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Dressing for something better - Martha Carr

Women's work clothes have come a long way. A new book, "Work It!," by Jesse Garza and Joe Lupo of Visual Therapy fame, is here to help generations of women figure out what to wear on the job, with a twist. Instead of starting from the idea of what your boss would like to see, which is such an old schoolgirl way of thinking, "Work It!" guides us through an inner search first.

The idea behind it is adapted from the same way Garza and Lupo dress their celebrity clients. Start from the premise that with a little guidance from them, you know what's best for you. It's revolutionary for women on the corporate ladder.

I first hit the workforce in the 1980's when women decided to push against the corporate glass ceiling with a collective shove. The generation before us had burned bras and refused to be defined by makeup or '50's-style dresses that made it hard to do much of anything but sit there and look pretty.

My generation of women was ambitious and ready to earn their own way, but we were also young. We wanted some of that pretty back. The trick was to figure out how to do it and still be taken seriously.

Like most people who have to go first, we were all a little nervous and went for the pack mentality. We all wore the same thing. A navy blue suit with navy blue flats and a white blouse with a bowtie as big as a head became our new uniform.

Morning talk shows tried to work with us and had experts on to diagnose skirt lengths and different ways to tie the bow so we could still stand out in the office. There wasn't much more you could say about something that looked like a nun's habit translated to a work environment.

I remember those days well. I was a copier salesgirl who had been given the worst territory to see if I could tough it out or would cry and go home. Business owners had to buzz me in and told me it would be in my best interests to get off the streets before dusk. The area was full of red clay that kicked up like dust unless it was raining and then it was a mud bowl. I'm not sure it mattered so much what I was wearing, but I tried anyway and had my own version of the uniform.

Then in the late 80's, we all swung wildly to the other side and started wearing primary colors with large geometric patterns and shoulder pads on top of shoulder pads. I had a bright yellow blazer with giant NFL-sized shoulder pads. Several male coworkers regularly snickered when they saw me coming. They stopped when I turned the territory around and started beating their numbers.

Now it's 2010, and we've had the chance to raise our own replacements in the work force and these young women come with an apropos sense of entitlement. They want to look like successful women with a little sense of style. However, we may not be the best teachers.

Fortunately, "Work It!" is here with step-by-step instructions and pictures. No more matchy-match with the rest of the world and no more suits that look more like costumes. It's possible to look chic and be comfortable and still be a woman.

Real women of a variety of ages, sizes and professions are used as the models with different outfits and different accessories so that we can see how to build a wardrobe on a budget. There's a lot of variety and useful tips so that no matter how fashion backwards you are, you can muddle through and come out the other side looking like a successful version of yourself.

There is even advice from a new crop of successful women like Katherine Cohen, CEO of IvyWise and Martha McCully, executive editor of InStyle Magazine to further polish the professional you.

It's a new way of approaching another aspect of the career side of our lives that is also a good benchmark of how far we've come. There's far less analysis about what it all means for our chances to rise further, and more emphasis on what really matters. Does it look good, and is it comfortable? More adventures to follow.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.