean towards the more Classic Professional styles. Spending a fortune on such a 'temporary collection' is not in most women's grand plan. Adina, from New York, classifies her work dress code as one-step-away from the Classic Professional. She must dress professionally each and everyday, but is permitted to have some flexibility with the layering pieces under her suits. She advises, 'Shop carefully! Don't spend a fortune for a temporary situation. I made that mistake by spending close to $1000 in the first two stores I went to in the mall. Don't limit your options - use the internet - it was a lifesaver!'

Finally, Susan from Chicago offers some advice - 'These days, there is no need to compromise your style, in or out of the office just because you are pregnant. With such a variety of styles to choose from, no matter how flexible your particular office dress code is, you can still look great, dress professionally, and be comfortable, too.'

What a great time it is for working moms-to-be today - to get up in the morning and dress like a respectable human being and not some overstuffed circus clown! Finally, Business Casual has arrived, and maternity designers have risen to meet the challenge!!

I still wear the peter pan jacket, though. It makes a great art smock when I finger paint with my daughter.

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