What is a girl to wear?

The trouser suit is back: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and now even Julia Roberts (who wore a white Stella McCartney pant suit to the première of Eat Pray Love a few months ago) are all high-profile advocates of what many associate as the ne plus ultra of power dressing for women at the top.

A few weeks ago BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour debated the pros and cons of the trouser suit: does it imprison women’s feminine self-expression or free them to get on with the job?


It is not a new debate. Remember the firestorm created when the Bank of England sent female employees on a “Dress for Success” seminar last year? The leaked follow-up memo from the branding agency involved advised:

“Look professional, not fashionable; be careful with perfume; always wear a heel of some sort – maximum two inches; always wear some sort of makeup, even if it’s just lipstick … Shoes and skirt must be the same colour.”


The previous year 400 of Ernst & Young’s female staff voluntarily attended a course put on by House of Colour image consultants to help women negotiate the “fraught” issue of choosing appropriate clothes for work. Women were encouraged to embrace their femininity by wearing skirts with heels.

The Coutts Woman website offers advice from former fashion editor of Vogue and trend forecaster, Vanessa de Lisle, who says:

“It’s no good wearing a Next suit five days a week.”

For inspiration on how to look great and professional, I would advise a quick Google Images search on Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister. Here is a woman who can wear black leather thigh-length boots and a leather jacket to a finance summit, is unafraid of shortish skirts, colour, and even when she is in a trouser suit manages to invigorate it with a Birkin bag and Hermès scarf.

That’s the French for you – savoir faire and savoir vivre.

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