Ladies, the suit is back

But the dark menswear blazers have been feminized: Ruffles and ribbons soften and shape them.

Posted: August 24, 2007

After years of mismatched fashion irreverence (which included pairing teal shoes with everything) the classic suit is reemerging in a much different landscape than the last time it dominated women's wardrobes in the 1980s.

Dresses, the most feminine of fashion items, are peaking in popularity as more and more women are moving away from dressing like men in order to be taken seriously in the workplace. We are even seeing more and more cleavage during daylight hours.

Still, dark-hued, menswear blazers and skirt (or pant) combinations are dominating clothing racks this fall. However, they are back with a twist. To keep the apparel delicate, contemporary designers such as Nanette Lepore, Rebecca Taylor, and Tracy Reese are giving tweeds, plaids and herringbones a womanly touch with ruffles, ruching and ribbon trim.

And by pairing matched separates with glossy, patent leather shoes and oversized bags, we are giving today's suit the we-scoff-at-rules edge that has been the subplot of the ready-to-wear story for the last five years.

"Everything is very polished," explained Denelle Drake, fashion spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus in the King of Prussia mall. "Suits are very important, especially those with straight cuts and embellishments."

After seasons of pointing out the popularity of denim (low-rise, high-rise and skinny) paired with all things voluminously (some would say sloppily) Bohemian, we're showing how today's suit can reintroduce itself to the city's fashion enclaves.

We mixed pinstripes with metallics to make shimmery pop appropriate for the office. We treated indigo jeans as if they were tailored trousers by pairing them with a fitted jacket and a bowed metallic blouse. We broke some suits up. Others, we kept together.

And we gave manly herringbone separates a ladylike twist for brunch by pairing them with a black shift and an ivory jacket with demure bell sleeves.

Metallic belts, round-toed T-strap shoes, sparkling clutches and denim may annoy staunch suit wearers. Don't these more frivolous items overpower the suit's seriousness?

But retailers and fashion pundits say the suit denotes a certain sense of order by its very nature. The biggest difference between the suit of today and yesteryear is that it's more flexible, they say, and just like its wearer, is much more likely to transition from work to play.

"The essence of a suit is about order and class," said Maureen Doron, owner of Skirt, a boutique in Bryn Mawr.

"However, suiting changes," she continued. "This season we are going to see women not just wear suits to the office, but to cocktail parties and weekend social events."

Doron added that designers Cynthia Steffe, Chaiken and Milly made jackets mod by cropping them and pairing them with wide-legged pants and A-line skirts. The three-quarter-sleeve cropped blazer will be a key component for suit separates this season, she said.

When designer Marc Jacobs lifted the curtain on 56 models standing in jewel-toned streamlined pants and skirt suits during the Fall 2007 runway presentation in New York in February, it became clear that the simple suit would dominate fashion this season.

Other designers were on the same page, as Tory Burch, Tia Cibani of Ports 1961 and James Coviello all showed tweed jackets with jumper dresses as well as gold lamé blouses and men's trousers. Michael Kors paired pencil skirts with bomber jackets, all in the same color family, for an unexpected suited look.

But high fashion - read expensive - isn't the only place you can find unique turns on the classic suits. Kohl's, J.C. Penney, Target, and Macy's INC are all featuring separates to help us duplicate the look. Just keep these tips in mind:

The color palette is dark - lots of black, grays, olives and navies. Tight-knit tweeds and black and white herringbones are hot.

Bell sleeves are key to blazers, as are wide lapels. Look for pleats, gathers, ruching and rosettes. Topstitching along pockets and collars is another detail that gives pieces a crisp, suited look.

Wear suit pieces together or apart.

"This season's trends give women more creativity and personal style when it comes to stretching a wardrobe," said Hope Greenberg, fashion director at Lucky magazine. "It used to be that women were really restricted to wearing a suit together all the time."

Also, go for a simple silhouette. Blazers should be cropped above the waist. The perfect pant has wide legs, sans pockets. And the high-waisted pencil skirt - a must this season - can easily be interchanged with her sister, the swinging A-line.

Stay away from nude pantyhose, unless they are very sheer. A bare leg can take you into late November, and then you go right into opaque tights as it gets colder out.

But you must be careful when pairing a blazer with a dress. While there aren't any hard and fast rules, stay away from boxy suits and boxy dresses.

That look will put you straight back in the 1980s, the last place you want to be when you put on a suit this fall.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/elizabethwellington.

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